In early 2009 I was privileged to spend a weekend with Dr. Russell Ackoff thanks to a friend and former colleague. I recall one incident where, while we were at Russ’s home, I mentioned my belief there was a similarity between the philosophy of dialectical materialism and the concept of systems thinking. As I recall, he was pretty upset with me for saying this. It’s stuck with me over the years.
Thanks to another friend on Facebook, I now have access to a set of AI tools, one of which is Google’s Bard. The other day, in an effort to test drive it, I proposed the following task and received the following reply:
Compare the philosophy of dialectical materialism as expressed by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels to the concept of systems thinking as expressed by Russell Ackoff and others.
• Dialectical materialism is a materialist philosophy that emphasizes the role of conflict and change in history.
• It is based on the idea that the world is constantly changing and evolving, and that this change is driven by the conflict between opposing forces.
• These opposing forces can be social, economic, or political, and they can be found at all levels of society, from the individual to the global.
• Dialectical materialism is a dynamic and evolving philosophy that has been used to explain a wide range of historical events, from the French Revolution to the fall of the Soviet Union.
• Systems thinking is a holistic approach to understanding the world that views it as a complex system of interacting parts.
• It is based on the idea that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, and that it is impossible to understand any part of a system without understanding the system as a whole.
• Systems thinking has been used to understand a wide range of problems, from environmental degradation to economic inequality.
• Both dialectical materialism and systems thinking are complex and sophisticated philosophies that have been used to understand the world in different ways.
• Dialectical materialism is more focused on the role of conflict and change in history, while systems thinking is more focused on the holistic nature of the world.
• Both philosophies have their strengths and weaknesses, and they can be used to complement each other.
• Dialectical materialism can be used to explain how conflict between social classes leads to social change, while systems thinking can be used to understand how the different parts of a society interact with each other.
• By combining these two approaches, we can gain a more complete understanding of the world and how it works.
Not quite as in-depth as I would have liked, but it does kind of jive with my understanding of the overlap of the two outlooks.
I really enjoy Jim Wright’s rants, especially when he gets riled up. He reminds me of a famous sports writer for the Los Angeles Times, Jim Murray who, sadly, passed away nearly a quarter century ago (kinda shows you how old I am). Jim Murray had a way of making and remaking a point without the reader getting tired of the exercise. Jim Wright has that same quality in the political world, IMO. I came across this post today and shared it with my friends and anyone else who might stumble across it – my posts are all public – and I thought I would share it here as well. I also added a few thoughts of my own that sprung out of Jim’s post and some of the resulting comments, most notably those suggesting the work of protecting against fascism is hardly over because of this one election. In fact, I vividly remember the “America. Love it or leave it” crowd that attacked those of us who were protesting the war in Vietnam back in the sixties and seventies, as well as the majority of Republicans since who want to restrict our freedoms and tell us what to think, who to love, and how to relate to the universe. My comments follow this Facebook embed.
The concerning part is there’s still a disturbingly large swath of the electorate who embrace fascism and authoritarianism and likely an equally large group of people who haven’t a clue what’s actually happening and merely respond to the right-wing propaganda that permeates our culture and vote reflexively, not thoughtfully.
My time on this planet is coming to a close, even if I live to be 100, but I still care deeply about the kind of society, economy, and environment we’ll be leaving those who come after me. While I have two daughters who are 19 and 21, and whose future matters a great deal to me, I would feel this way even if I was childless.
The forces of darkness are not soon going away; they’ll most likely never go away – at least not for generations to come. Therefore, we must be eternally vigilant as well as discerning in our choice of those we allow to have the power to make decisions affecting our lives and the lives of our fellow humans. This means paying close attention to elections at every level and for every office, as they’re currently the most impactful activities that determine how we live.
I honestly believe we need a socialist revolution, but I don’t see it happening soon, nor do I see it happening in the manner others have gone down. We’re not early 20th century Russia or mid 20th century China. Neither are we similar to Cuba or any other country I can think of that had a revolution and attempted to become a communist economy.
My knowledge of Marxism, which is admittedly incomplete, tells me that Marx and Engels did not believe a country could go from an agrarian or feudal economy directly to socialism. If you’re not familiar with their theories, they believed that human economic systems evolved and there was a progression from tribalism (primitive communism) to slavery, to feudalism, to capitalism, to socialism, to communism, to anarchy (which didn’t mean crazy-ass bomb throwing, but the absence of the coercive organs of the state, i.e. the “withering away of the state.”) Neither were these transitions/evolutions necessarily smooth or linear, but they were overall inexorable.
Materialistic Dialectics also requires us to understand the situation in which we find ourselves and our society in its historical context, not as some abstract notion of how things “ought” to be, but as they truly are; a seemingly Herculean task given the complexity of today’s world.
I don’t have all the answers; I’m not even sure I have any answers. However, of this I’m reasonably certain – believing that capitalism is the zenith of human economic activity is foolish and counter productive. As well, we have a long way to go just to honor the principles on which the United States was ostensibly founded. Liberty and justice for all is still a goal; an apparently distant one at that.
My philosophy of life has been informed by two people, both of whom I was first introduced to (not personally, but via their writings) in my early twenties. They helped me understand the meaning of the dialectic of life; the yin yang of our corporeal (and intellectual) existence.
The former brought me an understanding of spirituality that did not require the existence of a supreme “being,” while the latter helped me to see how our thinking is shaped by the material world we live in, and how our thinking can then help us act to change that world for the better.
The former brought me “The Wisdom of Insecurity” and taught me to accept the tenuousness of existence and the need to slow down and enjoy life absent regret for the past or anxiety for the future (not that I am proficient at it always,) while the latter gave me a much clearer understanding of both biological evolution and the evolution of human society.
These two people are: Alan Watts, who many considered the western world’s foremost authority on Zen, a philosophy I believe reflects our place in the universe; and Karl Marx who, along with Friedrich Engels, developed and promulgated the philosophy of dialectical materialism, which I believe accurately reflects how the physical world informs our existence and how our ability to understand that physical world gives us the ability to significantly alter it.
It’s been over fifty years since I first encountered these two aspects of what I consider to be a somewhat “unified” theory of existence. Nothing in the interim has dissuaded me from following their teachings. I find the physical universe to be infinitely more beautiful and mystical than any of the Gods humans have worshiped over millennia.
I posted this response a few days ago to someone on Facebook who said they would never vote for Biden, and that Trump winning a second term as POTUS would “teach people” a lesson. I believe that’s an amazingly idiotic and insensitive response to your candidate not winning the Democratic nomination. What follows is my response:
Which people? The kids still in concentration camps?
The women who will lose all control over reproductive rights once Trump replaces RBG with another conservative ideologue?
I’m a Marxist. Bernie’s policies are more conservative than those I’ve been advocating for for 50 years.
This is my 14th general election and I’ve never had a candidate who really represented me.
But, as a Marxist my philosophy—dialectical materialism—is pragmatic, based on the reality we face, not how I would like things to be.
Apparently, you have nothing to lose if this country goes full-blown fascist, and you couldn’t care less about the millions who will needlessly suffer when that happens.
Biden is hardly an ideal candidate. Neither was Obama, Bill Clinton, Jimmy Carter, or Hubert fucking Humphrey, but any one of them were head and shoulders above Trump.
I’ll vote for Biden.
I don’t expect to see this country become a socialist economy in my lifetime (which, at almost 73, is coming to a close sooner than later) but I don’t measure progress by how correct I am.
I measure it by how things change for the better, for those who need it most.
I understand your disappointment, but I have no patience for anyone’s privileged petulance.
My Favorite Representation of The Concept of The Dialectic
I am not an academic. Neither am I a philosopher or a journalist. Nevertheless, I do write on occasion and make an effort to share my thoughts in a somewhat coherent manner. I have to admit it’s gotten a little bit more difficult over the last few years, what with Twitter, Facebook, and other social media apps, platforms, and sites, slowly turning me into a scattershot reader of content.
My goal for the foreseeable future is to reverse that trend somewhat and spend more time writing and sharing my thoughts, perhaps some of my dreams, and a few (or more) of my memories. I’ll be 70 years old next June and, in mid-April of next year, will have outlived my father by a decade. Although relatively healthy, I do have my share of ailments that seem to come to everyone eventually: Mild Hypertension; Type II Diabetes (though, thanks to Fitbit and a little willpower made easy by the data retrieved from my Aria scale and Charge HR (link is to their latest version), I’ve lost a little over 30 pounds in a little over a year — and it’s had its salutary effect on my blood sugar); surgery for a Melanoma; Dupuytren’s Contracture; trigger finger; and a bunch of weird-ass nerve issues that are making many reaching movements with my hands problematic. In other words, I’m doing pretty good for an old guy.
I’m hoping to live long enough to share a little of the adult life of my children, who are currently 15 and 13, but there’s no way to know if that will happen. A lot of folks around my age have been dying off lately, and I can feel the inexorable decline of my physical strength, stamina, and overall health accelerating as I age. It’s a strange trip, I must say. Sometimes I worry a bit that I’m paying too much attention to the end, but I have always been one who has enjoyed the ride and I’m not really too concerned with its conclusion. I just happen to be fascinated by the concept of nothingness, which I contend is nigh onto impossible for we humans to comprehend. I also believe it is a big part of what has long attracted people to religion; they need to believe there’s some sort of consciousness after they die. I don’t believe that’s possible.
As someone who has embraced (if not always lived up to the practices inherent in doing so) Systems Thinking, I long ago came to the conclusion that the philosophy of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, Dialectical Materialism, is the framework from which systems thinkers can best view the development of the natural world which, of course, includes human beings and our social constructs.
In that regard, I thought I would share this compilation of the elements of the philosophy, as culled from the works of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, one of the world’s clearest explicators of the work of Marx. Here are the 16 elements I’ve been able to find. I once had a slightly shorter version, which I had printed out and displayed at my desk. Several years before I retired, someone had the audacity to take it down from the wall, rip it in half, and leave it on my seat. I’ve never quite understood the cowardice it takes to do something like that but, no matter, the words — and the concepts they represent — can’t be erased quite that easily. Here’s the list:
Summary of Dialectics
Vladimir Ilyich Lenin
The objectivity of consideration (not examples, not divergences, but the Thing-in-itself).
The entire totality of the manifold relations of this thing to others.
The development of this thing, (phenomenon, respectively), its own movement, its own life.
The internally contradictory tendencies (and sides) in this thing.
The thing (phenomenon, etc.) as the sum and unity of opposites.
The struggle, respectively unfolding, of these opposites, contradictory strivings, etc.
The union of analysis and synthesis — the breakdown of the separate parts and the totality, the summation of these parts.
The relations of each thing (phenomenon, etc.) are not only manifold, but general, universal. Each thing (phenomenon, process, etc.) is connected with every other.
Not only the unity of opposites, but the transitions of every determination, quality, feature, side, property into every other [into its opposite?].
The endless process of the discovery of new sides, relations, etc.
The endless process of the deepening of man’s knowledge of the thing, of phenomena, processes, etc., from appearance to essence and from less profound to more profound essence.
From coexistence to causality and from one form of connection and reciprocal dependence to another, deeper, more general form.
The repetition at a higher stage of certain features, properties, etc., of the lower and
The apparent return to the old (negation of the negation).
The struggle of content with form and conversely. The throwing off of the form, the transformation of the content.
The transition of quantity into quality and vice versa.
As I said, I am hardly a philosopher; merely a person who has found Materialism, whether it be Dialectical or Historical, to be the best method available to understand history and the development of society without — and this is important — the intervention of the supernatural. I try to apply this type of thinking to everything I ponder, but I do fall short at times. I, like most of us, am a work-in-progress. More to come.
I posted another “tribute” to Russ Ackoff in my blog at the 2.0 Adoption Council’s collaborative site and thought to share it outside the Council as well. Our site is enabled by Jive SBS and is private, so I’d like to share it with others. What follows, then, is the post as I wrote it the other day:
I am of the opinion it takes a certain kind of sensibility to understand how and why Enterprise 2.0 fits into an organization and, more importantly, how it can increase the effectiveness of everyone and everything with respect to how that organization realizes its goals. In my mind that sensibility was understood well (if not best) by people like W. Edwards Deming and the man I’d like to reflect on just a bit in this post, Russell Lincoln Ackoff. I am writing this because Russ just died last October 29 and the resonance of his passing has yet to settle amongst the community of people who knew him – either personally or through his writings and teachings. Just today I received an email from John Pourdehnad, Director of ACASA at UPenn, with a link to another tribute to Russ, which I urge you to read. I have written about his passing also, as Russ affected me profoundly. I was hoping to visit with him once again next month. Alas, that was not to be. You can read my feeble attempt here, and you can read the latest blog I received from Johnnie here. If you aren’t aware of who Russ was just Google his name and you’ll find plenty out there to inform you.
I raise this issue for several reasons. One is my feeling that, much like so many great people, the full impact of Russ’s influence will only be felt now that he is gone. Whle he was alive he was the spokesperson for his thoughts; nobody could convey what he had to say as well as he could and few tried. Absent his presence it now falls to those of us who stood at his feet to now stand upon his shoulders and try our best to carry on his work. Make no mistake about it, Russ was an important figure in contemporary thought. Not merely in business, but also in education and life in general. No less than Peter Drucker held Russ’s work in high esteem. Drucker once wrote a letter to Russell, which he proudly displayed on the wall of his office. In it, Peter had this to say:
“I was then, as you may recall, one of the early ones who applied Operations Research and the new methods of Quantitative Analysis to specific BUSINESS PROBLEMS — rather than, as they had been originally developed for, to military or scientific problems. I had led teams applying the new methodology in two of the world’s largest companies — GE and AT&T. We had successfully solved several major production and technical problems for these companies — and my clients were highly satisfied. But I was not–we had solved TECHNICAL problems but our work had no impact on the organizations and on their mindsets. On the contrary: we had all but convinced the managements of these two big companies that QUANTITATIVE MANIPULATION was a substitute for THINKING. And then your work and your example showed us–or at least, it showed me–that the QUANTITATIVE ANALYSIS comes AFTER the THINKING — it validates the thinking; it shows up intellectual sloppiness and uncritical reliance on precedent, on untested assumptions and on the seemingly “obvious.” But it does not substitute for hard, rigorous, intellectually challenging THINKING. It demands it, though — but does not replace it. This is, of course, what YOU mean BY system. And your work in those far-away days thus saved me — as it saved countless others — from either descending into mindless “model building” — the disease that all but destroyed so many of the Business Schools in the last decades — or from sloppiness parading as ‘insight.’” (I took this from a comment by Steve Brant – a friend – to Michael Trick’s Operations Research Blog. I have personally read the letter as well, in Russ’s office earlier this year)
Another reason I wish to point to Russ’s work is my belief it can – and should – play a significant role in our understanding the implications of Enterprise 2.0. As Andy points out so saliently in his book, and as I would hope most of us have already come to realize, our work is not merely to theorize about the efficacy and implications of adopting E2.0 principles, but rather to apply them to the conduct of our respective organizations such that they improve their day-to-day operations and assist them in achieving their strategic goals. I think that can best be done by also understanding the systemic nature of the organizations within which we operate, and Russ had unique understanding and insight into how this was so.
The intent I had for my personal blog, which I link to above, was to work on reconciling Systems Theory – as taught by Russ and others – to the philosophy of Dialectical Materialism; perhaps a bridge too far given the demands on my time and energy. I do, however, wish to continue understanding how the principles of E2.0 (here‘s a great overview Dion linked to in Twitter) can be best understood from the viewpoint of Systems Theory. To that end I will continue attempting to reconcile what Russ had to teach us with the work we are all engaged in with respect to this council. It is my hope many of you will asssist in this endeavor. I believe it is extremely important to our success. Actually, I believe it is a valuable component of the continuing development of human thought and organization – economically, politically, and socially. I welcome your comments.
I retired nearly 13 years ago, though I've continued to work during most of the time since then. I'm hoping to return to work on the RS-25 rocket engine program (formerly the SSME) which will power our return to the moon. Mostly I'm just cruising, making the most of what time I have remaining.
Although my time is nearly up, I still care deeply about the kind of world I'll be leaving to those who follow me and, to that end, I am devoted to seeing the forces of repression and authoritarianism are at least held at bay, if not crushed out of existence.
I write about things that interest me and, as an eclectic soul, my interests run the gamut from science to spirituality, governance to economics, art and engineering. I'm hopeful one day my children will read what I've left behind.
The views expressed herein are those of the author. Any opinions regarding the value or worth of particular business processes, tools, or procedures, whether at his former place of employment, at a current client's enterprise, or in general, are his responsibility alone.