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.
The economic system of capitalism means that money (specifically investment, not wages) is society’s primary consideration. Socialism means people (workers, humans) are society’s primary consideration. I know what I prefer. How about you?
Sure . . . there are thorny issues of ownership and incentivization, what deserves to be nationalized and what can remain in the private sector, but they will be addressed with people, not capital, foremost in mind. And don’t come at me with that tired old trope that socialism has been tried and it’s failed. That’s not even close to the truth. Most examples given are usually of a country that attempted to go straight from feudalism to socialism, without experiencing capitalism at all.
If Karl Marx was correct, and I believe he was, economies need to develop and evolve through various stages, and attempting to circumvent one of those developmental stages isn’t a good idea. This is why I believe the U.S. economy is ripe for becoming socialist; it already is to some extent. Our economy is, if not the most advanced, one of the more advanced capitalist economies in the world. Yet, many of its sectors are—or have been—treated as worthy of receiving benefits in the form of subsidies, grants, and tax breaks that are tantamount to them being socialized.
Most importantly, many larger sectors of the economy are highly developed, with a few being in nearly monopolistic control of their market. This is what Marx called late-stage, monopoly capitalism. It suggests that larger industries, which have become monolithic, are ripe for worker ownership and a more equitable distribution of their profits to the people who actually make those profits happen.
Let’s stop treating the concept, let alone the word, of socialism as if it’s still some sort of disease or bogeyman. The forces of reaction and fascism have long told us to be afraid . . . be very afraid . . . of socialism, but they’re crying wolf and their arguments are dishonest and disingenuous. That is to say, they’re fucking liars and can’t be trusted. They don’t care about you and me. Don’t expect them to be helpful, unless they’re helping themselves.
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.