Dialectic(s) has been a part of philosophy at least since Heraclitus (circa 500 BCE) and remains so today.
Some of the more notable dialecticians included Socrates (469–399 BCE), Plato (circa 429–347 BCE), the Stoics, Kant (1724–1804), Hegel (1770-1831), Nietzsche (1844–1900) and, of course, Karl Marx (1818–1883). The great Christian theologian Friedrich Daniel Ernst Schleiermacher (1768-1834) carried on a debate with his friend and colleague Hegel over dialectics.
The most common way most people have heard about dialectic in in some connection with Marxism, or Marxism-Leninism as the official doctrine of the Soviet Union and the Eastern bloc, and for a long time that of the People's Republic of China, was called. And the most typical description description involved the triad thesis-antithesis-synthesis.
David Riazanov (1870-1938) then head of the Marx-Engels Institute in Moscow, writing in Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels (English edition, 1927), describes Hegel's dialectic this way:
To comprehend the circumambient phenomena, one must not only study them as they exist, but one must understand how they have been developing; for everything about one is the result of a past development. Furthermore, a thing may appear at first glance as being in a state of immobility which on closer scrutiny, however, will disclose within itself incessant movement and conflict, numerous influences and forces, some tending to preserve it as it is, others tending to change it. In each phenomenon, in each object, there is the clash of two principles, the thesis and the antithesis, the conservative and the destructive. This struggle between the two opposing principles resolves itself into a final harmonious synthesis of the two.Except it wasn't.
This is how it was expressed in the Hegelian idiom. [my emphasis in bold]
That is how the dialectic functions in Kant, for whom it was a part of formal logic.
For Hegel, dialectic was a description of how all of the natural world works. And he described it as reality developing from one positive state through a negation of the positive state to the Aufheben (sublation) of the negation, Aufheben implying that the previous state is cancelled while being preserved and lifted up to a higher state. In this view, a seed is a positive reality. It contains it's own negation, its own internal drive to become something different, a not-seed, and it grows into a tree. As a tree, it achieves its full development (Aufheben) in which it still contains an essential part of the seed, as well as its negation in growing beyond a seed, and achieves the higher state of becoming a full-grown tree.
I finally looked up a source that explains the origins of this particular twist of Hegel's dialectics, Gustav Mueller in The Hegel Legend of "Thesis-Antithesis-Synthesis" Journal of the History of Ideas 19/3 (June 1958). Mueller refers to the thesis-antithesis-synthesis triad as "Fichtean terms." referring to the philosophy of Johann Gottlieb Fichte (1762–1814), who understood his philosophy as a further development of Kant's. "In all the twenty volumes of Hegel's 'complete works' he does not use this "triad" once; nor does it occur in the eight volumes of Hegel texts, published for the first time in the twentieth century," Mueller writes.
So how did this description of the Hegelian dialectic become so embedded in the teaching of philosophy? Especially from Marxists who had no particular reason to read Hegel through a Kantian perspective?
It turns out that it was Marx himself that picked up that reading of Hegel from a Kantian:
In the winter of 1835-36, a group of Kantians in Dresden called on Heinrich Moritz Chalybäus, professor of philosophy at the University of Kiel, to lecture to them on the new philosophical movement after Kant. They were older, professional men who in their youth had been Kantians, and now wanted an orientation in a development which they distrusted; but they also wanted a confirmation of their own Kantianism. Professor Chalybäus did just those two things. His lectures appeared in 1837 under the title Historische Entwicklung der speculativen Philosophie von Kant bis Hegel, Zu näherer Verstdndigung des wissenschaftlichen Publikums mit der neuesten Schule. The book was very popular and appeared in three editions. In my copy of the third edition of 1843, Professor Chalybäus says (p. 354): "This is the first trilogy: the unity of Being, Nothing and Becoming . . . we have in this first methodical thesis, antithesis, and synthesis ... an example or schema for all that follows." This was for Chalybäus a brilliant hunch which he had not used previously and did not pursue afterwards in any way at all. But Karl Marx was at that time a student at the University of Berlin and a member of the Hegel Club where the famous book was discussed. He took the hunch and spread it into a deadly [?], abstract machinery. Other left-Hegelians, such as Arnold Ruge, Ludwig Feuerbach, Max Stirner use "thesis, antithesis, synthesis" just as little as Hegel. [my emphasis]Mueller notes that Hegel:
... refers to " thesis, antithesis, and synthesis " in the Preface of the Phaenomenology of Mind, where he considers the possibility of this "triplicity " as a method or logic of philosophy. According to the Hegel-legend one would expect Hegel to recommend this "triplicity." But, after saying that it was derived from Kant, he calls it a "lifeless schema," "mere shadow " and concludes: " The trick of wisdom of that sort is as quickly acquired as it is easy to practice. Its repetition, when once it is familiar, becomes as boring as the repetition of any bit of sleight-of-hand once we see through it. The instrument for producing this monotonous formalism is no more difficult to handle than the palette of a painter, on which lie only two colours. . ." (Preface, Werke, II, 4849).
Marx himself referred to the Hegelian dialectic with the thesis-synthesis-antithesis triad in The Poverty of Philosophy (1847), his polemic against Pierre-Joseph Proudhon's book, Philosophy of Poverty:
If we had M. Proudhon’s intrepidity in the matter of Hegelianism we should say: it is distinguished in itself from itself. What does this mean? Impersonal reason, having outside itself neither a base on which it can pose itself, nor an object to which it can oppose itself, nor a subject with which it can compose itself, is forced to turn head over heels, in posing itself, opposing itself and composing itself – position, opposition, composition. Or, to speak Greek – we have thesis, antithesis, and synthesis. For those who do not know the Hegelian formula: affirmation, negation and negation of the negation. That is what language means. It is certainly not Hebrew (with due apologies M. Proudhon); but it is the language of this pure reason, separate from the individual. [my emphasis]Mueller treats this passage and other of Marx's comments about Hegel in the same chapter this way:
The legend was spread by Karl Marx whose interpretation of Hegel is distorted. It is Marxism superimposed on Hegel. Thesis, antithesis, synthesis, Marx says in Das Elend der Philosophie [The Poverty of Philosophy], is Hegel's purely logical formula for the movement of pure reason, and the whole system is engendered by this dialectical movement of thesis, antithesis, synthesis of all categories. This pure reason, he continues, is Mr. Hegel's own reason, and history becomes the history of his own philosophy, whereas in reality, thesis, antithesis, synthesis are the categories of economic movements. (Summary of Chapter II, Paragraph 1.)Mueller, in the fashion of "respectable" Cold War scholarship, is careful to note his distaste for Marx, e.g.:
But "thesis, antithesis, synthesis" is not the only Hegel legend fabricated by Marx. Brutal simplifications are Marxistic specialties. "Thesis, antithesis, synthesis" is said to be an "absolute method" of Hegel's alleged "rationalism." Marx says: "There is in Hegel no longer a history in the order of time, but only a sequence of ideas in reason." Hegel, on the con- trary, says: " The time-order of history is distinguished from the sequence in the order of concepts" (Werke, XII, 59).Mueller's own account quoted above of how Marx very likely got the idea from Heinrich Moritz Chalybäus would seem to give Chalybäus rather than Marx the claim to having fabricated the triad into the "Hegel legend." But it's safe to say that Marx having incorporated the triad into what became a canonical criticism of Hegel was far more influential in promoting the idea than Chalybäus' little-known work.
Mueller also makes these points about a couple of major works of Hegel scholarship:
In the first important book about Hegel by his student, intimate friend and first biographer, Karl Rosenkranz (Hegels Leben, 1844), "thesis, antithesis, synthesis" are conspicuous by their absence. It seems Hegel was quite successful in hiding his alleged "method" from one of his best students.But outside the specialized Hegel literature, the Marxist tradition's view of Hegel through Marx's writing insured that the thesis-antithesis-synthesis would endure as a misunderstanding of Hegel's central concept of the dialectic.
The very important new Hegel literature of this century has altogether abandoned the legend. Theodor Haering's Hegels Wollen und Werk (2 vol., Teubner, 1929 and 1938) makes a careful study of Hegel's terminology and language and finds not a trace of "thesis, antithesis, synthesis." In the second volume there are a few lines (pp. 118, 126) in which he repeats what Hegel in the above quotation had said himself, i.e., that this "con- ventional slogan" is particularly unfortunate because it impedes the understanding of Hegelian texts. As long as readers think that they have to find "thesis, antithesis, synthesis" in Hegel they must find him obscure - but what is obscure is not Hegel but their colored glasses.