Wednesday, 26 November 2008

Dialectical materialism, part 1

This blog has referred several times to dialectics and materialism. There is a huge literature on this topic by some of the finest Marxist writers, and I will list key texts at the end of part 2. These writings come highly recommended. I here offer a summary, as it will be hard to get far with the Marxist theory of art without some understanding of this concept.

“The great basic question of all philosophy,” wrote Engels, “especially of more recent philosophy, is that concerning the relation of thinking and being”.[1] Dialectical materialism is the ‘philosophy’ of Marxism — although Marx himself never used the term [2] — and its theoretical method. It provides the scientific basis for studying not just art but every process in the universe.


In Materialism and Empirio-Criticism, his great defence of materialism, Lenin explained how the study of epistemology “invariably discerned two principal alignments, two fundamental trends in the solution of philosophical problems”:

Whether nature, matter, the physical, the external world be taken as primary, and mind, spirit, sensation (experience — as the widespread terminology of our time has it), the physical, etc, be regarded as secondary — that is the root question which in fact continues to divide the philosophers into two great camps.[3]

The two great camps are idealism and materialism. Idealism is sometimes taken to mean commitment to a great cause, but in philosophy it is an outlook contending that nature and human history is ultimately based not on matter but on the mind — on ideas.

Engels located the origins of idealism in early humanity’s struggle to understand its experience:

From the very early times when men, still completely ignorant of the structure of their own bodies, under the stimulus of dream apparitions came to believe that their thinking and sensation were not activities of their bodies, but of a distinct soul which inhabits the body and leaves it at death — from this time men have been driven to reflect about the relation between this soul and the outside world...

The quandary arising from the common universal ignorance of what to do with this soul... led in a general way to the tedious notion of personal immortality. In an exactly similar manner, the first gods arose through the personification of natural forces. And these gods in the further development of religions assumed more and more extramundane form, until finally by a process of abstraction... there arose in the minds of men the idea of the one exclusive God of the monotheistic religions.[4]

The debate over whether the spirit or nature is primary has its origins not simply in perceptual confusion but in the division of labour. As society became more wealthy, it could support people who performed only mental work, such as priests and philosophers. These thinkers gave an exaggerated significance to thought, assuming that the mind and the body were separate. This led them to erect abstract theories which related only inadequately, if at all, to observed experience.

The neo-Platonist Plotinus declared for example in The Enneads (compiled 270 CE) that “there is for this universe no other place than the soul or mind”. His hierarchy was crowned by an Idea so general that it was called simply The One. Platonist idealism proposes an ideal or perfect state that is more real than things as they appear. Plato famously illustrated this with his image of the cave. Light came in the mouth of the cave and threw the shadows of objects inside it against the back wall. Human beings could observe only the shadows — the real objects were beyond our perception. Somewhere — no one has ever been able to say where — there is an ideal concept of, say, a book, but in the books around us we can see only its imperfect manifestations. The idea of a book has common properties that cannot be reduced to any particular book in a particular place and time. Ideas therefore were eternal and existed separately from the material world.

Idealist philosophy takes many forms, but we can agree with Lenin that it “always, in one way or another, amounts to the defence or support of religion.”[5] The eighteenth-century subjective idealist George Berkeley claimed that our knowledge was based on our perceptions. His highly individualistic theory could not explain why we have so many perceptions in common, and he found his answer by recourse to God — the last resort of many a theory in trouble.

However much the material world may change, the ‘real’ world becomes that of reason, whose eternity and immutability demands some form of eternal intelligence. For some idealists this is God, for Hegel it was the Absolute Idea or Spirit. Whereas a materialist believes the natural world can be studied, analysed and eventually understood, the idealist ultimately finds it unknowable and mysterious, as no human mind can compare to God’s, apprehend the ideal state of things, etc. This discourages attempts to command nature and promote change, and tends to conservatism. As Engels put it with reference to Hegel:

No philosophical proposition has earned more gratitude from narrow-minded governments and wrath from equally narrow-minded liberals than Hegel’s famous statement: “All that is real is rational; and all that is rational is real.” That was tangibly a sanctification of things that be, a philosophical benediction bestowed upon despotism, police government, Star Chamber proceedings and censorship.[6]

This conservatism is assisted by the position of religion in the social structures of class society. Many thousands of priests, preachers and others draw their living and social influence from religious institutions that would cease to exist in an atheist society; religion also serves to demobilise the working class. It thus becomes a vested material and ideological interest, zealous in promoting its false ideas.


The most significant alternative to idealism was empiricism, a philosophy with origins in ancient Greece that re-emerged in Britain in the 17th century, particularly through the thought of Locke, Berkeley and Hume. It contended that we could only have knowledge of the world through our sensory perception. There were no general ideal concepts, only particular objects.

The drawback of this theory is that if we reject the possibility of objects of having general characteristics in common, it becomes impossible to understand relationships between them. Hume’s argument required him to deny phenomena such as cause and effect: if we are holding a book at a height and let go, there is merely a very high probability that it will fall to the ground. Even if there is no known example of somebody letting go of a book from a height and it not falling to the ground, for Hume there must remain the possibility that the book will instead float off into space, turn a somersault, or do something equally unpredictable. Our beliefs were merely habits accumulated from experience — scientific certainty was impossible.

Empiricism may have either an idealist or materialist character. If empiricism decides that it is impossible to trust our senses as to whether anything exists, it becomes idealist. If it decides that material objects do exist, but that it is impossible to generalise about them, then it turns to materialism. Either way, empiricism is highly problematic. With its emphasis on testing hypotheses through observation of nature, rather than a priori reasoning (knowledge attainable by reason prior to experience), it has an obvious role in scientific inquiry. But its scepticism about our subjective sensations, and therefore about our ability to gain knowledge, is ultimately anti-scientific. There are also profound problems of method. Every time empiricists talk about a book, or other object, they are using an abstract, universal category. They do not mean one particular book, but books in general. Simply by discussing such objects, empiricists contradict their philosophy.


Whereas idealism tries to explain things through abstract philosophising, materialism draws conclusions from what is empirically observable. It is opposed to superstition and religion.

Materialism contends that everything in existence, including living beings, is made of matter and evolved from material processes. Human consciousness is inseparable from the body whose processes create it, and matter exists independently of our awareness of it. Because of these processes, matter is in a constant state of change — only the existence of matter is eternal. It existed long before minds evolved capable of perceiving and analysing it, and human consciousness can be aware of only the tiniest fraction of the things happening in the universe. We can only draw conclusions about the world as subjective human beings, using our senses and intellect to observe and assess external phenomena. To understand reality and human society, Marx wrote, means not

setting out from what men say, imagine, conceive... in order to arrive at men in the flesh; but setting out from real, active men, and on the basis of their real life-process demonstrating the development of the ideological reflexes and echoes of this life-process. The phantoms formed in the human brain are also, necessarily, images of their material life-process, which is empirically verifiable and bound to material premises. Morality, religion, metaphysics, all the rest of ideology and their corresponding forms of consciousness, thus no longer retain the semblance of independence. They have no history, no development; but men, developing their material production and their material intercourse, alter, along with their real existence, their thinking and the products of their thinking. Life is not determined by consciousness, but consciousness by life.[7]

Our consciousness is the product of matter and our ideas are reflections of material processes. This does not mean we are a passive part of our environment. We are able to change it: this is what made possible human evolution through labour.

The materialist conception of the world had its beginnings in the ancient world. In India the Hindu thinker Kanada developed an atomist theory around 600 BCE, which in subsequent centuries was developed by Buddhist atomism. China too developed materialist theories, for example that of Yang Xiong in the 1st century BCE. In ancient Greece, materialism came to maturity in the 4th century BCE with the atomist theories of Democritus and Epicurus. The Roman poet Lucretius wrote a philosophical poem entitled De Rerum Natura, designed to explain Epicurean theory to a Roman audience: everything in the universe was made of atoms moving in an infinite void, ruled by chance. Gods existed, but played no part in human lives. Forms were made of changing combinations of atoms, rising then losing out to new forms.

Materialism lost currency during the Christian era, which could only conceive of philosophy through religion. It was when the rising bourgeoisie resurrected natural philosophy and scientific inquiry that materialism won a new lease of life, particularly in capitalism’s leading power: as Marx observed, “Materialism is the natural-born son of Great Britain.”[8] This was the period of Bacon, Hobbes and Locke. The bourgeoisie’s materialism and emphasis on reason was the ideological aspect of its struggle against the feudal system and the superstition and absolutism upon which it was built. It was also expressive of the bourgeois need to measure and understand nature so as to exploit it more effectively.

We get a taste of this new materialism from Marx’s précis of Francis Bacon:

To him, natural philosophy is the only true philosophy, and physics based upon the experience of the senses is the chiefest part of natural philosophy... According to him, the senses are infallible and the source of all knowledge. All science is based on experience, and consists in subjecting the data furnished by the senses to a rational method of investigation. Induction, analysis, comparison, observation, experiment, are the principal forms of such a rational method. Among the qualities inherent in matter, motion is the first and foremost, not only in the form of mechanical and mathematical motion, but chiefly in the form of an impulse, a vital spirit, a tension — or a ‘qual’, to use a term of Jakob Böhme’s — of matter.[9]

Materialism in Britain was conditioned by the historical experience of its bourgeoisie, which had merged with a bourgeoisified landowning class and identified to some extent with its institutions. Thus Hobbes called for a strong monarchy to keep down the unruly masses. In eighteenth century France, however, the contest between the bourgeoisie and the aristocracy was much starker, and bourgeois materialism could fully assert its revolutionary character. Enlightenment thinkers such as Voltaire, Diderot and Helvétius insisted in carrying the torch of reason into natural history, religion, social institutions and other dark and dusty corners of human assumptions. France became in Lenin’s words “the scene of the decisive battle against every kind of medieval rubbish.”[10] When Baron d’Holbach’s atheist The System of Nature was published in 1770, it was too radical even for Voltaire, and it offended King Louis XVI so much that he demanded that copies were hunted down and destroyed.

French materialism culminated in Germany in the thought of G. W. F. Hegel. A great enthusiast for the French Revolution, Hegel was a towering philosophical figure of his age, and greatly respected by Marx and Engels. He surpassed the metaphysicians by reviving Greek dialectics and restoring motion to history (we will explore dialectics in detail in part 2), but the great contradiction in his philosophy was that although his dialectics ruled out absolutes, he was unable to let go of the idealist notion of a governing Idea. Thus, as Engels explains in Ludwig Feuerbach, “the revolutionary side is smothered beneath the overgrowth of the conservative side.”

Problems of bourgeois materialism

The materialism of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries was often contradictory. It sought a rational theory of reality, and a scientific method, but even a great thinker like Newton opened a door to idealism by enlisting God as the ultimate cause and motor of natural processes. This was a metaphysical materialism that envisaged an eternal clockwork universe: matter was in motion, but that motion was mechanical and did the same thing over and over again. Engels explained the problem:

To the metaphysician things and their mental reflexes, ideas, are isolated, are to be considered one after the other and apart from each other, are objects of investigation fixed, rigid, given once and for all. He thinks in absolutely irreconcilable antitheses. ‘His communication is “yea, yea; nay, nay”; for whatsoever is more than these cometh of evil.’ For him a thing either exists or does not exist; a thing cannot at the same time be itself and something else. Positive and negative absolutely exclude one another; cause and effect stand in rigid antithesis one to another.

At first sight this mode of thinking seems to us very luminous, because it is that of so-called sound common sense. Only sound common sense, respectable fellow that he is, in the homely realm of his own four walls, has very wonderful adventures directly he ventures out into the wide world of research. And the metaphysical mode of thought, justifiable and necessary as it is in a number of domains whose extent varies according to the nature of the particular object of investigation, sooner or later reaches a limit beyond which it becomes one-sided, restricted, abstract, lost in insoluble contradictions. In the contemplation of individual things it forgets the connection between them; in the contemplation of their existence it forgets the beginning and the end of that existence; of their repose, it forgets their motion. It cannot see the wood for the trees.[11]

The eighteenth-century materialists cannot be reproached for their limitations, as these limitations were rooted in the immature state of science at the time. Although the bourgeoisie initiated a tremendous blossoming of inquiry into the natural world, it necessarily began as what Engels called “a collecting science”, an accumulation of knowledge. While their data was still inadequate, it was not possible for them to draw the most profound conclusions from it. For example, they did not have the benefit of three key nineteenth-century discoveries which Engels believed unlocked dialectics for subsequent science: the discovery of cells as the structural units of all living organisms, the transformation of energy, and the Darwinian theory of the evolution of species.

Bourgeois materialism also faced an ideological problem. The capitalist class was a great champion of reason and materialism. In its fight to overthrow the feudal system, it was necessary to break down superstition, the divine right of monarchs, and the monopolies of religious institutions. But once it had become a ruling class, the bourgeoisie found that it, too, was exposed by the searchlight of reason. Thus its rational materialist outlook had to compromise with idealism, because the bourgeoisie does not like to accept that capitalism is not eternal. If capitalism is just one more mode of production, then it can, like slavery and feudalism, be overthrown by a more advanced form.

For these two reasons — scientific limitations and political necessity — idealism persisted in bourgeois theory. We see it in Kant, who claimed that we may perceive the qualities of a thing, but are unable to perceive the “thing-in-itself”. Spinoza too, although describing the universe as material, saw a need for God in the unification of thinking and being. In the early twentieth century, Lenin had to confront the positivism of Mach, Bogdanov, etc. In our own time, the compromise can be seen in the fashionable nonsense of post-modernism, which contends that there is no objective reality at all.

The lesson is that the light of dialectical materialism — one might simply say the light of truth — is rather too penetrating for anyone who wishes to support the capitalist status quo. To argue against the proletariat demands arguing against its philosophy.

The inheritors of Hegel

Hegel’s dialectics were a step forward from metaphysical materialism, but his system remained an idealist one. Subsequent thinkers took from Hegel what they would. The Young Hegelians, who briefly counted Marx among their adherents, preferred a left radical interpretation, emphasising Hegel’s dialectics over his idealism. It fell to Ludwig Feuerbach to make the decisive philosophical break. His book Essence of Christianity (1841) reaffirmed materialism, describing God as merely a projection of human needs and seeking to replace religion with love. Nothing existed outside of nature, which had produced humanity. Engels gives a taste of how exciting Feuerbach’s book was “after long years of abstract and abstruse Hegelianising”:

The spell was broken; the “system” was exploded and cast aside, and the contradiction, shown to exist only in our imagination, was dissolved. One must himself have experienced the liberating effect of this book to get an idea of it. Enthusiasm was general; we all became at once Feuerbachians.[12]

Hegel and Feuerbach had prepared the way for a richer and more rigorous understanding of how things worked. For Marx, the Hegelian system had turned reality on its head by putting thinking before being — someone needed to turn it the right way round. Marx’s philosophical achievement was to bring maturity to materialism by incorporating Hegel’s dialectics. In this way materialism becomes not just a philosophy of nature but a science of development and of human history. Marxism extends material processes into human society, seeing it as a succession of stages of development, wherein ideas and culture are ultimately based upon the forces of production.

The best case for materialism is that there is evidence for it. Its hypotheses about nature can be tested, and every new scientific discovery confirms it. Atoms were first conceived in ancient India around the 6th century BCE, and a century later appeared in Europe through Leucippus and Democritus (the latter giving us the word átomos which implies the smallest possible division of matter). In the last couple of hundred years, science has caught up with speculation after a series of discoveries: Brownian motion (1827), the electron (1897), that atoms have nuclei (1909), the proton (1919), the neutron (1932) and so on in a constant process whose latest achievement is CERN’s Large Hadron Collider, a particle accelerator designed to explore the smallest components of all known things.

By contrast, idealism creates a theory in the abstract and then demands that reality conform to it. The existence of God or other supernatural agencies has never, in all of human history, been proved, nor is any test conceivable which could do so. It is senseless to base one’s attitude to life upon a thesis which is riddled with absurdities and for which there is no objective evidence. The Christian Bible tells us “God created Man [sic] in his own image” (Genesis 1:27) — in fact the reverse is true. Marxism opposes every kind of attempt to explain the world through eternal, unchanging absolute values, be it in the form of gods, Fate, the Immanent Will, or anything else. It is humanity, and human needs, with which it is concerned.

Materialism, however, is only a part of the Marxist philosophy. As we have already mentioned, a passive, lifeless materialism is still a poor model. To really understand the richness of how everything works, our materialism must also be dialectical.

[1] Engels, Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classical German Philosophy (1886). Asked to write a review of a book on Feuerbach, Engels took the opportunity to write this ‘short, coherent account’ of how he and Marx formulated their philosophy from the work of their predecessors, Hegel and Feuerbach. Part 4 is a concentrated exposition of dialectical materialism.
[2] Like most Marxist ideas, various attempts have been made to undermine it from mistaken positions. One case is Zbigniew Jordan’s book The Evolution of Dialectical Materialism (1967), which seizes upon the fact that the major statements of dialectical materialism as such — Anti-Dühring, Ludwig Feuerbach, Dialectics of Nature — were written by Engels and not Marx. He concludes from this that dialectical materialism was Engels’ invention and that Marxist was not even a materialist but a ‘naturalist’. In fact, Marx was too busy writing Capital to produce treatises on his philosophy, just as he had no time to fully formulate his aesthetics. The attempt to drive a wedge between Marx and Engels contradicts Marx’s own work and praxis, in which both dialectics and materialism are so obviously essential as to make a nonsense of Jordan’s argument.
[3] Lenin, from Chapter 6, section 4 of Materialism and Empirio-Criticism (1908).
[4] Engels, op. cit.
[5] Lenin, The Three Sources and Component Parts of Marxism (1913). Lenin’s extremely concise introduction to Marxism via its three ‘component parts’: German philosophy, English political economy and French socialism.
[6] Engels, op. cit.
[7] Marx, The German Ideology (1846, pub. 1932).
[8] Marx, chapter 6, section 3d of The Holy Family (1844). This work was Marx and Engels’ critique of the Young Hegelians — the title is a sarcastic reference to Bruno Bauer and his supporters.
[9] ibid.
[10] Lenin, op. cit..
[11] Engels, Anti-Dühring (1877). This work has long been ranked with Capital and the Communist Manifesto as one of the most important works of Marxist theory, and is the most authoritative text on dialectical materialism from Marxism’s founders. It contains a great deal of polemic against a now-forgotten theorist, so the first three chapters were later extracted to form the pamphlet Socialism: Utopian and Scientific.
[12] Engels, Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classical German Philosophy (1886).

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