Modern dialectical materialism
Modern dialectical materialism
We are living in
a period of profound historical change. After a period of 40 years of unprecedented
economic growth, the market economy is reaching its limits. At the dawn of capitalism,
despite its barbarous crimes, it revolutionized the productive forces, thus laying
the basis for a new system of society. The First World War and the Russian Revolution
signalled a decisive change in the historical role of capitalism. From a means
of developing the productive forces, it became transformed into a gigantic fetter
upon economic and social development. The period of upswing in the West in the
period of 1948-73 seemed to promise a new dawn. Even so, the benefits were limited
to a handful of developed capitalist countries. For two-thirds of humanity living
in the Third World, the picture was one of mass unemployment, poverty, wars and
exploitation on an unprecedented scale. This period of capitalism ended with the
so-called "oil crisis" of 1973-4. Since then, they have not managed
to get back to the kind of growth and levels of employment they had achieved in
the post-war period.
A social system
in a state of irreversible decline expresses itself in cultural decay. This is
reflected in a hundred different ways. A general mood of anxiety and pessimism as
regards the future spreads, especially among the intelligentsia. Those who yesterday
talked confidently about the inevitability of human progress and evolution, now
see only darkness and uncertainty. The 20th century is staggering to a close, having
witnessed two terrible world wars, economic collapse and the nightmare of fascism
in the period between the wars. These were already a stern warning that the
progressive phase of capitalism was past.
The crisis of
capitalism pervades all levels of life. It is not merely an economic phenomenon.
It is reflected in speculation and corruption, drug abuse, violence, all-pervasive
egotism and indifference to the suffering of others, the breakdown of the bourgeois
family, the crisis of bourgeois morality, culture and philosophy. How could it
be otherwise? One of the symptoms of a social system in crisis is that the ruling
class increasingly feels itself to be a fetter on the development of society.
out that the ruling ideas of any society are the ideas of the ruling class. In its
heyday, the bourgeoisie not only played a progressive role in pushing back the
frontiers of civilisation, but was well aware of the fact. Now the strategists
of capital are seized with pessimism. They are the representatives of an historically
doomed system, but cannot reconcile themselves to the fact. This central contradiction
is the decisive factor which sets its imprint upon the mode of thinking of the
bourgeoisie today. Lenin once said that a man on the edge of a cliff does not reason.
Lag in Consciousness
Contrary to the
prejudice of philosophical idealism, human consciousness in general is extraordinarily
conservative, and always tends to lag far behind the development of society, technology
and the productive forces. Habit, routine, and tradition, to use a phrase of Marx,
weigh like an Alp on the minds of men and women, who, in "normal" historical
periods cling stubbornly to the well-trodden paths, from an instinct of self-preservation,
the roots of which lie in the remote past of the species. Only in exceptional periods
of history, when the social and moral order begin to crack under the strain of intolerable
pressures do the mass of people start to question the world into which they have
been born, and to doubt the beliefs and prejudices of a lifetime.
Such a period
was the epoch of the birth of capitalism, heralded by the great cultural re-awakening
and spiritual regeneration of Europe after its lengthy winter sleep under feudalism.
In the period of its historical ascent, the bourgeoisie played a most progressive
role, not only in developing the productive forces, and thereby mightily expanding
humanity’s power over nature, but also in extending the frontiers of science,
knowledge and culture. Luther, Michelangelo, Leonardo, Dührer, Bacon, Kepler,
Galileo and a host of other pathfinders of civilisation shine like a galaxy illuminating
the broad highroad of human cultural and scientific advance opened by the Reformation
and Renaissance. However, such revolutionary periods do not come into being easily
or automatically. The price of progress is struggle—the struggle of the new against
the old, the living against the dead, the future against the past.
The rise of the
bourgeoisie in Italy, Holland, England and later in France was accompanied by an
extraordinary flourishing of culture, art and science. One would have to look back
to ancient Athens to find a precedent for this. Particularly in those countries
where the bourgeois revolution triumphed in the 17th and 18th centuries, the development
of the forces of production and technology was accompanied by a parallel development
of science and thought, which drastically undermined the ideological domination
of the Church.
In France, the
classical country of the bourgeois revolution in its political expression, the
bourgeoisie in 1789-93 carried out its revolution under the banner of Reason.
Long before it toppled the formidable walls of the Bastille, it was necessary
to overthrow the invisible but no less formidable walls of religious superstition
in the minds of men and women. In its revolutionary youth the French bourgeoisie
was rationalist and atheist. Only after installing themselves in power did the
men of property, finding themselves confronted by a new revolutionary class, jettison
the ideological baggage of their youth.
Not long ago
France celebrated the two hundredth anniversary of its great revolution. It was
curious to note how even the memory of a revolution two centuries ago fills the
establishment with unease. The attitude of the French ruling class to their own
revolution vividly recalled that of an old libertine who tries to gain a ticket
to respectability—and perhaps admittance to heaven—by renouncing the sins of his
youth which he is no longer in a position to repeat. Like all established privileged
classes, the capitalist class seeks to justify its existence, not only to society
at large, but to itself. In its search for ideological points of support, which
would tend to justify the status quo and sanctify existing social relations, they
rapidly rediscovered the enchantments of Mother Church, particularly after the
mortal terror they experienced at the time of the Paris Commune. The church of
Sacré Coeur is a concrete expression of the bourgeois’ fear of revolution
translated into the language of architectural philistinism.
and Engels (1820-95) explained that the fundamental driving force of all human
progress is the development of the productive forces—industry, agriculture, science
and technique. This is a truly great theoretical generalisation without which it
is impossible to understand the movement of human history in general. However, it
does not mean, as dishonest or ignorant detractors of Marxism have attempted to
show, that Marx "reduces everything to economics." Dialectical
and historical materialism takes full account of phenomena such as religion, art,
science, morality, law, politics, tradition, national characteristics and all
the other manifold manifestations of human consciousness. But not only that. It
shows their real content and how they relate to the actual development of society,
which in the last analysis clearly depends upon its capacity to reproduce and expand
the material conditions for its existence. On this subject, Engels wrote the
"According to the materialist conception of history, the ultimately
determining element in history is the production and reproduction of real life.
More than this neither Marx nor I have ever asserted. Hence, if someone twists
this into saying that the economic element is the only determining one, he transforms
that position into a meaningless, abstract, senseless phrase. The economic situation
is the basis, but the various elements of the superstructure—political forms of
the class struggle and its results, to wit: constitutions established by victorious
classes after a successful battle, etc., judicial forms, and the reflexes of all
these actual struggles in the brains of the participants, political, juristic,
philosophical theories, religious views and their further development into systems
of dogmas also exercise their influence upon the course of the historical
struggles, and in many cases predominate in determining their form." (1)
of historical materialism that, in general, human consciousness tends to lag behind
the development of the productive forces seems paradoxical to some. Yet it is
graphically expressed in all kinds of ways in the United States where the achievements
of science have reached their highest level. The constant advance of technology
is the prior condition for bringing about the real emancipation of men and women,
through the establishment of a rational socioeconomic system, in which human beings
exercise conscious control over their lives and environment. Here, however, the
contrast between the rapid development of science and technology and the extraordinary
lag in human thinking presents itself in its most glaring form.
In the USA nine
persons out of ten believe in the existence of a supreme being, and seven out
of ten in a life after death. When the first American astronaut who succeeded in
circumnavigating the world in a spacecraft was asked to broadcast a message to
the inhabitants of the earth, he made a significant choice. Out of the whole of
world literature, he chose the first sentence of the book of Genesis: "In
the beginning, God created heaven and the earth." This man, sitting in his
space ship, a product of the most advanced technology ever seen, had his mind
full to the brim with superstitions and phantoms handed down with little change
from the primeval past.
Seventy years ago,
in the notorious "monkey trial" of 1925, a teacher called John Scopes
was found guilty of teaching the theory of evolution, in contravention of the laws
of the state of Tennessee. The trial actually upheld the state’s anti-evolution
laws, which were not abolished until 1968, when the US Supreme Court ruled that
the teaching of creation theories was a violation of the constitutional ban on
the teaching of religion in state schools. Since then, the creationists changed
their tactics, trying to turn creationism into a "science." In
this, they have the support, not only of a wide layer of public opinion, but of
not a few scientists, who are prepared to place their services at the disposal
of religion in its most crude and obscurantist form.
In 1981 American
scientists, making use of Kepler’s laws of planetary motion, launched a spacecraft
that made a spectacular rendezvous with Saturn. In the same year an American
judge had to declare unconstitutional a law passed in the state of Arkansas which
imposed on schools the obligation to treat so-called "creation-science"
on equal terms with the theory of evolution. Among other things, the creationists
demanded the recognition of Noah’s flood as a primary geological agent. In the
course of the trial, witnesses for the defence expressed fervent belief in Satan
and the possibility that life was brought to earth in meteorites, the variety
of species being explained by a kind of meteoric shuttle-service! At the trial,
Mr. N. K. Wickremasinge of the University of Wales was quoted as saying that insects
might be more intelligent than humans, although "they’re not letting on…because
things are going so well for them." (2)
fundamentalist lobby in the USA has mass support, access to unlimited funds, and
the backing of congressmen. Evangelical crooks make fortunes out of radio stations
with a following of millions. The fact that in the last decade of the 20th century
there are a large number of educated men and women—including scientists—in the
most technologically advanced country the world has ever known who are prepared
to fight for the idea that the book of Genesis is literally true, that the universe
was created in six days about 6,000 years ago, is, in itself, a most remarkable
example of the workings of the dialectic.
"Reason Becomes Unreason"
The period when
the capitalist class stood for a rational world outlook has become a dim memory.
In the epoch of the senile decay of capitalism, the earlier processes have been
thrown into reverse. In the words of Hegel, "Reason becomes Unreason."
It is true that, in the industrialised countries, "official" religion
is dying on its feet. The churches are empty and increasingly in crisis. Instead,
we see a veritable "Egyptian plague" of peculiar religious sects, accompanied
by the flourishing of mysticism and all kinds of superstition. The frightful epidemic
of religious fundamentalism—Christian, Jewish, Islamic, Hindu—is a graphic manifestation
of the impasse of society. As the new century beckons, we observe the most horrific
throwbacks to the Dark Ages.
is not confined to Iran, India and Algeria. In the United States we saw the
"Waco massacre," and after that, in Switzerland, the collective suicide
of another group of religious fanatics. In other Western countries, we see the
uncontrolled spread of religious sects, superstition, astrology and all kinds
of irrational tendencies. In France, there are about 36,000 Catholic priests, and
over 40,000 professional astrologers who declared their earnings to the taxman.
Until recently, Japan appeared to be an exception to the rule. William Rees-Mogg,
former editor of the London Times, and arch-Conservative, in his recent book The
Great Reckoning, How the World Will Change in the Depression of the 1990s states
that: "The revival of religion is something that is happening
throughout the world in varying degrees. Japan may be an exception, perhaps because
social order has as yet shown no signs of breaking down there…" (3) Rees-Mogg
spoke too soon. A couple of years after these lines were written, the horrific
gas attack on the Tokyo underground drew the world’s attention to the existence
of sizable groups of religious fanatics even in Japan, where the economic crisis
has put an end to the long period of full employment and social stability. All
these phenomena bear a striking resemblance to what occurred in the period of
the decline of the Roman Empire. Let no one object that such things are confined
to the fringes of society. Ronald and Nancy Reagan regularly consulted astrologers
about all their actions, big and small. Here are a couple of extracts from Donald
Regan’s book, For the Record:
"Virtually every major move and decision the Reagans made during
my time as White House chief of staff was cleared in advance with a woman in San
Francisco who drew up horoscopes to make certain that the planets were in a favourable
alignment for the enterprise. Nancy Reagan seemed to have absolute faith in the
clairvoyant powers of this woman, who had predicted that ‘something’ bad was going
to happen to the president shortly before he was wounded in an assassination attempt
"Although I had never met this seer—Mrs. Reagan passed along her
prognostications to me after conferring with her on the telephone—she had become
such a factor in my work, and in the highest affairs of the state at one point I
kept a colour-coded calendar on my desk (numerals highlighted in green ink for
‘good’ days, red for ‘bad’ days, yellow for ‘iffy’ days) as an aid to remember
when it was propitious to move the president of the United States from one place
to another, or schedule him to speak in public, or commence negotiations with a
"Before I came to the White House, Mike Deaver had been the man
who integrated the horoscopes of Mrs. Reagan’s into the presidential schedule…It
is a measure of his discretion and loyalty that few in the White House knew that
Mrs. Reagan was even part of the problem [waiting for schedules]—much less that
an astrologer in San Francisco was approving the details of the presidential
schedule. Deaver told me that Mrs. Reagan’s dependence on the occult went back at
least as far as her husband’s governorship, when she had relied on the advice
of the famous Jeane Dixon. Subsequently, she had lost confidence in Dixon’s powers.
But the First Lady seemed to have absolute faith in the clairvoyant talents of
the woman in San Francisco. Apparently, Deaver had ceased to think there was anything
remarkable about this long-established floating seance…To him it was simply one
of the little problems in the life of a servant of the great. ‘At least,’ he said,
‘this astrologer is not as kooky as the last one.’"
used in the planning of the summit between Reagan and Gorbachev, according to
the family soothsayer, but things didn’t go smoothly between the two first ladies
because Raisa’s birth date was unknown! The movement in the direction of a
"free market economy" in Russia has since bestowed the blessings of capitalist
civilisation on that unfortunate country—mass unemployment, social disintegration,
prostitution, the mafia, an unprecedented crime wave, drugs and religion. It has
recently emerged that Yeltsin himself consults astrologers. In this respect also,
the nascent capitalist class in Russia has shown itself to be an apt pupil of its
Western role models.
sense of disorientation and pessimism finds its reflection in all sorts of ways,
not only directly in politics. This all-pervasive irrationality is not an accident.
It is the psychological reflection of a world where the destiny of humanity is
controlled by terrifying and seemingly invisible forces. Just look at the sudden
panic on the stock exchange, with "respectable" men and women
scurrying around like ants when their nest is broken open. These periodic spasms
causing a herd-like panic are a graphic illustration of capitalist anarchy. And
this is what determines the lives of millions of people. We live in the midst
of a society in decline. The evidence of decay is present on all sides. Conservative
reactionaries bemoan the breakdown of the family and the epidemic of drugs, crime,
mindless violence, and the rest. Their only answer is to step up state repression—more
police, more prisons, harsher punishments, even genetic investigation of alleged
"criminal types." What they cannot or will not see is that these phenomena
are the symptoms of the blind alley of the social system which they represent.
These are the
defenders of "market forces," the same irrational forces that
presently condemn millions of people to unemployment. They are the prophets of
"supply-side" economics, which John Galbraith shrewdly defined as the
theory that the poor have too much money, and the rich too little. The prevailing
"morality" is that of the market place, that is, the morality of the
jungle. The wealth of society is concentrated into fewer and fewer hands, despite
all the demagogic nonsense about a "property-owning democracy" and
"small is beautiful." We are supposed to live in a democracy. Yet a handful
of big banks, monopolies, and stock exchange speculators (generally the same people)
decide the fate of millions. This tiny minority possesses powerful means of manipulating
public opinion. They have a monopoly of the means of communication, the press,
radio and television. Then there is the spiritual police—the church, which for
generations has taught people to look for salvation in another world.
Science and the Crisis of Society
Until quite recently,
it appeared that the world of science stood aloof from the general decay of capitalism.
The marvels of modern technology conferred colossal prestige upon scientists,
who appeared to be endowed with almost magical qualities. The respect enjoyed
by the scientific community increased in the same proportion as their theories
became increasingly incomprehensible to the majority of even educated people.
However, scientists are ordinary mortals who live in the same world as the rest
of us. As such, they can be influenced by prevailing ideas, philosophies, politics
and prejudices, not to speak of sometimes very substantial material interests.
For a long time
it was tacitly assumed that scientists—especially theoretical physicists—were a
special sort of people, standing above the common run of humanity, and privy to
the mysteries of the universe denied to ordinary mortals. This 20th century
myth is well conveyed by the old science-fiction movies, where the earth was always
threatened with annihilation by aliens from outer space (in reality, the threat
to the future of humankind comes from a source much nearer to home, but that is
another story). At the last moment, a man in a white coat always turns up, writes
a complicated equation on the blackboard, and the problem is fixed in no time at
The truth is rather
different. Scientists and other intellectuals are not immune to the general tendencies
at work in society. The fact that most of them profess indifference to politics
and philosophy only means that they fall prey more easily to the current prejudices
which surround them. All too often their ideas can be used to support the most
reactionary political positions. This is particularly clear in the field of genetics
where a veritable counter-revolution has taken place, particularly in the United
States. Allegedly scientific theories are being used to "prove"
that criminality is caused, not by social conditions, but by a "criminal gene."
Black people are alleged to be disadvantaged, not because of discrimination,
but because of their genetic make-up. Similar arguments are used for poor people,
single mothers, women, homosexuals, and so on. Of course, such "science"
is highly convenient to the Republican dominated Congress intent on ruthlessly
book is about philosophy—more precisely, the philosophy of Marxism, dialectical
materialism. It is not the business of philosophy to tell scientists what to think
and write, at least when they write about science. But scientists have a habit
of expressing opinions about all kinds of things—philosophy, religion, politics.
This they are perfectly entitled to do. But when they use what may well be perfectly
sound scientific credentials in order to defend extremely unsound and reactionary
philosophical views, it is time to put things in their context. These pronouncements
do not remain among a handful of professors. They are seized upon by right wing
politicians, racists and religious fanatics, who attempt to cover their backsides
with pseudo-scientific arguments.
complain that they are misunderstood. They do not mean to provide ammunition
for mystical charlatans and political crooks. That may be so. But in that case,
they are guilty of culpable negligence or, at the very least, astounding naivety.
On the other hand, those who make use of the erroneous philosophical views of
scientists cannot be accused of naivety. They know just where they stand. Rees-Mogg
argues that "as the religion of secular consumerism is left behind like
a rusting tail fin, sterner religions that involve real moral principles and angry
gods will make a comeback. For the first time in centuries, the revelations of
science will seem to enhance rather than undermine the spiritual dimension in life."
For Rees-Mogg religion is a useful weapon to keep the underprivileged in
their place, alongside the police and prison service. He is commendably blunt about
lower the prospect of upward mobility, the more rational it is for the poor to adopt
an anti-scientific, delusional world view. In place of technology, they employ
magic. In place of independent investigation, they opt for orthodoxy. Instead
of history, they prefer myths. In place of biography, they venerate heroes. And
they generally substitute kin-based behavioral allegiances for the impersonal
honesty required by the market." (4)
Let us leave aside
the unconsciously humorous remark about the "impersonal honesty"
of the market-place, and concentrate on the core of his argument. At least Rees-Mogg
does not try to conceal his real intentions or his class standpoint. Here we have
the utmost frankness from a defender of the establishment. The creation of an
under-class of poor, unemployed, mainly black people, living in slums, presents
a potentially explosive threat to the existing social order. The poor, fortunately
for us, are ignorant. They must be kept in ignorance, and encouraged in their
superstitious and religious delusions which we of the "educated classes"
naturally do not share! The message, of course, is not new. The same song has been
sung by the rich and powerful for centuries. But what is significant is the reference
to science, which, as Rees-Mogg indicates, is now regarded for the first time as
an important ally of religion.
physicist Paul Davies was awarded £650,000 by the Templeton Prize for
Progress in Religion, for showing "extraordinary originality"
in advancing humankind’s understanding of God or spirituality. Previous winners
include Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Mother Teresa, evangelist Billy Graham, and the
Watergate burglar-turned-preacher Charles Colson. Davies, author of such books as
God and the New Physics, The Mind of God and The Last Three Minutes, insists that
he is "not a religious person in the conventional sense" (whatever that
might mean), but he maintains that "science offers a surer path to God
than religion." (5)
ifs and buts, it is clear that he represents a definite trend, which is attempting
to inject mysticism and religion into science. This is not an isolated phenomenon.
It is becoming all too common, especially in the field of theoretical physics and
cosmology, both heavily dependent upon abstract mathematical models which are increasingly
seen as a substitute for empirical investigation of the real world. For every
conscious peddler of mysticism in this field, there are a hundred conscientious
scientists, who would be horrified to be identified with such obscurantism. The
only real defense against idealist mysticism, however, is a consciously materialist
philosophy—the philosophy of dialectical materialism.
It is the intention
of this book to explain the basic ideas of dialectical materialism, first worked
out by Marx and Engels, and show their relevance to the modern world, and to science
in particular. We do not pretend to be neutral. Just as Rees-Mogg defends the interests
of the class he represents, and makes no bones about it, so we openly declare
ourselves as the opponents of the so-called "market economy"
and all that it stands for. We are active participants in the fight to change
society. But before we can change the world, one has to understand it. It is necessary
to conduct an implacable struggle against all attempts to confuse the minds of
men and women with mystical beliefs which have their origin in the murky prehistory
of human thought. Science grew and developed to the degree that it turned its back
on the accumulated prejudices of the past. We must stand firm against this attempt
to put the clock back four hundred years.
A growing number
of scientists are becoming dissatisfied with the present situation, not only in
science and education, but in society at large. They see the contradiction between
the colossal potential of technology and a world where millions of people live
on the border line of starvation. They see the systematic misuse of science in
the interest of profit for the big monopolies. And they must be profoundly disturbed
by the continuous attempts to dragoon the scientists into the service of religious
obscurantism and reactionary social policies. Many of them were repelled by the
bureaucratic and totalitarian nature of Stalinism. But the collapse of the Soviet
Union has shown that the capitalist alternative is even worse. By their own experience,
many scientists will come to the conclusion that the only way out of the social,
economic, and cultural impasse is by means of some kind of rational planned society,
in which science and technology is put at the disposal of humanity, not private
profit. Such a society must be democratic, in the real sense of the word, involving
the conscious control and participation of the entire population. Socialism is
democratic by its very nature. As Trotsky pointed out "a nationalized
planned economy needs democracy, as the human body needs oxygen."
It is not enough
to contemplate the problems of the world. It is necessary to change it. First,
however, it is necessary to understand the reason why things are as they are.
Only the body of ideas worked out by Marx and Engels, and subsequently developed
by Lenin and Trotsky can provide us with the adequate means of achieving this
understanding. We believe that the most conscious members of the scientific
community, through their own work and experience, will come to realize the need
for a consistently materialist world outlook. That is offered by dialectical materialism.
The recent advances of the theories of chaos and complexity show that an increasing
number of scientists are moving in the direction of dialectical thinking. This is
an enormously significant development. There is no doubt that new discoveries will
deepen and strengthen this trend. We are firmly convinced that dialectical materialism
is the philosophy of the future.
Do We Need Philosophy?
Before we start,
you may be tempted to ask, "Well, what of it?" Is it really necessary
for us to bother about complicated questions of science and philosophy? To such
a question, two replies are possible. If what is meant is: do we need to know about
such things in order to go about our daily life, then the answer is evidently
no. But if we wish to gain a rational understanding of the world in which we live,
and the fundamental processes at work in nature, society and our own way of thinking,
then matters appear in quite a different light.
everyone has a "philosophy." A philosophy is a way of looking at the
world. We all believe we know how to distinguish right from wrong, good from bad.
These are, however, very complicated issues which have occupied the attention
of the greatest minds in history. When confronted with the terrible fact of the
existence of events like the fratricidal war in the former Yugoslavia, the re-emergence
of mass unemployment, the slaughter in Rwanda, many people will confess that they
do not comprehend such things, and will frequently resort to vague references
to "human nature." But what is this mysterious human nature which is
seen as the source of all our ills and is alleged to be eternally unchangeable?
This is a profoundly philosophical question, to which not many would venture a
reply, unless they were of a religious cast of mind, in which case they would say
that God, in His wisdom, made us like that. Why anyone should worship a Being
that played such tricks on His creations is another matter.
stubbornly maintain that they have no philosophy are mistaken. Nature abhors a
vacuum. People who lack a coherently worked-out philosophical standpoint will inevitably
reflect the ideas and prejudices of the society and the milieu in which they live.
That means, in the given context, that their heads will be full of the ideas they
imbibe from the newspapers, television, pulpit and schoolroom, which faithfully
reflect the interests and morality of existing society.
usually succeed in muddling through life, until some great upheaval compels them
to re-consider the kind of ideas and values they grew up with. The crisis of
society forces them to question many things they took for granted. At such times,
ideas which seemed remote suddenly become strikingly relevant. Anyone who wishes
to understand life, not as a meaningless series of accidents or an unthinking
routine, must occupy themselves with philosophy, that is, with thought at a higher
level than the immediate problems of everyday existence. Only by this means do
we raise ourselves to a height where we begin to fulfil our potential as conscious
human beings, willing and able to take control of our own destinies.
It is generally
understood that anything worthwhile in life requires some effort. The study of
philosophy, by its very nature, involves certain difficulties, because it deals
with matters far removed from the world of ordinary experience. Even the terminology
used presents difficulties because words are used in a way that does not necessarily
correspond to the common usage. But the same is true for any specialized subject,
from psychoanalysis to engineering.
obstacle is more serious. In the last century, when Marx and Engels first published
their writings on dialectical materialism, they could assume that many of their
readers had at least a working knowledge of classical philosophy, including Hegel.
Nowadays it is not possible to make such an assumption. Philosophy no longer
occupies the place it had before, since the role of speculation about the nature
of the universe and life has long since been occupied by the sciences. The possession
of powerful radio telescopes and spacecraft renders guesses about the nature and
extent of our solar system unnecessary. Even the mysteries of the human soul are
being gradually laid bare by the progress of neurobiology and psychology.
The situation is
far less satisfactory in the realm of the social sciences, mainly because the desire
for accurate knowledge often decreases to the degree that science impinges on
the powerful material interests which govern the lives of people. The great advances
made by Marx and Engels in the sphere of social and historical analysis and economics
fall outside the scope of the present work. Suffice it to point out that, despite
the sustained and frequently malicious attacks to which they were subjected
from the beginning, the theories of Marxism in the social sphere have been the
decisive factor in the development of modern social sciences. As for their vitality,
this is testified to by the fact that the attacks not only continue, but tend
to increase in intensity as time goes by.
In past ages,
the development of science, which has always been closely linked to that of the
productive forces, had not reached a sufficiently high level to permit men and
women to understand the world in which they lived. In the absence of scientific
knowledge, or the material means of obtaining it, they were compelled to rely
upon the one instrument they possessed that could help them to make sense of the
world, and thus gain power over it—the human mind. The struggle to understand
the world was closely identified with humankind’s struggle to tear itself away
from a merely animal level of existence, to gain mastery over the blind forces
of nature, and to become free in the real, not legalistic, sense of the word.
This struggle is a red thread running through the whole of human history.
Role of Religion
quite insane. He wouldn’t know how to create a maggot, and he creates Gods by
the dozen." (Montaigne.)
mythology overcomes and dominates and shapes the force of nature in the imagination
and by the imagination; it therefore vanishes with the advent of real mastery
over them." (Marx)
no religion, and in the past it was said that this constituted the main difference
between humans and "brutes." But that is just another way of saying
that only humans possess consciousness in the full sense of the word. In recent
years, there has been a reaction against the idea of Man as a special and unique
Creation. This is undoubtedly correct, in the sense that humans developed from animals,
and, in many important respects, remain animals. Not only do we share many of
the bodily functions with other animals, but the genetic difference between humans
and chimpanzees is less than two percent. That is a crushing answer to the nonsense
of the Creationists.
with bonobo chimpanzees has proven beyond doubt that the primates closest to
humans are capable of a level of mental activity similar in some respects to that
of a human child. That is striking proof of the kinship between humans and the
highest primates, but here the analogy begins to break down. Despite all the efforts
of experimenters, captive bonobos have not been able to speak or fashion a stone
tool remotely similar to the simplest implements created by early hominids. The
two percent genetic difference between humans and chimpanzees marks the qualitative
leap from the animal to the human. This was accomplished, not by a Creator, but
by the development of the brain through manual labour.
The skill to make
even the simplest stone tools involves a very high level of mental ability and abstract
thought. The ability to select the right sort of stone and reject others; the
choice of the correct angle to strike a blow, and the use of precisely the right
amount of force—these are highly complicated intellectual actions. They imply a
degree of planning and foresight not found in even the most advanced primates.
However, the use and manufacture of stone tools was not the result of conscious
planning, but was something forced upon man’s remote ancestors by necessity. It
was not consciousness that created humanity, but the necessary conditions of
human existence which led to an enlarged brain, speech and culture, including religion.
The need to
understand the world was closely linked to the need to survive. Those early hominids
who discovered the use of stone scrapers in butchering dead animals with thick
hides obtained a considerable advantage over those who were denied access to this
rich supply of fats and proteins. Those who perfected their stone implements and
worked out where to find the best materials stood a better chance of survival
than those who did not. With the development of technique came the expansion of
the mind, and the need to explain the phenomena of nature which governed their
lives. Over millions of years, through trial and error, our ancestors began to establish
certain relations between things. They began to make abstractions, that is, to generalize
from experience and practice.
the central question of philosophy has been the relation of thinking to being.
Most people live their lives quite happily without even considering this problem.
They think and act, talk and work, with not the slightest difficulty. Moreover,
it would not occur to them to regard as incompatible the two most basic human activities,
which are in practice inseparably linked. Even the most elementary action, if we
exclude simple biologically determined reactions, demands some thought. To a degree,
this is true not only of humans but also of animals, such as a cat lying in wait
for a mouse. In man, however, the kind of thought and planning has a qualitatively
higher character than any of the mental activities of even the most advanced of
This fact is inseparably
linked to the capacity for abstract thought, which enables humans to go far beyond
the immediate situation given to us by our senses. We can envisage situations,
not just in the past (animals also have memory, as a dog which cowers at the sight
of a stick) but also the future. We can anticipate complex situations, plan and
thereby determine the outcome, and to some extent determine our own destinies. Although
we do not normally think about it, this represents a colossal conquest which sets
humankind apart from the rest of nature. "What is distinctive of human reasoning,"
says Professor Gordon Childe, "is that it can go immensely farther from the
actual present situation than any other animal’s reasoning ever seems to get it."
(6) From this capacity springs all the manifold creations of civilization,
culture, art, music, literature, science, philosophy, religion. We also take
for granted that all this does not drop from the skies, but is the product of millions
of years of development.
The Greek philosopher
Anaxagoras (500-428 B.C.), in a brilliant deduction, said that man’s mental development
depended upon the freeing of the hands. In his important article, The Part Played
by Labour in the Transition from Ape to Man, Engels showed the exact way in which
this transition was achieved. He proved that the upright stance, freeing of the
hands for labour, the form of the hands, with the opposition of the thumb to the
fingers, which allowed for clutching, were the physiological preconditions for
tool making, which, in turn, was the main stimulus to the development of the brain.
Speech itself, which is inseparable from thought, arose out of the demands of
social production, the need to realize complicated functions by means of co-operation.
These theories of Engels have been strikingly confirmed by the most recent discoveries
of paleontology, which show that hominid apes appeared in Africa far earlier than
previously thought, and that they had brains no bigger than those of a modern
chimpanzee. That is to say, the development of the brain came after the production
of tools, and as a result of it. Thus, it is not true that "In the beginning
was the Word," but as the German poet Goethe proclaimed—"In
the beginning was the Deed."
The ability to
engage in abstract thought is inseparable from language. The celebrated prehistory
Gordon Childe observes: "Reasoning, and
all that we call thinking, including the chimpanzee’s, must involve mental operations
with what psychologists call images. A visual image, a mental picture of, say, a
banana, is always liable to be a picture of a particular banana in a particular
setting. A word on the contrary is, as explained, more general and abstract, having
eliminated just those accidental features that give individuality to any real banana.
Mental images of words (pictures of the sound or of the muscular movements entailed
in uttering it) form very convenient counters for thinking with. Thinking with
their aid necessarily possesses just that quality of abstractness and generality
that animal thinking seems to lack. Men can think, as well as talk, about the
class of objects called ‘bananas’; the chimpanzee never gets further than ‘that
banana in that tube.’ In this way the social instrument termed language has
contributed to what is grandiloquently described as ‘man’s emancipation from
bondage to the concrete." (7)
Early humans, after
a long period of time, formed the general idea of, say, a plant or an animal.
This arose out of the concrete observation of many particular plants and animals.
But when we arrive at the general concept "plant," we no longer see before
us this or that flower or bush, but that which is common to all of them. We grasp
the essence of a plant, its innermost being. Compared with this, the peculiar features
of individual plants seem secondary and unstable. What is permanent and universal
is contained in the general conception. We can never actually see a plant as
such, as opposed to particular flowers and bushes. It is an abstraction of the
mind. Yet it is a deeper and truer expression of what is essential to the plant’s
nature when stripped of all secondary features.
However, the abstractions
of early humans were far from having a scientific character. They were tentative
explorations, like the impressions of a child—guesses and hypotheses, sometimes
incorrect, but always bold and imaginative. To our remote ancestors, the sun was
a great being that sometimes warmed them, and sometimes burnt them. The earth was
a sleeping giant. Fire was a fierce animal that bit them when they touched it. Early
humans experienced thunder and lightning. This must have frightened them, as it
still frightens animals and people today. But, unlike animals, humans looked
for a general explanation of the phenomenon. Given the lack of any scientific
knowledge, the explanation was invariably a supernatural one—some god, hitting an
anvil with his hammer. To our eyes, such explanations seem merely amusing, like
the naïve explanations of children. Nevertheless, at this period they were
extremely important hypotheses—an attempt to find a rational cause for the phenomenon,
in which men distinguished between the immediate experience, and saw something entirely
separate from it.
The most characteristic
form of early religion is animism—the notion that everything, animate or inanimate,
has a spirit. We see the same kind of reaction in a child when it smacks a table
against which it has banged its head. In the same way, early humans, and certain
tribes today, will ask the spirit of a tree to forgive them before cutting it
down. Animism belongs to a period when humankind has not yet fully separated itself
from the animal world and nature in general. The closeness of humans to the
world of animals is attested to by the freshness and beauty of cave-art, where
horses, deer and bison are depicted with a naturalness which can no longer be captured
by the modern artist. It is the childhood of the human race, which has gone beyond
recall. We can only imagine the psychology of these distant ancestors of ours.
But by combining the discoveries of paleontology with anthropology, it is possible
to reconstruct, at least in outline, the world from which we have emerged.
In his classic
anthropological study of the origins of magic and religion, Sir James Frazer writes:
"A savage hardly conceives the distinction commonly drawn by more advanced
peoples between the natural and the supernatural. To him the world is to a great
extent worked by supernatural agents, that is, by personal beings acting on impulses
and motives like his own, liable like him to be moved by appeals to their pity,
their hope, and their fears. In a world so conceived he sees no limit to this
power of influencing the course of nature to his own advantage. Prayers, promises,
or threats may secure him fine weather and an abundant crop from the gods; and if
a god should happen, as he sometimes believes, to become incarnate in his own person,
then he need appeal to no higher being; he, the savage, possesses in himself all
the powers necessary to further his own well-being and that of his fellow-men." (8)
The notion that
the soul exists separate and apart from the body comes down from the most remote
period of savagery. The basis of it is quite clear. When we are asleep, the
soul appears to leave the body and roam about in dreams. By extension, the similarity
between death and sleep ("death’s second self," Shakespeare called it)
suggested the idea that the soul could continue to exist after death. Early humans
thus concluded that there is something inside them that is separate from their
bodies. This is the soul, which commands the body, and can do all kinds of incredible
things, even when the body is asleep. They also noticed how words of wisdom issued
from the mouths of old people, and concluded that, whereas the body perishes,
the soul lives on. To people used to the idea of migration, death was seen as
the migration of the soul, which needed food and implements for the journey.
At first these
spirits had no fixed abode. They merely wandered about, usually making trouble,
which obliged the living to go to extraordinary lengths to appease them. Here we
have the origin of religious ceremonies. Eventually, the idea arose that the assistance
of these spirits could be enlisted by means of prayer. At this stage, religion
(magic), art and science were not differentiated. Lacking the means to gain real
power over their environment, early humans attempted to obtain their ends by means
of magical intercourse with nature, and thus subject it to their will. The attitude
of early humans to their spirit-gods and fetishes was quite practical. Prayers
were intended to get results. A man would make an image with his own hands, and
prostrate himself before it. But if the desired result was not forthcoming, he
would curse it and beat it, in order to extract by violence what he failed to
do by entreaty. In this strange world of dreams and ghosts, this world of religion,
the primitive mind saw every happening as the work of unseen spirits. Every
bush and stream was a living creature, friendly or hostile. Every chance event,
every dream, pain or sensation, was caused by a spirit. Religious explanations
filled the gap left by lack of knowledge of the laws of nature. Even death was
not seen as a natural occurrence, but a result of some offence caused to the
For the great
majority of the existence of the human race, the minds of men and women have been
full of this kind of thing. And not only in what people like to regard as primitive
societies. The same kind of superstitious beliefs continue to exist in slightly
different guises today. Beneath the thin veneer of civilisation lurk primitive irrational
tendencies and ideas which have their roots in a remote past which has been half-forgotten,
but is not yet overcome. Nor will they be finally rooted out of human consciousness
until men and women establish firm control over their conditions of existence.
Division of Labour
out that the division between manual and mental labour in primitive society is invariably
linked to the formation of a caste of priests, shamans or magicians:
"Social progress, as we know, consists mainly in a successive differentiation
of functions, or, in simpler language, a division of labour. The work which in
primitive society is done by all alike and by all equally ill, or nearly so, is
gradually distributed among different classes of workers and executed more and
more perfectly; and so far as the products, material or immaterial, of his specialised
labour are shared by all, the whole community benefits by the increasing specialisation.
Now magicians or medicine-men appear to constitute the oldest artificial or
professional class in the evolution of society. For sorcerers are found in every
savage tribe known to us; and among the lowest savages, such as the Australian aborigines,
they are the only professional class that exists." (9)
The dualism which
separates soul from body, mind from matter, thinking from doing, received a powerful
impulse from the development of the division of labour at a given stage of social
evolution. The separation between mental and manual labour is a phenomenon which
coincides with the division of society into classes. It marked a great advance in
human development. For the first time, a minority of society was freed from the
necessity to work to obtain the essentials of existence. The possession of that
most precious commodity, leisure, meant that men could devote their lives to the
study of the stars. As the German materialist philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach explains,
real theoretical science begins with cosmology:
"The animal is sensible only of the beam which immediately affects
life; while man perceives the ray, to him physically indifferent, of the remotest
star. Man alone has purely intellectual, disinterested joys and passions; the eye
of man alone keeps theoretic festivals. The eye which looks into the starry heavens,
which gazes at that light, alike useless and harmless, having nothing in common
with the earth and its necessities—this eye sees in that light its own nature, its
own origin. The eye is heavenly in its nature. Hence man elevates himself above
the earth only with the eye; hence theory begins with the contemplation of the
heavens. The first philosophers were astronomers." (10)
Although at this
early stage this was still mixed up with religion, and the requirements and interests
of a priest caste, it also signified the birth of human civilization. This was already
understood by Aristotle, who wrote:
theoretical arts, moreover, were evolved in places where men had plenty of free
time: mathematics, for example, originated in Egypt, where a priestly caste enjoyed
the necessary leisure." (11)
Knowledge is a
source of power. In any society in which art, science and government is the
monopoly of a few, that minority will use and abuse its power in its own interests.
The annual flooding of the Nile was a matter of life and death to the people of
Egypt, whose crops depended on it. The ability of the priests in Egypt to predict,
on the basis of astronomical observations, when the Nile would flood its banks
must have greatly increased their prestige and power over society. The art of
writing, a most powerful invention, was the jealously guarded secret of the priest-caste.
As Ilya Prigogine and Isabelle Stengers comment:
discovered writing; the Sumerian priests speculated that the future might be written
in some hidden way in the events taking place around us in the present. They even
systematized this belief, mixing magical and rational elements." (12)
The further development
of the division of labour gave rise to an unbridgeable gulf between the intellectual
elite and the majority of humankind, condemned to labour with their hands. The intellectual,
whether Babylonian priest or modern theoretical physicist, knows only one kind
of labour, mental labour. Over the course of millennia, the superiority of the
latter over "crude" manual labour becomes deeply ingrained and acquires
the force of a prejudice. Language, words and thoughts become endowed with mystical
powers. Culture becomes the monopoly of a privileged elite, which jealously guards
its secrets, and uses and abuses its position in its own interests.
In ancient times,
the intellectual aristocracy made no attempt to conceal its contempt for physical
labour. The following extract from an Egyptian text known as The Satire on the
Trades, written about 2000 B.C. is supposed to consist of a father’s exhortation
to his son, whom he is sending to the Writing School to train as a scribe:
"I have seen how the belaboured man is belaboured—thou shouldst set
thy heart in pursuit of writing. And I have observed how one may be rescued
from his duties [sic!]—behold, there is nothing which surpasses writing…
"I have seen the metalworker at his work at the mouth of his furnace.
His fingers were somewhat like crocodiles; he stank more than fish-roe…
"The small building contractor carries mud…He is dirtier than vines
or pigs from treading under his mud. His clothes are stiff with clay…
"The arrow-maker, he is very miserable as he goes out into the desert
[to get flint points]. Greater is that which he gives to his donkey than its
work thereafter [is worth]…
"The laundry man launders on the [river] bank, a neighbour of the
"Behold, there is no profession free of a boss—except for the scribe:
he is the boss…
"Behold, there is no scribe who lacks food from the property of the
House of the King—life, prosperity, health!…His father and his mother praise
god, he being set upon the way of the living. Behold these things—I [have set
them] before thee and thy children’s children." (13)
The same attitude
was prevalent among the Greeks:
"What are called the mechanical arts," says Xenophon, "carry
a social stigma and are rightly dishonoured in our cities, for these arts damage
the bodies of those who work in them or who act as overseers, by compelling them
to a sedentary life and to an indoor life, and, in some cases, to spend the
whole day by the fire. This physical degeneration results also in deterioration
of the soul. Furthermore, the workers at these trades simply have not got the time
to perform the offices of friendship or citizenship. Consequently they are looked
upon as bad friends and bad patriots, and in some cities, especially the warlike
ones, it is not legal for a citizen to ply a mechanical trade." (14)
The radical divorce
between mental and manual labour deepens the illusion that ideas, thoughts and
words have an independent existence. This misconception lies at the heart of all
religion and philosophical idealism.
It was not god
who created man after his own image, but, on the contrary, men and women who created
gods in their own image and likeness. Ludwig Feuerbach said that if birds had a
religion, their God would have wings. "Religion is a dream, in which our
own conceptions and emotions appear to us as separate existences, beings out of
ourselves. The religious mind does not distinguish between subjective and objective—it
has no doubts; it has the faculty, not of discerning other things than itself,
but of seeing its own conceptions out of itself as distinct beings." (15)
This was already understood by men like Xenophanes of Colophon (565-c.470
B.C.), who wrote "Homer and Hesiod have ascribed to the gods every deed
that is shameful and dishonourable among men: stealing and adultery and deceiving
each other…The Ethiopians make their gods black and snub-nosed, and the Thracians
theirs grey-eyed and red-haired…If animals could paint and make things, like men,
horses and oxen too would fashion the gods in their own image." (16)
myths which exist in almost all religions invariably take their images from real
life, for example, the image of the potter who gives form to formless clay. In
the opinion of Gordon Childe, the story of the Creation in the first book of Genesis
reflects the fact that, in Mesopotamia the land was indeed separated from the waters
"in the Beginning," but not by divine intervention:
"The land on which the great cities of Babylonia were to rise had
literally to be created; the prehistoric forerunner of the biblical Erech was
built on a sort of platform of reeds, laid criss-cross upon the alluvial mud.
The Hebrew book of Genesis has familiarised us with much older traditions of the
pristine condition of Sumer—a ‘chaos’ in which the boundaries between water and
dry land were still fluid. An essential incident in ‘The Creation’ is the separation
of these elements. Yet it was no god, but the proto-Sumerian themselves who created
the land; they dug channels to water the fields and drain the marsh; they built
dykes and mounded platforms to protect men and cattle from the waters and raise
them above the flood; they made the first clearings in the reed brakes and explored
the channels between them. The tenacity with which the memory of this struggle
persisted in tradition is some measure of the exertion imposed upon the ancient
Sumerians. Their reward was an assured supply of nourishing dates, a bounteous
harvest from the fields they had drained, and permanent pastures for flocks and
attempts to explain the world and his place in it were mixed up with mythology.
The Babylonians believed that the god Marduk created Order out of Chaos, separating
the land from the water, heaven from earth. The biblical Creation myth was taken
from the Babylonians by the Jews, and later passed into the culture of Christianity.
The true history of scientific thought commences when men and women learn to dispense
with mythology, and attempt to obtain a rational understanding of nature, without
the intervention of the gods. From that moment, the real struggle for the emancipation
of humanity from material and spiritual bondage begins.
The advent of
philosophy represents a genuine revolution in human thought. Like so much of
modern civilisation, we owe it to the ancient Greeks. Although important advances
were also made by the Indians and Chinese, and later the Arabs, it was the Greeks
who developed philosophy and science to its highest point prior to the Renaissance.
The history of Greek thought in the four hundred year period, from the middle
of the 7th century B.C., constitutes one of the most imposing pages in the annals
of human history.
Materialism and Idealism
The whole history
of philosophy from the Greeks down to the present day consist of a struggle between
two diametrically opposed schools of thought—materialism and idealism. Here we
come across a perfect example of how the terms used in philosophy differ fundamentally
from everyday language.
When we refer
to someone as an "idealist" we normally have in mind a person
of high ideals and spotless morality. A materialist, on the contrary, is viewed
as an unprincipled so-and-so, a money-grubbing, self-centred individual with
gross appetites for food and other things—in short, a thoroughly undesirable character.
This has nothing
whatever to do with philosophical materialism and idealism. In a philosophical
sense, idealism sets out from the view that the world is only a reflection of ideas,
mind, spirit, or more correctly the Idea, which existed before the physical
world. The crude material things we know through our senses are, according to
this school, only imperfect copies of this perfect Idea. The most consistent
proponent of this philosophy in Antiquity was Plato. However, he did not invent
idealism, which existed earlier.
believed that the essence of all things was Number (a view apparently shared by
some modern mathematicians). The Pythagoreans displayed a contempt towards the
material world in general and the human body in particular which they saw as a
prison where the soul was trapped. This is strikingly reminiscent of the
outlook of mediaeval monks. Indeed, it is probable that the Church took many of
its ideas from the Pythagoreans, Platonists and Neo-Platonists. This is not
surprising. All religions necessarily set out from an idealist view of the
world. The difference is that religion appeals to the emotions, and claims to
provide a mystical, intuitive understanding of the world ("Revelation"),
while most idealist philosophers try to present logical arguments for their theories.
At bottom, however,
the roots of all forms of idealism are religious and mystical. The disdain for
the "crude material world" and the elevation of the "Ideal"
flow directly from the phenomena we have just considered in relation to religion.
It is no accident that Platonist idealism developed in Athens when the system
of slavery was at its height. Manual labour at that time was seen, in a very literal
sense, as a mark of slavery. The only labour worthy of respect was intellectual
labour. Essentially, philosophical idealism is a product of the extreme division
between mental and manual labour which has existed from the dawn of written history
down to the present day.
The history of
Western philosophy, however, begins not with idealism but with materialism. This
asserts precisely the opposite: that the material world, known to us and explored
by science, is real; that the only real world is the material one; that
thoughts, ideas and sensations are the product of matter organised in a certain
way (a nervous system and a brain); that thought cannot derive its categories
from itself, but only from the objective world which makes itself known to us
through our senses.
Greek philosophers were known as "hylozoists" (from the Greek, meaning
"those who believe that matter is alive"). Here we have a long line
of heroes who pioneered the development of thought. The Greeks discovered that
the world was round, long before Columbus. They explained that humans had evolved
from fishes long before Darwin. They made extraordinary discoveries in mathematics,
especially geometry, which were not greatly improved upon for one and a half millennia.
They invented mechanics and even built a steam engine. What was startlingly new
about this way of looking at the world was that it was not religious. In complete
contrast to the Egyptians and Babylonians, from whom they had learnt a lot, the
Greek thinkers did not resort to gods and goddesses to explain natural phenomena.
For the first time, men and women sought to explain the workings of nature purely
in terms of nature. This was one of the greatest turning-points in the entire history
of human thought. True science starts here.
greatest of the Ancient philosophers, can be considered a materialist, although
he was not so consistent as the early hylozoists. He made a series of important
scientific discoveries which laid the basis for the great achievements of the Alexandrine
period of Greek science.
The Middle Ages
which followed the collapse of Antiquity were a desert in which scientific
thought languished for centuries. Not accidentally, this was a period dominated
by the Church. Idealism was the only philosophy permitted, either as a caricature
of Plato or an even worse distortion of Aristotle.
triumphantly in the period of the Renaissance. It was forced to wage a fierce battle
against the influence of religion (not only Catholic, but also Protestant, by
the way). Many martyrs paid the price of scientific freedom with their lives. Giordano
Bruno was burnt at the stake. Galileo was twice put on trial by the Inquisition,
and forced to renounce his views under threat of torture.
philosophical trend of the Renaissance was materialism. In England, this took
the form of empiricism, the school of thought that states that all knowledge is
derived from the senses. The pioneers of this school were Francis Bacon
(1561-1626), Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) and John Locke (1632-1704). The materialist
school passed from England to France where it acquired a revolutionary content.
In the hands of Diderot, Rousseau, Holbach and Helvetius, philosophy became an instrument
for criticising all existing society. These great thinkers prepared the way for
the revolutionary overthrow of the feudal monarchy in 1789-93.
The new philosophical
views stimulated the development of science, encouraging experiment and observation.
The 18th century saw a great advance in science, especially mechanics. But this
fact had a negative as well as a positive side. The old materialism of the 18th
century was narrow and rigid, reflecting the limited development of science itself.
Newton expressed the limitations of empiricism with his celebrated phrase
"I make no hypotheses." This one-sided mechanical outlook ultimately
proved fatal to the old materialism. Paradoxically, the great advances in philosophy
after 1700 were made by idealist philosophers.
Under the impact
of the French revolution, the German idealist Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) subjected
all previous philosophy to a thorough criticism. Kant made important discoveries
not only in philosophy and logic but in science. His nebular hypothesis of the
origins of the solar system (later given a mathematical basis by Laplace) is
now generally accepted as correct. In the field of philosophy, Kant’s masterpiece
The Critique of Pure Reason was the first work to analyse the forms of logic which
had remained virtually unchanged since they were first developed by Aristotle.
Kant showed the contradictions implicit in many of the most fundamental propositions
of philosophy. However, he failed to resolve these contradictions ("Antinomies"),
and finally drew the conclusion that real knowledge of the world was impossible.
While we can know appearances, we can never know how things are "in themselves."
This idea was
not new. It is a theme which has recurred many times in philosophy, and is generally
identified with what we call subjective idealism. This was put forward before Kant
by the Irish bishop and philosopher George Berkeley and the last of the classical
English empiricists, David Hume. The basic argument can be summed up as
follows: "I interpret the world through my senses. Therefore, all that I
know to exist are my sense-impressions. Can I, for example, assert that this apple
exists? No. All I can say is that I see it, I feel it, I smell it, I taste it.
Therefore, I cannot really say that the material world exists at all." The
logic of subjective idealism is that, if I close my eyes, the world ceases to exist.
Ultimately, it leads to solipsism (from the Latin "solo ipsus"—"I
alone"), the idea that only I exist.
These ideas may
seem nonsensical to us, but they have proved strangely persistent. In one way
or another, the prejudices of subjective idealism have penetrated not only philosophy
but also science for a great part of the 20th century. We shall deal more specifically
with this trend later on.
breakthrough came in the first decades of the 19th century with George Wilhelm
Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831). Hegel was a German idealist, a man of towering intellect,
who effectively summed up in his writings the whole history of philosophy.
that the only way to overcome the "Antinomies" of Kant was to accept
that contradictions actually existed, not only in thought, but in the real
world. As an objective idealist, Hegel had no time for the subjective idealist argument
that the human mind cannot know the real world. The forms of thought must reflect
the objective world as closely as possible. The process of knowledge consist of
penetrating ever more deeply into this reality, proceeding from the abstract to
the concrete, from the known to the unknown, from the particular to the universal.
method of thinking had played a great role in Antiquity, particularly in the naïve
but brilliant aphorisms of Heraclitus (c.500 B.C.), but also in Aristotle and
others. It was abandoned in the Middle Ages, when the Church turned Aristotle’s
formal logic into a lifeless and rigid dogma, and did not re-appear until Kant
returned it to a place of honour. However, in Kant the dialectic did not receive
an adequate development. It fell to Hegel to bring the science of dialectical
thinking to its highest point of development.
is shown by the fact that he alone was prepared to challenge the dominant philosophy
of mechanism. The dialectical philosophy of Hegel deals with processes, not isolated
events. It deals with things in their life, not their death, in their inter-relations,
not isolated, one after the other. This is a startlingly modern and scientific
way of looking at the world. Indeed, in many aspects Hegel was far in advance
of his time. Yet, despite its many brilliant insights, Hegel’s philosophy was
ultimately unsatisfactory. Its principal defect was precisely Hegel’s idealist
standpoint, which prevented him from applying the dialectical method to the real
world in a consistently scientific way. Instead of the material world we have
the world of the Absolute Idea, where real things, processes and people are replaced
by insubstantial shadows. In the words of Frederick Engels, the Hegelian dialectic
was the most colossal miscarriage in the whole history of philosophy. Correct ideas
are here seen standing on their head. In order to put dialectics on a sound
foundation, it was necessary to turn Hegel upside down, to transform idealist dialectics
into dialectical materialism. This was the great achievement of Karl Marx and
Frederick Engels. Our study begins with a brief account of the basic laws of materialist
dialectics worked out by them.
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N., Einstein’s Universe, London, 1986
C., The Origin of Species, London, 1929