consisting of Four Parts.
The Last Three Parts –
being an Exposition of Dialectical Materialism –
have been Translated without Alteration from the Russian:
But the First Part –
being an Historical Introduction to Marxist Philosophy
and to the Theory of Knowledge –
has been Condensed and entirely Rewritten
by the English Editor
who alone takes Responsibility for this Section.
The Whole Book has been Translated by
A. C. Moseley,
and the Translation has been Revised and Edited by
John Lewis, B.Sc., Ph.D.
The Publishers are
Victor Gollancz Limited
14 Henrietta Street
Chapter I. The Conflict between Idealism and Materialism
II. Dialectic as a Theory of Knowledge
III. Moments of Knowledge of Actuality
IV. The Doctrine of Truth
Chapter I. The Law of the Unity and Conflict of Opposites
II. The Division of Unity, the Disclosure of Essential Opposites
III. Mutual Penetration of Opposites
IV. Analysis of the Movement of the Contradiction of a process from its Beginning to its End
V. The Relativity of the Unity of Opposites and the Absoluteness of their Conflict
VI. Theory of Equilibrium
Chapter I. From Naïve Dialectic to the Metaphysic of Properties
II. From the Metaphysic of Properties to the Metaphysic of Relations
III. Quality and the Self Movement of Matter
IV. The Relativity of Qualities and the Universal Connection of Things
V. The Dialectic, of Quality and Property
VI. The Transition of Quantity into Quality
VII. Contradiction and the Evolutionary Leap
VIII. The Dialectic of the “Leap”
IX. The Transition of Quality into Quantity
X. The Problem of “Levelling Down”
XI. The Nodal Line of Measurements
This volume was originally prepared by the Leningrad Institute of Philosophy as a textbook in Dialectical Materialism for institutions of higher education, directly connected with the Communist Party and also for use in the Technical Institutes which correspond to Universities in Great Britain.
This particular textbook was specially selected by the Society for Cultural Relations in Moscow (VOKS) as the best example they could find of the philosophical teaching now being given in the Soviet Union not only to students of philosophy but to engineers, doctors, chemists, teachers, in fact to all who pass through the higher technical schools and institutes.
In the original work Part I, which consisted of an historical introduction to Marxist Philosophy and the Theory of Knowledge, was of considerable length and included illustrations which would not be familiar to English students. But as it is really quite impossible to comprehend the philosophy of Marx and Engels without some knowledge of the development of philosophy up to Hegel, this section has been considerably condensed and entirely rewritten by the English editor who takes entire responsibility for this part of the work. The original authors did not cover this familiar ground in the manner of a conventional history of philosophy but from the Marxist point of view, and this whole method of approach has, of course, been faithfully followed in the rewritten section.
The English editor has also contributed an introduction relating the whole work to philosophical thought in the West to-day.
Sections II, III and IV comprise the exposition of Marxist Philosophy by the Russian authors themselves.
In placing this textbook before English-speaking students it is hoped that serious consideration may be drawn to the claims of a philosophy which in its challenge to philosophical orthodoxy raises issues to which recent critical studies in Western science and philosophy are giving increasing attention.
Some little assistance is needed to those who sit down for the first time to read a book on dialectical materialism, written by Russians for Russian students. The very name of the new philosophy raises questions. What is dialectic? Is the new philosophy really no more than the discredited materialism of the nineteenth century?
The book itself will be the best answer to these questions but it may help towards the understanding of the book if we take these two fundamental difficulties, which probably disconcert a good many would-be students of dialectical materialism, and endeavour to throw some light on them from the standpoint of Western philosophy.
What is Dialectic?
Dialectical thought is the study of things in their relations and in process of development and change. “The opposite of dialectics is the isolated consideration of things, and the consideration of things only in their fixity.” It is dialectical to look out for the special characteristics of a thing in a new set of relations and then to adapt one’s forms of thought to the new form which reality has taken. Dialectics, therefore, is not an abstract system of logic which men are asked to accept, it is necessary because the nature of the world requires it. There are no fixed properties in the concrete world, therefore there should be no fixed concepts in our science. There are no final scientific laws, therefore our thought must avoid dogmatic finality.
A rationalist may try to make out that nature shows a smooth continuous progression from simple to complex in which the higher, if we knew enough detail, could be predicted from the lower. But this conception of uniformity is one of those static moulds into which man pours his thought and in doing so does violence to reality. For nature is not continuous but discontinuous. It cannot be reduced to mere variations of one fundamental reality. In reality there is novelty and therefore gaps between the old and the new. Now if by reason itself one means precisely continuity and unchangeability then nature is irrational. Dialectics, however, challenges this conception of reason and moulds thought to the changing surface of events. In other words it gives us a conception of reason derived from the living nature of reality, not from a man-made static logic.
Non-dialectical thinking, on the other hand, is always getting itself into difficulties. How, for instance, is the control of the physiological mechanism by mind to be explained? Static thinking finds it difficult to show how mind can possibly affect matter except by a miracle. That is because by matter is meant a physiological mechanism such as isfound before mind has anything to do with it. Such matter is mindless. But since mind certainly exists, and since it has nothing to do with mindless organic matter, it must be a thing apart, pure mind. The riddle then is how mind and matter interact. There would be no riddle but for static thinking. Dialectical thought allows the concept of matter to change from one evolutionary level to another. At one level matter is mindless, at the next it is minded. Matter itself thinks when organized in a brain. Because the properties of matter outside the grey matter of the brain do not include thought, that is not to say that in the unique set of conditions which obtain in the brain quite new properties may not emerge.Dialectical thinking is particularly important in politics. There it is often called realism. Instead of trying to force social change according to certain abstract ideals, the realist is bound to take the situation as it is at its particular stage of development and frame his policies accordingly. Quixotic idealists are anti-dialectical. Good tacticians, men of shrewd practical judgment think dialectically, not abstractly.
Every successful scientist, engineer and physician is a dialectician because his thought conforms to the stuff he works in and enables him to handle it. He cannot do his thinking in isolation from reality.
Dialectical thinking is not an esoteric secret, it is simply the way to think in relation to the world one wishes to control, therefore it can be said that all effective thinking is dialectical.
By materialism we usually mean either the reduction of all phenomena to inert matter and its movements, or the evaluation of life in terms of eating and drinking. Dialectical materialism means neither of these things. Where it differs from every form of Idealism is in its belief that in the evolution of the universe the non-living preceded the living. There was a time when there was no mind. Mind is a characteristic of matter at a high stage of its development. Dialectical materialism fully recognizes the progressive enrichment of evolving matter from level to level, and fully accepts the reality of mind and of spiritual values.
It is only mechanistic materialism thinking statically instead of dialectically that shuts its eyes to such obvious facts. Dialectical thinking is strictly empirical, and this may be regarded as another aspect of its materialism. Whatever facts emerge in experience must be recognized, but transcendental objects it does not recognize. In the Middle Ages there was a fierce controversy between nominalists and realists. The nominalists said that concepts are only products of human thought, and that real existences are always concrete and individual. The realists asserted that ideas and ideals have an actual existence of their own. Plato held that Beauty exists in the ideal world from which it descends to dwell for a moment only in beautiful objects, which all eventually lose their beauty.
In this controversy the dialectical materialist would be wholly on the side of the nominalists and against Plato. Beauty exists, but never apart from beautiful things. Goodness exists but never apart from good people. Thought exists but not apart from brains. The simple truth is that form and matter are inseparable, but at the same time distinct. The form that matter takes may be the form of beauty or of thought, the form is real but it is always a form of matter. That is sound Aristotelianism as well as sound dialectical materialism, and it would trouble no one if we did not so frequently assume that platonic mysticism is the only respectable philosophy.
Dialectical materialism therefore does not believe in the dualism of soul and body. But it does not therefore deny the existence of mind. The modern psychology which does not require “a soul,” and therefore rejects both interactionism and parallelism, does not reduce mental processes to physiological, but discovers in the organism at a certain level of brain development a control of behaviour in terms of foresight and purpose. It is as unnecessary to attribute this new function to the indwelling of a soul as to explain sensation in the lower animals in this way. Granted a sufficiently developed brain a new pattern of behaviour becomes possible and actually appears. This shows that the organism when it attains a given complexity has new properties which must neither be reduced to physiological reflexes nor attributed to the intrusion of some alien element.
Dialectical materialism recognizes the emergence of new qualities at different levels.
This evolutionary materialism is sometimes known as “emergent evolution,” and has been ably expounded by Lloyd Morgan, Alexander and Roy Wood Sellars. Unfortunately it is sometimes compromised by being combined with philosophical parallelism in order to give to the evolutionary process a teleological character. But it is unnecessary to postulate a directive spiritual force if, as the emergent evolutionists themselves demonstrate, the material factors at any one stage are in themselves sufficient cause for the next. Most evolutionists therefore already hold the dialectical rather than the vitalist or parallelist form of emergent evolution.
The doctrine of emergence is of the greatest importance for the whole question of development and change in nature. Although development implies the emergence of novelty, scientists are extremely sensitive to any tampering with the principle of continuity. But a doctrine of pure continuity rules out the emergence of the really new, since everything is a combination of the original elements. The result is that in defence of continuity evolution itself may be denied, since without real change evolution is meaningless. On the other hand in defence of change continuity may be denied, in which case once again there is no evolution. Two possibilities are open, one can merely assert that as an empirical fact there is both change and continuity. But the mind is unsatisfied with what falls shortof a rational explanation. The other possibility is afforded by the new dialectic which repudiates the disjunctive method in thinking which is responsible for all these difficulties. The disjunctive method treated existences as mutually exclusive and owning their content. The dialectical or conjunctive method treats them as interpenetrating and sharing their content. Thus a special character in some object, is not derived from the character of its components taken severally but from the distinctive relationships of these components, from a special configuration. There is a function jointly exercised. This avoids the error of demanding that if a new quality emerges at a given moment it must have emerged from somewhere. Where was it before it emerged? This puts the while question wrongly. Emergence is treated like the emergence of a duck from beneath the surface of a pond. If it appears it must have been under the water before. But that is not what emergence means at all. When two colourless fluids are mixed and the result is a red fluid the redness was nowhere before it emerged; it is a character belonging to a particular configuration. Dialectical materialism will have nothing to do with hylozoism or panpsychism; it does not believe that life and mind have always existed in imperceptible degrees and had only to grow in quantity until they were big enough to be noticed, thus emerging. It believes that they appeared for the first time at a definite period in the history of matter, and that they are the inevitable consequence or concomitant of certain material patterns.
When it comes to defining the agent of change, dialectical materialism has its most suggestive theory to offer. Its conception of movement and contradiction asinherent in all matter and all relationships is, of course, derived by inversion from Hegel. What Hegel and Bradley show to be the inherent instability of any particular relationship as conceived, Marx shows to be characteristic of all relationships as concrete, as well as conceived. Development through contradiction is not due to some mystical force working within the material content of the world, but is an observed characteristic of all life and matter. Contradictions and their emergence do not have to be projected into facts quite innocent of them, you have only to examine reality to find them. To be convinced of the dialectic of nature, look around you!
The Dialectic of Social Change
It is not only in physical and biological phenomena that dialectical development takes place. It is the driving force behind human evolution and social development.
Man is partly determined by his environment. But his relation to his environment is not a static one. In the first place the environment itself is as much the creation of man as man is the creation of the environment. Interaction is continuous. The changes wrought by man react on man himself and then man proceeds to yet further changes. Man fells forests and practises a crude husbandry, as a consequence soil erosion sets in and man launches vast irrigation projects like the Tennessee Valley experiment, which in turn change the social habits and industrial structure of a whole area, introducing electrification, scientific agriculture, new industries and a new level of social development. But this awakens the fierce antagonism of vested interests outside the Tennessee Valley so that the relation of the district to its environment, politically, brings into existence new internal movements and institutions. It is such mutual influences and corresponding adjustments which lead, not only to gradual change, but, after a cumulative process of parallel modification, to a revolution.
The process of soil erosion is gradual and homogeneous. However far it is prolonged it does not of itself become a series of dams and irrigation canals; but when the social pressure due to erosion and its consequences reaches a certain degree of intensity the social organism produces a mutation and grapples with the environment in a new way. It is human intervention in the manner rendered necessary by the actual conditions that revolutionizes the situation. But it is also worth noting that a failure to interrupt the gradual process of erosion itself leads to abrupt and violent changes, to disastrous floods, to famines, and to social collapse.
To take another example. The pressure of the law of supply and demand on the price of labour power causes the workers to form trade unions, restrict the supply of labour, and get a better price for it, a better wage. The employers policy thus produces an opposite tendency. But the trade union eventually finds that competitive industry cannot afford to pay a living wage, whereupon it has to fulfil a new role or perish. It must struggle for power, to supersede the employing class, and in so doing pass beyond the two-class economic system in which one section owns the tools and the other sells its labour power. The continuance of the old struggle is rendered impossible by the accumulation of parallel or converging changes resulting from the inter-relatedness of economic factors and social movements. It is not a pendulum movement, or simple action and reaction, but a condition of deadlock, of crisis, to which these converging changes have inevitably led. The impasse shows itself in a choking of the forces of production, a paralysis, leading to fierce competitive struggle for economic existence and, unless something is done, to war and social chaos. But the moment the transition is effected the whole face of things is transformed, the whole structure of things is re-patterned. Certain entities disappear, others come into existence. Eternal laws vanish. Values change. Human nature itself changes. There is no human institution that is the same afterwards. In particular the weight of various factors is altered. What had been feeble and unable to grow in the old order is released and stimulated and becomes a dominant force. As an example consider adult education for workers. Under capitalism this remains puny and ineffective nor is it possible to get it beyond a certain point no matter what efforts are made. But in a workers’ state, where workers rule and industry is self-governing, an immense impetus to education is received, and a remarkable release of latent forces occurs.
Note the importance and fruitfulness of this conception, howmany knots it unties and controversies it clears up. Endless confusion results from persistently refusing to admit the change of properties which a new pattern brings with it, to admit the disappearance of old laws and the emergence of new ones consequent upon such re-patterning.
Our example has been a social one. It might just -as well have been biological. It is a similar process wherever you find it. The properties of matter in all its forms are relative. Changes in matter are always arising out of the situation caused by the self-development of a given situation. Such changes always lead to new properties and laws emerging and a new relation between object and environment. Dialectical materialism analyses the laws of evolutionary change and applies them to society as well as to nature.
Dialectics and Metaphysics
Dialectical materialism takes up a somewhat hostile attitude to metaphysics. Why is this? It is because “the persistent problems of philosophy” are not, as is usually supposed, merely problems for thought, but problems inseparably connected with stages in social development which carry with them contradictions insoluble at these particular levels.
For instance the failure of a pre-scientific world to understand nature creates special intellectual problems for the philosophy of that period which only clear up when science advances. Or again, before the discovery of emergent evolution philosophy will be troubled with dualism and vitalism, and there will be no help for it.
These very problems of pre-Marxian philosophy indicate that men are not yet in the position to solve them. Now it is the false formulation of a problem that creates a philosophy. Restate it correctly and the problem disappears – and so does the philosophy! There are no insoluble problems in philosophy but only problems wrongly stated. Hence most contemporary metaphysics is due either to ignorance or to confusion of thought. The list of metaphysical problems which disappear as we proceed to higher organizational levels is a long one and in recent years a school of logical positivists has appeared which threatens to sweep the last of them away. In certain respects the logical-positivists approach the position of dialectical materialism but their view is a purely logical one and takes no cognizance of the changes in thought due to social evolution.
Ayer in his recent book, Language, Truth and Logic, says that metaphysics must eventually disappear, because it tries to say something about what is not matter of fact, whereas the only way to avoid senselessness is either to explain the use of the words and special terms we use (called by Ayer and Russell “symbols”) or to saysomething verifiable about matter of fact. To consider anything at all as existing prior to and independent of the concrete is complete folly unless we are working out mere logical possibilities, clearing up the meaning of language, stating in advance how we propose to think, and what is going to count for us as proof. Apart from this, which is the real job of philosophy, the only other kind of truth is matter of fact, which must be verifiable in principle by some future sense-experience. To affirm what is not empirically verifiable is to talk nonsense. Professor Schlick of Vienna, writes:
“What about metaphysics? It is evident that our view entirely precludes the possibility of such a thing. Any cognition we can have of ‘Being,’ of the inmost nature of things, is gained entirely by the special sciences; they are the true ontology, and there can be no other. Each true scientific proposition expresses in some way the real nature of things – if it did not, it would simply not be true. So in regard to metaphysics the justification of our viewis that it explains the vanity of all metaphysical efforts, which has shown itself in the hopeless variety of systems all struggling against each other. Most of the so called metaphysical propositions are no propositions at all, but meaningless combinations of words; and the rest are not ‘metaphysical’ at all, they are simply concealed scientific statements, the truth or falsehood of which can be ascertained by the ordinary methods of experience and observation. (In the future) Metaphysical tendencies will be entirely abandoned, simply because there is no such thing as metaphysics, the apparent descriptions of it being just nonsensical phrases.”
Dialectical Materialism and Contemporary Philosophy
The “logical-analytical method” of Wittgenstein and his followers is by no means the only modern philosophy that approximates in certain points to the new dialectic. Benedetto Croce, for all his errors, is condemning abstractness when he insists that philosophy is identical with history and that both are the self-consciousness of life itself. Troeltsch, many of whose positions are open to the gravest criticism, is right when he insists that the fundamental philosophical question is what is the main trend of historical matter of fact and how does it dominate each special domain, such as law, education, art, politics, and philosophy, and in his insistence that historical activism should supersede historical contemplation. Whitehead’s energetic opposition to the whole Kantian bifurcation of nature and mind is a wholesome reaction from dualism.
It would appear, in fact, that not only are scientific discoveries confirming the standpoint of dialectical materialism but that Western philosophers are increasingly discarding metaphysical concepts, though still reluctant to accept an outlook which undermines the buttresses of the existing order.
There is, however, one tendency in recent Western philosophy with which the dialectical materialists are thoroughly familiar, though we are not as thoroughly acquainted as we should be with their treatment of it. This is due to an historical accident. In 1908 a group of leading Russian socialists living in exile in Capri, became profoundly interested in the new positivism of Mach and Avenarius. They proceeded to recast philosophical Marxism along positivist lines. Lenin at once saw that this philosophy was both unsound and also anti-socialist in its implications. He proceeded to write an exhaustive criticism which displayed a surprising knowledge of philosophy and a clear grasp of the question at issue. Lenin’s Materialism and Empirio-Criticism has never been sufficiently appreciated by philosophers although it was one of the first and most trenchant criticisms of a sceptical systemwhich so far from disappearing has grown widely in recent years. This scientific positivism has been popularized in recent years by Eddington, Bertrand Russell and others in science, and by Durkheim and Levy Bruhl in sociology. As Lenin rightly discerned, it opens wide the door to solipsism and superstition and has been eagerly seized upon by theologians to buttress irrationalism and supernaturalism. It therefore happens that this criticism as developed in modern dialectical materialism is immediately relevant to much contemporary philosophy and surprisingly up-to-date.
Philosophy and Politics
No exposition of dialectical materialism can proceed for long without an excursion into political controversy. Again and again in this textbook we shall meet with practical applications to contemporary Russian problems. At first this may appear disconcerting and irrelevant, but a great deal would be lost if the theory remained on the abstract plane and never allowed itself to be mingled with practice.
In fact this is quite impossible, for this philosophy first of all reflects every kind of material and social change and helps us to understand it, and of such changes none are so important as political changes. Secondly, however, since political change requires above all things just such an understanding of events, a philosophy of this sort will itself be an indispensable agent of such change. Hence the political importance of this philosophy. Under these circumstances it is not difficult to understand two peculiarities of communist philosophy, firstly it is taken seriously by everyone in Russia and is studied and debated universally with great insistence on correct conclusions; secondly, no discussion proceeds very far without plunging into political controversy. The first peculiarity will occasion suspicion in those who are influenced by the apparent irrelevance of ordinary philosophy to real problems in life and politics. But is it unimportant to reach correct conclusions in aeronautics? Is it not a matter of life and death? Is it not the responsibility of authority to see that aeronautical engineers are provided with correct and verified formulae? This will explain the earnest and polemical tone of Russian political controversy. On more than one occasion the preservation or destruction of the new civilization has depended on a right understanding of social change and the transvaluations brought about by repatterning. The great collective farm controversy is a case in point. This has become the classical working example by means of which every phase of dialectical materialism is demonstrated.
The second peculiarity arises from the insistence on the material unity of the world. We are here in this real world and all our thinking is about it. Moreover we think about it not as if we were looking at it from the moon, but because it is a going concern and we are on it. Every moment it is doing something and going somewhere, and it does nothing of itself. Its direction and its action are due to our activity and our thought. The job of philosophy is not to explain, to analyse, to sum up as good or bad, as rational or irrational, a finished universe outside itself but to take the primary responsibility of understanding how the world changes and in directing that change. Philosophy is the self-consciousness of a self-moving, self-directing world in process of progressive development.
Its goodness is not a fixed quantity but may be more to-morrow according to whether we know how to improve it. It is not either rational or irrational. It is as irrational as our ignorance and lack of control.
If philosophy is the analysis of social development we can understand the frequent incursions of dialectical materialism into the realm of social action. The contact is as close as that between the research department of a medical school and the hospital. Western philosophers who feel a little resentful and irritated at this philosophy of action might remember that it wasBradley who said, “There is no more fatal enemy than theories which are not also facts,” and that both Plato and Hegel would have warmlyapproved of this indissoluble connection of politics and philosophy. It is a fin de siècle intellectualism that finds itself “above the battlefield.”
Determinism and Freedom
This brings us to another characteristic of Russian philosophy. It is often supposed that the materialist conception of history is a form of fatalism. Nothing could be farther from the truth. On the contrary it holds that man is a self-directing organism. But consciousness and physiological processes are not twoseparate things. The organism man is aphysiological mechanism that knows what it is doing. The mistake hitherto has been to make a false antithesis. If a physiological mechanism then not self-directing. If self-directing then parallelism or interactionism. Modern psychology, and also dialectical materialism, goes back to Aristotle, man is a “minding” animal. “Consciousness, instead of being a stream outside of the process of physiological change, is simply a characteristic of some facts of organic behaviour.”* When a particular movement is made which intervenes in the course of events, that particular movement is only explicable on the ground that when it took place the organism knew what the effect on his environment was going to be before it occurred.
* Everett Dean Martin, Psychology, ch. v.
This is also true socially. Man is conditioned but not determined by social structure and the stage of economic development. An airman is most strictly conditioned by the laws of flight and his machine, by the changing atmosphere and his supplies of petrol and electricity; but he is free in so far as he accepts, understands, and utilizes those conditions. Freedom is the knowledge of necessity. If you want to loop the loop you must do this and that, and there are some things that cannot be done at all. So in politics, you can only find out what to do, what is possible and what impossible, what is profitable and what profitless, by knowing what stage of development society has reached, what contradictions are maintaining the tension of the structure, what forces are weakening and what are strengthening, in what direction society must move to escape impasse or disaster! Moreover such knowledge is not astronomical, as though watching a collision of heavenly bodies which an observer could only predict. It is operative. The measure of knowledge determines the measure and quality of control. There may be stages in which men and whole classes act almost instinctively if they are to carry social development to a farther stage, but this is the age in world evolution at which man for the first time comes to social self-consciousness and takes himself on to the next stage. Hence Lenin fiercely opposed the popular doctrines of “drift,” of leaving it to the instinctive upsurge of the masses, the theorists and “leaders” merely coming in at the tail. Lenin even coined the phrase Khvostism – “tailism” – to denote this lagging behind. He argued that by “setting up the “spontaneous” movements of the imperfectly conscious massinto the one law of the labour movement, this theory ruled out the constitution of an organized revolutionary party and had for its inevitable consequence the abandonment of all political action to the bourgeois liberals.”* Hence the importance of the task of bringing the whole working class to consciousness, since it is their historic mission to emancipate the world. Hence the permeation of the Russian proletariat with genuine political education and philosophical discussion, which is deliberately denied to the masses in fascist countries. It is. a genuine attempt at popular enlightenment and self-direction and it has already gone too far for anyone wishing to keep the multitude in tutelage to be able to do so.
* Mirsky, Lenin, p.41. See also Lenin, What is to be done? Collected Works, vol. iv.
The Impossibility of Dogmatism
Should the charge of dogmatism be levelled at this political education one can point to two characteristics of dialectical materialism which are continuously undermining the dogmatic attitude. Firstly its belief in fluid concepts. While avoiding pure relativism, dialectical materialism drills its students, using scores of examples drawn from current politics, in the habit of regarding things as changing with changing circumstances both in their properties and in the laws that govern them, and even as passingover into their opposites. “Capitalism” is not a fixed concept. The capitalism of the nineteenth century was progressive. It was releasing the forces of production. Capitalism in the world it has thus created is beset by difficulties for which itsvery achievements are responsible. It has now become retrogressive. It restricts production and moves in the direction of impoverishment, chaos and destruction. “Democracy” is not a fixed concept. At first it sets the bourgeoisie free to develop capitalism, later it may be a façade to delude the politically helpless worker that he is governing himself while really he is being governed by a veiled dictatorship; later an aroused and suffering proletariat trying to use the democratic rights hitherto only nominally theirs may find in the defence of their constitutional rights against Fascism that the preservation of democracy is the proletarian revolution. “Man” is not a fixed concept. Human nature is not unalterable. His character and habits arise not from fixed instincts but, as psychology shows, from conditioning. He is what his institutions make him, but he made those institutions and can make new ones. “The whole of history is nothing but the progressive transformation of human nature.” Now it is impossible for a philosophy of this sort to be dogmatic in the vicious sense and, when we remember its stress on practice, we see here too a characteristic bound up with the doctrine of fluid concepts which also precludes dogmatic rigidity. For dogmatism always arises out of abstraction. It is when thought is regarded as giving us in itself, apart from experience, the pattern of reality that a static system of doctrines is built up and can continue. Dialectical materialism creates systems out of reflection on the facts, verifies them by action on the facts, and corrects and amplifies them by the changes brought about by that very action. Its method precludes vicious abstraction.
If further proof were wanted it can be found in the plain fact that the history of Bolshevism has not been marked by the rigid enforcement of inflexible dogmas. So far is this from being the fact that its enemies have never ceased to reproach it with abandoning its principles. How often have we not been told that Russia has reverted to capitalism, has abandoned Lenin’s plans, has betrayed its internationalism and so on. It is the opponents of Stalin and the official philosophy who have stuck rigidly to dogmatic and schematic policies. Of course consistency may be more virtuous than what may be termed vacillation and opportunism, but that is not the point at issue at the moment. If the Russians are guilty of this kind of fault (if it is a fault) they are certainly not guilty of being dogmatists.
Does Philosophy matter?
We are now more in a position to see why such practical people as the Russian communists are deeply concerned about philosophy. It is frequently assumed that a practical man can do very well without a philosophy, that the religious and metaphysical beliefs of a scientist or a politician have no kind of relation to their life’s work, and that speculation constitutes a more or less leisure time occupation like music or golf.
But the Russian knows that a man’s creed matters, that it may be a positive force behind exploitation and parasitism and that you cannot destroy the social disease if you do not accompany political and industrial measures with the refutation of capitalist philosophy and the propagation of an alternative. It is for this reason that philosophical discussion plays such an important part in Russia to-day. In every higher technical school, institute, and university philosophy is a compulsory subject in the curriculum. Works chemists, textile engineers, agricultural experts and school teachers are thoroughly trained in philosophy. They know the fallacies of the system they repudiate and they have a system of their own to be “the master light of all their seeing.”
This will occasion surprise in those who have always understood that the first principle of Soviet philosophy was the economic determination of ideas. But although no creed comesinto existence as a mere development of thought and out of all relation to social needs yet once a creed is born it has an activity and force of its own. If it is believed it will help to perpetuate the social system to which it belongs, if it is overthrown one of the buttresses of that system will be taken away. Therefore the Russian is inclined to believe with Chesterton that the practical and important thing about a man ishis view of the universe.
“We think that for a landlady considering a lodger, it is important to know his income, but still more important to know his philosophy. We think that for a general about to fight an enemy, it is important to know the enemy’s numbers, but still more important to know the enemy’s philosophy.”
There has been no great movement in history that was not also a philosophical movement. The time of big theories was the time of big results. Our modern politicians who call themselves practical and belittle philosophy are mediocrities, and their policies are opportunist and vacillating.
It is not difficult to see why this is so. In the first place the main philosophical tendencies are always closely allied to the conflicting social and political movements of the day. A totalitarian philosophy lends support to State absolutism. Irrationalism fosters political “thinking with your blood.” In the last century, when Spencer transformed the biological theory of evolution into a philosophy, its theory of progress through struggle and the survival of the fittest made a popular theoretical instrument for furthering the interests of the economic class that throve on competition. A philosophy may not be consciously advanced with such an aim but it will be seized upon and will spread widely if it reinforces the aims of a large section of the community engaged in struggle with an opposing class.
Secondly, fundamental questions are never of purely speculative interest, but frequently arise out of or are suggested by the urgent social problems of the time. Even the philosopher who isolates himself and devotes his attention to what he imagines to be purely theoretical questions is affected by the spirit of the age and is unconsciously answering its questions. Bradley, a recluse, in his famous essay on “My Station and its Duties,” argued that the community was a moral organism which knows itself in its members so that to know what is right we have merely to imbibe the spirit of the community. “It is a false conscience,” he says, “that wants you to be better than the world as it is.” His essay is largely an apologia for functionalism, and functionalism which accepts the present class stratification as permanent is simply fascism.
Why not do without Philosophy?
Nor is it possible to avoid all contamination with philosophy by becoming the perfect philistine and restricting one’s attention solely to the practical sphere – the tendency of British labour leaders. For if the devil of philosophy is thrown out and the empty spaces of the mind swept and garnished, “Then goeth he, and taketh with himself seven other devils more wicked than himself and they enter in and dwell there; and the last state of that man is worse than the first.” The mind that is not made up is peculiarly susceptible both to atmosphere and to passing fashions, it yields all too easily to powerful and specious movements of thought and is “tossed to and fro, and carried about with every wind of doctrine.” The human mind is more eager and curious than that of the pragmatic politician, and there will not be lacking vehement and persuasive philosophies of a dubious character likely to infect those not tendered immune by having a considered philosophy of their own.
It is indeed impossible to keep the mind free from philosophy. “We have no choice,” says A. E. Taylor, “whether we shall form metaphysical hypotheses or not, only the choice whether we shall do so consciously and in accord with some intelligible principle or unconsciously and at random.” The philistine’s mind is a mass of prejudices, unexamined assumptions, shallow and insufficiently substantiated generalities and dogmas. The man who sayshe is no philosopher is merely a bad philosopher.
The Relation of Theory and Practice
This insistence on the importance of “hard facts” is a reaction from speculative theories and pure abstraction, but sound theory is only the eye of practice and practice is blind without it. Just as a doctor must unite a sound knowledge of human physiology and pathology with his practical experience and cannot know too much to be a good physician, so a politician must understand all there is to know of the laws of social change and the structure of society if his leadership is to take the class whose interests he represents anywherebut on to the rocks.
The truth is that if form and content, which in this case are theory and practice, can be divided so as to be merely related they are of little importance. Philosophy and practice that fall below a certain standard can be discussed in this way; above that standard, theory and practice are not opposed, nor merely related; they are one. There is more than a bond – there is union and fusion.
Whitehead contrasts these two aspects of reason; the first seeking an immediate method of action, the second a complete understanding.
“The Greeks have bequeathed to us two figures, whose real or mythical lives conform to these two notions – Plato and Ulysses. The one shares Reason with the Gods, the other shares it with the foxes. Ulysses has no use for Plato, and the bones of his companions are strewn on many a reef and many an isle!”*
* Whitehead, The Function of Reason.
Until Philosophers are Kings
If in previous social crises political leaders could do no more than “play by ear” that is not necessary to-day; the knowledge of the social process given by the dialectical approach provides the basis for a conscious transformation of society. The way out is therefore being found by a whole class coming to a consciousness of its destiny and it follows that the leaders of that class must be enlighteners and therefore themselves enlightened. “Till the philosophic race have the government of the city, neither the miseries of the city nor of the citizens shall have an end, nor shall this republic, which we speak of in way of fable, come in fact to perfection.”*
* Plato, Republic.
But if rulers must be philosophers that means that in a State where the workers rule the workers must themselves be philosophers. This accounts for the severe training in dialectical materialism which is found in all Russian technical and higher education in the Soviet Union. It is felt in Russia that an engineer or a chemist who does not understand the philosophy of Socialism is not likely to be of much use in the new order. That is why thorough training in dialectical materialism is universal. Not only are the kings all philosophers in the republic, but the workers are all kings, or kings in the making. They must all be trained for rule and responsibility. “Every kitchenmaid must learn to rule the country.”
The result is that every educated Russian has something of that philosophic spirit which Shaw remarked in Marx when he wrote:
“…he never condescends to cast a glance of useless longing at the past, his cry to the present is, always ‘Pass by; we are waiting for the future.’ Nor is the future at all mysterious, uncertain or dreadful to him. There is not a word of fear, nor appeal to chance, nor to providence, nor vain remonstrance with nature... nor any other familiar sign of the giddiness which seizes men when they climb to heights which command a view of the past, present and future of human society. Marx keeps his head like a god. He has discovered the law of social development, and knows what must come. The thread of history is in his hand.”
That the Russians are submitting themselves to a vigorous intellectual
discipline will be clear from the reading of this book which is not an
easy one. It is significant that Hegel’s Logic has
been translated into Russian and has been printed in editions running
to tens of thousands. It is doubtful whether fifty copies a year are
sold in England. This, coupled with the practical dialectic of unending
controversy and argument and with the constant test of practice, has
made of the new philosophy a virile and sinewy intellectual instrument.
Its outlines are rough and its details unfinished. It needs
elaboration, expansion, much filling in of detail, a good deal of
correction and revision, but in spite of this it is fundamentally an
excellent illustration of its own thesis, the emergence on a higher
level of a new evolutionary type, the fruit of the clash of opposites,
the working out of older systems to exhaustion and yet to fulfilment, a
reordering of the whole problem of philosophy.
But there is another method. The method of changing the self in emotion and idea because it is too difficult to change the world. This is the way first of religion and subsequently of philosophy. It begins with propitiation, but passes at length from the attempt to conquer destiny to the resolve to ally oneself with it and so perchance escape destruction. Out of religion philosophy developed as man came to reflect upon this sharp contrast between a feeble, uncertain practice and an imaginative apprehension of a supernatural world of potencies and certainties. In other words out of the conflict of knowledge and practice arises the major problem of philosophy and the conflict between idealism and materialism.
As the mythological elements fell away from the religious attitude philosophy retold the story of the universe in the form of rational discourse instead of emotionalized imagination. The result was the apprehension by Reason of an ideal world of logical constructions constituting, as it was finally declared, “a realm of: fixed Being which, when grasped by thought, formed a complete system of immutable and necessary truth.”* Reason provided the patterns to which ultimately real objects had to conform. But unfortunately science and its world falls far short of the logicality and unity of the world of pure reason. It is, as it were, an inferior world in which things change, which is subject to illusion and in which multiformity is more to be found than uniformity. But this, unfortunately, is the world of action. Activity therefore is always of less importance than contemplation since it deals with the less real. Hence ever since the Greeks philosophy has been ruled by the notion that “the office of Knowledge is to uncover the antecedently real, rather than, as is the case with our practical judgments, to gain the kind of understanding which is necessary to deal with problems as they arise.”**
* Dewey, The Quest for Certainty, p 18** Dewey, p 20.
Right on through Plato, Descartes, Spinoza, Kant and Hegel the same quest for the rational and the unchangeable was pursued. For Plato the changing and passing forms of this world are but the transitory and partial embodiments of ideal realities laid up in heaven and only to be apprehended by reason in the same way our virtues are but pale reflections of the perfect virtues which exist in the Absolute. I am kind because a little of the perfect kindness of God dwells in me for a moment. Thus goodness is an almost measurable quality which inheres in men to a greater or less degree.
Descartes, as we shall see, drew the sharpest pattern of a purely logical physical world, so logical in fact as to be mathematical. Spinoza, however, went even farther and embraced mental and physical events in one perfectly rational whole where the order and connection of ideas were proved to be, in reality, the order and connection of facts. Kant was still haunted by the obstinate refusal of the facts to look as orderly and connected as they should, and therefore had to assert that in order to be rational all facts must be considered within the mind and fitting neatly into its logical pigeon-holes. Hegel completed the argument by simply declaring that anything which does not fit the pattern is not properly understood and described. If you see it completely you will see it to be rational. If it is not quite rational that is because you do not really see it as it is. You are witnessing something illusory and partial.
The struggle to make things orderly therefore becomes not a struggle with nature, but either with our imperfect theories, which must be scrapped one by one until at last the perfect explanation which comprehends and justifies everything, or with our worldly habit of regarding experience as more valid than the ideal A really disciplined mind will rise above this appearance of disorder, and grasp by spiritual apprehension the goodness and truth that alone is real.
No matter what the detailed conclusions of experience, perfect truth and goodness are ours in ultimate Being, independently of both experience and human action.
Thus philosophers have tended to depreciate action, doing, making, and the reason has not been entirely the impulse of the mind to outrun practical human achievement. Work has been despised ever since a class of labourers was segregated and set to the world’s work. From that moment work was done under compulsion and the pressure of necessity, while intellectual activity was associated with leisure. The social dishonour in which the class of serf was held was extended to the work they did.
Idealism will always be the popular philosophy of a leisured class. This is not a sufficient reason for its existence, but it is a condition which favours its rise. Hence the more complete the separation between mental and physical work, and the greater the degree of exploitation of one class by another, the more is this class relationship reflected in an idealist philosophy.
“The division of labour,” says Marx, “does not become an actual division until the division of material and spiritual work appears. From that moment consciousness may actually seem to be something other than a consciousness of the real world and of the activity within that world. As soon as consciousness begins actually to represent something, without that something being a real representation, we find it ready to free itself from world connections and to become a cult of ‘pure theory,’ theology, philosophy, morals, etc.”
It would, however, be a complete mistake to suppose that because idealism is a projection of man’s yearning for order in a disorderly world, or because such phantasies flourish among the leisured classes, that it has no justification and no truth. It is justified by the evolution of the world towards the ideal of order. It is true, as Leonardo said, that “Nature is full of infinite reasons which were never in experience,” and the scientist who does not, in the words of Galileo, make headway with reason against experience is a very poor scientist indeed.
The idealist rightly asserts that it is not the function of mind merely to reflect the universe, it has in some way to participate in it. The materialist is wholly wrong when he denies the active role of consciousness and asserts that it merely reflects processes that are going on in nature. Consciousness is no lifeless mirror. In the first place it has itself slowly developed along with man and society and is a function of social humanity. In the second place it is creative, for it is always developing man and society a stage farther, planning his activities, devising ways and means, creating new institutions. Thus at any given stage consciousness is both limited by the social forms which society takes and yet is striving, not unsuccessfully, to transcend those limits.
This free activity of consciousness can be so isolated from the conditions which determine it as to appear to be the sole creative force of history. In the same way the power to generalize and create concepts and theories can easily be separated from the action with which true thought is always wedded, until this aspect of man’s activity becomes dominant, self-sufficient, overshadowing everything else. At last it breaks away from the concrete man and his tasks altogether, especially under such conditions as separate the workers and the thinkers among men, and becomes “pure thought.” Scientific concepts, even, become mental fictions or reflections of an “immanent reason” in nature, of the spirituality of the universe. In these ways every break that thinking makes with practice leads to a one-sided idealism. Idealism, in fact, is nothing more or less than the isolation of one feature of knowledge from the whole and the turning of it into something absolute, namely the power of ideas to reveal the nature of reality and enable us to control it, the power to abstract from the complexity of life and single out special aspects.
Thus Lenin writes:
“Philosophical idealism is nonsense only from the standpoint of a crude, simple and metaphysical materialism. On the contrary, from the standpoint of dialectical materialism, philosophical idealism is a one-sided, exaggerated, swollen development (Dietzgen) of one of the characteristic aspects or limits of knowledge into a deified absolute, into something dissevered from matter, from nature. Idealism means clericalism. True! But philosophical idealism is (more ‘correctly’ expressed and ‘in addition’) a road to clericalism through one of the nuances of the infinitely complicated knowledge (dialectical) of man. The knowledge of man does not follow a straight line but a curved line which infinitely approaches a system of circles, the spiral. Every fragment, every segment, every bit of this curved line can be transformed (transformed one-sidedly) into a self-sufficient whole straight line which, if one does not see the wood for the trees leads us directly into the mire, into clericalism (which is strengthened by the class interests of the ruling class).”
Lenin points out that the result is superstition. What does he mean by that? That it is by means of such idealism that the legal standards that regulate social relationships are given the sanctity of absolute obligations, and come to be regarded as independent forces which stand above society and determine its structure. In the same way economic laws are regarded as absolute and precluding social change. Utopian socialists come to believe that the way to progress lies in creating an imaginative social structure, and showing that it is compatible with human nature and reason. Idealists believe that social institutions are created by ideas, that human history is the result of the change of ideas. If anything in society changes, it happens because consciousness has changed first. Preachers and educationists therefore seek to alter the world by inculcating improved ideas into people’s heads, by moralizing and indoctrinating. Psychologists see the essence of society not in the productive relations of classes but in the instincts, feelings and thoughts of people. Even scientists come to believe that the laws of nature are not objectively determined by nature, but subjectively determined by the consciousness of scientists, that the atom is “only a mental construction,” that the theory of evolution is “a useful way of thinking,” held because we choose to believe it. Even politicians pursue the will-o-the-wisp of pure idea. Trotsky believes in his “destiny,” in the mysterious “will of the people,” apart from strictly defined objective conditions. Like all idealists, “he treats the possible as the actual,” he believes in the existence of what he desires should be, thus he sought to skip the stage of a bourgeois-democratic revolution in 1905, and proceed directly to the proletarian revolution. Bukharin lapses into the idealism which substitutes doctrinaire formulae and over-schematized stages of development for a close objective study of the kaleidoscopic changes of the face of society.
Lenin views this whole process of detachment of ideas and ideals, theories and generalizations, from the standpoint of the concrete fusion of theory and practice. This is that idealism, he argues, that is really superstition, that is really myth-making, and the only purpose of such thinking (i.e. what the theory means in practice) is to justify things as they are in the interests of the owning class and to betray reformers into paths of folly and futility.
§2. The Character of Materialistic Thinking
But if wish-fulfilment thinking and the false pursuit of abstractions have led men to idealism, the inexorable demands of the real world have as often pulled them back to realism. Idealism has developed and flourished but so has science. And always with the growth of science we perceive a clearer apprehension of the philosophy of science known as materialism and the sworn foe of idealism. To-day we have learned to trust the scientist and to look to him to get us out of our difficulties. He has had a long struggle with ignorance and class interests, but he has triumphed over all of us.
His attitude is totally different from the idealist. He looks at the concrete world with all its imperfections, not at the ideal world. He looks forward to a richer and fuller life here on earth, not to the spiritual contemplation of absolute values in eternity. He believes it can be realised by man’s co-operative effort, utilizing the resources of the earth.
“Trust in science, and the idea that this world is the place of man’s destiny, tend to bring about a new attitude toward the question of what we are to believe. For the investigator first set his foot on the road of science when he refused to accept anything as true which could not be confirmed by experimental evidence. The mystic sought the divine vision through fasting and prayer; the philosopher stormed the citadel of reality by logic and reasoning. The scientist turned away from both ways; and was content to make toilsome progress by collecting evidence, sifting and comparing, weighing and measuring, limiting the field of enquiry, remaining in willing ignorance on everything beyond this field. And since he had to fight for his freedom to go beyond the other two methods – since often he had to make his way in conflict with them – on the whole he came to regard his method as necessarily antagonistic to the other two; though in truth I think a sound method has something of all three. His success confirmed him in his method; and thus, to-day, experimental evidence comes to be regarded as the most satisfactory kind of evidence that can be found for statements professing to give information about the nature of things.”*
* L. J. Russell, Introduction to Philosophy.
Modern science was founded in the seventeenth century by men who were not materialists but who had a materialistic conception of matter, without which, indeed, progress would have been impossible. They held that matter is that which occupies space. It will not move unless something pushes it, and if it is moving it will not stop unless something stops it. It is not alive or conscious.
The obvious effect of this view was to separate matter and mind and make mind a distinct substance, inhabiting the body during life, and withdrawing on the dissolution of the body.
This worked very well as far as matter was concerned, but it raised great difficulties about the relation of mind to matter. The result was that mind came to be regarded as a mere effect of matter and materialism became the popular philosophy.
These revolutionary ideas came not as the result of pure thought, but of the requirements of an economic and social situation. Science was the technical instrument of the rising town civilization of the Renaissance, with its growing commerce and its need for navigation, surveying, and military science. Manufacture was developing, comfort was growing, and men took more interest in civilization and less in the world to come. But the rising burgher class had a stiff fight with the feudal lords, who represented the dominant social force of the preceding period; and on the side of feudalism was the Church.
The new science comes in as the ally of the new class, and its rationalistic and materialistic philosophy as the opponent of the ecclesiastical authority which supported feudalism. If the wall is to fall the buttress must be undermined.
Thus, with many qualifications and exceptions and acknowledging much actual confusion of interests, it may be said that the struggle for a new philosophy accompanied and assisted the struggle of a new class for economic and political power.
There is no philosophy that is not part of a social system, and in the past that has always meant a social hierarchy. The mediaeval social order, with its privileged classes, was bound up with the cosmogony of a fixed earth around which moved the sun. You cannot weaken the force of the ideas on which the social order depends with impunity. Every society hitherto has regarded man as a volcanic force to be kept in subjection. To dissolve the bonds of society is to invite a volcanic eruption. Hence any views which threaten to destroy an implicit trust in the philosophic framework of society are not only false but highly dangerous. Even the scientist, brought up in the climate of another system of thought, found it almost impossible to believe in a new theory of the universe and probably meant what he said when he defended himself from heresy by saying that his ideas were only speculations.
But the new was coming into existence by its own laws of growth and the older picture of the universe was not so much being argued down as dying out. The old feelings were becoming barren, the old actions unmeaning. New ideas alone seemed relevant and alive, the response to the old ideas flagged perceptibly. When this takes place on a large scale the knell of the older order is sounded. Society has to be made anew.
The new philosophy came first as a demand for freer thinking. Then as an insistence on the need for suspending judgment on a question until sufficient evidence has been collected. Bacon borrows a simile from Dante, “Let this be to thee ever as lead to thy feet, to make thee move slowly, like one that is weary, both to the yes and the no, that thou seest not.” Men must call a halt in their speculations and allow themselves to be rigidly limited by brute facts.
But it was Descartes who laid down the philosophical foundations of the new science and the new society. He did this in three ways. Firstly by his new method of thinking, secondly by the mechanistic science which it justified and encouraged, thirdly by the philosophical dualism of mind and matter, of faith and reason which this mechanistic materialism itself rendered necessary.
The new method of thought came as a protest against the uncritical assumptions of mediaevalism and the huge deductive systems based upon them. This mass of knowledge seemed to the new men pretentious and unsubstantiated. While Bacon and the experimentalists turned from dogmas to experimental facts, Descartes was asking himself whether the instrument of reason if honestly and thoroughly used would not provide a method of separating the chaff of baseless conjecture from the residuum of certain truth. In mathematics pure reason gives satisfactory and indubitable results. What happens if you put the mind to work in a completely rigorous manner firstly on spiritual and philosophical questions and secondly on material questions? Descartes thought that the result was the indubitable proof of the distinction between mind and matter, of the reality of the soul and the certainty of the existence of God. On the other hand he came to the conclusion that shapes and motions were all that existed in the world apart from souls. Motion is the only change we can clearly understand, and therefore all other changes and indeed the whole variety and complexity of the concrete world can and must be reduced to matter in motion. Only when you reduce phenomena to physical and mathematical terms do they become rational. Therefore this is the ultimate scientific truth.
If this mechanistic materialism leaves no place for spirit and religion these are safeguarded because they rest on other but equally indubitable foundations. In the same way he was careful to say that his system of universal doubt was not intended to be applied to religion, where matters were believed on grounds of faith and not reason; nor did he allow himself to criticize society. His aim was to show what was provable and what was unprovable, as far as pure reason was concerned, and to set free the scientific intellect to master the universe.
“As soon as I had acquired some general notions respecting physics, and beginning to make trial of them in various particular difficulties, had observed how far they can carry us, and how much they differ from the principles that have been employed up to the present time, I believed that I could not keep them concealed without sinning grievously against the law by which we are bound to promote, as far as in us lies, the general good of mankind. For by them I perceived it to be possible to arrive at knowledge highly useful in life; and in room of the speculative philosophy usually taught in the schools, to discover a practical, by means of which, knowing the force and action of fire, water, air, the stars, the heavens, and all the other bodies that surround us, as distinctly as we know the various crafts of our artisans, we might also apply them in the same way to all the uses to which they are adapted, and thus render ourselves the lords and possessors of nature. And this is a result to be desired, not only in order to the invention of an infinity of arts, by which we might be enabled to enjoy without any trouble the fruits of the earth, and all its comforts, but also and especially for the preservation of health, which is without doubt, of all the blessings of this life, the first and fundamental one; for the mind is so intimately dependent upon the condition and relation of the organs of the body, that if any means can ever be found to render men wiser and more ingenious than hitherto, I believe that it is in medicine they must be sought for.”*
* Descartes, Discourse on Method, part vi.
In this practical scientific end we see the motive of the new philosophy and what differentiates it from all those idealisms which, as we saw in the last section, make it their aim rather to change the minds of men to conform to what eternally is and must be rather than to change nature in the interests of man.
But although Descartes won for men a new vision of the universe by persuading them to accept only perfectly clear ideas, making a clean sweep of all that had hitherto passed for knowledge, these clear ideas have proved so full of obscurity that philosophers have been arguing about them ever since. It is, perhaps, for this reason that Descartes has been called the father of modern philosophy!
The rigid separation of mind and matter chopped the universe in two with a hatchet and led to what is known as dualism, the existence side by side of two worlds, the physical and the mental, which are incapable of influencing one another. This is an untenable position and two solutions were offered. The first was to hold to the physical and drop the mental altogether. This was the solution of the French materialists. The second was to hold to the mental and drop the physical. This was Berkeley’s solution and from it Idealism developed. The only attempt to do justice to both sides is to be found in Spinoza who claimed that mind and matter were two aspects of a higher reality.
The French materialists represented the purely scientific conclusions of the new philosophy and laid the foundations of the successful scientific work of the following century. Owing to the growing tension between the bourgeoisie and the aristocracy we find the scientific movement taking a strongly anti-religious line and deliberately seeking to undermine the supernaturalist sanctions of privilege. Hence science, rationalism, and the new economic forces worked hand in hand.
During the eighteenth century the capitalistic mode of production in Europe was being strengthened and growing. In France capitalism required the dissolution of feudal relations in the countryside and political guarantees for the commercial-industrial towns. The old feudal order hindered trade, giving the peasantry over to the exploitation of landlords and officials and thus depriving it of its power to buy town manufactures. The contradictions between the new class of bourgeoisie, together with the semi-skilled proletariat dependent upon it, and the peasantry, together with their masters, the ruling feudal classes – aristocrats and clericals –reached a state of considerable tension. The oncoming storm of revolution was felt already in the air. In the course of the decades preceding the Great French Revolution the bourgeoisie produced a number of philosophers and publicists who with unusual talent and force came forward as champions of the bourgeoisie in the realm of theory. In contrast to the leading thinkers of the English bourgeoisie who after a victorious revolution had managed to conclude a union with the feudalists and were therefore inclined even in philosophy to compromises, to agreement with religion; in contrast also to the German bourgeoisie, who were feeble and cowardly and therefore vague and indefinite in their ideology; the philosophers of the French bourgeoisie were daring thinkers and fought against religion and idealistic philosophy fearing neither authority nor God. The most logical of the French philosophers of that time in their struggle with religion arrived at materialistic conclusions and produced remarkable examples of materialistic philosophy. Their severe logic, their fearless thinking, their political acumen in the struggle against feudalism and, in particular, against the Church, the talent and often artistry of their exposition, made these philosophers popular, not only in France, but also even beyond its boundaries.
These French materialists took their stand on the achievements of the science of their day. Science in the eighteenth century had attained remarkable successes. Mechanics, the science of moving bodies, had especially developed. New fields had been opened in the mathematics of that time (analytic geometry, the differential and integral calculus) and these provided an instrument for studying the movements of bodies in space. Great strides had been made too in physics, in which mathematics and mechanics provided the basic instruments necessary for studying the properties of liquids, gases, and light. Medicine, too, had its successes. Many physicians at this period discarded the old medicine, which was full of superstition and prejudices, and tried to explain all the processes in the human organism not by postulating a “soul” to control the bodily functions, but by relying on the sciences of mechanics and mathematics. For some time the telescope (1609) had been known and in use, and also the microscope (1590), which in an extraordinary manner widened the field of natural phenomena and made them immediately accessible to the observers A number of astronomical discoveries were made which reinforced the heliocentric point of view, which regarded the earth not as the centre of the universe, but only as one of the planets that circle round the sun. The laws of falling bodies were discovered, and the laws of planetary motion; Newton formulated his general law of gravity.
All these discoveries required a unity of method and a unity of world-outlook which might well be in opposition to the world outlook of religion. The most logical materialistic formulation of such a world-outlook at that time was the work of the French materialists Holbach and Helvétius. The fundamental proposition which united them was this; that nature is material, was created by no one and exists for ever. The view of the Church that matter is fixed, passive and can only move itself and change with the help of sprit was opposed. They asserted that matter was created by no one and is always in motion. No matter without movement and no movement without matter. They rejected any interference of a god with nature, since a god appeared quite superfluous and nature could be explained without him. In nature stern causal law is the ruler, one phenomenon of necessity follows another.
“The universe is the vast unity of everything that is, everywhere it shows us only matter in movement,” says Holbach (1723-1789), “This is all that there is and it displays only an infinite and continuous chain of causes and actions; some of these causes we know, since they immediately strike our senses; others we do not know since they act on us only by means of consequences, quite remote from first causes.”
This mechanistic world-outlook also determined the attitude of the French philosophers to the question of the origin of consciousness and the role of thought. The Church taught that the consciousness of man is a fragment of the divine spirit, of soul, that thanks to the soul man is able to think, and by just this is distinguished from the animals. But the materialists denied the self-sufficiency of the soul and held that man is just such a material body as all other animals and inorganic bodies. Man, of course, is distinguished from inorganic bodies, but this distinction, in the opinion of the French materialists, amounts to this, that man is merely a more complex and delicate mechanism than other bodies. Thus La Mettrie (1709-1751) even called his principal work: Man the Machine. He wrote:
“All the functions, which I have ascribed to this machine, naturally proceed from the organisation of its several parts no more and no less than the movements of a clock or other automaton proceed from the disposition of its screws and wheels, so that it is quite unnecessary to suppose in this machine, i.e. man, any kind of soul, any special cause of movement and life, other than its blood and the forces within it that are stimulated by warmth.”
“We are instruments dowered with feeling and memory. Do you really think that a chaffinch or a nightingale and a human musician are essentially different? Do you see this egg? What sort is this egg? Before it was fertilized it was an insensible, non-living mass. How does this mass change into another organization, with sensation and life? By means of heat. What does this heat produce? Motion. What is the gradual action of this motion? At first there is a moving point, a little thread, which dilates and knits itself together, then flesh is formed, a beak, wings, eyes, claws appear; the yellowish matter separates itself and produces the inward parts of the bird – it is an animal. The animal moves this way and that, cheeps! I hear its cry through the shell. It covers itself with down, it sees. The weight of its swaying head ceaselessly knocks its beak against the wall of its prison, now the wall breaks, the bird crawls out to freedom, walks, flutters, falls down, runs, approaches nearer, has regrets, suffers, loves, yearns, and rejoices; it has all your feelings, all your actions. Between you and the animals the difference is only in organization.”
However, although they rejected soul as the source of consciousness and acknowledged that man is only a material body, a machine, yet all the same the French materialists had to explain the origin of our consciousness. This question interested them, and the answer they gave was materialistic, but at the same time, mechanistic. For all the philosophers of the eighteenth century, as also for their predecessors, human consciousness did not develop but was given together with man and all that was needed was to define the unalterable mechanism by means of which thoughts arose and were united into chains of reasoning. Materialists and idealists wrangled and fought among themselves over the question whether thought is a product of matter or matter is the offspring of spirit and proceeds from it. But the idea that consciousness is a process, that it develops, that it does not amount to a mechanical union of diverse thoughts and feelings, was known by neither side.
The French materialists saw the origin of knowledge in the action of nature on our senses. Until nature acts on us we have no sensations and no consciousness. We are born, said the French materialists, repeating the pronouncement of the English philosopher Locke, with a mind that is like a clean slate. Consciousness arises in a man in the process of living, as a result of the impressions received by his organs of sense. The more impressions his sense organs receive, the more rich, the more diverse his consciousness becomes.
Sensations are those simplest elements of consciousness out of whose union and combination representations are formed. In the further working out of representations, complex ideas, ideas of relations and finally general ideas are formed. We see, therefore, that in their enquiries into the origin and nature of consciousness the French materialists retained their mechanistic ideas.
The essence of human conduct in the opinion of the French materialists is comprised in this, that it seeks for satisfaction and avoids unsatisfaction. Happiness, therefore, consists of prolonged and durable pleasure. Thus every man is an egoist. The aggregate of egoists constitutes society.
In society, the egoism of one man is limited by the egoism of other people. Consequently, in society, man must strive not only for his own happiness, but also for the happiness of others. To attain general happiness, good social institutions are necessary.
Therefore, in order that people may acquire happiness it is necessary to replace bad institutions by good ones. Here the philosophy of the French materialists outgrows its moral teaching and becomes a political programme, a demand to change the feudal structure of society. This demand was that element in their philosophy which particularly attracted the attention of the bourgeoisie and inspired all the progressive people of that epoch. In their social views the French materialists appeared as bold fighters against feudal relations both in town and country. They showed special hatred to the Church as the bulwark of feudalism. Their teaching became a theory of revolution. The French bourgeois sought to realize their ideas in revolution.
Yet personally the French materialists were not revolutionaries. They did not teach a revolutionary, violent overthrow of authority. They made no call to insurrection. To the question how to change social institutions they answered: It is necessary to change the morals and habits of people, to assist the enlightenment of the masses, since the political structure depends on this. But to the question how to change the environment, they had no helpful answer, which reveals the inadequacy and. shallowness of their thinking and its speculative character. They rested their hopes of changing feudalism not on the masses but on enlightened, absolute monarchs from whom they expected reforms. The helplessness of metaphysical materialism to resolve problems of social development was in this fashion made absolutely plain. It was this which led to the belief that an enlightened law-giver was necessary in order to change the social structure. As if a king in relation to social institutions acts like a mechanic in relation to a machine the separate parts of which one can rearrange by external action.
The immense encouragement which this philosophy gave both to the growth of science and the growth of religious rationalism must not blind us to its grave defects. It failed signally to explain how any real change can come about. If all the variety of life is to be reduced to the mathematical arrangements and rearrangements of atoms, all actual differences are really denied. This is what Plekhanov called “the transformation of a phenomenon into a fossilized thing by abstracting it from all the inner processes of life.”
The only way to explain phenomena is to study things in their development, in their arising and dying away, letting the object freely and spontaneously expound its own characteristics.
But French materialism was incapable of this dialectical treatment of nature.
§3. Subjective Idealism
Rationalistic materialism reduces the universe to mathematics, but does so by assuming that certain ideas are fundamental and self-evident. The English philosopher Locke thought that the rationalists assumed too much and endeavoured to show that we have no innate ideas in virtue of which we possess knowledge apart from experience. He held that the only way in which to cut entirely free from error and dogmatism is to confine ourselves rigidly to experience. He found that most discussions ended in futility because people would insist on raising problems beyond the limits of possible human knowledge. It then occurred to him
“that before we set ourselves upon enquiries of that nature, it was necessary to examine our own abilities, and see what objects our understandings were or were not fitted to deal with. For by extending their enquiries beyond their capacities people raise questions and multiply disputes, which only increase their doubts.”
Locke then proceeded to argue that there was nothing in the mind that was not first in the senses; that out of sense material the mind puts together more general ideas. Sensations are copies of the fundamental characteristics of the external world, extension, shape, solidity, number, motion. What we call sensations of colour, smell, sound, and taste are really subjective effects produced in us by the more fundamental qualities of the real world.
Locke is thus a materialist because he believes that the entire content of consciousness is derived by impression from the material world. But he is also a dualist because these experiences are mental, whereas the world from which they are derived is material.
This dualism led straight to Idealism, that is to say to the acceptance of the spiritual half of Descartes’ divided world. This was the second alternative to which dualism must ultimately come, just as materialism was the first.
Berkeley simply showed that if colour does not reside in the coloured object but is the effect in the mind of the physical properties of an object, if warmth is not a property of the fire but is the end effect of the nerves which are agitated by the molecular disturbance known as heat, if tickling is not a property of the feather that tickles but of the mind of the person tickled, then it is possible to push the whole argument back one stage farther and show that even sensations of extension and solidity are only sensations and that we can never get beyond contemplating our own mental states. If we want to base all knowledge on experience, experience is at bottom purely mental, and when we believe that it tells us of an external world of which sensations are a copy that is merely an inference. Things cannot exist apart from our consciousness of them, and to ask whether they continue to exist if we no longer have sensations is absurd. Things are sensations.
Hume carried this scepticism one stage farther. We think that at any rate we have a self that is formed of a chain of successive experiences presumably grounded in the identity and unity of the personal soul. Hume declared that just as Berkeley had shown that there was no material substance in which qualities resided, but only pure qualities, which are pure sensations, so he could show that there was no spiritual substance which had experiences, but only pure experiences one after the other.
Berkeley of course did not for a moment mean to say that the objective world did not exist and that we were shut up to our own sensations. He was simply arguing that you cannot prove that such sensations are the sensations of a material world. Nevertheless they are perfectly objective, we cannot help them and we cannot vary them at will, they constitute a rigid, objective world of sensed objects existing independent of our will. Sensed objects but not material objects.
Berkeley had his own theological answer to the problem which this raises. The objectivity and permanence of the cause of our sensations must, he argues, be due to the continuous activity of an eternal creative Mind, God. It is God’s power which causes our sensations to be arranged in the particular order which they follow one another. The external world, therefore, continues to exist even when we cease to perceive it, because God’s perception sustains it.
We see then where the argument from experience leads. And the sensationalism from which it springs is itself derived from Descartes’ dualism of mind and matter, which treated matter as in itself merely mechanical.
But if matter had been conceived as developing, as active, and mind as the coming to consciousness of matter, we should find ourselves with neither a dead materialism nor a groundless subjectivism but a living unity of mind and matter.
Spinoza was the first to work out such a system. Rejecting dualism he held that the universe was one system, which was neither pure spirit nor pure matter. Mind and matter are the two ultimate attributes of substance, that is to say substance itself is not dead matter or pure spirit but has body and has mind. But actual bodies or objects are particular forms of matter, just as actual minds are particular forms of thought. In a human being we have a double manifestation (body and mind) of the two ultimate attributes which make up fundamental Reality.
Spinoza also held that all things constitute a perfect system. Every finite object or event is dependent on innumerable others which ramify in all directions and are each of them similarly dependent on innumerable others. Everything is necessary in its appointed place within the whole. Nothing is possible save the actual, and nothing is actual save the necessary. “From the infinite nature of God all things follow by the same necessity, and in the same way, as it follows from the nature of a triangle from eternity to eternity that its three angles are equal to two right angles.”
The mechanism which Descartes saw in matter alone, Spinoza sees in God and mind as well. But the entire Universe is a live, and not a dead mechanism, for the order of things is the order of perfect goodness and wisdom and is continuously sustained by the intense consciousness of God. Yet, once again, God is not above the Universe or within the Universe, but his mind “is all the mentality that is scattered over space and time, the diffused consciousness that animates the world.”
This is pure mysticism in its sublime confidence in already existing perfection. But in the conception of the Universe as one system, which is wholly material from end to end, and in which whatever mind we find is not extraneous to matter but an attribute of substance, parallel with and interpenetrating matter, we have the conception that inspired Hegel and after him Marx. But for Spinoza it is an unchanging, undeveloping whole.
§4. Kant and Hegel
Hume had not only dissolved the soul into a succession of experiences; using the same argument he overthrew the whole conception of law on which both Descartes and Spinoza had built up their rational universes. Hume argued that we can never prove cause and effect, we merely infer it from the frequent occurrence of two successive phenomena. It is merely mental habit that makes us think that if the first phenomenon occurs the second is bound to follow. A law is simply a convenient formula summing up what usually happens. We have no guarantee that the sequences hitherto observed will reappear in future experience.
Now materialism had attacked religion in the name of science and philosophy. Then Berkeley had refuted materialism with its own arguments about matter and sense impressions, but now Berkeley’s doctrine of experience in the hands of Hume has overthrown the doctrine of the soul, the necessity for God, the rationality of the universe and the very existence of science itself.
Someone was badly needed to rescue religion more effectively than Berkeley and also to rescue science. This Kant did by pointing out that Locke was wrong in imagining that a series of impressions falling on the brain could build themselves up into a systematic picture of the universe. They could not do this but for the inherited structure of the mind. All knowledge needs two factors, sense data and pre-existing mental forms in which to fit them. These mental forms make up the empty framework of a perfectly rational universe. We cannot apprehend anything at all without using this already functioning notion of a rational world in which cause and effect links all phenomena. Hence all the facts we absorb simply fill out this picture and cannot be to us other than orderly facts. In practice therefore we never get the scheme of a scientific world without multitudes of facts to prove it, but all those facts have only entered the mind through the gateways of the logical forms so that they could never be to us other than logical.
This ingenious justification of science leads straight to those modern scientific conceptions which explain scientific theories as symbols, convenient fictions or arbitrary forms. It is really the profoundest scepticism. Things as they really are can never be known. Our subjectivism is double, not only are our experiences subjective but the forms which order them and build them up into our experience of an objective world are subjective too.
Now the mental machine which produces for us a scientific world cannot by its very nature give us anything else. It is therefore useless to ask it to prove the existence of God or speak to us of goodness and beauty. But the mental machine is only a part of the mind. It has other faculties equally valid and important. We are not always thinking scientifically. The practical* reason, as opposed to the scientific reason, gives us our power to apprehend God and duty.
* By “practical reason” Kant does not mean scientific reasoning but the very opposite, reasoning which takes life in all its concrete richness, including moral and religious considerations.
In our day Bergson has given us his own version of Kant. Reason is a tool for doing things with the world. Intuition is a direct apprehension of the entirely irrational world as it is in itself. The scientist investigates part of the world and investigates it for a special purpose. He assumes that part of the world to be a machine. He therefore further assumes that the whole universe is an aggregation of machine-like bits and makes up one big machine. But the scientific abstraction kills what it dissects out, freezes what it immobilizes, and is wholly false to life as a living, moving whole. Life itself is apprehended not by reason or science but by intuition. Thus Bergson grows out of Kant and at the same time helps to explain his great forerunner.
Lenin described the philosophy of Kant as
“a reconciliation of materialism with idealism, a compromise between the two, a combination in one system of heterogeneous, opposed philosophical tendencies. When Kant allows that to our representations there corresponds something outside us, something in itself, he is a materialist. When he declares this ‘thing in itself’ to be unknowable, transcendental, of another world, he is an idealist.”
What is valuable in Kant’s theory is his demonstration that there is no nature for us that is not made over by social man. That man does not stand over against nature contemplating it as an unpeopled universe, but is himself an active part of the nature he is observing. Mind is active and science is not a photograph of the physical universe but the product of man’s activity upon nature and nature’s corresponding reaction upon man. There is no “nature in itself” but only “nature for man.”
But why should that mean that human science is a fiction or other than a genuine reflection of an objective world? The most that it can mean is that it is partial and incomplete, which may be readily admitted. But it is true as far as it goes and it is always going farther. From this point of view there is not the slightest need to make a mystery of man’s apprehension of the non-physical side of nature as though this required another type of reason. It is the same reason but concerned with other and sometimes wider aspects. In fact apart from these wider social ideas and plans the narrower tasks of science would never be attempted, for it is civilization as a whole that gives the scientist and the specialist their jobs.
Out of Kant’s idealism grew the systems of Fichte, Schelling and Hegel, all of which criticized him while building upon him. By far the most important was Hegel’s. Hegel, like Spinoza, believed that the world was one rational system and that everything was interconnected. In order to understand anything it must be seen in all its relations. Now this is the basis of Hegel’s distinction between appearance and reality. Kant’s distinction was between scientific appearance, the world as known to reason, and the reality of things in themselves, the world not known to anybody. Hegel’s distinction is between appearances which are partial and incomplete, like Bergson s view of science, and reality which is all-embracing and complete, like Bergson’s whole world as apprehended by intuition.
Now most of experience is obviously partial. It will therefore show manifest signs of incompleteness if carefully examined. It will be seen to imply other things on its fringe or on which it depends just as one small portion of a picture really implies the whole composition. Now if reason gets to work on any portion of experience and seeks to find out all that is implied in that experience, including the contrary truths which the very existence of so many truths imply, reason will be driven onward to include more and more in its embrace, ever seeking to clear up seeming contradictions until at last it includes all the fads and the whole truth and there are no more contradictions and partialities. This final truth will be the whole truth about everything.
Now this mental process of passing from the part to the whole, from the self-contradictory to the self-consistent is the dialectic. Is it, we now have to ask, a purely mental activity, which a sufficiently powerful mind could engage in with nothing to start with but a chip of concrete reality and at last come to know everything? Or is it a real historical unfolding of all the implications of a universe in embryo, like a chick growing from an egg?
The first alternative suggests a palaeontologist reconstructing a prehistoric monster from a single bone, or a detective reconstructing a crime from a single clue. The second suggests the evolutionary process as the working out of the potentialities of the universe.
Hegel himself seems to have meant both. But by the expanding, unfolding universe he meant, among other things, the development of Absolute Spirit itself. It was here that Hegel was a pure idealist. But in so far as he never splits the world in two, never thinks for a moment of mere mind, as Berkeley did, never considers spirit as opposed to matter, as Descartes did, but, like Spinoza, holds firmly to substance as containing within it both mind and matter and constituting one Universe, Hegel is always thinking of the concrete working out of the pageant of history, of biological evolution, of political and legal institutions. He is a realist all the time. But because he is an idealist too he sees all these solid, concrete things as manifestations of the unfolding of objective spirit, whose moments are not only individual consciousnesses but also all the creations of human thought, all forms of society, all aspects of the State, in a word, all that exists.
Heraclitus had spoken of the continuous transition of phenomena from non-existence to existence and vice versa. There is a perpetual flux from one form to another, from the unity of opposites into their division and from the division back to unity. This inspired guess Hegel turned into the basic principle of a new logic worked out by himself, and on this base he constructed a whole system of philosophy to show how “absolute spirit,” objective consciousness, is developed from “ nothing,” a pure abstraction, into an absolute idea which grasps all and contains all in itself. There is no doubt that the absolute spirit of Hegel is that same God, that same divine reason which as it were realizes itself in human history in the productions of philosophy, art, law and in social institutions. Hegel, however, made God descend from his immutable perfection and proceed along the path of development, contending with himself and enriching himself with new content. But how, according to Hegel, does absolute spirit make its dialectical way, how does this dialectical process of development take place? Hegel sees the essence of development in the unity and strife of opposites, in the fact that every phenomenon contains an internal contradiction that drives it forward and brings it ultimately to destruction and the transition to something else. However, the destruction of one phenomenon is at the same time the emergence of a new one which denies the last phenomenon but also contains it in itself. Hegel demonstrates this idea by citing the history of philosophy, of art, and the material of human history. One philosophic system changes itself to another. Every philosopher down to Hegel held his system to be absolute truth and all previous systems to be delusions, but Hegel showed that such a view is naïve, that every philosophic system is a step in the development of absolute spirit. Absolute spirit in every historical epoch knows itself in the form of a definite philosophy that corresponds to the historical content of the given stage of its development. In another epoch this form appears as antiquated and yields place to its successor, which denies it and at the same time contains in itself the positive content of the superseded philosophy. “The philosophy, latest in time, is the result of all preceding philosophies and therefore must include them all in itself.” The same holds true of religion, law, art, and social institutions. All these fields of absolute spirit were studied by Hegel as connected with one another, and were found to be in close mutual relations. Hegel taught that “only in the presence of a given form of religion can a given form of State structure exist, only in the presence of a given State structure can a given philosophy and a given art exist.”
But Hegel was seeking the fundamental cause of the historic process, the principle which determines the dialectic of development of nature and society, seeking it in the development of contradictions within absolute spirit, which finds in nature and society its own form of disclosure and development, whereas Marx saw this basic cause in the very real contradictions of the material processes both in nature and society.
When Napoleon tried by means of the bayonets of his army to introduce bourgeois relationships into Germany, Hegel, who at that time was creating his dialectical method, was in sympathy with the French Revolution and greeted the entry of the Napoleonic troops into Jena as the historical incarnation of a new forth of absolute spirit. They say he then called Napoleon “the absolute spirit on a white charger.” But twenty years later, when the feudal monarchy of Frederick William III was being consolidated in Germany, Hegel had lost his revolutionary ideas and had become the State philosopher of the Prussian monarchy.
The dialectical method had made it possible for Hegel in his youth to generalize in idealistic form all the scientific experience of his time, all the course of the historic process, and from idealistic, perverted positions to criticize the one sided, mechanistic methods which the science of his day was using. Hegel harshly criticized the completely formal logic that ruled up to his time, disclosed its internal contradiction and showed the impossibility of understanding dialectical processes on its basis. Hegel first formulated in idealistic form universal laws for the development, the transition of certain phenomena into other phenomena. These phenomena proceed, according to Hegel, by means of “a negation of a negation.” Marx in The Poverty of Philosophy expounds this theory of Hegel as follows:
“But once it has placed itself in thesis, this thought, opposed to itself, doubles itself into two contradictory thoughts, the positive and the negative, the ‘yes’ and the ‘no.’ The struggle of these two antagonistic elements, comprised in the antithesis, constitutes the dialectic movement. The yes becoming no, the no becoming yes, the yes becoming at once yes and no, the no becoming at once no and yes, the contraries balance themselves, neutralize themselves, paralyse themselves. The fusion of these two contradictory thoughts constitutes a new thought which is the synthesis of the two. This new thought unfolds itself again in two contradictory thoughts which are confounded in their turn in a new synthesis. From this travail is born a group of thoughts. This group of thoughts follows the same dialectic movement as a simple category, and has for antithesis a contradictory group. From these two groups is born a new group of thoughts which is the synthesis of them. As from the dialectic movement of simple categories is born the group, so from the dialectic movement of the groups is born the series, and from the dialectic movement of the series is born the whole system.”*
* Marx, The Poverty of Philosophy, p. 117.
Thanks to such a development of absolute spirit by means of its internal contradictions, no one stage of it is fortuitous, but each flows out of all the preceding history that it contains in itself. “Everything that is real,” said Hegel, “is rational, and everything that is rational is real.” By this Hegel meant to say that all existing social institutions and forms of ideology are determined by the development of absolute spirit, are steps in the movement of reason. Here Hegel is formulating his idealistic principle of dialectic; the development of reason is also the development of reality. This proposition has served as the ground for charging Hegel with reactionary tendencies, with justifying every infamy, every social tyranny, since for him everything that exists is rational. Hegel in the last years of his life was indeed inclined thus to interpret this dialectical proposition of his, it was also used thus by an official philosophy mainly concerned with self-preservation. Hegel’s philosophy at one time became the official philosophy of the Prussian monarchy. We know that this idea in Russia too was the cause of much agony of thought in such people as Belinsky, who could not persuade themselves that the régime of Nicholas was rational merely because it existed! But Hegel’s dialectical method offered foundations for quite different social conclusions. Because, granted that that which is rational is real, then if the real should prove to be irrational and cease to correspond with its idea, it means, according to Hegel, that it has become antiquated, doomed and subject to destruction. The monarchy was irrational, therefore it was unreal. The monarchy exists, but the moment it becomes irrational it has already ceased to have its roots in life, in reality, it no longer corresponds to the new stage in the development of society and therefore must perish. Thus the Left-Hegelians were able to interpret this proposition of Hegel so as to aid them in the struggle with the monarchical order and religion. They were able to show that Christianity and religion are irrational and therefore must perish, and so it is necessary to contend with them. Thus the Russian Hegelians argued also, fighting against Tsarism. They proved the irrationality, backwardness, and savagery of the Tsarist régime and hence the necessity for its overthrow, and they sounded the call to fight against it.
The main contradiction of Hegel’s philosophy is reflected in the fact that the proposition we have quoted can be interpreted in two opposite ways at once.
In Hegel’s philosophy we find an expression of the ambiguity of the ideology of the bourgeoisie of that time – the progressive and the reactionary sides of it. On one side it is characterized by a desire to destroy everything that is antiquated, irrational and doomed to pass away, and to replace it with the new that has grown within the womb of the old; on the other side it is characterized by a dread of the new, a dread that was strengthened by what they saw of the French Revolution, and by the conviction that the status quo in Germany must remain, that it was not subject to change. But Hegelianism cannot logically defend the status quo. Dialectic is revolutionary, it sees in everything processes of change, phenomena in constant flux; every assertion of absolute rest, eternity and immutability contradicts it.
In the further development of the class struggle within capitalist society, both the Hegelian idealism and the Hegelian dialectic were used as theoretic weapons. The radical bourgeoisie of Germany tried to use Hegel’s philosophy as a theory of bourgeois revolution. However, experience soon showed that the philosophy of. Hegel, as such, either grows quickly into a reactionary ideology of the conservative elements of the bourgeoisie and takes on the character of a rationalistic religion, or it is used by the revolutionary groups of society.
As long as Hegel was alive these opposing camps developed the two contradictory sides of his philosophy and yet carried on their struggle within the Hegelian system as a whole. But, as we know, in, the years 1830-31, a wave of revolutions rolled over Europe, affecting a number of countries from Spain to Poland. In Germany philosophical disputes under the influence of this revolution took on an openly political character. The matter reached the point at which groups of “right” Hegelians, of the “centre” and of the “left” were formed within the Hegelian school, the last mentioned eventually breaking off as an independent group. The revolutionary wave, however, very soon subsided, and the revolutionary strivings of the liberal bourgeoisie in Germany did not lead to any real political achievements. They found their outlet only in philosophic disputatious. But for this very reason the philosophical struggle grew in importance and intensity, especially in the sphere of theology where the new philosophy engaged in radical criticisms of the dogmas of the Church.
Marx and Engels took a direct part in this movement of the young Hegelians. Marx, however, soon ceased to be satisfied merely with the philosophic criticism of religion, and began to play an active part in the political struggle as editor of the Rhenish Gazette. In 1842 he even broke with the “free men,” as the young Hegelians in Berlin called themselves. Marx wanted a serious struggle and not empty declamation, although this bore a revolutionary character.
“I required,” wrote Marx, “that there should be less noisy phrases and self-flagellation and more definiteness, more knowledge of the matter and penetration into its concrete essence. Further, I expressed the wish that when they criticized religion they should push forward as the first thing to be done to a criticism of political conditions, and not merely criticize the political conditions in their religious setting, because the former approach is more in accordance with the spirit of the paper and the level of its readers; religion, in itself lacking content, dwells, not in the sky, but on earth and itself collapses along with the dissolution of the distorted actuality, whose theory it presents.”
Feuerbach, who studied under Hegel, was the most significant of his liberal disciples. This “left” wing began by criticizing orthodox religion from an Hegelian point of view, contending that the new philosophy far from buttressing orthodoxy reduced dogmas to myths and led to a naturalistic pantheism. Feuerbach went even farther, and showed that religion was nothing more than the imaginative projection of human needs and hopes. Man, in so far as he is rational, is to himself his own object of thought. Whenever man is thinking of God, or infinity, or law, or love, he is not really thinking of the Eternal at all, but of outward projections of his own nature. Feuerbach recalled philosophy from unsubstantial metaphysics to the solid facts of human nature and natural science. “Speculative philosophy,” says Feuerbach, “is drunken philosophy; philosophy must again become sober. Do not strive to be a philosopher as distinct from a man; just be a thinking man.”
What is Feuerbach getting at? He is criticizing Hegel for falsely solving the contradiction between being and thought by transferring it into the interior of one of the primary elements, namely thought. According to Hegel thought is also being, nature is postulated by the idea, material being is created by spiritual being, by God. Kant was only saying the same thing when he affirmed that the outer world receives its laws from reason, instead of reason receiving its laws from the outer world. In what is this really different from the conception that the divine reason dictates to the world the laws which regulate it?
But this means that Idealism is not really establishing the unity of being and thought at all. It is rupturing that unity for it is leaving real being entirely out of the question. The truth is that thought is conditioned by being, not being by thought. It is matter that thinks, it is the body that becomes the subject, the real material being is the subject, and thought is its function, its predicate.
This is the real solution of the problem of thought and existence, of mind and body, the only solution which does not suppress one of the elements of the contradiction.
This is very like the philosophy of Spinoza. It asserts that the purely subjective spiritual act of thought is objectively the material action of a physical body. What is this but Spinozism without its theological lumber? The unity of thought and extension in one substance minus the unnecessary equation of that substance with the concept God?
Feuerbach’s weakness was pointed out by Marx. His materialism only contemplates the material world. The mind is only acted upon by the world it thus comes to know. Knowing is the mind’s real activity – yes, but that is only half the truth. We know the world only by acting upon it, and when we act upon it and change it, we change our own nature too and our knowing mind with it.
§5. Recent Idealism
1. Fictionalism in Modern Science
Of recent years we have witnessed a strange revival of subjectivism in certain novel theories of the true nature of science. Avenarius in 1888 and Mach about the same time came forward with a methodological positivism which, while rejecting much in Kant, nevertheless admitted a subjective or voluntary factor in knowledge.
Mach identified the physical object with its sensible appearances. Science, therefore, deals only with the last events in a chain of supposed material causes and effects which events are merely experiences. Man groups these “experiences” in scientific systems mainly as a matter of expediency. A thing is a construct of a selection of impressions, the mind or ego perceiving the thing is also a construct of the same impressions plus others of a different order. These primary experiences we describe in their modes of occurrence by a system of reference designed solely for purposes of economy. We may speak of “space,” “force,” “mass,” “cause,” but these are only short expressions for regularities of behaviour among successive or simultaneous impressions. Science, therefore, is not really explaining anything, still less is it describing an objective scientific world. It merely describes observed relationships among impressions.
Le Roy and Poincaré gave even greater emphasis to the subjective element in scientific thought. We apply to an unorganized and amorphous nature a purely conventional system which works with some measure of success. Nature is more easily ordered by one such system than by another, but that is as much as we dare say, the system cannot for a moment be held to be a true description of nature.
Le Roy argued that one of the reasons why the facts seem to fit the theory is simply that we only collect such facts as are relevant to that theory, they are therefore bound to fit. The theory is true to the extent that there are enough facts to make it credible, but another theory might be equally true, and be able to amass its own verifactory data too.
In more recent times Eddington has argued that the system of pointer readings, which really constitute science, is not a picture of reality but only a symbol. The pointer reading is no more truly representative of reality than a telephone number is like the subscriber who is so designated. Science in abstracting only the measurements of things, has really let the things themselves, in their richness and complexity, go. Hence to apprehend reality in its fullness some other logic than that of science is required, call it the sense of values, religious intuition, what you will.
These subjectivist attacks on the validity of science were severely criticized by Lenin in his Materialism and Empirio-Criticism, where he pointed out that the whole system of error is due to the old, discredited subjective idealism of Berkeley and the confusion between experiencing an objective world, and merely having experiences. This new scientific theory about scientific theories is only idealism once again, only Kant in a fresh guise, only a re-hash of subjectivism. If matter cannot think, then thought must indeed have an existence in a world of its own in spite of all difficulties. But the only result of such a dualism will be the endless confusions of philosophy. But if matter can think, in the brains of men, then there is no need to go skating on the thin and dangerous ice of subjectivism. Science becomes the imperfect but largely satisfactory picture of man’s universe which is validated by his successful practice in controlling nature, and which he has discovered in the process of handling nature and thinking about it.
Thus nature is not a final order of the world of experience which must be accepted as given. It is still an unfinished business. It is neither the terrifying thing the primitive mind envisaged or the lifelessly rigorous affair that rationalists have depicted. Nature is never permanent. Man himself takes a hand in the creative process, and suffuses purely physical and biological events with the aims and desires implied in mind.
“Nature is involved in life, and life is, of course, involved in nature. Life seems to be an expression not of some fixed mood of nature., but of its evolving processes, and not of processes that are fixed for ever in a single groove, but of processes that interminably weave and interweave, yielding moments for the interference of intelligence; so that, if we learn how, we may help, age after age, to select processes artistically intelligent enough to produce an ever finer human living, and a nature as well that will accept and foster that finer human living.”*
* Hart, Inside Experience, p. 115.
2. State Absolutism
Hegelian Idealism takes a characteristically modern form in the philosophy of the hierarchical totalitarian state which is really only the absolutism of Bosanquet and Bradley worked out to its logical conclusion.
According to this theory the State is the living organism in which alone the individual finds his true self-hood and true freedom. It is the actualization of freedom, because in its institutions, its law and its actual creation of functional individuals, like bees in a hive, it provides firstly the concrete opportunity and secondly the men to take advantage of it. The State as such stands for an entity over and above the sum of individual wills, and a lawful will to which every individual must submit. In sharing in the common life the individual, therefore, not only fulfils himself but transcends himself.
“Representing as it does that aspect of the individual’s will which harmonizes with the will of others, his will, that is to say, for the good of all, including self as opposed to his will for the good of self at the expense of all, it is of necessity always rational and always right.”*
* Joad, Modern Political Theory
This is that confusion of the actual with the possible so characteristic of idealism. Here it means that absolute idealism sanctifies all existing institutions including the class relationships of modern capitalism. Hegelian idealism in the hands of the English idealists has been turned into an ideological weapon.
The truth of the matter is that the organized community exists only to serve the interests of the individuals who comprise it. The individual does not exist merely to serve the interests of the community. Where the latter theory is held it merely disguises the exploitation of the many in the interests of the few. The “State” or “Community” that is served being nothing more or less than the minority that wields the State machine, the owning class.
The idealist method of attributing a higher will to the individual which is nothing to do with what he desires, but which enables him to transcend his merely individual self is simply a device for giving an appearance of justice and democracy to what must otherwise appear the purely arbitrary and tyrannical acts of a class state.
Dialectically evolving matter is the initial point in the Marx-Leninist philosophy. In the dialectic of the development of material actuality the very emergence of social history, the very emergence of thinking individuals find their explanation.
Thought is a property of highly-organized matter which has reached the highest stage of its development. In the eternal development of matter there arise, decline and anew create themselves, infinitely varied forms of material movement and among them there arises, in some maybe unimportant part of the world-structure, a peculiar form of material movement, namely organic life, and after it social history.
The capacity for knowledge proper to men in the social historic epoch is the highest product of the development of matter, and is the property of a high form of existence of material actuality.
“Matter,” says Engels, “moves in an eternal cycle, completing its trajectory in a period so vast that in comparison with it our earthly year is as nothing; in a cycle in which the period of highest development, namely the period of organic life with its crowning achievement – self-consciousness, is a space just as comparatively minute in the history of life and of self-consciousness; in a cycle in which every particular form of the existence of matter – be it the sun or a nebula, a particular animal or animal-species, a chemical combination or decomposition – is equally in transition; in a cycle in which nothing is eternal, except eternally changing, eternally moving matter and the laws of its movement and change. But however often and pitilessly this cycle may be accomplished in time and space, however many countless suns and earths may arise and fall, however long it may be necessary to wait until in some solar system, on some planet appear conditions suitable for organic life, however many countless beings may fall and rise before, out of their midst, develop animals with a thinking brain that find an environment that permits them to live, be it even only for a short period, we are, nevertheless, assured that matter in all its changes remains eternally one and the same, that not one of its attributes may perish, and that that same iron necessity which compels the destruction of the highest earthly bloom of matter – the thinking spirit – also necessitates its re-birth at some other place, at some other time.”*
* Engels, Dialectic of Nature (1930), p. 125.
At what moment does this process of knowledge arise? At what degree of development of material actuality are the conditions created which are necessary for the emergence of knowing beings?
The process of knowledge, which is a process of reflecting the ever deeper connections of the material world, can arise only when the conditions are ripe for the development of real social history; when socially controlled production becomes possible, when organic life is no longer subject to the merely unconscious operations of cause and effect, but comes under conscious and deliberate social control.
Social knowledge can only come into existence on the basis of a development of material production in the process of which every new generation receives from its predecessor, together with the accumulated heritage of productive forces, a heritage of experience embodied in a known sum of knowledge.
Materialism before Marx was only a contemplative materialism, since it considered the question of knowledge apart from its connection with social-historic practice. The problem for Marx is to explain man’s sensuous experience, his hate and love, his joys and sufferings, by the historically existing form of social practice and the class struggle. Only by such a method can we understand the significance of human experience and the actions arising therefrom, which are not the same for people of different epochs and different classes.
In material production the subjective experiences of people are not separated from the material objects of the external world. The material objects of nature are in practice found in unity with the social action of people and, through such action, are also found in unity with the process of knowledge of these people. When we consider the objects of material production, for example the appliances of material production – machine-tools, turbines, tractors, we find in them the subjective action of people, the social practice of many generations of men, which has passed into the definite forms of these objects.
The article which appears to exist in objective reality, without dependence on people or their knowledge, is seen in social practice to be in union with the action and knowledge of people. In the process of material production, and on the basis of human productive activity, a knowledge of material nature becomes a necessary factor in the production of articles. In any tool of production a definite historic stage of social practice and knowledge is embodied. Modern machines assume not only a modern level of development of people’s productive activity, but also in conjunction with it more than twenty centuries of scientific development.
The transition of the action of social beings into an article is actualized in the process of production. Marx shows in Capital that during the process of labour that labour is continually changing from the form of action into the form of being. In the process of labour subjective action enters into the article, enters into unity with the article by working on it. In social practice the forms of a material article are changed. From an external object of nature, independent of society, the article is turned into a social article indissolubly linked up with the whole complex of social practice. Thus in the process of material production, in social practice, a material object becomes a social object, and the social subjective action of people becomes objective. Thus in practice is realized the unity of subject and object. So we see it is only possible to resolve the question of the mutual action of subject and object, of thought and being, in social practice.
Social practice is not a form of activity that is independent of the time-factor; it emerges in a quite definite form at each given historical stage of social development. In such a concrete historic form Marx regards the question when he speaks of the criterion of practice. Every social class has its determinate criterion of practice. In every historic epoch this criterion is changed; it is changed along with the development of the class in the course of its historical role. The material content of practice, the historically determined processes of material production were, and are, for the classes concerned, the criterion of truth and the criterion of the understanding of objective material reality.
The patriarchal tribal society with its primitive ways of production was unacquainted with the productive possibilities of coal. The possibility of using coal was only discovered at the period of the merchant capitalist relationships which arose in the feudal period in the twelfth century (near Liege in Belgium).
The extraction of iron, copper and silver has now proceeded for nearly 6,000 years. But neither the Assyrian treatment of copper, nor the working of iron in very ancient China, nor the mining industry in ancient Rome could serve as a practical basis for wide geological generalizations. For wide theoretical generalizations there was needed a long process of mining production, a wide extension of mining, the knowledge of how to remove subterranean water, and the utilization of a great many other technical devices. The development of the commercial-capitalist type of industry in the sixteenth century allows the whole practice of mining to be transformed into a science. The experience of mining production became so wide, and the diversity of mine workings so great, that the science of geology may be said to begin from this time.
Experience is the sum, the result of social practice. Only in that experience which is the aggregate of the practical attainments of society do we disclose the objectively existing material reality. “In experience,” according to Lenin, “emerge objects of understanding, independent of understanding.”
Periodic winds and sea currents existed long before the appearance of organic life, existed millions of years before the appearance of the social practice and knowledge of men. But a long period of development of practical navigation was necessary before it was possible to understand these winds and currents. Navigation, although considerably developed by the Phoenicians, by the Greeks, and by the Alexandrians of the first and second centuries, had not yet accumulated sufficient experience for these scientific discoveries. Only the changes resulting from the rising capitalist organization of production created the practical foundation for such knowledge.
The basis of knowledge in the example we give was merchant-capitalist practice, yet in its experience of sea-travelling this class summed up not only its own practice but also the practice of those stages of social evolution that had preceded it. Shipbuilding, the building of wharfs for boats, and many different ways of rigging a ship, were already known in periods of more primitive methods of production.
All the earlier developments of historic practice are summed up in the experience of every epoch. That is just why Marx-Leninism seeks to resolve the question of knowledge and experience on the basis of all social practice. This implies a radical change in the manner in which these problems are to be approached.
By including the criterion of practice in the theory of knowledge, Marxism leaves no place for the Kantian “thing in itself.” For Kant the “thing in itself” was a secret, unknowable essence, inaccessible to our senses and to our knowledge alike. The material object ceases to be a secret, “thing in itself” as soon as it emerges in the process of production, as soon as it is reproduced in industry.
The development of the productive process actually changes the objects of material nature; where at first they were virtually unknown and unknowable, they eventually take shape and become known. “What we can do,” as Engels rightly declared, “that, of course, we cannot call unknowable.”
“For the chemistry of the first half of the nineteenth century,” wrote Engels, “organic compounds were such unknown things. But to-day we are succeeding in making them one after the other by means of the synthesis of chemical elements and with no recourse to organic processes.” The objective material world is revealed by practice. Processes that seemed to be inaccessible to knowledge and to exist independently of knowledge emerge as part of the practice of a particular stage in social development. Thus a whole range of entirely new laws in thermodynamics, chemistry and electricity have been discovered in the process of modern social practice.
This explains what we mean when we say that practice is the real key to our knowledge of the external world. “The question whether objective truth can be attributed to human thinking is not a question of theory but is a practical question. The dispute over the reality or non-reality of thinking which is isolated from practice is a purely scholastic question,” says Marx in his second thesis on Feuerbach. The best refutation of Kantian and Humist agnosticism as of other philosophical fancies is practice, or as Engels rightly says: “The success of our actions proves the agreement of our perceptions with the apprehensible objective truth of things.”
However conditional and imperfect our knowledge at any stage may be, it reflects objective material reality, approximating to absolute truth. The fact that we can and do know the truth and are really in touch with objective material nature is proved to us by our practice, which turns our knowledge into actual existing objects of production and remakes and changes material actuality.
But it would be a crude distortion and vulgarization of Marxism to see in the Marx-Leninist doctrine of practice as the criterion of truth a negation of the vast importance of theoretical analysis and theoretical verification of different logical conclusions. Dialectical Materialism has nothing in common with the cheap rule-of-thumb thinking that has no use for abstract thought and general ideas. “Practice is higher than theoretical knowledge,” says Lenin, “because it has not only the virtue of generality, but also of immediate actuality.” A logical development of ideas is possible because the mind engages in the task of interpreting and working over the historical process which it reflects. But all such thinking, even when it uses the generalizations of preceding practice, must instantly be tested by scientific experiment and social practice.
Pre-Marxian philosophy tries to find the criterion of truth in knowledge itself. Descartes sees the criterion of truth in clearness and precision of ideas. Kant saw the criterion of truth in the universal and necessary character of knowledge itself. Contemporary mathematical logic, in the person of Russell, Cantor and others, perceives the criterion of truth in the logical formal succession of mathematical conclusions. None of these forms of rationalistic idealism makes any attempt to find the criterion of truth in the external world. But knowledge considered as an abstract system of ideas, however self-consistent, clear and precise that system may be, can never be a criterion of objectivity.
When Marx speaks of finding a criterion of truth by subjective practice he does not mean by subjective what Berkeley or Mach would mean, he means that the subject only reaches truth in so far as and in the manner in which he engages in activity in relation to the external world, in the course of which activity he changes that world. The practical point of view is the subjective point of view in the sense that it proceeds from the concrete activity of social man. True subjectivity is the breaking down of the separation of idea and object, and it is obviously one and the same thing as practice. The objective world (objective truth) is through practice reflected in knowledge and ceases to be a strange world separate from human knowledge
§3. Bourgeois Practice and Knowledge
In class society there cannot be extra-class practice and extra-class knowledge. The criterion of truth in class society is the practice of the given class.
In the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries, when the bourgeoisie was struggling with feudalism for mastery; and in the first half of the nineteenth century, when capitalism had not yet arrived at the period of its decay, capitalist practice was the criterion of progressive knowledge.
The philosophic systems, natural-scientific theories, social-political views of that epoch remain among the greatest achievements of the history of progressive social knowledge.
But however progressive the views of Bacon were in comparison with the scholastic philosophy of the Middle Ages, whatever shattering arguments from the idealistic point of view Hegel brought against the Kantian “thing in itself,” the philosophic views of these giants of theoretical thought retain their bourgeois limitations.
The dialectic of Hegel remained a mystical idealistic dialectic. “The whole Darwinian teaching about the struggle for existence,” writes Engels, “is simply a transference of the bourgeois economic teaching on competition (and also the Malthusian theory) from the sphere of society to the sphere of nature.”
The capitalistic means of production could make possible the emergence of a number of theories – scientific, technical, philosophic – among which, some have reflected, though in a distorted form, others have only guessed at, different sides of objective actuality. The capitalist practice of a given time could be the basis of progressive knowledge. But at no stage of the development of capitalism, even in the epoch of the revolutionary uprising of the bourgeoisie, could its historically limited practice create a theory of knowledge correctly reflecting the contradictions of objective actuality.
At the heart of capitalism lies that principle of exploitation which called into being a development of the productive forces unheard of until that time, with which development a remarkable expansion of the mathematical and natural sciences was closely connected; but at the same time it was this very principle of exploitation that was responsible for the distorted representation of the main forces of capitalist production, especially of the essential principle of capitalism itself which appears in a curiously mystified form.
The basic contradictions of bourgeois thought are rooted in the contradictions of the capitalistic mode of production itself. And so such works as Capital by Marx, Imperialism as the Latest Stage of Capitalism by Lenin, which uncover the contradictions of capitalism, acquire great importance for the theory of knowledge.
Marx discloses the character of capitalistic relationships, beginning with the simple categories of capitalist economy, from that period when capitalistic relationships were not yet dominant, and ending with the period of their revolutionary overthrow.
In trade and finance, in capital and profit, in wages, in the form of surplus value, in the reproduction of capital, etc., Marx discloses the mystification, the distorted conception of actual relationships, that is proper to bourgeois practice itself.
In bourgeois society mutual relationships between people “in the social-productive process lead,” says Marx, “above all to this, that their own productive relationships which stand outside their control and outside their conscious individual action, take on a “thingified” character, in consequence of which, all the products of their work take on the form of commodities.”
Relations between people become possible only through the means of things, through the “thing”-form of commodities and money, by means of capital, and interest, and so much per cent. And so the social relationships between people are distorted, are mystified.
Even a long time before capitalism became supreme, wherever trade and money circulation appeared, there appeared at the same time distortions of actual human relationships. “All forms of society,” says Marx, “to the extent that they reach the stage of commodity production and money circulation, are to a more or less degree characterized by such a distortion of actual relationships.”
On the basis of the dominance of the bourgeoisie, thanks to the lordship of capital in production, the social forces of labour present themselves to the bourgeoisie in a distorted aspect, as if they generate themselves in the womb of capital itself. Thanks to an objectively existing exchange a distorted conception of profit is created, as if it arose out of circulation and not by the appropriation by a capitalist of the unpaid labour of a worker.
Marx establishes that capitalist practice in the whole complex of its social relations gives to itself such a form as does not correspond with its real nature.
The capitalistic sources of income and forms of income “express,” says Marx, “the relations of capitalist production in a fetishistic form. Their nature, as it appears on the surface, is cut off from its hidden connection and real origins. Thus ground becomes the source of ground-rent, capital is the source of profit and labour the source of wages.”
Marx is not concerned with passing a moral judgment on capitalism, or expressing indignation at its injustices in the manner of Rousseau who declared feudalism to be “contrary to nature.” Marx discloses the actual distortion that exists in the capitalist order of production which is reflected in the distortions and mystifications that exist in bourgeois ideology.
The capitalist means of production, in the light of this distorted bourgeois consciousness, is accepted as an eternal immutable phenomenon, as the relationship of natural man to nature (as was thought in the epoch of enlightenment in the eighteenth century) as the sole form of relationship of man to man (vulgar political economy), hired labour being supposed to comprise all possible forms of labour.
Bourgeois thought always considers the capitalist means of production as historically unchangeable, permanent and existing everywhere that men exist.
It moves in a constricted fashion within the limits set by capitalist social relationships. The system of exploitation, the movement of capitalist forces, fix the very forms of thought just as they determine economic practice.
It is for this reason that bourgeois economics suffers from such severe limitations. Even its most useful ideas remain in some degree under the sway of the distortions of actual relationships that capitalism cannot but produce and reproduce. True their own criticisms have already destroyed many of the dogmas of orthodox capitalist economics, but since they are not free to break completely away into socialist economics this only deepens the confusion and illogicality of their latest theories. Hence their half-way policies and hopeless contradictions, while the actual laws of capitalist production remain for them an unguessed secret. Bourgeois thought cannot pass beyond the stage of discrediting the semblance without revealing the essential truth which it has obscured, just as Kant shows that phenomena are only the appearance of reality but is entirely unable to tell us anything about the unknown “thing in itself.”
In every sphere of thought bourgeois thinkers will be found creating individualistic theories, interpreting the universe in terms of the sanctity of private property, and separating man from his necessary place in the community. Philosophers as different in their outlook as Spengler, Max Stirner, Fichte and Hume, will all be found exalting the individual and his sensations and the individual and his private property as the criterion of reality and the key to the understanding of the universe.
But the reactionary elements in individualistic bourgeois thought emerge most clearly in our own epoch, in which the contradictions of capitalism have been sharpened to the limit the epoch of imperialism and proletarian revolutions.
The concealed laws and connections of the capitalist system can be actually disclosed and known only from an anti-capitalist proletarian point of view.
When human society is really understood and capitalism is revealed as one of its necessary forms of development, the class struggle is seen to be the basis of its movement, of its progress into a new and higher form. From this point of view, which was that of Marx, the laws of the rise and fall of capitalism, of the movement of the proletariat and of the proletarian revolution are revealed. From the standpoint of Marx the revolutionary destruction of capitalism has become historically necessary and also the building up under conditions of proletarian dictatorship of a socialist society, of a collectivized society.
In distinction from other oppressed classes, the proletariat goes through the grim school of large-scale capitalist production. This form of exploitation and the struggle against it train the proletariat in habits of joint social work and create the possibility of party political solidarity and organization.
The proletariat is the only class that is able, logically and finally, to struggle against capitalist exploitation and private property in the means of production, against the actually existing irrationality and mystification of the practice of capitalism.
“Only that class among the oppressed classes which has been taught, united, disciplined, tempered by decades of industrial conflict, which has assimilated all the culture of urban, industrial large-scale capitalism and which has the ability and determination to defend, to preserve and further develop these achievements, to make them accessible to all the people, to all workers, only that class which knows how to endure all the burdens, torments, misfortunes, great sacrifices that are inevitably laid by history on whosoever breaks away from the past and courageously opens up for himself a road to a new future – only that class which has passed through the hardening school of toil and knows how to inspire with respect for his labour every working man, every honourable man – only such a class can destroy the classes which it supersedes by its own dictatorship” (Lenin).
Lenin, as we see, in his approach to the question of the independent class-movement of the proletariat, attributes great importance to the character of the work of the proletariat under capitalism. The working class in the conditions of capitalist production is the greatest productive force. The proletariat is the immediate producer in bourgeois society. It is their activity and not that of the capitalist that transfers itself to and comes into unity with the material object.
The conditions of large-scale capitalist industry foster in the revolutionary class such habits of approach to the object as are not possible to the capitalist, whose basic motive of action is “exchange value and its increase.” Therefore only the ideologies of the working class can work out a logical materialistic attitude towards the object, towards those actual processes in which the proletariat itself takes part as a producing force.
The dialectical point of view towards material actuality, as we shall trace in detail further on, has as its most highly developed form the logical revolutionary political struggle of the proletariat which is directed to the destruction of capitalism.
While it is true as we have seen that the very character of the activity of the proletariat has already created all the necessary conditions for working out a logical materialistic philosophy of nature and society, we must yet remember that in capitalist society there exists between the worker and the means of labour a severance which is conditioned by the whole economic structure of capitalism. The means and instruments of labour are the private property of the capitalists. The progress of capitalist technique and of industrial organization emerges as a hostile force in relation to the worker, as a force that increases unemployment and exploitation.
The social character of labour is itself under capitalism “a kind of force foreign to the worker” (Marx). For the condition that makes real the social character of labour, of co-operation of workers in the process of material production, is such that the worker only feels it as an external force.
Capital makes use of every available means to distort the consciousness of the worker. The bourgeois school, the Church, the Press make it their task to suppress in the worker his power to oppose capitalism, to foster in him the ideology of the slave who is content in his slavery.
In the epoch of imperialism sections of the workers, because of privileged material conditions, identify their interests with the success of their capitalist masters, and help to spread the ideology of capitalism among the workers. This particularly applies to the trade union and political bureaucracy, which with the spread of democratic institutions is increasingly drawn into the State machinery for the preservation of the existing system, and is therefore led into opposition to the forces making for social change.
The bourgeois political education of the workers is being assiduously promoted by every one of the political parties of the bourgeoisie, whose first and radical task is a pitiless struggle against the party of the proletariat, the communist party. But the more the contradictions of capitalism deepen and the fiercer becomes the class struggle, so much the more conscious and revolutionary become the working masses and with still less success can the bourgeoisie apply its methods of deforming and distorting the consciousness of the worker.
Bourgeois individualism when it becomes the ideology of monopoly capital, an ideology which is organically at one with the aggressive politics of imperialism, emerges stripped of all disguise. One of the clearest examples of the decay of bourgeois thought is to be found in the pragmatic theory of knowledge, which reduces the whole question to one of practical advantage and the wishes of the individual. For me, says William James, the founder of pragmatism, only that which is practically useful is truth. Truth is not actuality reflected in our thinking, but that which happens to suit the needs and feelings of an individual personality. Such a view is far removed from the conception of knowledge as a reflection of material reality.
The British representative of the pragmatist philosophy, Schiller, develops a number of possible definitions of truth. Truth as necessity, as correspondence with an object, as that which is self-evident, as authenticity. All these definitions are from Schiller’s point of view only expressions of the different psychical states of the subject. Truth is not arrived at in the process of reflecting material reality by the thought of social man – truths are created by man. Of the numerous definitions of truth, man selects those which are most suitable to him at a given moment, those which best express his will, his desires and personal interests. Truth is a working hypothesis which has no relationship to the actual development of the material world and always remains merely an hypothesis. The only things with which truth can agree are the personal acts and aspirations of man.
Pragmatism means that instead of allowing truth to reflect objective reality whether we like what we see or not, we construct a version that suits our desires and see whether we can maintain it in the face of the facts. For so long as we can do so this version is truth.
Thus a financial swindler wishes to persuade his victims, the public, his fellow financiers and the law that his schemes are perfectly honest. He therefore constructs a complete case and puts it about with all the conviction he can muster. It is very much to his interests that it shall be believed. Now according to pragmatism as long as he can get it believed it is “true.” Conformity to fact, according to pragmatism, is no test at all. For after all what is fact? There are only the facts as they appear to you and me, and very often they appear quite different to you and me, as visitors to the U.S.S.R. discover! Actually there are no bare facts, there are only human judgments about facts, and judgments are really points of view not photographs of reality.
The only useful evidence is the evidence produced by the financier and in his hands, as we know, the facts come to look quite different, much more innocent than they did in the hands of a suspicious lawyer.
Thus Pirandello, in his play “You’re right if you think you are,” gives us two versions of the inaccessible “thing as it is,” which are quite contradictory and yet each of which can be made to appear as true as the other.
“You want documentary proofs in order to affirm or deny! I have no use for them, for, in my opinion, reality does not lie in these, but in the mind of these two persons into which I cannot enter unless by that evidence which they themselves give me.”
Pragmatism was advocated by Papini the Italian fascist philosopher and exerted a powerful influence over Mussolini. Under fascist rule pragmatism means that whatever view of events you can persuade the world to accept is “truth.” Have supreme confidence in your own version of affairs, trust your own optimistic presentation, insist on it, get it accepted. It is as true as any other. It is the only truth if you can get it believed in preference to any other version of the facts.
Whether you are convincing the outside world or your own people the principle is the same. As long as propaganda keeps the system going because it goes on being believed, your world view, your “Third Reich,” your renewed nation, your fiction, is successful, maintains itself, and is therefore true.
There is not a country in the capitalist world today in which a great myth has not to be believed in the interests of the status quo. The United States has its great myth, Great Britain and the Empire, the toiling millions of Japan and India. Every myth misrepresents the facts. But every myth holds the masses hypnotized in subjection. Therefore it is true. Hence the immense popularity of pragmatism in a decaying world in which it is not convenient for the masses to know the truth. Truth, pragmatism claims, is what is valuable to the knower. But what is most valuable to a capitalist knower is a successful lie, so that lie is the truth as long as he can get it believed.
But it is in opposition to such “value” determinations of truth that the whole of science has made headway. Enlightenment and criticism mean little more than conscious discrimination against fictions which are merely useful and not true. The scientist has to learn to forgo the pleasing and the hopeful hypothesis. Knowledge is a means of adaptation to experience not in proportion to its pleasantness and hopefulness, but in proportion as it dispels illusions, be they ever so grateful and inspiring.
But suppose the class conscious workers come forward with their own theory and after a revolution impose their ideas on the masses and on the bourgeoisie. Once again we have a theory, this time the Marxian theory, that works. Is it not regarded as true on just the same grounds as the fascist theory? Does it not maintain itself by just the same vicious propaganda? Not in the least. The fascist theory is held to be true only because it works in the sense that by propaganda the system keeps going. The Marxian theory works because it is true and if it did not work it would not be true. The fallacy is a logical one. Because every true theory works that is not to say that every theory that works is true. Many false theories work for quite a long time yet they are not true even while they are working satisfactorily.
Marxism is true not because it works in this sense but because it is
always being tested by the facts and because it arises out of the
facts. Therefore for the great mass of the people it is believed not
because it is put across by successful propaganda but because it
corresponds with the facts known to the workers, because as a working
hypothesis it is repeatedly verified by social experiment and
Verifying an hypothesis by the test of facts is a very different process from choosing an hypothesis because we like it. An hypothesis is verified by finding out what facts would follow from it, and then looking to the facts to see whether they are as the hypothesis demands. The unfavourable answer is taken as well as the favourable and the hypothesis modified accordingly.
Marxism is always being verified by experiment. Fascism presents conceptions that are only believed because the desire to do so outweighs all the factual evidence against them.
Pragmatism is the decadent philosophic ideology of imperialism. For the bourgeois of the epoch of imperialism the objective processes of development, the laws of social history, are something foreign to his personal will, his actions and his interests. At every step of his action he encounters movements of working-class revolutionary action that are strange to him – crises, the contraction or disappearance of markets. This is where pragmatic philosophy comes to his aid, for it “easily proves” that crises are not conditioned by active law, that one ought to seek the truth, not in them, but in the practical interests of the agents of the capitalist means of production. Truth is given not in the process of reflecting the object, but in the subject and its personal actions. Only by personal actions based on individual interests is it possible, from the pragmatic point of view, to establish or refute a given truth.
“About pragmatism,” wrote Lenin, “the philosophic journals say just about everything. Pragmatism ridicules metaphysics and materialism and idealism, exalts experience and only experience, acknowledges practice as the sole criterion, completely accepts the positivist flux in general, holds that science is not an ‘absolute copy of reality,’ and happily deduces from all this a God who exists only to serve man’s practical aims, only for practice, without any metaphysics, without any reality, beyond the bounds of experience.”*
* Lenin, vol. xiii, p. 279.
Pragmatism is one of the extreme forms of bourgeois subjectivism. Only that which “helps us and works on us” is true for us, says Dewey. Truth is an instrument and not a reflection of the material process, and the theory of truth is the theory of the instrument. Wherefore John Dewey calls pragmatism instrumentalism.
Monopoly capitalism has brought to extremity the contradictions of bourgeois society. Attempts to reconcile the demands of individuality with the objective process of actuality on the basis of an adequate reflection of the latter are being made less and less frequently. To most bourgeois philosophers of the imperialist epoch the view that knowledge can be the reflection of the objective process of development appears as something monstrous.
Pragmatism has most accurately formulated the turning of bourgeois
knowledge away from the attempt to disclose the essence of the
contradictions of the objective process of material actuality. We
cannot know the actuality of the material world and its internal
contradictions, as realities independent of us, say all pragmatists
without exception. Knowledge is a working hypothesis (James), an
instrument which depends on our interests and advantages (Dewey), on
our “internal sensation” (James). The only thing accessible to us is
our practice, everything that goes beyond is unknowable.
Only by proceeding from material social practice as the basis of the theory of knowledge were Marx, Engels and Lenin able to resolve the problem of the connection of subject and object, to uncover the historical, evolutionary character of that connection.
Human knowledge of reality passes in the course of its development through different moments or gradations that mark the comprehension by man of the ever more deep and many-sided connections of the material world. Lenin expounds as follows the movement by which knowledge attains greater and greater depth.
“At first – impressions, as in a flash, then – something is distinguished, then – ideas of quality are developed (leading to a definition of a thing or phenomenon) and subsequently, ideas of quantity. Then study and reflection direct the thought to questions of identity and difference – basis – essence. All these moments or steps of knowledge are directed from the subject to the object, verify themselves by practice and proceed through this verification to truth.”
From the direct perception of reality, of sense data, of separate impressions, received by the aid of our senses, man proceeds to the stage of defining a thing and reaching an “idea” of it, to the disclosure of its connections, the law of its development, and all this he verifies in practice.
Among all these different moments of knowledge the problem of the relation and connection between sense data and idea, between immediate and developed knowledge, the problem of the importance and role of each of these at each stage of knowledge, has occupied a central place in philosophy through the whole course of its history. Even in ancient Greece the question was being raised in a general way. What is truth, sense perceptions or “logos” (reason)? If sense perceptions then how are we able to make any kind of unity out of their diversity? The question is really this, if by truth we mean that our understanding reflects reality, how can we be sure that it is possible to pass from a number of separate sensations to these general ideas through which we understand? The failure to solve this question led to scepticism and relativism (the admission by the Sophists of the absolute relativity of all that exists – including our knowledge), to the denial of the reality of movement (the Eleatics), to the construction of idealistic systems (Plato, for whom the sensed, material. world is virtually non-existent).
In the working out of dialectic as a theory of knowledge Lenin insistently stressed this problem of the transition of one moment of knowledge to another and the helplessness of pre-Marxian philosophy to solve it. He sees in this failure one of the stumbling-blocks of the Greek and also the modern philosophers.
Lenin shows that a successful approach to this problem must unite the different streams in the history of philosophy, for example the Sophists with Kant and Mach; Hegel and Plato with Epicurus and Locke.
The ancient Greek rationalist Zeno regarded movement as “sensed truth.” But he did not limit himself to the mere admission of this as a fact. He was one of the first in the history of philosophy to show the contradictory aspects of movement – the contradictions of discreteness and continuity, of rest and motion. He was one of the first to set before himself the problem of understanding the connection of these aspects and in this is his great historical service. But being a metaphysician he could not comprehend this contradiction in terms of fixed concepts, and therefore as a rationalist came to a denial of the reality of movement, and opposed to it, as to a deception of the senses involving hopeless contradiction, rest and identity (grasped in metaphysical conceptions) as the real essence of things.
Lenin formulated Zeno’s problem thus – the question is not whether there is such a thing as movement, this is acknowledged as a fact of experience, but how to express it in the logic of fixed concepts.
In the history of recent philosophy the different attempts to solve the question whether scientific knowledge is based on sense experience or reason, give rise to different philosophical movements, sensationalism, empiricism (from the Latin word “sensus,” the faculty of feeling, and the Greek “εμπειρία,” experience) and rationalism (from the Latin “ratio,” reason).
Sensationalism was at the basis of the theories of knowledge of the various materialistic schools which emerged in the struggle with mediaeval scholasticism and with the thoroughgoing rationalism of classic German idealism; these schools were represented by the English philosophers Bacon and Locke, the French materialists of the eighteenth century and Feuerbach. Nevertheless from this same sensationalist point of view, philosophers have also been able to draw subjective idealist conclusions.
The classic representatives of such sensationalist idealism were Berkeley and Hume. How was it that such a remarkable combination of two sharply opposed philosophies should be found in this common derivation from sensationalism? Special attention must be paid to this problem because it demonstrates clearly that the “freezing” of any one “moment” of knowledge and the tearing of it out of its connection with knowledge as a whole in an abstract, metaphysical fashion, serves as a loophole for the idealist, and, in a favourable class setting (which always helps one or the other party in philosophy and fortifies its conclusions), may be converted into a whole idealistic system.
Over what did Berkeley and Hume and in our day Mach stumble when they found themselves compelled to deny in one form or another the objectivity of the external world, although they had set out by admitting sensation as the sole source and material of knowledge?
The course of their reasoning is as follows:
To man are given directly his perceptions, his sensation. They are the only material of knowledge. In the perceptions themselves there is no internal necessary connection. Connection is nothing else than particular combinations of perceptions in the stream of the psychical experiences of the subject. Wherefore any statements about the objectivity of the logical categories – causality, interaction, substance, etc. – are pure metaphysics reflecting nothing real in the sensed material of knowledge. The logical categories are only schemes which we use for organizing sense data, and for this or the other evaluation of them. But these schemes and this evaluation are entirely subjective. They are subjective first of all in relation to the external world, for which there is no more evidence, from the sensationalist point of view, than there is for, say, the devil (since experience offers evidence for nothing but itself); secondly, these logical schemes are subjective in relation to the very sense data of knowledge themselves, since they are determined by the peculiar constitution of the subject, i.e. in the last analysis, by the aggregate of the subject’s former psychical experiences as well as by that group of sensations on which its attention is now directed.
The assertion of materialists, namely that the necessary objective connection between sensed phenomena is confirmed by experience and practice, is an elementary logical mistake, because experience itself and therefore practice, is nothing other than a mass of psychical experiences, so that its unity and connection are derived not from the external world, but from the mental states themselves. The world of man is limited by its “human experience” and beyond its bounds, for a “positive” scientific knowledge, there exists nothing.
And so the root error of sensationalism, which has been developed by subjective idealists into a whole philosophic system, consists in this – that it has concerned itself solely with the question of the source and content of knowledge and has left out of account the question of the forms of knowledge and their foundation, in which are expressed the connections and transitions given in sensed experience itself. Subjective idealists have turned their sense data, in which sensationalism rightly saw the final means of knowledge, into the sole object of knowledge.
Proceeding from the ground that every object of knowledge in the last resort appears before us in its sensed form, they have exalted to an absolute, the discreteness, the specific character that belongs to it as a moment, and have in this way deprived the object of every internal necessary connection. For example, to a bored man time seems “an eternity,” to a cheerful man “an instant,” to the soldier, who goes on the march with fresh powers it is nothing to cover forty versts, but to the tired man even two versts appear to be a big distance. In this way the subjective idealists have returned to the position of the ancient Greek sceptic Protagoras, who said that “man is the measure of all things” and took away from science its only basis – the objective, law-governed connection of phenomena.
Actually, by remaining on the ground of mere sensations, it is impossible to show, for example, that it is not the sun that goes round the earth, but the earth that goes round the sun, that thunder and lightning appear simultaneously and not one after the other. In this way, by contending for the rights of the senses in knowledge, as the sole source of “real given-ness,” by contending against “metaphysics,” against the lessening of the rights of the senses by “wilful reason,” subjective idealists inevitably arrive at a self-destructive conclusion, at complete disbelief in sense experience, since in effect they have deprived it of its objective content and of those laws which made it rational. Lenin has many times drawn attention to this: “Phenomenalists like Mach and Co.” – he says – “when they attempt to deal with the question of law and necessity unavoidably become idealists.”
The weakness of resting in the moment of simple perception and the kind of idealistic error this involves, is clearly seen in Plekhanov’s theory of knowledge. We have in view in the first place, his so-called “hieroglyphic” theory. Plekhanov borrowed the theory of hieroglyphics principally from the natural scientists, Sechenov and Helmholtz.
Helmholtz in particular expresses with remarkable clarity that distrust of all sense experience which springs from the isolation of the perceptual moment of knowledge. He tries to prove that visual perception is completely relative. For example, people perceive the colours of flowers differently. There are even those who suffer from so-called Daltonism, to whom violet appears green, yellow – pink, and so on. Indeed, even to the eye of a healthy man an object may appear differently. For instance, if the image of an object falls on the so-called “blind spot” of the eye, then the man cannot see the object at all; he will see it again only by shifting the retina. From the relativity of our visual perception, Helmholtz concludes that the image of the object in our consciousness is quite unlike the object itself that it is only a hieroglyph, a symbol (conventional sign) of some object that exists outside our consciousness. We know that this object exists, because we feel its action on us (and only the results of this action can we know, in the opinion of the agnostic), but we never know the object itself, and can never define it. We can only say that to the relations between sensations there are corresponding relations between real objects, and to the changes of sensation there correspond changes in the object. But we shall never be able to know what these objects are and what is the real nature of the changes that go on within them.
Engels in his time showed Helmholtz’s fundamental mistake to lie in his separation of sensational and logical knowledge. “Helmholtz forgets,” said Engels, “that thought also is united with our eye.”
This same agnostic “theory of correspondence” was borrowed by Plekhanov too from those scientists who fell into Kantianism and was adopted by him in place of the Marxist theory of reflection.
Later on Plekhanov sought to explain away his mistake by ascribing it to unsuccessful terminology, to the abuse of the term “hieroglyph,” but continued to hold the “theory of correspondence” without realizing its Kantian significance. The core of this agnostic error of Plekhanov was shown by Lenin in Materialism and Empirio-Criticism. In defence of the hieroglyphic theory against Lenin’s criticism, Axelrod came forward declaring that contemporary science also took the same attitude towards the “symbolic” character of knowledge. But if sensationalism is incapable of showing the validity of the system of scientific laws which underlies the connections and changes of things, can we not turn to the rationalist philosophers who regard the logical working of the mind as the real ground of rational knowledge? Descartes, Spinoza, Leibnitz – the chief representatives of the rationalistic tendency of the philosophy of the seventeenth century –- regarded sense knowledge as something dim and untrustworthy. The task of the true method, in their opinion, is precisely this, to purify knowledge from fluidity, unsubstantiality, and its overload of ephemeral fortuitous appearances which sometimes seem, as it were, to add additional and unreal data to sense knowledge. And so the conclusion to which the rationalists arrive runs as follows: The freer that logical thought is from sensation, the more truly will it reflect the essence of the object. Thus, in absolute knowledge (about which all the rationalists speak as about something attainable by every thinker who possesses the right method) thought finds itself “in its own sphere,” being perfectly free from all the elements of sensation. Quality of “intellect” consists, above all, in its complete insulation from sense experience.
It stands to reason that by remaining in the sphere of thought itself rationalists could not explain the development of thought, its ever deepening comprehension of actuality. Truth, in the teaching of the rationalists, presents a picture of death-like immobility, a grey frozen waste unstirred by a breath of movement.
The marks of truly scientific knowledge are, from the rationalist point of view, the generality and necessity of its propositions. By generality is meant applicability to all experienced facts without exception, and by necessity that the minds of all men must compel them to acknowledge such a truth. These are obviously the marks of purely logical knowledge, not the knowledge derived from sense experience. But whence does the rationalist derive his unified system of relationships which according to him underlies the deceptive appearances of things?
Why should it be supposed that because these ideas are clear and self-evident, because they form a logically consistent system, they necessarily constitute a true picture of the external world? The classic rationalism of the seventeenth and beginning of the eighteenth century does not state these problems in a fundamental manner and does not solve them. It proceeds from an assurance that “the order and connection of ideas are the same as the order and connections of things” (Spinoza), but does not establish this coincidence in fact. Moreover attempts to establish it led rationalists to the idea of a “pre-determined harmony” between world and spirit” (Leibnitz), to an “occasionalism” that saw in every act of knowledge a miracle, which one could explain only by the constant “assistance of divinity.” To bridge the gulf between consciousness and matter, between the “thinking” mode and the extended, was beyond the power of Spinoza who by his teaching of the unity of extension and “thought” in the one substance approached incomparably nearer than the others to the materialistic solution of the question.
Basing themselves on the conviction of a primordial coincidence of the laws of thought and the laws of being, the rationalists saw the task of knowledge thus: To construct by thinking an object in accordance with the laws of thought itself, proceeding each time from clear and evident premises. But the rationalist could base these premises only on other ideas, and ultimately on those ideas which were, in his opinion, the most universal, the most clear, and belonged to every human consciousness. Thus the rationalists proceed to the theory of “innate ideas” (Descartes), of a priori categories and laws of thought, as the final sources and means of scientific knowledge.
But rationalism, in spite of its efforts, could not get away from sense experience. It could neither relegate to sense experience the mere function of setting a task to logical reason, nor dissolve the whole extent of such experiences into logical constructions built up with the aid of a priori ideas. And so Leibnitz was compelled to recognize along with “truths of reason” also “truths of fact,” i.e. truths of observation and experience.
An attempt to overcome the one-sidedness of sensationalism and rationalism was made by Kant. But the ambiguity, the compromising character of Kant’s philosophy, declared themselves in his solution of the problem of sensation and reason. The sensational and the logical moment of knowledge do not have, according to Kant’s teaching, a common basis, there is no transition between the two. The sensed, in Kant’s opinion, arises in consequence of the external action on us of some “thing-in-itself,” the logical has its basis in our thought, which is sundered from the material world. Ideas, according to Kant, do not grow up out of the sensed world, but are already given before it by the a priori categories of reasoning. These grasp, with dead tentacles, the living, multiform, ever-changing material of sensations, but themselves remain fixed. Similarly the question of the variety and at the same time the unity of scientific knowledge was resolved by Kant not by disclosing the process by which knowledge grew out of experience, or describing the slow transition from the one to the other, not by showing how these two mutually enrich one another, but by setting up the multiplicity of sensation over against the unity of rational knowledge in a thoroughly mechanical way.
The defect of the Kantian solution of the problem of the connection between sense data and logical form was demonstrated from the position of dialectical idealism by Hegel. Hegel’s fundamental reproach of Kant is this, that “the latter wished to learn to swim, before getting into the water,” that is, he solves the problem of scientific knowledge outside the process of knowledge itself.
The new element introduced by Hegel into the solution of the problem is this – he proceeds from the dialectical movement of thought from a lower grade to a higher and on this ground resolves the question of the connection of the sensational and the logical, criticizing the one-sidedness both of empiricism and rationalism. In his Phenomenology of Spirit, Hegel shows the path along which, in his opinion, consciousness travels, raising itself from the level of sensation to the “realm of pure thought.” It is necessary to remember that this consciousness is conceived by him in a doubly abstract form, separate both from the material carrier of consciousness, and also from social man.”
But however brilliant was the new approach to this problem made by Hegel, his idealism frustrated his attempt to solve it. Idealistic contempt for the material basis of sensation had as its result this fact, that instead of the logical construction of knowledge actually developing on the basis of working upon the ever richer material given by sensation, the process of the ascent of consciousness to ever higher levels was represented by Hegel as the course of a gradual emancipation or “purifying” from the sensed.
The point at which we may first be said to have reached truth is where we have escaped from “sensed concreteness.”
The connection of the sensed and logical thus appeared in a significant manner to be unreal, since sensation according to Hegel is a necessary accompaniment of only the lowest grades of knowledge.
The attempt to restore the importance of the sensed moment of knowledge, which had been pushed into the background ever since the days of French materialism, belongs to Feuerbach. In a vigorous criticism of the abstract Hegelian rationalism he tried to overthrow the position that only by the help of thought are we able to grasp the connection of the various aspects of the object and make generalizations.
“Is it possible I see only leaves and not trees also?” he writes as against Leibnitz. “Is it possible there is no sensation of identity, of uniqueness, of difference? Is it possible the law of identity is not at the same time a law of sensation, is it possible that in the last count this law of thought does not depend on the veracity of sensed contemplation?”
And in his statement of the question Feuerbach is right. This is how the matter stands: Sensations are not merely raw material, that in an external fashion is in opposition to thought (as the German idealists supposed). On the contrary they are the starting point of the logical understanding of reality. The connections of the objective world, that are finally reflected in logical ideas (identity, opposition, causality, necessity, etc.), have already been reached in rudimentary form in sensed representations. Thus, we observe a known likeness, a difference, we detect sequence of one phenomenon after another. We see how day is replaced by night, we hear that a blow is accompanied by a sound, etc. All this serves as a basis for a mental conclusion about law, causality, the mutual dependence of the different sides of actuality.
But Feuerbach, as Marx showed, regards sensation as sensed contemplation in which consciousness is merely made aware of the existence of external objects and is not apprehending them through human activity. But the sensation of the subject is not simply an aggregate of definite physiological acts of perception determined by its bodily organization, but is always only relatively a direct knowledge of the world, since it is the apprehension of an individual in a particular historical situation.
The direct perception of actuality at a given stage of social development, by a member of a given class, is affected by the whole of the past experience of society and of that class, in other words it is not merely perception but apperception.
The sensed and the logical, direct perception and apperception, are not different, independent aspects of social knowledge, not distinct stages of it. The difference between them is relative. Direct perception becomes knowledge permeated by past experience, that is to say apperception; sensed knowledge becomes logical knowledge.
In its solution of the problem of the sensed and the rational in knowledge, dialectical materialism is equally removed from mechanistic materialism and from idealism. And on this question it wages an irreconcilable struggle on two fronts.
Mechanists attribute the rational to sensation, in effect they see in the rational nothing else than a general representation, within whose vague contours the specific features of the separate sense-representations are mutually overlaid. It is the property of truly rational ideas, that grow up out of practice and are confirmed by it, that they represent a working-over of the sensed in such a way that in it are reflected all the essential connections of the object. Such a property can never be understood by the mechanists.
When the mechanist is confronted by the problem of the development of class consciousness, his attribution of the rational to sensation forces him to deny a qualitative difference between class psychology and class ideology, he will assert an elemental development of class theoretical consciousness as a passive product, he will, it follows, degrade the role of revolutionary theory and the whole theoretical front of class struggle.
Nay, more, mechanists like Feuerbach treat human sensation as a physiological function of the organism, as mere reflexes so to speak, and therefore wipe out any distinction between the sensed reflection of actuality in a human consciousness and the sensations of an animal. But that is just why they cannot see even in the rational side of human consciousness, in human theoretical thinking, any qualitatively new stage as compared with the germs of instinctive “analysis” and “synthesis” that animals possess.
That which other mechanists do not openly confess is frankly stated by Zeitlin.
He is assured that “the statement that animals too have ideas about matter can be shown to be strictly scientific.” He seriously analyses the character of animal philosophy and comes to the conclusion that “the Berkeleyan and empirio-critical understanding of matter as an objectivized stable connection of sensations is very near to the animal understanding of matter.”
However, dialectical materialism regards even the physical basis of human sensation not as something given in a ready-made form with the biological nature of homo sapiens, but as a quite special product, arising in distinction from merely animal sensations upon the basis of historic social practice.
Quite mistaken also is the assertion of rationalistic idealism, which is upheld even by our Menshevist idealists, that the development of social knowledge is only a development of rational knowledge and has nothing to do with sense experience. The development of social knowledge is the development and enrichment of both the sensed or direct form of knowledge and the rational, apperceptive form of knowledge, at the basis of which lies the development of social practice. The new theoretical approach to problems, brought forth by new practice, carries with it a new direct perception of actuality, which grows up out of the same practice. The sensations as well as the ideas of a savage are so low as not to be compared with those of a modern civilized man. His thought and sensation alike are determined by the extremely restricted range and low level of his material practice.*
* Anthropology has even established on a basis of actual measurement that savages possess no special acuity of vision or smell.
The position of the Marx-Leninist theory of knowledge in resolving the problem of the sensational and rational moment in knowledge has been shown with extraordinary clearness in the analysis by Marx and Lenin of the formation of the class consciousness of the proletariat.
In the elemental period of the worker’s movement we do not yet have on the part of the workers a scientific understanding of actuality. The worker is directly in conflict with the individual capitalist. In his daily disputes with his employer his experience includes actual details of cruel exploitation, the indignation of separate groups of workers, their mutual assistance, acts of treachery, etc. All these facts are accepted and interpreted by him, not as by a “naked physiological individuum,” but in large measure from the standpoint of the petty-bourgeoisie, whose entrance into the ranks of the workers was the historic source of the education of the proletariat. At this stage his “direct” knowledge appears mainly as nought else than the prejudices of a petty-bourgeois. Many of the facts of capitalist exploitation that the worker has observed he is inclined to ascribe to the personal qualities of his own employer. The employer, in the consciousness of the worker at this period, emerges as distinct from the class of capitalists as a whole, just as the worker does not realize himself as also part of a whole – the proletariat. The different aspects of capitalist reality do not yet emerge in the consciousness of the worker as manifestations of a class antagonism running through the whole of society, but as chance things with no inter-connection.
To this very stage of the development of proletarian consciousness, in which the world of actuality emerges still in its “primitive, formless indefiniteness,” there correspond in the development of theory different forms of pre-scientific socialism, including also Utopian socialism the immediate predecessor of scientific socialism.
“Such phantastic pictures of future society, painted at a time when the proletariat is still in a very undeveloped state and has but a phantastic conception of its own position, correspond with the first instinctive yearnings of that class for a general reconstruction of society” (Marx).
However, even at that stage in the consciousness of the proletariat there is already something which makes possible the transition to a scientific understanding, to a complete, connected synthesis of the facts. This is found in the ideas derived from and actually reflecting the worker’s experience of collisions with his employer. It is such ideas that make it possible to escape from the limitations of disconnected experiences, for they reflect the objective relations of concrete reality, even though they may do so in a distorted fashion.
To develop these ideas so that they scientifically explain their
objective content, the concrete experience of the worker must be
permeated by the knowledge derived from the world-historic practice of
mankind by all the cultural thought and knowledge of his century.
Knowledge of the complex capitalist actuality, which includes in itself
the sum of the development of all the foregoing history of mankind,
requires generalizations so wide as to be beyond the range of separate
groups of the proletariat (taking into consideration their situation in
capitalist society) and far beyond the bounds of their immediate circle
of vision. Such a theoretical expression of the whole experience of the
workers’ movement on the basis of an inspired generalization of the
movements and tendencies of world-historical development, on the basis
of all the positive attainments of all human culture, was given by the
creators of scientific communism. It was they who raised the
consciousness of the workers to the level of the class scientific
theory. Just in so far as the workers accept the Marx-Leninist theory,
so is the “conflict” between the objective content of their experience
and the form in which that content is understood entirely removed.
Different disconnected experiences, which grasp only the surface
appearance of things, fortuitous external connections between
concretely existing facts (which make the “given” material stage of
consciousness “rudimentary” in relation to more rational forms) receive
a “necessary,” stable character. Every different fact of class struggle
appears now as part of a whole system of social relationships.
The wholeness, the survey of all the facts in their universal mutual-dependence, the simultaneous grasping of the many sides, is just that which characterizes the scientific knowledge* that reflects reality and distinguishes it fromthe direct perception of the object. This characteristic of the understanding of an object has been many times stressed by the exponents of dialectical materialism, it reveals rational knowledge as a higher grade ofreflection of the material world, in comparison with the direct apprehension of it in sensations and representations. Thus speaking of value, Marx says wittily:
* “Actually all really exhaustive knowledge is thus characterized: in our thoughts we take a single thing out of its singleness and turn it into a particularity, and this latter into a generality – that is, we find infinity in finity, the eternal in the transitory.” Engels, Anti-Dühring.
“The reality of the value of commodities thus resembles Mistress Quickly, of whom Falstaff said: ‘A man knows not where tohave her.’ This reality of the value of commodities contrasts with the gross material reality of these same commodities (the reality which is perceived by our bodily senses) in that not an atom of matter enters into the reality of value. We may twist and turn a commodity this way and that – as a thing of value it still remains unappreciable by our bodily senses.”*
* Marx, Capital, vol. i, p. 17.
That is you can see and touch the material envelope of different commodities but nottheir value, notthe universal connection between the owners of commodities, not capitalism as a whole.
The same thought concerning the deeper reflection of actuality in ideas is expressed by Lenin, speaking ofthe reflection of movement in consciousness; “Movement of three hundred thousand kilometres per second” – he says “is difficult for us to represent, but we can understand that light moves at such a speed.” In another place, developing the idea of the dialectical connections of the various aspects ofthe material world in relation to their mutual transition one to another, Lenin writes: “The usual representation grasps the difference and contradiction, but not the transition from one to the other, and that is very important.”And further: “Reason sharpens those differences which do not prevent ultimate reconciliation, i.e. the simple diversity of the appearance of things; it does not reveal irreconcilable differences, final contradictions.”
How important is the thought of the development of understanding as a deepening of knowledge, as a new qualitative moment in the knowledge of an object, can be seen from this, that Engels in his criticism of the Kantian-agnostic theory of hieroglyphics, uses this new conception of knowledge as one of the essential arguments against Helmholtz. As we know, Engels saw that the fundamental mistake of Helmholtz lay in his forgetting that thought is “united” with our eyes. The “uniting” is as follows – the organ, in this case the eye, responsible for the sense data, which actually emerge in connected form, discloses something more than can be grasped by the eye alone. The “uniting” of thought, of which Engels speaks, can by no means be understood mechanistically, generalizations are not developed in any external fashion in relation to the sensed material of knowledge, but they arise and are developed in so far as the investigator masters his data, equipped as he is with ideas derived from the many-sided, sensed experience of mankind, and in so far as he is permeated by that experience.
The question of the transition of experience into rational knowledge, of the preservation of sense experience in the latter, which occupies a most important place in the dialectical theory of knowledge, was first faced by Feuerbach, who criticized what he called the “drunken speculation” of Hegel. Hegel, although he was often formally correct in his treatment of the inherent connection of sense data and reason, did not understand the basis of that connection which remained for him therefore a fortuitous one.
Thought is nothing else than sensations connectedly read, says Feuerbach. Why then was he unable to find a complete solution of the problem of the relation of sense knowledge to reason?
The matter stands thus: Even the very smallest generalization or mental conclusion is a certain activity of the subject. The movement of knowledge in the direction of ever deeper connections supposes an active, operative relationship of the subject to its object. By defining representations, ideas, as a mirror-like reflection of the object in consciousness, the Marx-Leninist theory of knowledge is only seeking to stress the material nature of the object and the reflection of its real aspects in representations. But from this mirror-like element in reflection, it by no means follows that human consciousness, like a lifeless reflecting surface, mirrors only that which immediately stands in front of it, nor that our consciousness, like a material mirror, always and in the same way reflects objects according to some immutable laws of its own, and consequently gives, at any given point, either absolute truth or absolute falsehood. By drawing such conclusions from the theory of reflection, opponents of the Marx-Leninist philosophy, such as Max Adler, have either deliberately or inadvertently distorted it; like Axelrod, they “forget” that this “reflecting” knowledge is an active moment of historical, evolutionary, social practice.
“The practice of man, by repeating itself millions of times, is fortified in consciousness by the figures of logic,” says Lenin concerning the actual historic basis of the so-called “eternal” forms of logical thought.
Of course, being the exponent of contemplative materialism, and not understanding practical action, Feuerbach was quite unable to solve the problem of exactly how the sense data are synthesized, just how ideas come into existence. He could only state that which required explanation. But thence flows the perversity of his whole position; not being able to resolve the question of how this change took place he had no notion of what it consisted in. To put it simply: Instead of explaining the uniqueness of logical thought, as a higher stage of knowledge of the material world which contains sense knowledge within itself as one of its moments and depends upon it, Feuerbach reduces logical knowledge to the level of elementary sensations.
As regards the German idealists, they could never solve this problem because they persisted in treating both the subject and its activity idealistically. The Hegelian understanding of dialectic as a theory of knowledge is nothing else than the disclosure of the immanent process of the enrichment of knowledge on the basis of the activity of thought. The German idealists by endowing only thought itself with activity could not resolve the problem of the transition of the sensed to the logical, since the sensed itself was understood by them as a derivative from the logical and as possessing no basis of its own.
A philosophical system, in which the sensed is regarded as something external and foreign to the logical, where all the independence of the material of sensations vanishes into “pure” thought, was naturally incapable of finding the way out. That can only be done if the subject is regarded as the materialistic but at the same time organic centre of an active process which indissolubly unites sensation and thought. This activity of the social subject is, however, the same thing as the material practice of social man. In this we have the sensuous apprehension of the world of objects by purposeful, directed action, an apprehension which thus includes a reasoned relationship to surrounding reality. It is this concrete human sensuous activity that Marx opposed to the purely ideal activity of German philosophy.
A rational relation to the object, as a moment of sensuous human activity, distinguishes a social man's perception of the surrounding world from the passive perception of it proper to an animal. Animals passively perceive material actuality by passively adapting themselves to the surrounding environment. Man actively confronts it. This contradiction also finds its expression in purpose, which characterizes man's relation to the external world. Everyone knows the dictum of Marx on that form of labour which appertains exclusively to man. It is this, that in contradistinction to animals, man “not only changes the form of that which has been given by nature – but also realizes at the same time his own conscious aim, which, like a law, defines the means and character of his actions and to which he is compelled to subordinate his will.”
And the further this or that stage of social development stands away from the period when man was still only an animal, the sharper is the distinction, and the more complete the conscious direction of his action. Instinctive man does not draw distinctions in nature. The conscious man distinguishes categories, which are the very essence of that process of distinction which is knowledge itself, which are, as it were, the knots of a net that assists man to apprehend and master reality.
This same activity of thought which is a moment in the general practical relationship of man to the surrounding world, has been turned into something self-sufficient by the German idealists. In actuality both the conscious aim of action and the understanding of the material conditions of its realization are included in the process of social practice, are brought forth by it and evolve on its basis. The recurrence in practice of various phenomena with which man comes into contact, the reproduction of phenomena, the substitution of one object for another, the union of very different objects in the reproduction of conditions of social life, etc. – all these create the basis for generalizations, conclusions.
Engels points out that the notion of the causal connection of phenomena, which expresses the objective connection of various aspects of the material world, arose from the very fact of man's active changing of nature by his activity. Man, by reproducing the conditions necessary for the occurrence of any given phenomenon, by acting upon one phenomenon and thereby evoking from it another – often something not previously met in relation to the first phenomenon – rises to the level of an understanding of causal relations.
“We not only find” – he writes – “that after a known movement there follows another movement, we also find that we are in a position to reproduce that movement by creating the conditions in which it issues in nature; we find too that we are in a position to evoke movements which are not even to be met with in nature (or at least, are not met with in that precise form) and that we can give to these movements such characteristics and quantities as we may decide on beforehand. Thanks to this, thanks to the action of man, there is created the notion of causality, the notion that one movement is the cause of another.”
Sensuous human activity increases with the development of the instruments of production, with the perfecting of technical devices, by the aid of which the further study of objective processes is made possible. The instruments of production assist the extension of the reality apprehended by the senses, by lengthening the human arm, by perfecting man's eyes and ears. The microscope, the telescope, the most accurate measuring instruments, etc., assist in the enrichment of sensed material, in the human perception of the surrounding world, and by this means create a basis for ever wider and deeper generalizations.
The whole development of social-historic practice, taken in all its moments, creates a basis for theoretical generalizations. For example, one can take the development of socialistic revolution, which draws millions into political struggle and creates in the minds of millions of people premises for the Marx-Leninist understanding of reality. And the more revolutionary practice spreads and the deeper the historic crises in which the contradiction and connections of reality emerge ever more starkly, so much the wider is the possibility of a right understanding of the object (that possibility is not realized fundamentally without the previous mastery of the whole store of knowledge that has been accumulated by man). The analysis of the different stages in the development of social practice shows incontrovertibly that the depth and width of the theoretic generalizations that correspond to that stage are indissolubly and organically connected with the wealth of the factual world, as comprehended in direct experience at the given stage.
Theory and practice interact with one another. Were there no hypotheses, no scientific generalizations, no theoretical “plan” behind the creating of a telescope, there would not be one, and there would be no possibility of widening the field of sensed vision. Without a development of our understanding of the objective world in practice, there would be no refinement of hearing or taste, no “trained” eye, which detects the finest shades and modulations of colours.
Compel a man who is of a primitive level of culture to listen to a symphony, and he will grasp nothing in it except a chaos of sounds that deafens and confuses him. A sharp contrast is presented by the hearing of a musician, who can detect the plan of musical development in the symphony and the function of every note in the harmonious whole.
The senses of man develop and are perfected along with the development of social-historic practice, the index of whose stage of development is the ability to generalize, and the level of theoretic thought. They have, therefore, a deeply historic character. Marx in attacking Feuerbach's physiological, anti-historical understanding of sensation emphasizes that “the education of the five senses is the product of universal history.” “A needy man, full of cares” – says Marx – “is not able to understand a very beautiful composition. The dealer in minerals sees only their money value, not the beauty or the special character of the minerals; he has no mineralogical sense.” The historic character of the five senses is determined by the level of development of human history, by the concrete practice of social man. Marx stresses the gulf that lies between the senses of a savage and of a man in a higher stage of evolution; the senses of a man of primitive society are, in his opinion, to be radically distinguished from the senses of man as contemporary with the epoch of capitalism.
Practice, by its creation of the unity and mutual conditioning of the sensed and the logical moments of knowledge, is, at once, a verification of the correctness of both of them, and a measure of the truth of knowledge as a whole. In this same verification there is realized in its turn the mutual transition of the sensed and. the logical, and we notice that the verification of any theory – the transformation of it into life – is at the same time a creation of a new objectivity that is now accessible to direct perception. Practice is the crown and completion of the ideal and, as such, unites in itself both the moment of universality, attainable at once by reason, and the great diversity of sensed material. “Practice” – Lenin emphasizes – “is higher than theoretical knowledge, because it has not only the property of generality, but also direct actuality.”
In this “completion” of the ideal is shown the objective content of the latter. Ideas have as their basis human action, the attribute of man alone; they give him his uniqueness, since they have no place in any other forms of the movement of matter.
The transformation of scientific theory into life, and the possibility,
on its basis, of uniting and dissociating the different forms of
movement of the material world, that are found outside the human head,
and of manipulating them according to previously formed aims – these
disclose the close connection of theory with objectivity.
Marx and Lenin call objective truth that in our knowledge “which depends neither on the subject, nor on man, nor on society.” The question of objective truth occupies a central place in the Marx-Leninist theory of knowledge. Plekhanov, because of his failure to understand this question of objective truth, stumbled, with his hieroglyphic theory and his “belief” in objective reality, into the paths of agnosticism and idealism.
Lenin's attitude was always unusually guarded and he was careful to check the least tendency to deviate from an objective view of truth, holding that it led inevitably to subjectivism and agnosticism. As an example of his irreconcilable hostility to such deviations, we may refer to his comments on Bukharin's Economics of the Transition Period. Bukharin speaks of “considering”certain elements in the productive progress from a particular “point of view,”from which they are “theoretically interesting.” Lenin's marginal comments run: “The wrong expressions. Solecism. Subjectivism. The point lies not in who ‘considers,’ to whom it is ‘interesting,’ but in that which is, independent of human consciousness."
This insistence on the independence of the external world from human consciousness is the principle that distinguishes the dialectical materialist from the subjectivist in his attitude to objective truth. For Bogdanov the objectivity of a thing has only one meaning – its “general significance.”
“The objective character of the physical world,” says Bogdanov, “lies in this, that it exists not for me personally, but for everybody and has for everyone a definite significance, which I am assured is just the same as it is for me. The objectivity of the physical order is its general significance.”
As we see from the foregoing, Bogdanov means by objectivity the coincidence of representations in the consciousness of a number of “co-men,” and only that; thus he denies a purely concrete objectivity of nature, i.e., its independence of man and of human existence. The Bogdanovian principle of “general significance” sets the objectivity of the material world wholly in dependence on the subject, as a result of which the distinction between science and superstition seems to be obliterated. This last point is sharply stressed by Lenin, who declares that it can be said of any religious belief you like that it possesses “general significance,” because even to-day it may be found that a “great part of mankind” cling to it. The other character of objective truth, according to Bogdanov, is that it is connected with social organization; but this too, in Lenin's opinion, relates it to almost any form of social superstition.
Although not materialists, the neo-Kantians also accept the objectivity of knowledge. The favourite boast of these neo-Kantians, whom we find in the ranks of reformist socialism, is that they are thoroughly scientific in their study of objective reality. Moreover, this objectivity of scientific understanding is, in their opinion, given not from its correspondence with an object independent of the subject, but by a unity of the logical categories and by the common possession by all subjects of a simple super-subjective consciousness.
In distinction from this interpretation, scientific truth for materialists is defined as a concordance of ideas and of objective reality, “which is copied, photographed and reflected by our sensations, while existing independent of them.”
However, a logical attainment of objective truth together with the power to carry the materialistic principle into life is not reached merely by granting that an object independent of human consciousness exists. It is necessary to disclose the object in all its concreteness and fullness, in the light of all its connections and relations, and in all its aspects.
“The aggregate of all the aspects of a phenomenon, their actuality and their mutual-dependence – that is the source of truth,” Lenin points out, taking into account all the aspects of an object in their mutual relationships. The determination of the place and role of each one of them; the reckoning of the multiform connections of the given object with its surroundings; the displaying of the object in its development, with an exposition of the source of its self-movement, of those chief basic contradictions, from the overcoming of which development and forward movement ensue; the detection of the uniqueness of the forms in which the essential contradictions express themselves and appear; the disclosure of the elements of the new content that lie in the old; the struggle of the new content with the old form; these are some of the aspects of really concrete experience to which Lenin directs our attentions in the search for objectivity.
On the basis of contemplative materialism, which deals only with the surface of phenomena, all kinds of distortions and perversions of objective truth are possible.
For example, the materialism of Kautsky and his disciples stops short with a simple statement of what meets the eye; it ignores underlying contradictions and the necessity for discerning what is basic and essential in the phenomenon from what is secondary. The result is that the different aspects of the object emerge before the knower with but a single meaning, and facts are equated without regard to the differences underlying their unity. It is materialism of this sort that fails to understand the true meaning of capitalism because by dwelling only on the surface it ignores the ever strengthening basic contradictions; it ignores the class struggle which is the determining factor in the actual development of capitalism.
A similar distorted understanding of truth lies at the base of all opportunism. For example, in stating the general contradiction between evolving capitalism and the feudalistic order in the period of the revolution of 1905, the Menshevists excluded from their analysis the revolutionary activity of the proletariat and of the peasantry – excluded the very thing which promotes and resolves the self-creative contradictions of social development.
Lenin often reproached Plekhanov for “right wing” tendencies due to his love of abstractions. This is what Lenin wrote in a note on the second project of Plekhanov's programme for the Second Party Congress.
“The general and basic defect of this project, which makes it unacceptable, is this: it is not a programme of a practical fighting party but a mere voicing of principles. It is rather a programme for students (especially in the very important part that is devoted to the characteristics of capitalism) and for that matter elementary students, a programme in which capitalism in general is discussed, not even Russian capitalism.”
When facts or aspects of reality are considered discretely and out of relation with one another the ground is prepared for an arbitrary selection of facts and subsequent grouping of them to support some theory. But the real situation can only be known if the facts are seen in their actual relations, if the whole complex is examined as it is found.
It is just the failure to do this that led to the subjective distortion of events by the representatives of the Second International in the war-period of 1914, when the imperialist, predatory character of the war was obscured by sophisms about the freeing of oppressed nationalities, about “the aggressor,” about the right of every worker to defend his country. In these sophisms the particular covered the general, the fortuitous was set in the place of the law-determined, forgery was covered by the name of Marx: They cited the fact that Marx and Engels in the period of the wars of the ’50’s “also” stood on the side of one of the belligerent countries. They forgot that the national wars of that period were wars in which the progressive bourgeoisie was fighting against feudalism.
Eclecticism and sophistry of this sort are common in our day and form an instrument frequently used to distort objective reality and conceal it from the workers.
How often do we hear it said that it does not .matter of what sort a dictatorship is, whether bourgeois or proletarian, that a dictatorship is a dictatorship. It is a “subjective hotch-potch” when Kautsky, Trotsky and others with them declare that the new business methods of Soviet industry are a return to the capitalist methods of economy, that socialist competition is the resurrection of capitalist methods of competitive struggle between producers for the stimulation of their initiative.
Whence it follows that any abstract, lifeless, contemplative understanding of objective truth so far from contradicting subjectivism, and arbitrariness, leads inevitably to them.
Suppose then that we are careful to take full account of the moving, complex nature of reality, Can it be said that the fulfilment of this very important requirement guarantees a complete disclosure of objective truth at once, finally, and without mistake? In other words do we grasp objective truth in all its completeness or is its attainment a difficult, tortuous path pregnant with errors, with delusions and fantastic divagations. It is characteristic of most metaphysicians that they should fail to comprehend that the reflection of truth is an historic process. By admitting the absolute immutability of all that exists (including also truth itself), they hold that ourideas straightway grasp the object just as it is. The categories, which they use in this metaphysical fashion, are in their opinion eternal. Thus for instance the English economists, the forerunners of Marx (Adam Smith, Ricardo), considered the category “capital” as an absolute reflection of the relationship between people in the whole course of human history, beginning with primitive times and ending with bourgeois society. The researches of Marx (from the standpoint of the new social class) disclosed the complete futility of this metaphysical understanding of capitalism. Hegel's attempt in his idealistic system to express absolute knowledge is also metaphysical in this sense.
In most branches of scientific knowledge (natural science, history, philosophy, philology, psychology) there is no room for the metaphysical conception of absolute truth. The more scientific knowledge develops, the more obvious to everyone is the worthlessness of all claims to the attainment of absolute scientific truth at whatever stage. The old doctrine of the immutability of the species of plants and animals in the biological field has been for a long time discredited. The theory of phlogiston in chemistry has been replaced by that of Lavoisier. In the physical field the atomic theory has been replaced by the electronic; indestructibility of the chemical elements has been disproved. In art and literature one school gives place to another. In the field of philology the doctrine of an ancient Indo-European language underlying all others has been refuted. The falsity of the theory of the immutability and eternity of capitalist society (which is still even now preached by bourgeois historians) has not only been shown theoretically, but has been confirmed by the whole practice of proletarian dictatorship, the practice of constructing the basis of a classless society.
In the field of philosophy the old metaphysical view of the world has been set at nought by the science of the universal laws of the development of nature, of society and human thought – dialectical materialism. Indeed the latter, the most scientific reflection of actuality, is itself all the time being enriched and developed on the basis of our experience in the construction of socialism as well as by the latest discoveries of the different sciences. The Marxian theory of scientific socialism has been enriched by the Leninist doctrine of imperialism as the final decaying stage of capitalism; Marx's position on proletarian dictatorship has been developed and made concrete by Lenin, Stalin and the party as a whole.
But if the matter stands thus with scientific knowledge, if every theory in its time grows old and yields place to another, then are not those philosophers right who hold positions which, at first glance, are utterly contrary to our theory of absolute truth? Are not Bogdanov, Mach and other bourgeois philosophers (the pragmatists, the intuitivist Bergson) right when they assert a merely relative truthfulness for our knowledge, and its absolute conditionality?
The doctrine that regards knowledge as absolutely mutable, as deprived of any stability whatever, is not new. Such views were defended by schools of sophists and sceptics even in ancient Greece. In the new philosophy of relativism (the admission of nothing more than the relativity of processes) we witness the resurrection of Hume.
Followers of Mach have exalted relativism as one of the basic principles of their world-outlook. Petzoldt, for instance, holds that even Hume with his ideas has come to grief, by not finding his way to a systematic relativism. In him (as in his predecessor Hobbes) we find, he writes, only certain germs of relativism; it is Ernst Mach and Averarius who have revealed again this deeply buried truth and exalted it to the position of the main factor in their world-outlook. The relativists assert that relative truth quite excludes absolute truth. The “yesterday” of our knowledge is not like the “to-day,” the “to-day” not like the “to-morrow.” The past is not contained in the present at all. The present is in no degree connected with the future. All causal or rational succession in the evolution of scientific knowledge is denied. Such a view-point denotes nothing but subjective idealism and a complete denial of objective truth. This relativist understanding of truth is much used by subjective idealism in its conflict with materialism and the theory of reflection. How is it possible, say relativists, to assert that we reflect in our consciousness an object, if the whole history of knowledge shows that what yesterday we held to be the truth appears to-day as utter illusion? We must always be prepared, they assert, for any new scientific fact to expose all the illusions and errors of what is to-day's understanding of actuality. And, in general, the relativist continues, are we capable of attaining any degree of absolute knowledge if the instrument of knowledge, our senses and our apparatus of perception, is itself defective? Can man attain to the infinite, the unlimited, when he possesses five limited senses? Is it possible in the material of sensations, which is extraordinarily variable and transitory, to apprehend the constant, the law-directed? Is it possible to see firm contours in the variegated impressions that glitter in front of man? How can one speak of the objective grasping of an object if our sensations are utterly subjective and carry the stamp of that individual to whom they belong? How can we speak of a scientific reflection of an object or of the development of science, when even in the same epoch, at the same stage of the evolution of knowledge, every man has his own opinion, his own perception? What seems beautiful to one may appear to others as the extremity of shapelessness and ugliness; what pleases one disgusts another.
Here we see how the uprooting of sense experience from practice (in its widest sense) is responsible for relativism. “Man is the measure of things” – such is the conclusion the relativist arrives at when he denies all possibility of reaching the objectively true, the real, the eternal in what is transitory, and in principle sees no distinction between the true and the false. On the basis of such a view, truth and error, objective fact and illusion, scientific knowledge and superstition emerge as equally valid.
By breaking down the wall of division between truth and error,
relativism is driven into pure superstition. A number of modern
physicists have yielded to this strange aberration and as a result have
lapsed into idealism, into confessing the complete relativity of
scientific knowledge. They have taken the breakdown of the older
notions of the physical structure of matter to justify their
abandonment of all scientific belief in the reality of matter, of
energy, of space and time.
The epistemological basis of such views is the isolation and exaggeration of one aspect of human knowledge, the fact that it is limited. This fact results firstly from the reflection of the unlimited by limited subjects and secondly from the dependence of every theory on the limits set by the historic development of social practice. The inevitable incompleteness of reflection, of every theory of objective truth, the possible errors in it, are declared by the relativists to be a proof of the complete subjectivity of any scientific theory, and any attempt to see in the truths of science the reflection of a reality independent of man is held by them to be entirely vain.
It would give a false picture if in our analysis of modern relativism we dwelt only on its philosophical errors and omitted to point out that it provides a convenient theoretical justification of the flight from reality and the class struggle. Relativism is also very much in accordance with the world-outlook of the bourgeoisie, who are limited by the horizon of the present moment and who recoil in dread before any attempt to understand the future scientifically.
Relativism in our time offers certain advantages in the struggle with dialectical materialism. It is no longer any use to attack it from the standpoint of the older and discredited metaphysics. Everything that is happening, the rapid development of science, the revolutionary changes in society, the upheavals brought about by socialist construction, all these, show to every worker that reality is in process of change, and this is the basis of a materialistic dialectic. But relativism enables the bourgeois philosophers to draw a different conclusion and to conceal, behind the appearance of admitting change and development, a denial of the objectivity of the material world and a refusal to take part in the struggle for its actual and revolutionary change.
From all this we see that the relativism which seemingly contends so zealously with the old metaphysics for the admission of movement and change is in essence a variety of that same metaphysics.
Actual change can be understood only when we regard the different moments or stages of development as organically connected with each other, as a continuation of each other, when in our understanding of the connection and succession of the moments of movement we proceed from a single basis or from one source of movement, but this is just what the relativists will not allow. If we argue relatively then Marx’s doctrine, for instance, has no connection whatever either with English bourgeois political economy, or with Utopian socialism, or with German idealistic dialectic, or French materialism. But in actuality this is not so. Marxism included in itself all that was absolutely true in the content of the “three sources,” discarding their distortions and errors, i.e. essentially remaking them from the view-point of the new revolutionary class and on the basis of the new historic data. A number of modem bourgeois physicists have lapsed into idealism because by accepting the electronic theory of the construction of matter they thought they were compelled to deny the existence of atoms. Lenin showed that the electronic theory of the construction of matter is only a further deepening of our representation of the development of physical matter, that the old representation also contained a moment of absolute truth. From the point of view of relativism science each time begins from the beginning, with a complete denial of all preceding views. From the dialectical point of view, which rests on the actual history of scientific knowledge, each new stage of science stands on the shoulders of its predecessor and includes in itself all the absolute truth that lay in the former.
The Leninist dictum that the proletariat should master the old bourgeois culture is built on the very admission that in bourgeois culture, in comparison with the preceding formations, there is contained a very rich reflection of absolute truth. The proletariat therefore can build its own proletarian culture, and advance it beyond the development of all human culture so far attained, only by critically mastering and working over all that is positive in bourgeois culture.
The Leninist attitude to proletarian culture and its relationship to bourgeois culture is opposed firstly to Bogdanov’s attempt to abandon bourgeois culture and create an entirely new proletarian culture, and secondly to Trotsky’s acceptance of bourgeois culture as absolute and final and his conclusion that socialist culture can be left to grow by itself as best it can.
It is because of this very sequence of the successive grades of scientific knowledge that science can evolve. Knowledge advances by the road of contradiction. It is accompanied by errors, by deviations from the direct attainment of its object. The external appearance of things for a time hides the true content of objects from the eyes of the seeker. Thus when first we look at merchant-capitalist society the relations between people are hidden by the relations between things. But the practical mastery of the material world tears away the covering of appearance from the objects of investigation, rectifies error by transforming into actuality the true objective content of knowledge, and purges science of the illusory. Scientific experience, which is handed over by one generation to the next, and is each time enriched by some new scientific discovery, is all the time increasing the possibility of an adequate knowledge of the objective world. The experience of industrial practice, the traditions of revolution, scientific discoveries, the store of ideas, are handed over from one epoch to the next and ever more deeply disclose the infinite possibilities of human thought. In the unlimited advance of human history, at every new step of its development there is a fuller, richer, more diverse revelation of the absolute content of the material world, which content, though confined within historically limited ideas, is nevertheless absolute truth. The progressive advance of human thought, the law-governed connection of its different stages, were guessed in an inspired manner by Hegel, who criticized both the metaphysical view of knowledge (which admits only the eternity of truths), and relativism. In his Phenomenology of Spirit he characterizes the succession of philosophic systems in the following words:
“The more the ordinary mind takes the opposition between true and false to be fixed, the more is it accustomed to expect either agreement or contradiction with a given philosophical system, and only to see the one or the other in any explanation about such a system. It does not conceive the diversity of philosophical systems as the progressive evolution of truth; rather it sees only contradiction in that variety. The bud disappears when the blossom breaks through, and we might say that the former is refuted by the latter; in the same way when the fruit comes, the blossom may be explained to be a false form of the plant’s existence, for the fruit appears as its true nature in place of the blossom. These stages are not merely differentiated; they supplant one another as being incompatible with one another. But the ceaseless activity of their own inherent nature makes them at the same time moments of an organic unity, where they not merely do not contradict one another, but where one is as necessary as the other; and this equal necessity of all moments constitutes from the outset the life of the whole.”*
* Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit, Preface.
But, for Hegel, the inevitable development which gives rise to these different ideas and successive systems arises from a merely logical unfolding, so that they are revealed finally as only moments of the “absolute idea.” For dialectical materialists the unity of relative and absolute truth is based on the limitless development of social-historic practice, in which the systematic connections of the material world are disclosed.
The dialectical doctrine of the identity of relative and absolute truth makes it possible to avoid any subjectivism, agnosticism, or scepticism, which arise on the basis of either relativism or of a metaphysics which asserts the absoluteness of truth.
“From the view-point of modern materialism, i.e. Marxism,” writes Lenin, “the limits of the approach of our knowledge to objective absolute truth are conditioned historically, but the existence of that truth is unconditioned, the fact that we approach to it is unconditioned. The contours of the picture are historically conditioned, but the fact that this picture depicts an objectively existing model is unconditioned. In a word every ideology is historically conditioned, but the fact that to every scientific ideology (as distinct, for example, from the religious) there corresponds objective truth, absolute nature is unconditioned. You will say: this distinction of relative and absolute truth is indeterminate. I answer to you; it is just ‘indeterminate’ enough to prevent the turning of science into a dogma in the bad sense of that word, into something dead, frozen, shackled; but at the same time it is ‘determinate’ enough to keep aloof in the most resolute and irrevocable fashion from fideism* and agnosticism, from philosophic idealism and from the sophisms of the followers of Hume and Kant.”
* Fideism. If scientific “truths” are only symbols or are accepted only because of their convenience it is clear that they are only true for us because we choose to have them so. Socialism itself becomes such a “truth,” in other words it is a “faith.” This is fideism and it is of course a form of scepticism and subjectivism.
The conditionality, the relativity of every different step of knowledge of actuality (and only in these successive stages is absolute truth disclosed) are engendered by the limitations that are proper to each given stage of social practice and dictate our notions of the object. Wherefore thought is not able finally to grasp truth as a whole. The inevitable and necessary abstractions of thought may cause it to lose touch with actuality. Its limitations will necessarily contain the possibility of error.
The failure to understand that the given historical conditions will be superseded at a higher stage of historic development has brought those who do not master dialectic – Kantians and Machists – a complete denial of objective truth. “This problem (i.e. the problem of unknowableness) of the “thing-in-itself,” writes Engels, “can have a certain sense; we can attain knowledge only in the given conditions of our epoch, only just as far as these conditions allow.” But the limitations of the historic conditions, the limitations of world-outlook, the relative scarcity of amassed knowledge are historical limitations; they are not based on any fundamental principle rendering knowledge in the very nature of things impossible; they can therefore be to a certain degree overcome at a higher level of historic development.
In just the same way the limitations of the knowledge of actuality of a separate man, with his narrow experience (as compared with society as a whole), are extended by experience through the connection of the individual with a whole class, with all society, through the mastery of that knowledge which makes up the product of all the preceding history of human thought. These limitations of social knowledge are being overcome today more than at any previous stage in the history of mankind. For in the present transition period, the period of building a classless society, millions are being drawn into conscious socialist construction, mass inventiveness is developing and the situation is offering unlimited possibilities for the free development of the creative initiative of the masses on the basis of a scientific world-outlook. The new practice – socialist construction – overcomes the limited and distorted bourgeois ideology, reveals the errors accumulated during the centuries, serves as a material basis on which the cultural heritage of the old society is worked over, and gives a great impetus to the further development and concretization of the knowledge of objective truth.
The new historic stage of development of mankind, which for the first time in history has made possible a scientific approach not only to the problem of how to control and change the physical world but also society itself, has created conditions for a most deep and fruitful knowledge of objective truth.
On the basis of this new historic stage we find that even the most complete forms of scientific thought, such as the doctrine of Marx on capitalist society, Lenin’s doctrine of imperialism, or the theories of scientific socialism, are not absolute truths, but are capable of further development and precision and consequently contain in themselves moments of relativism.
The Leninist conception of the endless extension of the knowledge of any object (and consequently of the relativity of that knowledge at any given stage) refers not only to the knowledge of those objects which evolve in the period of man’s knowledge of them, but also to those which remain relatively immutable during the time of man’s whole existence or have already in the past finished the whole cycle of their development. Our knowledge of the nature of chemical elements, of chemical relations, becomes ever deeper and completer, in spite of the fact that the nature of the earth’s chemical elements (with the exception of the radio-active) have not changed at all during the period of existence of mankind. Our knowledge of the past geological epochs is all the time becoming richer, in spite of their having finished their cycles hundreds of millions of years ago. The scientific knowledge of feudalism became possible only after the sound of knightly tournaments, of peasant wars and of insurrections in bourgeois towns had ceased to echo. And the knowledge of capitalism becomes ever fuller and deeper according as capitalism is destroyed under the pressure of its own contradictions and the blows of proletarian revolution which such contradictions bring forth. The endlessness of knowledge is based on the limitless wealth of the development of the material world and the infinite variety of aspects and connections at every step of its development. The higher the level of social practice and the more completely all the aspects of actuality are grasped by it, so much the deeper is our knowledge of actuality, both of that which is the direct object of sensed human action, and of that which is brought forward from the past and embodied in the present.
But, as we pointed out above, there exists a fundamental distinction in principle between the relativists and the dialectical materialists. For the dialectical materialist, the knowledge of the basic law-system, if it is confirmed by the criterion of historic social practice, enters into the iron inventory of permanent scientific knowledge.
The development of practice, the enrichment of factual material and the development of scientific knowledge which is connected with these, can make our knowledge of basic law more concrete, can even show that that law-system which was regarded by us in the past stage as fundamental and universal is itself rooted in another deeper law-system and is its partial form. But all this in no measure destroys the fact that in that law-system we had reflected a “little bit” of absolute truth.
When the representatives of the Second International at the time of the imperialist war sought on a basis of incomplete study and “insufficient” discussion of national and international tactics to controvert the truth of the Basle* pronouncement on the imperialist, predatory character of the coming war, Lenin wrote:
* Basle Manifesto. The resolution on War adopted at the Basle Internationalist Socialist Congress of 1912. This, says Lenin, “represents the most exact and complete, the most solemn and formal exposition of the socialist views on war and on tactics in relation to war.” It declares that imperialist war “cannot be justified by even the slightest pretext of being in the interest of the people.” Nevertheless it was “forgotten” in 1914 when the parties to the signatures supported their national Governments.
“Such assertions are sophisms because they confuse a many-sided scientific analysis of imperialism, which analysis only now begins and which analysis in its essence is infinite even as science is infinite, with the essentials of socialist tactics against capitalist imperialism, which tactics have been pointed out in millions of copies of Social-Democratic papers and in the decisions of the International.”*
* Lenin, Works, vol. xviii, p. 277.
The same thought on the infinity of knowledge in any realm of actuality is expressed by Lenin in many other passages in his writings; he stresses it very clearly in his discussion of trade unions. Speaking of the demands that are put forward by dialectical logic in its study of an object, he picks out the most important, the study of an object as that which sums up and is permeated by the past, in all its relations and all its fullness. He adds “We never shall attain this completely, but the demand for all-sidedness will save us from errors and deadness.” We shall never get a reflection of an object that will hold good for ever, since nature, society and thought are endlessly evolving, but we shall get an ever more complete reflection.
In the development of scientific knowledge a unity of absolute and relative truth is realized. On the one hand dialectic as a theory of knowledge admits the endlessness of the attainment of knowledge, never making absolute even its truest reflection, for if it did so it would cease to express the dialectic of the material world and thus lose its power of “guidance for action”; on the other hand dialectic admits the absoluteness, the fullness of the process of scientific knowledge as a whole and the presence of “little bits” of absolute truth in every scientific proposition, because it sees in it a firm basis for the assured advance of revolutionary practice.
The refusal to admit the unity of absolute and relative truth leads
inevitably to the admission of one of these to the exclusion of the
other, leads either to the changing of theory into dogma, or to a
direct denial that theory is a reflection of actuality and therefore
capable of furnishing a scientific basis for the revolutionary changing
of actuality. These alternatives are different in form but identical in
essence; they both refuse to allow theory as “guidance for action.”
Click here to return to the Archives Material
Click here to go to Section II of Marxist Philosophy