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Marxist Philosophy

 What is philosophical materialism?

What is dialectics?

What is alienation?

What about Marxism and existentialism, post-modernism, etc?

On the prevailing ideas of any age

Q.  What is philosophical materialism?

From V.I. Lenin’s Karl Marx—A Brief Biographical Sketch with an Exposition of Marxism (Lenin Collected Works, Volume 21)

A. Beginning with the years 1844-45, when his views took shape, Marx was a materialist and especially a follower of Ludwig Feuerbach, whose weak point he subsequently saw only in his materialism being insufficiently consistent and comprehensive. To Marx, Feuerbach’s historic and “epoch-making” significance lay in his having resolutely broken with Hegel’s idealism and in his proclamation of materialism, which already “in the 18th century, particularly French materialism, was not only a struggle against the existing political institutions and against . . . religion and theology, but also… against all metaphysics” (in the sense of “drunken speculation” as distinct from “sober philosophy”). (The Holy Family, in Literarischer Nachlass)

“To Hegel… ,” wrote Marx, “the process of thinking, which, under the name of ‘the Idea’, he even transforms into an independent subject, is the demiurgos (the creator, the maker) of the real world…. With me, on the contrary, the ideal is nothing else than the material world reflected by the human mind, and translated into forms of thought.” (Capital, Vol. I, Afterward to the Second Edition.) In full conformity with this materialist philosophy of Marx’s, and expounding it, Frederick Engels wrote in Anti-Duhring (read by Marx in the manuscript):

“The real unity of the world consists in its materiality, and this is proved… by a long and wearisome development of philosophy and natural science….

“Motion is the mode of existence of matter. Never anywhere has there been matter without motion, or motion without matter, nor can there be…. Bit if the… question is raised: what thought and consciousness really are, and where they come from; it becomes apparent that they are products of the human brain and that main himself is a product of Nature, which has developed in and along with its environment; hence it is self-evident that the products of the human brain, being in the last analysis also products of Nature, do not contradict the rest of Nature’s interconnections but are in correspondence with them….

“Hegel was an idealist, that is to say, the thoughts within his mind were to him not the more or less abstract images [Abbilder, reflections; Engels sometimes speaks of “imprints”] of real things and processes, but on the contrary, things and their development were to him only the images, made real, of the ‘Idea’ existing somewhere or other before the world existed.”

In his Ludwig Feuerbach—which expounded his own and Marx’s views on Feuerbach’s philosophy, and was sent to the printers after he had re-read an old manuscript Marx and himself had written in 1844-45 on Hegel, Feuerbach and the materialist conception of history—Engels wrote:

“The great basic question of all philosophy, especially of more recent philosophy, is the relation of thinking and being… spirit to Nature… which is primary, spirit or Nature…. The answers which the philosophers gave to this question split them into two great camps. Those who asserted the primary of spirit to Nature and, therefore, in the last instance, assumed world creation in some form or other… comprised the camp of idealism. The others, who regarded Nature as primary, belonged to the various schools of materialism.”

Any other use of the concepts of (philosophical) idealism and materialism leads only to confusion. Marx decidedly rejected, not only idealism, which is always linked in one way or another with religion, but also the views — especially widespread in our day — of Hume and Kant, agnosticism, criticism, and positivism in their various forms; he considered that philosophy a “reactionary” concession to idealism, and at best a “shame-faced way of surreptitiously accepting materialism, while denying it before the world.” On this question, see, besides the works by Engels and Marx mentioned above, a letter Marx wrote to Engels on December 12, 1868, in which, referring to an utterance by the naturalist Thomas Huxley, which was “more materialistic” than usual,, and to his recognition that “as long as we actually observe and think, we cannot possibly get away from materialism”, Marx reproached Huxley for leaving a “loop hole” for agnosticism, for Humism.

It is particularly important to note Marx’s view on the relation between freedom and necessity: “Freedom is the appreciation of necessity. ‘Necessity is blind only insofar as it is not understood.'” (Engels in Anti-Duhring) This means recognition of the rule of objective laws in Nature and of the dialectical transformation of necessity into freedom (in the same manner as the transformation of the uncognized but cognizable “thing-in-itself” into the “thing-for-us”, of the “essence of things” into “phenomena). Marx and Engels considered that the “old” materialism, including that of Feuerbach (and still more the “vulgar” materialism of Buchner, Vogt and Moleschott), contained the following major shortcomings:

  1. This materialism was “predominantly mechanical,” failing to take account of the latest developments in chemistry and biology (today it would be necessary to add: and in the electrical theory of matter);

  2. The old materialism was non-historical and non-dialectical (metaphysical, in the meaning of anti-dialectical), and did not adhere consistently and comprehensively to the standpoint of development;

  3. It regarded the “human essence” in the abstract, not as the “complex of all” (concretely and historically determined) “social relations”, and therefore morely “interpreted” the world, whereas it was a question of “changing” it, i.e., it did not understand the importance of “revolutionary practical activity”.

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Q.  What is dialectics?

From V.I. Lenin’s Karl Marx—A Brief Biographical Sketch with an Exposition of Marxism (Lenin Collected Works, Volume 21)

A.  As the most comprehensive and profound doctrine of development, and the richest in content, Hegelian dialectics was considered by Marx and Engels the greatest achievement of classical German philosophy. They thought that any other formulation of the principle of development, of evolution, was one-sided and poor in content, and could only distort and mutilate the actual course of development (which often proceeds by leaps, and via catastrophes and revolutions) in Nature and in society.

“Marx and I were pretty well the only people to rescue conscious dialectics [from the destruction of idealism, including Hegelianism] and apply it in the materialist conception of Nature…. Nature is the proof of dialectics, and it must be said for modern natural science that it has furnished extremely rich [this was written before the discovery of radium, electrons, the transmutation of elements, etc.!] and daily increasing materials for this test, and has thus proved that in the last analysis Nature’s process is dialectical and not metaphysical.

“The great basic thought,” Engels writes, “that the world is not to be comprehended as a complex of ready-made things, but as a complex of processes, in which the things apparently stable no less than their mind images in our heads, the concepts, go through an uninterrupted change of coming into being and passing away… this great fundamental thought has, especially since the time of Hegel, so thoroughly permeated ordinary consciousness that in this generality it is now scarcely ever contradicted. But to acknowledge this fundamental thought in words and to apply it in reality in detail to each domain of investigation are two different things…. For dialectical philosophy, nothing is final, absolute, sacred. It reveals the transitory character of everything and in everything; nothing can endure before it except the uninterrupted process of becoming and of passing away, of endless ascendancy from the lower to the higher. And dialectical philosophy itself is nothing more than the mere reflection of this process in the thinking brain.” Thus, according to Marx, dialectics is “the science of the general laws of motion, both of the external world and of human thought.”

This revolutionary aspect of Hegel’s philosophy was adopted and developed by Marx. Dialectical materialism “does not need any philosophy standing above the other sciences.” From previous philosophy, there remains “the science of thought and its laws — formal logic and dialectics.” Dialectics, as understood by Marx, and also in conformity with Hegel, includes what is now called the theory of knowledge, or epistemology, studying and generalizing the original and development of knowledge, the transition from non-knowledge to knowledge.

In our times, the idea of development, of evolution, has almost completely penetrated social consciousness, only in other ways, and not through Hegelian philosophy. Still, this idea, as formulated by Marx and Engels on the basis of Hegel’s’ philosophy, is far more comprehensive and far richer in content than the current idea of evolution is. A development that repeats, as it was, stages that have already been passed, but repeats them in a different way, on a higher basis (“the negation of the negation”), a development, so to speak, that proceeds in spirals, not in a straight line; a development by leaps, catastrophes, and revolutions; “breaks in continuity”; the transformation of quantity into quality; inner impulses towards development, imparted by the contradiction and conflict of the various forces and tendencies acting on a given body, or within a given phenomenon, or within a given society; the interdependence and the closest and indissoluble connection between all aspects of any phenomenon (history constantly revealing ever new aspects), a connection that provides a uniform, and universal process of motion, one that follows definite laws — these are some of the features of dialectics as a doctrine of development that is richer than the conventional one. (See Marx’s letter to Engels of January 8, 1868, in which he ridicules Stein’s “wooden trichotomies,” which it would be absurd to confuse with materialist dialectics.)

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Q. What is alienation?

A. The basis of alienation under capitalism is the alienation of the worker from the product of his labor and the mystification of capitalist exploitation that tries to hide the real relation between wage labor and capital. Out of this hidden exploitation arises the fetishism of commodities whereby things (commodities) take on the attributes of living beings and humans are degraded to the level of “things”. These distorted, mystified (“alienated”) relations sink deep into human consciousness and are then regarded as something natural and inevitable. Thus, in the English language, workers are referred to as “hands”, and we often refer to a man as being “worth a billion dollars”. But the basis of this alienation is to be found in the relations of production and in property relations, which is merely a legal expression for the same thing. This is explained in the very profound and dialectical chapter in the first volume of Capital “On the Fetishism of commodities, and the Secret Thereof”.

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Q. What about Marxism and existentialism, post-modernism, etc.?

A. Many people wonder whether the ideas of Jean Paul Sartre, existentialism, phenomenology, the “New Left”, post-structuralism and post-modernism are somehow compatible with Marx’s thinking. These trends represent a petit-bourgeois attempt to find interpretations of the world that are different to Marxism. That is their common denominator and raison d’être. They proceed from entirely different premises and therefore cannot be made compatible with Marxism.

Marx started out with a study of the history of philosophy. In attempting to understand the development of philosophy and what it represented he came to the conclusion that the development of the means of production was ultimately the key to understanding the development of society. Does this mean that the causal relation between the development of the productive forces is direct and automatic? If that were the case, our task would be redundant because revolution would be unnecessary. The whole point is that the process is dialectical, involving a contradiction between the demands of economic development and the inevitable lag in human consciousness, ideas, theories, institutions, morality, etc. However, yes, in the final analysis, the development of the productive forces is decisive. Deny that and you will end in a mess.

These petit-bourgeois thinkers move in the opposite direction. They move away from the economic base and end up with “individualism”. They refute the class approach to understanding society precisely because it comes into conflict with their own individualistic way of thinking. These ladies and gentlemen spend all their lives in aimless “theoretical” meanderings which never come close to the real movement of society and the working class. Shut up in their university hot-houses, they are free to indulge themselves in politics as a hobby.

The decay of capitalism also affects the field of ideology and culture. Philosophy in our time has entered into a phase of irreversible decline. In all the trends of modern Western philosophy, one looks in vain for a single idea that has not been expressed long ago, and far better by others. Bourgeois philosophy has withered on the vine. It has nothing new or meaningful to say. For that very reason, it is justly subject to universal contempt, or, more accurately, indifference. Here again the baneful effects of the extreme division of labour make themselves felt with a vengeance. Isolated in their ivory towers, the academics pass their lives writing obscure theses which are read, and sometimes answered, by other academics. Few people understand what they write. Fewer still even care!

Let us take Existentialism. This is one of the emptiest of the modern bourgeois “philosophies” (it goes against the grain to dignify it with the name). Existentialism has its roots in the irrationalist trend of 19th century philosophy, typified by Nietzsche and Kierkegaard. It has assumed the most varied forms and political colouring. There was a religious trend (Marcel, Jaspers, Berdyayev and Buber) and an atheistic trend (Heidegger, Sartre, Camus). But its most common feature is extreme subjectivism, reflected in its preferred vocabulary: its watchwords – “being-in-the-world”, “dread”, “care”, “being towards death”, and the like. It was already anticipated by Edmund Husserl, a German mathematician turned philosopher, whose “phenomenology” was a form of subjective idealism, based on the “individual, personal world, as directly experienced, with the ego at the centre”.

Existentialism centres everything on the moment. All that you can achieve is in the moment in which you are living and anything before or after becomes irrelevant. It is an individualistic and extremely pessimistic view of the world, entirely at one with the psychology of the petty bourgeois intellectual. This is the very opposite of Marxism and inevitably leads you away from a class understanding. Thus it becomes irrelevant to study the past, to study overall processes. You must live for the moment and for yourself. This school of thought developed on the basis of the petit-bourgeois of the 1930s, ruined by the economic crisis and crushed between the working class and the big banks and monopolies. Politically and personally disoriented, and lacking any perspective, they had lost any hope in the future. One group of existentialists collaborated with the Nazis (Heidegger) while another for a time came within the orbit of Stalinism (Sartre). In neither case did they lose their essentially petty bourgeois idealist character.

With existentialism, we reach the complete dissolution of modern philosophy. It may be argued (probably correctly) that this world view reflects the irrationalism of the capitalist system in its period of senile decay. It would not be difficult to demonstrate that in every period of decline similar philosophical trends have emerged. They reflect the pessimism of the intellectual who, having a fairly comfortable life, is able to turn his back on society and seek salvation in the “dark night of the soul”.

Jean-Paul Sartre made an attempt to unite existentialism with “Marxism” (actually, Stalinism) and met with predictable results. One cannot unite oil and water. Sartre’s thought cannot be described as a coherent body of philosophical ideas. It is a disorderly mishmash of notions borrowed from different philosophers, particularly Descartes and Hegel. The end result is total incoherence, shot through with a pervading spirit of pessimism and nihilism. For Sartre, the fundamental philosophical experience is nausea, a feeling of disgust at the absurd and incomprehensible nature of being. Everything is resolved into nothingness. This is a caricature of Hegel, who certainly did not think that the world was incomprehensible. In Sartre’s writings, Hegelian jargon is used in a way that makes even Hegel’s most obscure passages seem models of clarity.

Jean-Paul Sartre represented the “left” wing of existentialism, as opposed to the openly fascist wing. That is to his credit. But he never broke with the mystical idealist basis of existentialism, dwelling on “Being and the threat of Nothingness”, “Freedom of Choice”, “Duty”, and so on. A sense of impending doom, and a feeling of powerlessness and “dread” fill these writings, accompanied by an attempt to seek an alternative on an individual basis. This expressed a certain mood among section of the intellectuals after the first world war in Germany, and then in France. What it indicates is the profound crisis of liberalism, as a result of “the Great War”, and the upheavals which followed in its wake. They saw the problems facing society, but could see no alternative.

Underlying all this is the feeling of the impotence of the isolated intellectual, faced with a hostile and uncomprehending world. In other words, the usual outlook of the petty bourgeois intellectual. The attempt to escape from the wicked world into individualism is summed up in Sartre’s celebrated (or notorious) phrase: “L’enfer, c’est les autres” (“Hell is other people”). How this outlook could ever be squared with the revolutionary optimism of dialectical materialism it is hard to imagine. But then, no-one could ever accuse Sartre of consistency. It is, of course, to his credit that he espoused progressive causes, like Vietnam and solidarized with the movement of the French workers and students in 1968. But from a philosophical and psychological point of view, the position of Sartre was completely foreign to Marxism.

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Q.  On the prevailing ideas of any age

A.  The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas; i.e. the class, which is the ruling material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force. The class which has the means of material production at its disposal, has control at the same time over the means of mental production, so that thereby, generally speaking, the ideas of those who lack the means of mental production are subject to it. The ruling ideas are nothing more than the ideal expression of the dominant material relationships, the dominant material relationships grasped as ideas; hence of the relationships which make the one class the ruling one, therefore the ideas of its dominance. The individuals composing the ruling class possess among other things consciousness, and therefore think. In so far, therefore, as they rule as a class and determine the extent and compass of an epoch, it is self-evident that they do this in their whole range, hence among other things rule also as thinkers, as producers of ideas, and regulate the production and distribution of the ideas of their age; thus their ideas are the ruling ideas of the epoch.  (Marx and Engels, The German Ideology – 1846)

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