Book Review: A Chapter on Dialectical Materialism
What was that I just heard you mention? interrupted a fellow at a public meeting. “Dialectical Materialism,” impressively replied the speaker. “Then I’ll have a shilling each way on that for the Derby,” said the questioner.
I confess to having a certain sympathy with the fellow who mistook a principle of philosophical thought for a racehorse. The phrases connected with science or philosophy are generally so unfamiliar to those to whom the Socialist message is directed, that little excuse may be allowed for their use without due qualification as to their meaning. Those who labour to produce little for themselves and very much for other people are somewhat prone to take unkindly to abstract terms of any kind outside their everyday workaday. The average worker’s lack of education and training in science and philosophy, together ‘with the anxiety attendant upon the ever-pressing need of obtaining their means of subsistence often militates against their readily grasping complex names and theories.
We feel certain that many are those who, after having listened to a discourse on any aspect of social science, have retired like Omar of old— by quitting the same door as in they went. We mention this, whilst being fully alive to the fact that unusual phrases cannot always be avoided.
But the real educationists, those who wish to instruct, as distinct from the type who would have us “see what clever fellows we are,” seldom fail to endeavour to clarify their terms of reference.
He is most probably aware of this himself, since he says that whilst endeavouring to avoid the clumsy phrase “dialectical materialism” in outlining its meaning, “it would have been a miracle if I had not sometimes been too simple and sometimes too involved.” Anyhow, to have attempted a clear and precise presentation of a complex theory is admirable, and one may excuse Dr. Conze for any shortcomings in this direction —a materialist could hardly lay claim to the performance of miracles. The need of the working class to grapple with and master the essentials of any line of thought connected with either their subjugation or their emancipation is an imperative one, and should, therefore, be undertaken at all costs.
What, then, is this “dialectical materialism” about which we have heard so much in certain quarters, and about which Dr. Conze sets out to tell the story. He mentions that in order to comprehensively grasp its meaning “some background of knowledge of other philosophies is necessary.” This impels us to add that if all its ramifications are to be considered in the light of and distinct from other and older philosophies a much larger volume than the one we are reviewing will have to be composed.
It is with the name of Karl Marx that the theory of dialectical materialism is directly associated since it was he who, after taking up the materialist thought of his time, gave it that particular turn and direction which distinguishes Marx’s materialism from others, particularly that line of thought described by Engels as “metaphysical materialism.” Up to and including the time of Marx, materialism had claimed its champions from the times of ancient Greece and, despite the varied forms it assumed with different exponents, materialism generally stood for an attitude of mind opposed to the traditional supernaturalism of the ages. Not that this must be understood to imply that all materialist thought prior to Marx was free from the “God idea’’ in one form or another. A thin sort of theism had dominated the minds of even such profound thinkers as Bacon and Locke—a feature which caused Marx to satirically declare, “Theism is but an easy-going way of getting rid of religion.” Nevertheless the predominant characteristic of materialist thought was the insistence upon the method of observation and experimentation of known or presumably knowable natural forces. The data for study here, whether in astronomy, geology, biology or the various aspects of human existence, rested upon, the actual material at hand and what was known and verifiable rather than by the method of approach through preconceived pre-possessions concerning “supernatural causes,” or what is known in philosophy as the a priori method of thinking.
From the time that man emerged from his apelike condition of primitive times he has always had to live by and through some working and workable arrangements with the conditions of his environment. That arrangement has been made by man himself, first out of the material of mother earth and next by the uses of such material which he has had to discover by his own unaided efforts. Mankind may have had distorted conceptions; in fact, they have had them galore, about the whys and wherefores of existence, but in the mere fact of living and causing his species to persist, the severely practical side of all human life has ultimately shaped man’s philosophies rather ‘than vice versa.
That “in the beginning was action” is a sound principle or guide in philosophic thought, and one thoroughly well but broadly stated by Engels—“before there was argumentation there was action ” . . . “and human action had solved the difficulty long before human ingenuity invented it.” “The proof of the pudding is in the eating.” It is on this note that the materialism of Marx is seen to be in striking contrast with that of his predecessors or his contemporaries. Although in the ultimate sense the Socialist view of life may and does turn to a definite scientific attitude to all phenomena, whether animate or inanimate, the Marxian is primarily concerned with the activities of human society. Its rise and growth, its own laws of development, and what are its component parts form the essentials of Marxian theories. Where previous materialist thought had ignored or failed to tackle the problem of the underlying causes of social development Marx, who had studied and learned much of the world’s leading philosophical and scientific thought, applied a method of interpreting history which has borne illuminating results. The name by which Marx’s (and also Engels’s) theory of historical development has been generally known is “the materialist conception of history,” or “ historical materialism.” We have endeavoured to outline the essentials of this theory in the Socialist Standard in the past, so will let it suffice at present to refer those further interested thereto, or better still, to the works of Marx and Engels themselves.
Where, then, does the phrase “ dialectical ” come from? And what does it mean in any case? To get to reasonably close grips with the question it is necessary, we think, to look back at the leading philosophy of Germany at the time that both Marx and Engels first saw the light of day. Dr. Conze reminds us that in the work of Hegel, the most noted of German philosophical thinkers, we are presented with “a most wonderful and precious instrument,” the “dialectical method.” Dr. Conze is, of course, entitled, if he so wishes, to describe it as “ wonderful and precious,” but for many reasons we would prefer to acclaim it more modestly as very useful.
“ Dialectics,” says Dr. Conze, “ is that way of thinking which works with the assumption of a unity of opposites and of the reality of contradictions.” We do not feel seriously disposed to quarrel with this definition, but we certainly think that dialectics embraces something more than the bare definition given by our author.
The entire Hegelian philosophy rested upon an evolutionary conception of the universe. To Hegel all things are of a transitory nature, they are in a process of constantly coming into being and passing away to other and higher forms which, in turn, are subject to the same process or processes. This was identical with the leading thought of ancient Greece, but with, of course, the accumulated knowledge of the intervening centuries.
Heraclitus like many others of his times, had formulated the same law of existence that “Everything is and is not, for everything is fluid, is constantly coming into being and passing away.”
But in the domain of human society the principle by which social institutions have their being and pass away was a problem not satisfactorily met by Hegel.
Though he emphasised the law of motion in nature and human history to proceed through contradictions inherent in the nature of all phenomena, his philosophy had to conclude and subside within its own contradiction, which reminds us of the comment written by Engels when dealing with Hegel; “As regards all philosophies, their system is doomed to perish, and for this reason, because it emanates from an imperishable desire of the human soul, the desire to abolish all contradictions. But if all contradictions are once and for all disposed of, we have arrived at the so-called absolute truth, history is at an end, and yet it will continue to go on, although there is nothing further left for it to do—thus a newer and more insoluble contradiction ” (Feurbach, page 48).
Nevertheless, the dialectical method of Hegel had, if not settled a problem, at least propounded one, and Marx took up the dialectic where Hegel left it, and transformed it anew as a weapon of understanding of what the contradictions in human society consist, and what are the actual factors upon which the process of social development proceeds.
From a method of interpreting the whole panorama of life as though it were governed by the working out of an “ idea” immanent in nature and history—as Hegel had conceived—Marx turned the method into one of viewing the make-up of human history in the light of the reciprocal actions of man and his environment at different stages of history. In this we see that humanity does not effect its history out of “ ideas ” operating of their own volition as though a “ mental world ” were an independent entity.