Workers Vanguard No. 954

12 March 2010


In Defense of Dialectical Materialism

(Young Spartacus pages)

We print below a class given by Spartacist League Central Committee member Don Alexander to the New York Spartacus Youth Club in June 2009. It has been edited for publication.

This class is just to get our feet wet, to begin to absorb the history of Marxism—it wasn’t born in a vacuum. The purpose of the class is to uphold dialectical and historical materialism against all forms of subjective idealism.

Now, I’ll make some basic assertions, just so we’re all on the same page, as they say. Idealism proceeds from the premise that the material world is dependent on the spiritual. It asserts that the spirit, our mind and our ideas can and do exist in separation from matter. The most extreme form of this assertion is subjective idealism. Subjective idealism asserts that matter does not exist at all, but is pure illusion. Idealism asserts that there exists a realm of the mysterious and unknowable that’s above or behind what can be ascertained and known by perception, experience and science. Science is thrown out the window.

Materialism, in direct contradiction, states that the world is, by its very nature, composed of matter, and that everything that exists comes into being on the basis of material causes. Everything arises and develops in accordance with the laws of motion of matter. Materialism teaches that matter is objective reality, existing outside of and independent of ideas, and that, far from the mental existing in separation from the material, ideas, including spiritual ones, are a product of material processes. Materialism also teaches that the world and its laws are knowable and that, while much in the material world might not be known, there is no unknowable sphere that lies outside of the material world.

Our social consciousness reflects and is determined by our social being. I want to start with that because it’s not a commonplace, particularly in a period of great religiosity. That’s why the quote from the German Marxist Franz Mehring in the current Workers Vanguard is so timely [see “Franz Mehring: On Historical Materialism,” WV No. 938, 5 June 2009]. Mehring proceeds from the understanding that material economic conditions are primary in shaping any given society. In his pamphlet On Historical Materialism (1893), he also remarks that “the human mind is not the father of the mode of production, but the mode of production is the mother of the human mind.” I think this is a really good quote because it says what is.

Our discussions do not take place in a vacuum. Nothing exists in isolation, either in nature or in society. Contradiction, the unity and struggle of mutually opposed forces and tendencies, is inherent within things. Change and movement operate on the basis of contradictions. Contradictions constitute the foundation of movement. In Anti-Dühring [Herr Eugen Dühring’s Revolution in Science (1877-78)], Engels succinctly remarked, “Motion is the mode of existence of matter. Never anywhere has there been matter without motion, nor can there be.” So in other words, comrades, there is no supreme being, there is no god setting in motion the eternal universe. I don’t have to tell people here that.

Climbing Out of Obscurantism

The dialectical materialist conception is that all processes of nature and society are in a constant and uninterrupted process of change and development, of eternal becoming. Marx referred to this as “a scandal and abomination to bourgeoisdom and its doctrinaire professors, because it includes in its comprehension and affirmative recognition of the existing state of things, at the same time also, the recognition of the negation of that state, of its inevitable breaking up” (“Afterword to the Second German Edition,” Capital, Vol. I [1873]). It’s not the case that Marx is saying that all previous philosophical inquiries were rubbish. He just makes the point that the materiality of the world is demonstrated by the long and laborious development of the natural sciences.

The ancient materialists anticipated modern materialism, asserting the priority of nature over consciousness and ideas. The mechanical materialists of the 17th and 18th centuries directed their fire against the medieval theologians, and they maintained that material particles in the universe are constantly bombarding each other somewhat at random. They basically viewed human beings as machines. This was materialist, but it was also mechanical. Human consciousness includes one’s sensations and ideas as active factors in molding one’s environment to procure the means of subsistence. (The actual conditions and methods through which this occurs vary, of course, throughout the course of history.)

You’re familiar with René Descartes, the early 17th-century rationalist who believed that there are certain indubitable, self-evident propositions, for instance, the famous one, cogito ergo sum—“I think, therefore I am.” He figured out that you couldn’t doubt your existence if you didn’t exist. So, that almost exhausts my Latin.

Another profound statement of subjective idealism was from Bishop George Berkeley, who remarked—it was in the 18th century—esse is percipi—“to be is to be perceived.” So if you didn’t see a man slipping on a piece of ice in Central Park during a day in the winter, or if you weren’t present when somebody turned off the light to go to sleep, then it didn’t happen. Now, I’m going to let Berkeley speak for himself, because unlike most of the professional philosophers defending idealism, he rarely beat around the bush. In his Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge (1710) he alleged that:

“All the choir of heaven and the furniture of the earth, in a word all those bodies which compose the mighty frame of the world, have not any subsistence without a mind...that consequently so long as they are not actually perceived by me, or do not exist in my mind or that of any other created spirit, they must either have no existence at all, or else subsist in the mind of some Eternal Spirit.”

As you can see, we have been climbing our way out of obscurantism and idealist flights of fancy for a long time.

The Dialectical Method

The 1939-40 factional struggle within the then-Trotskyist Socialist Workers Party (SWP) is documented in Trotsky’s In Defense of Marxism. Trotsky wrote powerfully against the cliquist, anti-Soviet opposition of Max Shachtman, James Burnham and Martin Abern. He characterized them as a petty-bourgeois opposition. They maintained that dialectical materialism didn’t have anything to do with working out a concrete political position. I want to read you the opening to “A Petty-Bourgeois Opposition in the Socialist Workers Party”:

“It is necessary to call things by their right names. Now that the positions of both factions in the struggle have become determined with complete clearness, it must be said that the minority of the National Committee is leading a typical petty-bourgeois tendency. Like any petty-bourgeois group inside the socialist movement, the present opposition is characterized by the following features: a disdainful attitude toward theory and an inclination toward eclecticism; disrespect for the tradition of their own organization; anxiety for personal ‘independence’ at the expense of anxiety for objective truth; nervousness instead of consistency; readiness to jump from one position to another; lack of understanding of revolutionary centralism and hostility toward it; and finally, inclination to substitute clique ties and personal relationships for party discipline. Not all the members of the opposition of course manifest these features with identical strength. Nevertheless, as always in a variegated bloc the tinge is given by those who are most distant from Marxism and proletarian policy. A prolonged and serious struggle is obviously before us.”

Following Engels, Trotsky pointed out that, just as Darwin revealed the laws of development of living species of organic matter, so Marx revealed the laws of development of human history. (Darwin was not a conscious dialectician.) The economic forces of production play an indispensable role: they are the ultimate determining factor in social and economic life. The relationships between human beings producing their means of material survival determine the actual relations of production. See—you have to be able to eat and have clothing and shelter, to cooperate in some form or fashion, in order to be able to wrest a living from nature. Upon this rests the entire superstructure of society—the art and the politics and religion and the philosophy and the morality.

This doesn’t rule out, of course, the effects of the superstructure upon the economic base. The father of Russian Marxism, Georgi Plekhanov, had the highest praise for Antonio Labriola, the Italian Marxist, a great materialist thinker. But in The Materialist Conception of History (1897), Plekhanov pointed out that one of the weaknesses of Labriola was his tendency to isolate racial factors, explaining the development of human societies in terms of their norms of beauty and their rituals, etc. It’s not that these things shouldn’t be studied. Plekhanov gives the example of why women among the Ishavs in the Caucasus cut off their braids on the death of a brother, but not on the death of their husbands—what does this mean? Well, this stuff is interesting, but ultimately you have to look at how people procure their means of subsistence. That’s what’s dominant.

Comrades, the dialectical method is not merely a question of development in the abstract. There’s a bourgeois-liberal doctrine of development, of gradualness, that ignores the fact that there are leaps in nature and society, that one form of matter transforms into another through a sudden change. The dialectical method posits that everything in nature and society can only be understood in its fundamental connections with everything else and in its constant movement from simpler forms to higher forms, from quantity into quality.

Trotsky gave many examples about formal logic and its use and its limitations in this superb book, In Defense of Marxism. You know:

“The Aristotelian logic of the simple syllogism starts from the proposition that ‘A’ is equal to ‘A.’ This postulate is accepted as an axiom for a multitude of practical human actions and elementary generalizations. But in reality ‘A’ is not equal to ‘A.’ This is easy to prove if we observe these two letters under a lens—they are quite different from each other. But, one can object, the question is not of the size or the form of the letters, since they are only symbols for equal quantities, for instance, a pound of sugar. The objection is beside the point; in reality a pound of sugar is never equal to a pound of sugar—a more delicate scale always discloses a difference. Again one can object: but a pound of sugar is equal to itself. Neither is this true—all bodies change uninterruptedly in size, weight, color, etc….

“Every worker knows that it is impossible to make two completely equal objects. In the elaboration of bearing-brass into cone bearings, a certain deviation is allowed for the cones which should not, however, go beyond certain limits (this is called tolerance). By observing the norms of tolerance, the cones are considered as being equal. (‘A’ is equal to ‘A.’) When the tolerance is exceeded the quantity goes over into quality; in other words, the cone bearings become inferior or completely worthless.”

Trotsky succinctly describes dialectical thought as the following:

“Dialectical thinking is related to vulgar thinking in the same way that a motion picture is related to a still photograph. The motion picture does not outlaw the still photograph but combines a series of them according to the laws of motion....

“We call our dialectic, materialist, since its roots are neither in heaven nor in the depths of our ‘free will,’ but in objective reality, in nature.”

Successive Approximations

The German philosopher Georg Hegel was an absolute idealist who was very critically assimilated by Marxists, Lenin especially, and many others. He viewed history as the unfolding of the absolute idea. However, he also recognized that everything that exists changes uninterruptedly; everything comes into being and then passes out of existence. Marx and Engels stood his dialectical idealism, as they said, right side up and extracted its rational kernel from its mystical shell. In the aftermath of the defeat of the 1905 Revolution in Russia, Lenin had to fight for dialectical materialism against those known as the “god seekers” of his party, the Lunacharskys and the Bogdanovs. He forcefully defended the materialist dialectic against its detractors.

The article “Lenin as Philosopher” (Labour Review, September-October 1957) by Peter Fryer is just incredibly good, and I’ll get back to that. The Healyites, pseudo-Trotskyist political bandits who in 1959 formed the British Socialist Labour League, threw away a very valuable cadre. With characteristic modesty, Fryer wanted to know why we had such praise of him in the issue of Spartacist with our article “Healyism Implodes” (Spartacist [English-language edition] No. 36-37, Winter 1985-86). He didn’t think what he wrote was such a big deal, but he was certainly happy about the truthful account we gave of life in the Healyite jungle. That organization abused dialectics very regularly in the service of opportunist politics. As we explained in “Healyism Implodes,” they resolved the contradiction between a formally correct program and a corrupt internal “regime”:

“by sharp programmatic departures from Trotskyism: principally, their embrace of the Maoist ‘Cultural Revolution,’ which was at bottom nothing but an unusually degrading and violent falling out between sections of the Chinese Stalinist bureaucracy; and their line on the 1967 Arab-Israeli ‘Six Day War’ when, in the name of fighting Zionist racism and expansionism, they embraced a totally classless concept of an ‘Arab Revolution’ consisting of the despotic nationalist regimes which have cravenly colluded with imperialism and Zionism to dismember the Palestinian nation.”

Now, in “Lenin as Philosopher,” Peter Fryer writes about E.P. Thompson, who was a preeminent British Marxoid historian. Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class (1963) is still worth the read—I learned a lot from that. But Thompson claims—and Fryer refutes him—that Marxism is a form of economic reductionism that negates the subjective factor, or what he calls the human agency. In other words, Marxism ignores, allegedly, the role of human consciousness as an active factor. Thompson accuses Lenin of viewing consciousness as nothing but a passive mirror reflection of social reality. That is just exactly the opposite of the truth.

Fryer uses two really wonderful quotes from Lenin—these come from Lenin’s Philosophical Notebooks (1914)—which sum up dialectical knowledge as “an endless process of the deepening of men’s knowledge of things, phenomena, processes, etc., proceeding from appearance to essence and from essence less profound to essence more profound.” And, “When human intelligence grapples with a particular thing, draws from it an image (= a concept), that is not a simple, direct, dead act, it is not a reflection in a mirror, but a complex, twofold, zigzag act.”

Scientific Investigation of History

The International Communist League intervened in the unfolding political revolution in East Germany in 1989-90 based upon a program for proletarian political revolution in the East and socialist revolution in the West [see “For the Communism of Lenin and Trotsky!” Spartacist (English-language edition) No. 47-48, Winter 1992-93]. We didn’t win, but we fought, and that’s key. Afterwards, we had extensive discussion to try to grasp the various aspects of what had happened in that very complex, rapidly developing incipient revolution. Jan Norden, who in 1996 would defect from our organization to co-found the Internationalist Group (IG), belittled and denied the ICL’s role as the conscious revolutionary vanguard. He repeatedly claimed, “the key element was missing, revolutionary leadership.” The polemical reply, that “we were the revolutionary leadership” in Germany, has a core of truth but is still insufficient. Science proceeds through successive approximations.

What happened was not simply determined by what we did, although what we did was very important. To say otherwise ignores the actual balance of forces and is radically false, both politically and theoretically. While imprisoned under Mussolini, the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci wrote in The Modern Prince about the formation of what he called a “collective will,” that is, a compact group struggling for power. As Gramsci put it:

“The active politician is a creator, an awakener, but he neither creates from nothing nor moves in the turbid void of his own desires and dreams. He bases himself on effective reality, but what is this effective reality? Is it something static and immobile or is it not rather a relationship of forces in continuous movement and change of equilibrium? To apply the will to the creation of a new balance of the really existing and operating forces, basing oneself on that particular force which one considers progressive, giving it the means to triumph, is still to move within the sphere of effective reality, but in order to dominate and overcome it (or contribute to this).”

Here’s what Fryer says: sometimes there are unforeseen consequences of what one struggles for. He says that:

“The materialist recognition of the objectivity of being and its laws is, not yet freedom, but the requisite for all real freedom.

“It is of course perfectly true that men act with conscious aims and intentions. But no attempt to explain human history in terms of the conscious aims and intentions, wills and desires of men will advance our understanding very far. Man’s aims clash, and something happens which no one had intended, desired or foreseen. Therefore any scientific understanding of social development has to start from ‘the inner general laws’ which ultimately govern both the development of human society and the aims and intentions, ideas and theories, in people’s heads.”

So men’s aims clash. There were also forces that were active in East Germany in 1989-90 that tried to stop this process of incipient political revolution cold. One was Gorbachev’s Stalinist bureaucracy. After the January 3 demonstration against the fascist desecration of a memorial to Soviet soldiers at East Berlin’s Treptow Park, the German imperialists launched a furious anti-communist campaign. Then we saw the Stalinists driving full steam with the anti-Soviet, pro-capitalist West German Social Democratic Party—which we called the Trojan horse of capitalist counterrevolution—for capitalist reunification. [See “‘Workers Soviets Must Rule in All Germany!’” WV No. 948, 4 December 2009.]

Marxism is a scientific investigation of history that places the acts of individuals in their concrete historical context. So comrade Bert Mason’s article in the current Workers Vanguard was a fine contribution on the role of Lincoln in the American Civil War [“Honor Abraham Lincoln!” WV No. 938, 5 June 2009]. “Lenin as Philosopher” is superb; it’s a masterful analysis of dialectical contradictions. I especially appreciated that Fryer put his analysis in the context of World War I, when Lenin was studying Hegel and grappling with the betrayal by the German Social Democrats who had deserted to the side of their own bourgeoisie during the first imperialist world war. How did such a formidable workers party, with vast influence in the German proletariat, come to that state of opportunist degeneration? What was the process of economic and political and social development that led to their social-patriotic capitulation?

Well, that’s what Lenin dealt with in his Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism (1916). He examined all the phases of the development of an opportunist layer within the working class. Without this, one couldn’t understand how quantity turned into quality. Mutually opposed, contradictory tendencies are inherent in all phenomena of nature and society. Lenin explained how the unity and conflict of oppositions, the bourgeoisie and the proletariat in this case, worked themselves out. Lenin assiduously studied Hegel, and we have to, too.

I wrote a short note about an article in Workers Vanguard that was uncritical of the American philosopher John Dewey, that quoted Dewey approvingly without criticizing him philosophically (“On John Dewey,” WV No. 924, 7 November 2008). The same Dewey who had a role in fighting the frame-up of Trotsky by the Stalinist epigones was an opponent of Marxism and of the October Revolution. Dewey was a pragmatist, not any kind of dialectical materialist. Trotsky scathingly denounced pragmatism as a mixture of rationalism and empiricism—empiricism means one’s own sense impressions are the ultimate source of knowledge. It doesn’t mean that empiricists completely say that there’s no independently existing objective world out there. Trotsky denounced pragmatism as the “curse of American thought” and insisted that an unpostponable task of the SWP—this was in 1939-40—was to educate its cadres in the philosophy of dialectical materialism.

Against Philosophical Idealism

This talk wouldn’t be complete without a short exposition on the manifestations of the various forms of subjective idealism. Lenin argued that, ultimately, idealism is clericalism. In popular terms, it’s sort of like “thinking makes it so.” You have probably heard the vulgar version of it: if a tree crashes in the forest and I wasn’t present, then it didn’t crash. That, ultimately, logically, leads to what is called solipsism—that the only things that are real are one’s own subjective impressions and thoughts and sensations.

Many years ago, through a rather laborious process, I studied some of the idealists, who are important to understand. Immanuel Kant, the German idealist, was very interesting, but difficult to read in many ways. His key work, The Critique of Pure Reason (1781), sought to reconcile idealism and materialism. Kant didn’t deny the existence of “things in themselves,” just our ability to know them. He formulated this along the following lines: how are a priori synthetic judgments possible? How do we arrive at truth independent of human experience and scientific experimentation? Essentially, what he argues for are the propositions of what is known as common sense, which is really unsystematized and pre-scientific. Kant also studied astronomy, which made him very interesting. But he tried to reconcile materialism and idealism.

In Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classical German Philosophy (1886), Engels had to deal with such thinkers. Of course, he made his way through Ludwig Feuerbach, who rightly criticized Hegel for his absolute idealism. Marx, in his “Theses on Feuerbach” (1845), characterized Feuerbach’s materialism as contemplative, noting that for Feuerbach, “things, reality, sensuousness, are conceived only in the form of the object, or of contemplation, but not as sensuous human activity, practice, not subjectively.”

In “A Petty-Bourgeois Opposition in the Socialist Workers Party,” Trotsky referred to a conversation he had with a certain British political economist who echoed the liberal economist John Maynard Keynes. Keynes was a proponent of “priming the pump,” and deficit spending to stimulate demand, and government investment in order to arrest the endemic financial and economic crises of capitalism—some of the stuff that Obama and his administration are tinkering with. On the basis of his discussion with this political economist, with his praise for Keynes and his hatred of Marx, Trotsky concluded that he was an opponent of materialist dialectics in his general outlook. Trotsky says:

“If it is possible to place a given person’s general type of thought on the basis of his relation to concrete practical problems, it is also possible to predict approximately, knowing his general type of thought, how a given individual will approach one or another practical question. That is the incomparable educational value of the dialectical method of thought.”

Marxism: A Guide to Action

We have applied this dialectical materialist methodology to many questions. You can look at “Cuba and Marxist Theory” (Marxist Bulletin No. 8) where we applied our dialectic, materialist methodology in assessing the formation of a bureaucratically deformed workers state in Cuba. A petty-bourgeois-led, guerrillaist movement led to the destruction of capitalism in Cuba without the leadership of a Trotskyist party. Developing that understanding required the application of a dialectical materialist methodology. It was part of the preservation and extension of our fundamental Marxist program.

This is the same thing as with the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA)—you have to appreciate the role of actual contradictions. The EFCA was a referendum on unionization, with the National Association of Manufacturers and other bosses’ organizations waging a major campaign against it while the AFL-CIO and Change to Win union federations campaigned for its passage. While warning the workers against any reliance on any government-prescribed mechanisms of class collaboration, we would support the EFCA in its original form because the card-check provision would make it somewhat easier to organize unions. We drew the class line without hiding our criticism of the role of the defeatist, class-collaborationist union bureaucrats. We examined the concretes of the EFCA with its living contradictions, not on the basis of speculation, but on the basis of scientific investigation of history. Our investigation included what the Socialist Workers Party, the Trotskyists of the time, wrote about the 1935 Wagner Act, which contributed to more comrades doing research on the history of the Marxist movement. [See “Why Marxists Support the EFCA,” WV No. 929, 30 January 2009.]

Dialectics is not a master key for all questions; you have to make a concrete, scientific analysis. I want to end with a quote from “Lenin as Philosopher,” which I think is really apropos of what we’re talking about:

“Men’s power to change their world progressively crystallizes out and perfects the scientific element in their concepts; their relative helplessness on the other hand gives rise to the tendency of abstract ideas to fly away from reality and weave themselves into marvelous, internally consistent systems of myth and illusion, from which the real world and real relationships of men to nature and men to men are then deduced.”

A comrade asked why do we need to read anything by this Gramsci guy? Wasn’t Gramsci anti-Trotsky, and so on. Definitely on the Trotsky-Stalin question, Gramsci went not for Trotsky but for Stalin. So that was his contradiction. But he had some very penetrating observations about consciousness, the relationship between the subjective and the objective, and how an objective, concrete analysis of the relationship of forces in the national and international context is critical to deciding how to apply one’s program. It’s very helpful.

It’s a terrible waste to dismiss somebody like that. Just like dismissing Plekhanov, whose renegacy is well known. Following the defeat of the 1905 Revolution, Plekhanov denounced the December Moscow insurrection as an adventure, and in 1917 he opposed the seizure of power by the Bolshevik-led workers. Importantly, however, he never joined hands with those Mensheviks and others who tried to mobilize against the revolution. In the course of the Civil War following the 1917 Revolution, Lenin concluded that there’s no way that you could be a genuine communist without understanding Hegel’s logic, Plekhanov’s philosophical works, and Marx’s Capital.

That’s a challenge to us to rise to a higher theoretical level, because that’s the only way to prepare ourselves for the tasks of the struggle for a communist future. It’s a laborious, worthwhile, lifelong process.