Modern dialectical materialism

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Modern dialectical materialism



We are living in a period of profound historical change. After a period
of 40 years of unprecedented economic growth, the market economy is
reaching its limits. At the dawn of capitalism, despite its barbarous
crimes, it revolutionized the productive forces, thus laying the basis
for a new system of society. The First World War and the Russian
Revolution signalled a decisive change in the historical role of
capitalism. From a means of developing the productive forces, it became
transformed into a gigantic fetter upon economic and social development.
The period of upswing in the West in the period of 1948-73 seemed to
promise a new dawn. Even so, the benefits were limited to a handful of
developed capitalist countries. For two-thirds of humanity living in the
Third World, the picture was one of mass unemployment, poverty, wars and
exploitation on an unprecedented scale. This period of capitalism ended
with the so-called “oil crisis” of 1973-4. Since then, they have not
managed to get back to the kind of growth and levels of employment they
had achieved in the post-war period.

A social system in a state of irreversible decline expresses itself in
cultural decay. This is reflected in a hundred different ways. A general
mood of anxiety and pessimism as regards the future spreads, especially
among the intelligentsia. Those who yesterday talked confidently about
the inevitability of human progress and evolution, now see only darkness
and uncertainty. The 20th century is staggering to a close, having
witnessed two terrible world wars, economic collapse and the nightmare
of fascism in the period between the wars. These were already a stern
warning that the progressive phase of capitalism was past.

The crisis of capitalism pervades all levels of life. It is not merely
an economic phenomenon. It is reflected in speculation and corruption,
drug abuse, violence, all-pervasive egotism and indifference to the
suffering of others, the breakdown of the bourgeois family, the crisis
of bourgeois morality, culture and philosophy. How could it be
otherwise? One of the symptoms of a social system in crisis is that the
ruling class increasingly feels itself to be a fetter on the development
of society.

Marx pointed out that the ruling ideas of any society are the ideas of
the ruling class. In its heyday, the bourgeoisie not only played a
progressive role in pushing back the frontiers of civilisation, but was
well aware of the fact. Now the strategists of capital are seized with
pessimism. They are the representatives of an historically doomed
system, but cannot reconcile themselves to the fact. This central
contradiction is the decisive factor which sets its imprint upon the
mode of thinking of the bourgeoisie today. Lenin once said that a man on
the edge of a cliff does not reason.

Lag in Consciousness

Contrary to the prejudice of philosophical idealism, human consciousness
in general is extraordinarily conservative, and always tends to lag far
behind the development of society, technology and the productive forces.
Habit, routine, and tradition, to use a phrase of Marx, weigh like an
Alp on the minds of men and women, who, in “normal” historical periods
cling stubbornly to the well-trodden paths, from an instinct of
self-preservation, the roots of which lie in the remote past of the
species. Only in exceptional periods of history, when the social and
moral order begin to crack under the strain of intolerable pressures do
the mass of people start to question the world into which they have been
born, and to doubt the beliefs and prejudices of a lifetime.

Such a period was the epoch of the birth of capitalism, heralded by the
great cultural re-awakening and spiritual regeneration of Europe after
its lengthy winter sleep under feudalism. In the period of its
historical ascent, the bourgeoisie played a most progressive role, not
only in developing the productive forces, and thereby mightily expanding
humanity’s power over nature, but also in extending the frontiers of
science, knowledge and culture. Luther, Michelangelo, Leonardo, Duehrer,
Bacon, Kepler, Galileo and a host of other pathfinders of civilisation
shine like a galaxy illuminating the broad highroad of human cultural
and scientific advance opened by the Reformation and Renaissance.
However, such revolutionary periods do not come into being easily or
automatically. The price of progress is struggle—the struggle of the new
against the old, the living against the dead, the future against the

The rise of the bourgeoisie in Italy, Holland, England and later in
France was accompanied by an extraordinary flourishing of culture, art
and science. One would have to look back to ancient Athens to find a
precedent for this. Particularly in those countries where the bourgeois
revolution triumphed in the 17th and 18th centuries, the development of
the forces of production and technology was accompanied by a parallel
development of science and thought, which drastically undermined the
ideological domination of the Church.

In France, the classical country of the bourgeois revolution in its
political expression, the bourgeoisie in 1789-93 carried out its
revolution under the banner of Reason. Long before it toppled the
formidable walls of the Bastille, it was necessary to overthrow the
invisible but no less formidable walls of religious superstition in the
minds of men and women. In its revolutionary youth the French
bourgeoisie was rationalist and atheist. Only after installing
themselves in power did the men of property, finding themselves
confronted by a new revolutionary class, jettison the ideological
baggage of their youth.

Not long ago France celebrated the two hundredth anniversary of its
great revolution. It was curious to note how even the memory of a
revolution two centuries ago fills the establishment with unease. The
attitude of the French ruling class to their own revolution vividly
recalled that of an old libertine who tries to gain a ticket to
respectability—and perhaps admittance to heaven—by renouncing the sins
of his youth which he is no longer in a position to repeat. Like all
established privileged classes, the capitalist class seeks to justify
its existence, not only to society at large, but to itself. In its
search for ideological points of support, which would tend to justify
the status quo and sanctify existing social relations, they rapidly
rediscovered the enchantments of Mother Church, particularly after the
mortal terror they experienced at the time of the Paris Commune. The
church of Sacre Coeur is a concrete expression of the bourgeois’ fear of
revolution translated into the language of architectural philistinism.

Marx (1818-83) and Engels (1820-95) explained that the fundamental
driving force of all human progress is the development of the productive
forces—industry, agriculture, science and technique. This is a truly
great theoretical generalisation without which it is impossible to
understand the movement of human history in general. However, it does
not mean, as dishonest or ignorant detractors of Marxism have attempted
to show, that Marx “reduces everything to economics.” Dialectical and
historical materialism takes full account of phenomena such as religion,
art, science, morality, law, politics, tradition, national
characteristics and all the other manifold manifestations of human
consciousness. But not only that. It shows their real content and how
they relate to the actual development of society, which in the last
analysis clearly depends upon its capacity to reproduce and expand the
material conditions for its existence. On this subject, Engels wrote the

“According to the materialist conception of history, the ultimately
determining element in history is the production and reproduction of
real life. More than this neither Marx nor I have ever asserted. Hence,
if someone twists this into saying that the economic element is the only
determining one, he transforms that position into a meaningless,
abstract, senseless phrase. The economic situation is the basis, but the
various elements of the superstructure—political forms of the class
struggle and its results, to wit: constitutions established by
victorious classes after a successful battle, etc., judicial forms, and
the reflexes of all these actual struggles in the brains of the
participants, political, juristic, philosophical theories, religious
views and their further development into systems of dogmas also exercise
their influence upon the course of the historical struggles, and in many
cases predominate in determining their form.” (1)

The affirmation of historical materialism that, in general, human
consciousness tends to lag behind the development of the productive
forces seems paradoxical to some. Yet it is graphically expressed in all
kinds of ways in the United States where the achievements of science
have reached their highest level. The constant advance of technology is
the prior condition for bringing about the real emancipation of men and
women, through the establishment of a rational socioeconomic system, in
which human beings exercise conscious control over their lives and
environment. Here, however, the contrast between the rapid development
of science and technology and the extraordinary lag in human thinking
presents itself in its most glaring form.

In the USA nine persons out of ten believe in the existence of a supreme
being, and seven out of ten in a life after death. When the first
American astronaut who succeeded in circumnavigating the world in a
spacecraft was asked to broadcast a message to the inhabitants of the
earth, he made a significant choice. Out of the whole of world
literature, he chose the first sentence of the book of Genesis: “In the
beginning, God created heaven and the earth.” This man, sitting in his
space ship, a product of the most advanced technology ever seen, had his
mind full to the brim with superstitions and phantoms handed down with
little change from the primeval past.

Seventy years ago, in the notorious “monkey trial” of 1925, a teacher
called John Scopes was found guilty of teaching the theory of evolution,
in contravention of the laws of the state of Tennessee. The trial
actually upheld the state’s anti-evolution laws, which were not
abolished until 1968, when the US Supreme Court ruled that the teaching
of creation theories was a violation of the constitutional ban on the
teaching of religion in state schools. Since then, the creationists
changed their tactics, trying to turn creationism into a “science.” In
this, they have the support, not only of a wide layer of public opinion,
but of not a few scientists, who are prepared to place their services at
the disposal of religion in its most crude and obscurantist form.

In 1981 American scientists, making use of Kepler’s laws of planetary
motion, launched a spacecraft that made a spectacular rendezvous with
Saturn. In the same year an American judge had to declare
unconstitutional a law passed in the state of Arkansas which imposed on
schools the obligation to treat so-called “creation-science” on equal
terms with the theory of evolution. Among other things, the creationists
demanded the recognition of Noah’s flood as a primary geological agent.
In the course of the trial, witnesses for the defence expressed fervent
belief in Satan and the possibility that life was brought to earth in
meteorites, the variety of species being explained by a kind of meteoric
shuttle-service! At the trial, Mr. N. K. Wickremasinge of the University
of Wales was quoted as saying that insects might be more intelligent
than humans, although “they’re not letting on…because things are going
so well for them.” (2)

The religious fundamentalist lobby in the USA has mass support, access
to unlimited funds, and the backing of congressmen. Evangelical crooks
make fortunes out of radio stations with a following of millions. The
fact that in the last decade of the 20th century there are a large
number of educated men and women—including scientists—in the most
technologically advanced country the world has ever known who are
prepared to fight for the idea that the book of Genesis is literally
true, that the universe was created in six days about 6,000 years ago,
is, in itself, a most remarkable example of the workings of the

“Reason Becomes Unreason”

The period when the capitalist class stood for a rational world outlook
has become a dim memory. In the epoch of the senile decay of capitalism,
the earlier processes have been thrown into reverse. In the words of
Hegel, “Reason becomes Unreason.” It is true that, in the industrialised
countries, “official” religion is dying on its feet. The churches are
empty and increasingly in crisis. Instead, we see a veritable “Egyptian
plague” of peculiar religious sects, accompanied by the flourishing of
mysticism and all kinds of superstition. The frightful epidemic of
religious fundamentalism—Christian, Jewish, Islamic, Hindu—is a graphic
manifestation of the impasse of society. As the new century beckons, we
observe the most horrific throwbacks to the Dark Ages.

This phenomenon is not confined to Iran, India and Algeria. In the
United States we saw the “Waco massacre,” and after that, in
Switzerland, the collective suicide of another group of religious
fanatics. In other Western countries, we see the uncontrolled spread of
religious sects, superstition, astrology and all kinds of irrational
tendencies. In France, there are about 36,000 Catholic priests, and over
40,000 professional astrologers who declared their earnings to the
taxman. Until recently, Japan appeared to be an exception to the rule.
William Rees-Mogg, former editor of the London Times, and
arch-Conservative, in his recent book The Great Reckoning, How the World
Will Change in the Depression of the 1990s states that: “The revival of
religion is something that is happening throughout the world in varying
degrees. Japan may be an exception, perhaps because social order has as
yet shown no signs of breaking down there…” (3) Rees-Mogg spoke too
soon. A couple of years after these lines were written, the horrific gas
attack on the Tokyo underground drew the world’s attention to the
existence of sizable groups of religious fanatics even in Japan, where
the economic crisis has put an end to the long period of full employment
and social stability. All these phenomena bear a striking resemblance to
what occurred in the period of the decline of the Roman Empire. Let no
one object that such things are confined to the fringes of society.
Ronald and Nancy Reagan regularly consulted astrologers about all their
actions, big and small. Here are a couple of extracts from Donald
Regan’s book, For the Record:

“Virtually every major move and decision the Reagans made during my time
as White House chief of staff was cleared in advance with a woman in San
Francisco who drew up horoscopes to make certain that the planets were
in a favourable alignment for the enterprise. Nancy Reagan seemed to
have absolute faith in the clairvoyant powers of this woman, who had
predicted that ‘something’ bad was going to happen to the president
shortly before he was wounded in an assassination attempt in 1981.

“Although I had never met this seer—Mrs. Reagan passed along her
prognostications to me after conferring with her on the telephone—she
had become such a factor in my work, and in the highest affairs of the
state at one point I kept a colour-coded calendar on my desk (numerals
highlighted in green ink for ‘good’ days, red for ‘bad’ days, yellow for
‘iffy’ days) as an aid to remember when it was propitious to move the
president of the United States from one place to another, or schedule
him to speak in public, or commence negotiations with a foreign power.

“Before I came to the White House, Mike Deaver had been the man who
integrated the horoscopes of Mrs. Reagan’s into the presidential
schedule…It is a measure of his discretion and loyalty that few in the
White House knew that Mrs. Reagan was even part of the problem [waiting
for schedules]—much less that an astrologer in San Francisco was
approving the details of the presidential schedule. Deaver told me that
Mrs. Reagan’s dependence on the occult went back at least as far as her
husband’s governorship, when she had relied on the advice of the famous
Jeane Dixon. Subsequently, she had lost confidence in Dixon’s powers.
But the First Lady seemed to have absolute faith in the clairvoyant
talents of the woman in San Francisco. Apparently, Deaver had ceased to
think there was anything remarkable about this long-established floating
seance…To him it was simply one of the little problems in the life of a
servant of the great. ‘At least,’ he said, ‘this astrologer is not as
kooky as the last one.’”

Astrology was used in the planning of the summit between Reagan and
Gorbachev, according to the family soothsayer, but things didn’t go
smoothly between the two first ladies because Raisa’s birth date was
unknown! The movement in the direction of a “free market economy” in
Russia has since bestowed the blessings of capitalist civilisation on
that unfortunate country—mass unemployment, social disintegration,
prostitution, the mafia, an unprecedented crime wave, drugs and
religion. It has recently emerged that Yeltsin himself consults
astrologers. In this respect also, the nascent capitalist class in
Russia has shown itself to be an apt pupil of its Western role models.

The prevailing sense of disorientation and pessimism finds its
reflection in all sorts of ways, not only directly in politics. This
all-pervasive irrationality is not an accident. It is the psychological
reflection of a world where the destiny of humanity is controlled by
terrifying and seemingly invisible forces. Just look at the sudden panic
on the stock exchange, with “respectable” men and women scurrying around
like ants when their nest is broken open. These periodic spasms causing
a herd-like panic are a graphic illustration of capitalist anarchy. And
this is what determines the lives of millions of people. We live in the
midst of a society in decline. The evidence of decay is present on all
sides. Conservative reactionaries bemoan the breakdown of the family and
the epidemic of drugs, crime, mindless violence, and the rest. Their
only answer is to step up state repression—more police, more prisons,
harsher punishments, even genetic investigation of alleged “criminal
types.” What they cannot or will not see is that these phenomena are the
symptoms of the blind alley of the social system which they represent.

These are the defenders of “market forces,” the same irrational forces
that presently condemn millions of people to unemployment. They are the
prophets of “supply-side” economics, which John Galbraith shrewdly
defined as the theory that the poor have too much money, and the rich
too little. The prevailing “morality” is that of the market place, that
is, the morality of the jungle. The wealth of society is concentrated
into fewer and fewer hands, despite all the demagogic nonsense about a
“property-owning democracy” and “small is beautiful.” We are supposed to
live in a democracy. Yet a handful of big banks, monopolies, and stock
exchange speculators (generally the same people) decide the fate of
millions. This tiny minority possesses powerful means of manipulating
public opinion. They have a monopoly of the means of communication, the
press, radio and television. Then there is the spiritual police—the
church, which for generations has taught people to look for salvation in
another world.

Science and the Crisis of Society

Until quite recently, it appeared that the world of science stood aloof
from the general decay of capitalism. The marvels of modern technology
conferred colossal prestige upon scientists, who appeared to be endowed
with almost magical qualities. The respect enjoyed by the scientific
community increased in the same proportion as their theories became
increasingly incomprehensible to the majority of even educated people.
However, scientists are ordinary mortals who live in the same world as
the rest of us. As such, they can be influenced by prevailing ideas,
philosophies, politics and prejudices, not to speak of sometimes very
substantial material interests.

For a long time it was tacitly assumed that scientists—especially
theoretical physicists—were a special sort of people, standing above the
common run of humanity, and privy to the mysteries of the universe
denied to ordinary mortals. This 20th century myth is well conveyed by
the old science-fiction movies, where the earth was always threatened
with annihilation by aliens from outer space (in reality, the threat to
the future of humankind comes from a source much nearer to home, but
that is another story). At the last moment, a man in a white coat always
turns up, writes a complicated equation on the blackboard, and the
problem is fixed in no time at all.

The truth is rather different. Scientists and other intellectuals are
not immune to the general tendencies at work in society. The fact that
most of them profess indifference to politics and philosophy only means
that they fall prey more easily to the current prejudices which surround
them. All too often their ideas can be used to support the most
reactionary political positions. This is particularly clear in the field
of genetics where a veritable counter-revolution has taken place,
particularly in the United States. Allegedly scientific theories are
being used to “prove” that criminality is caused, not by social
conditions, but by a “criminal gene.” Black people are alleged to be
disadvantaged, not because of discrimination, but because of their
genetic make-up. Similar arguments are used for poor people, single
mothers, women, homosexuals, and so on. Of course, such “science” is
highly convenient to the Republican dominated Congress intent on
ruthlessly cutting welfare.

The present book is about philosophy—more precisely, the philosophy of
Marxism, dialectical materialism. It is not the business of philosophy
to tell scientists what to think and write, at least when they write
about science. But scientists have a habit of expressing opinions about
all kinds of things—philosophy, religion, politics. This they are
perfectly entitled to do. But when they use what may well be perfectly
sound scientific credentials in order to defend extremely unsound and
reactionary philosophical views, it is time to put things in their
context. These pronouncements do not remain among a handful of
professors. They are seized upon by right wing politicians, racists and
religious fanatics, who attempt to cover their backsides with
pseudo-scientific arguments.

Scientists frequently complain that they are misunderstood. They do not
mean to provide ammunition for mystical charlatans and political crooks.
That may be so. But in that case, they are guilty of culpable negligence
or, at the very least, astounding naivety. On the other hand, those who
make use of the erroneous philosophical views of scientists cannot be
accused of naivety. They know just where they stand. Rees-Mogg argues
that “as the religion of secular consumerism is left behind like a
rusting tail fin, sterner religions that involve real moral principles
and angry gods will make a comeback. For the first time in centuries,
the revelations of science will seem to enhance rather than undermine
the spiritual dimension in life.” For Rees-Mogg religion is a useful
weapon to keep the underprivileged in their place, alongside the police
and prison service. He is commendably blunt about it:

“The lower the prospect of upward mobility, the more rational it is for
the poor to adopt an anti-scientific, delusional world view. In place of
technology, they employ magic. In place of independent investigation,
they opt for orthodoxy. Instead of history, they prefer myths. In place
of biography, they venerate heroes. And they generally substitute
kin-based behavioral allegiances for the impersonal honesty required by
the market.” (4)

Let us leave aside the unconsciously humorous remark about the
“impersonal honesty” of the market-place, and concentrate on the core of
his argument. At least Rees-Mogg does not try to conceal his real
intentions or his class standpoint. Here we have the utmost frankness
from a defender of the establishment. The creation of an under-class of
poor, unemployed, mainly black people, living in slums, presents a
potentially explosive threat to the existing social order. The poor,
fortunately for us, are ignorant. They must be kept in ignorance, and
encouraged in their superstitious and religious delusions which we of
the “educated classes” naturally do not share! The message, of course,
is not new. The same song has been sung by the rich and powerful for
centuries. But what is significant is the reference to science, which,
as Rees-Mogg indicates, is now regarded for the first time as an
important ally of religion.

Recently, theoretical physicist Paul Davies was awarded F650,000 by the
Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion, for showing “extraordinary
originality” in advancing humankind’s understanding of God or
spirituality. Previous winners include Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Mother
Teresa, evangelist Billy Graham, and the Watergate
burglar-turned-preacher Charles Colson. Davies, author of such books as
God and the New Physics, The Mind of God and The Last Three Minutes,
insists that he is “not a religious person in the conventional sense”
(whatever that might mean), but he maintains that “science offers a
surer path to God than religion.” (5)

Despite Davies’ ifs and buts, it is clear that he represents a definite
trend, which is attempting to inject mysticism and religion into
science. This is not an isolated phenomenon. It is becoming all too
common, especially in the field of theoretical physics and cosmology,
both heavily dependent upon abstract mathematical models which are
increasingly seen as a substitute for empirical investigation of the
real world. For every conscious peddler of mysticism in this field,
there are a hundred conscientious scientists, who would be horrified to
be identified with such obscurantism. The only real defense against
idealist mysticism, however, is a consciously materialist philosophy—the
philosophy of dialectical materialism.

It is the intention of this book to explain the basic ideas of
dialectical materialism, first worked out by Marx and Engels, and show
their relevance to the modern world, and to science in particular. We do
not pretend to be neutral. Just as Rees-Mogg defends the interests of
the class he represents, and makes no bones about it, so we openly
declare ourselves as the opponents of the so-called “market economy” and
all that it stands for. We are active participants in the fight to
change society. But before we can change the world, one has to
understand it. It is necessary to conduct an implacable struggle against
all attempts to confuse the minds of men and women with mystical beliefs
which have their origin in the murky prehistory of human thought.
Science grew and developed to the degree that it turned its back on the
accumulated prejudices of the past. We must stand firm against this
attempt to put the clock back four hundred years.

A growing number of scientists are becoming dissatisfied with the
present situation, not only in science and education, but in society at
large. They see the contradiction between the colossal potential of
technology and a world where millions of people live on the border line
of starvation. They see the systematic misuse of science in the interest
of profit for the big monopolies. And they must be profoundly disturbed
by the continuous attempts to dragoon the scientists into the service of
religious obscurantism and reactionary social policies. Many of them
were repelled by the bureaucratic and totalitarian nature of Stalinism.
But the collapse of the Soviet Union has shown that the capitalist
alternative is even worse. By their own experience, many scientists will
come to the conclusion that the only way out of the social, economic,
and cultural impasse is by means of some kind of rational planned
society, in which science and technology is put at the disposal of
humanity, not private profit. Such a society must be democratic, in the
real sense of the word, involving the conscious control and
participation of the entire population. Socialism is democratic by its
very nature. As Trotsky pointed out “a nationalized planned economy
needs democracy, as the human body needs oxygen.”

It is not enough to contemplate the problems of the world. It is
necessary to change it. First, however, it is necessary to understand
the reason why things are as they are. Only the body of ideas worked out
by Marx and Engels, and subsequently developed by Lenin and Trotsky can
provide us with the adequate means of achieving this understanding. We
believe that the most conscious members of the scientific community,
through their own work and experience, will come to realize the need for
a consistently materialist world outlook. That is offered by dialectical
materialism. The recent advances of the theories of chaos and complexity
show that an increasing number of scientists are moving in the direction
of dialectical thinking. This is an enormously significant development.
There is no doubt that new discoveries will deepen and strengthen this
trend. We are firmly convinced that dialectical materialism is the
philosophy of the future.

Do We Need Philosophy?

Before we start, you may be tempted to ask, “Well, what of it?” Is it
really necessary for us to bother about complicated questions of science
and philosophy? To such a question, two replies are possible. If what is
meant is: do we need to know about such things in order to go about our
daily life, then the answer is evidently no. But if we wish to gain a
rational understanding of the world in which we live, and the
fundamental processes at work in nature, society and our own way of
thinking, then matters appear in quite a different light.

Strangely enough, everyone has a “philosophy.” A philosophy is a way of
looking at the world. We all believe we know how to distinguish right
from wrong, good from bad. These are, however, very complicated issues
which have occupied the attention of the greatest minds in history. When
confronted with the terrible fact of the existence of events like the
fratricidal war in the former Yugoslavia, the re-emergence of mass
unemployment, the slaughter in Rwanda, many people will confess that
they do not comprehend such things, and will frequently resort to vague
references to “human nature.” But what is this mysterious human nature
which is seen as the source of all our ills and is alleged to be
eternally unchangeable? This is a profoundly philosophical question, to
which not many would venture a reply, unless they were of a religious
cast of mind, in which case they would say that God, in His wisdom, made
us like that. Why anyone should worship a Being that played such tricks
on His creations is another matter.

Those who stubbornly maintain that they have no philosophy are mistaken.
Nature abhors a vacuum. People who lack a coherently worked-out
philosophical standpoint will inevitably reflect the ideas and
prejudices of the society and the milieu in which they live. That means,
in the given context, that their heads will be full of the ideas they
imbibe from the newspapers, television, pulpit and schoolroom, which
faithfully reflect the interests and morality of existing society.

Most people usually succeed in muddling through life, until some great
upheaval compels them to re-consider the kind of ideas and values they
grew up with. The crisis of society forces them to question many things
they took for granted. At such times, ideas which seemed remote suddenly
become strikingly relevant. Anyone who wishes to understand life, not as
a meaningless series of accidents or an unthinking routine, must occupy
themselves with philosophy, that is, with thought at a higher level than
the immediate problems of everyday existence. Only by this means do we
raise ourselves to a height where we begin to fulfil our potential as
conscious human beings, willing and able to take control of our own

It is generally understood that anything worthwhile in life requires
some effort. The study of philosophy, by its very nature, involves
certain difficulties, because it deals with matters far removed from the
world of ordinary experience. Even the terminology used presents
difficulties because words are used in a way that does not necessarily
correspond to the common usage. But the same is true for any specialized
subject, from psychoanalysis to engineering.

The second obstacle is more serious. In the last century, when Marx and
Engels first published their writings on dialectical materialism, they
could assume that many of their readers had at least a working knowledge
of classical philosophy, including Hegel. Nowadays it is not possible to
make such an assumption. Philosophy no longer occupies the place it had
before, since the role of speculation about the nature of the universe
and life has long since been occupied by the sciences. The possession of
powerful radio telescopes and spacecraft renders guesses about the
nature and extent of our solar system unnecessary. Even the mysteries of
the human soul are being gradually laid bare by the progress of
neurobiology and psychology.

The situation is far less satisfactory in the realm of the social
sciences, mainly because the desire for accurate knowledge often
decreases to the degree that science impinges on the powerful material
interests which govern the lives of people. The great advances made by
Marx and Engels in the sphere of social and historical analysis and
economics fall outside the scope of the present work. Suffice it to
point out that, despite the sustained and frequently malicious attacks
to which they were subjected from the beginning, the theories of Marxism
in the social sphere have been the decisive factor in the development of
modern social sciences. As for their vitality, this is testified to by
the fact that the attacks not only continue, but tend to increase in
intensity as time goes by.

In past ages, the development of science, which has always been closely
linked to that of the productive forces, had not reached a sufficiently
high level to permit men and women to understand the world in which they
lived. In the absence of scientific knowledge, or the material means of
obtaining it, they were compelled to rely upon the one instrument they
possessed that could help them to make sense of the world, and thus gain
power over it—the human mind. The struggle to understand the world was
closely identified with humankind’s struggle to tear itself away from a
merely animal level of existence, to gain mastery over the blind forces
of nature, and to become free in the real, not legalistic, sense of the
word. This struggle is a red thread running through the whole of human

Role of Religion

“Man is quite insane. He wouldn’t know how to create a maggot, and he
creates Gods by the dozen.” (Montaigne.)

“All mythology overcomes and dominates and shapes the force of nature in
the imagination and by the imagination; it therefore vanishes with the
advent of real mastery over them.” (Marx)

Animals have no religion, and in the past it was said that this
constituted the main difference between humans and “brutes.” But that is
just another way of saying that only humans possess consciousness in the
full sense of the word. In recent years, there has been a reaction
against the idea of Man as a special and unique Creation. This is
undoubtedly correct, in the sense that humans developed from animals,
and, in many important respects, remain animals. Not only do we share
many of the bodily functions with other animals, but the genetic
difference between humans and chimpanzees is less than two percent. That
is a crushing answer to the nonsense of the Creationists.

Recent research with bonobo chimpanzees has proven beyond doubt that the
primates closest to humans are capable of a level of mental activity
similar in some respects to that of a human child. That is striking
proof of the kinship between humans and the highest primates, but here
the analogy begins to break down. Despite all the efforts of
experimenters, captive bonobos have not been able to speak or fashion a
stone tool remotely similar to the simplest implements created by early
hominids. The two percent genetic difference between humans and
chimpanzees marks the qualitative leap from the animal to the human.
This was accomplished, not by a Creator, but by the development of the
brain through manual labour.

The skill to make even the simplest stone tools involves a very high
level of mental ability and abstract thought. The ability to select the
right sort of stone and reject others; the choice of the correct angle
to strike a blow, and the use of precisely the right amount of
force—these are highly complicated intellectual actions. They imply a
degree of planning and foresight not found in even the most advanced
primates. However, the use and manufacture of stone tools was not the
result of conscious planning, but was something forced upon man’s remote
ancestors by necessity. It was not consciousness that created humanity,
but the necessary conditions of human existence which led to an enlarged
brain, speech and culture, including religion.

The need to understand the world was closely linked to the need to
survive. Those early hominids who discovered the use of stone scrapers
in butchering dead animals with thick hides obtained a considerable
advantage over those who were denied access to this rich supply of fats
and proteins. Those who perfected their stone implements and worked out
where to find the best materials stood a better chance of survival than
those who did not. With the development of technique came the expansion
of the mind, and the need to explain the phenomena of nature which
governed their lives. Over millions of years, through trial and error,
our ancestors began to establish certain relations between things. They
began to make abstractions, that is, to generalize from experience and

For centuries, the central question of philosophy has been the relation
of thinking to being. Most people live their lives quite happily without
even considering this problem. They think and act, talk and work, with
not the slightest difficulty. Moreover, it would not occur to them to
regard as incompatible the two most basic human activities, which are in
practice inseparably linked. Even the most elementary action, if we
exclude simple biologically determined reactions, demands some thought.
To a degree, this is true not only of humans but also of animals, such
as a cat lying in wait for a mouse. In man, however, the kind of thought
and planning has a qualitatively higher character than any of the mental
activities of even the most advanced of the apes.

This fact is inseparably linked to the capacity for abstract thought,
which enables humans to go far beyond the immediate situation given to
us by our senses. We can envisage situations, not just in the past
(animals also have memory, as a dog which cowers at the sight of a
stick) but also the future. We can anticipate complex situations, plan
and thereby determine the outcome, and to some extent determine our own
destinies. Although we do not normally think about it, this represents a
colossal conquest which sets humankind apart from the rest of nature.
“What is distinctive of human reasoning,” says Professor Gordon Childe,
“is that it can go immensely farther from the actual present situation
than any other animal’s reasoning ever seems to get it.” (6) From this
capacity springs all the manifold creations of civilization, culture,
art, music, literature, science, philosophy, religion. We also take for
granted that all this does not drop from the skies, but is the product
of millions of years of development.

The Greek philosopher Anaxagoras (500-428 B.C.), in a brilliant
deduction, said that man’s mental development depended upon the freeing
of the hands. In his important article, The Part Played by Labour in the
Transition from Ape to Man, Engels showed the exact way in which this
transition was achieved. He proved that the upright stance, freeing of
the hands for labour, the form of the hands, with the opposition of the
thumb to the fingers, which allowed for clutching, were the
physiological preconditions for tool making, which, in turn, was the
main stimulus to the development of the brain. Speech itself, which is
inseparable from thought, arose out of the demands of social production,
the need to realize complicated functions by means of co-operation.
These theories of Engels have been strikingly confirmed by the most
recent discoveries of paleontology, which show that hominid apes
appeared in Africa far earlier than previously thought, and that they
had brains no bigger than those of a modern chimpanzee. That is to say,
the development of the brain came after the production of tools, and as
a result of it. Thus, it is not true that “In the beginning was the
Word,” but as the German poet Goethe proclaimed—”In the beginning was
the Deed.”

The ability to engage in abstract thought is inseparable from language.
The celebrated prehistory Gordon Childe observes: “Reasoning, and all
that we call thinking, including the chimpanzee’s, must involve mental
operations with what psychologists call images. A visual image, a mental
picture of, say, a banana, is always liable to be a picture of a
particular banana in a particular setting. A word on the contrary is, as
explained, more general and abstract, having eliminated just those
accidental features that give individuality to any real banana. Mental
images of words (pictures of the sound or of the muscular movements
entailed in uttering it) form very convenient counters for thinking
with. Thinking with their aid necessarily possesses just that quality of
abstractness and generality that animal thinking seems to lack. Men can
think, as well as talk, about the class of objects called ‘bananas’; the
chimpanzee never gets further than ‘that banana in that tube.’ In this
way the social instrument termed language has contributed to what is
grandiloquently described as ‘man’s emancipation from bondage to the
concrete.” (7)

Early humans, after a long period of time, formed the general idea of,
say, a plant or an animal. This arose out of the concrete observation of
many particular plants and animals. But when we arrive at the general
concept “plant,” we no longer see before us this or that flower or bush,
but that which is common to all of them. We grasp the essence of a
plant, its innermost being. Compared with this, the peculiar features of
individual plants seem secondary and unstable. What is permanent and
universal is contained in the general conception. We can never actually
see a plant as such, as opposed to particular flowers and bushes. It is
an abstraction of the mind. Yet it is a deeper and truer expression of
what is essential to the plant’s nature when stripped of all secondary

However, the abstractions of early humans were far from having a
scientific character. They were tentative explorations, like the
impressions of a child—guesses and hypotheses, sometimes incorrect, but
always bold and imaginative. To our remote ancestors, the sun was a
great being that sometimes warmed them, and sometimes burnt them. The
earth was a sleeping giant. Fire was a fierce animal that bit them when
they touched it. Early humans experienced thunder and lightning. This
must have frightened them, as it still frightens animals and people
today. But, unlike animals, humans looked for a general explanation of
the phenomenon. Given the lack of any scientific knowledge, the
explanation was invariably a supernatural one—some god, hitting an anvil
with his hammer. To our eyes, such explanations seem merely amusing,
like the naive explanations of children. Nevertheless, at this period
they were extremely important hypotheses—an attempt to find a rational
cause for the phenomenon, in which men distinguished between the
immediate experience, and saw something entirely separate from it.

The most characteristic form of early religion is animism—the notion
that everything, animate or inanimate, has a spirit. We see the same
kind of reaction in a child when it smacks a table against which it has
banged its head. In the same way, early humans, and certain tribes
today, will ask the spirit of a tree to forgive them before cutting it
down. Animism belongs to a period when humankind has not yet fully
separated itself from the animal world and nature in general. The
closeness of humans to the world of animals is attested to by the
freshness and beauty of cave-art, where horses, deer and bison are
depicted with a naturalness which can no longer be captured by the
modern artist. It is the childhood of the human race, which has gone
beyond recall. We can only imagine the psychology of these distant
ancestors of ours. But by combining the discoveries of paleontology with
anthropology, it is possible to reconstruct, at least in outline, the
world from which we have emerged.

In his classic anthropological study of the origins of magic and
religion, Sir James Frazer writes:

“A savage hardly conceives the distinction commonly drawn by more
advanced peoples between the natural and the supernatural. To him the
world is to a great extent worked by supernatural agents, that is, by
personal beings acting on impulses and motives like his own, liable like
him to be moved by appeals to their pity, their hope, and their fears.
In a world so conceived he sees no limit to this power of influencing
the course of nature to his own advantage. Prayers, promises, or threats
may secure him fine weather and an abundant crop from the gods; and if a
god should happen, as he sometimes believes, to become incarnate in his
own person, then he need appeal to no higher being; he, the savage,
possesses in himself all the powers necessary to further his own
well-being and that of his fellow-men.” (8)

The notion that the soul exists separate and apart from the body comes
down from the most remote period of savagery. The basis of it is quite
clear. When we are asleep, the soul appears to leave the body and roam
about in dreams. By extension, the similarity between death and sleep
(“death’s second self,” Shakespeare called it) suggested the idea that
the soul could continue to exist after death. Early humans thus
concluded that there is something inside them that is separate from
their bodies. This is the soul, which commands the body, and can do all
kinds of incredible things, even when the body is asleep. They also
noticed how words of wisdom issued from the mouths of old people, and
concluded that, whereas the body perishes, the soul lives on. To people
used to the idea of migration, death was seen as the migration of the
soul, which needed food and implements for the journey.

At first these spirits had no fixed abode. They merely wandered about,
usually making trouble, which obliged the living to go to extraordinary
lengths to appease them. Here we have the origin of religious
ceremonies. Eventually, the idea arose that the assistance of these
spirits could be enlisted by means of prayer. At this stage, religion
(magic), art and science were not differentiated. Lacking the means to
gain real power over their environment, early humans attempted to obtain
their ends by means of magical intercourse with nature, and thus subject
it to their will. The attitude of early humans to their spirit-gods and
fetishes was quite practical. Prayers were intended to get results. A
man would make an image with his own hands, and prostrate himself before
it. But if the desired result was not forthcoming, he would curse it and
beat it, in order to extract by violence what he failed to do by
entreaty. In this strange world of dreams and ghosts, this world of
religion, the primitive mind saw every happening as the work of unseen
spirits. Every bush and stream was a living creature, friendly or
hostile. Every chance event, every dream, pain or sensation, was caused
by a spirit. Religious explanations filled the gap left by lack of
knowledge of the laws of nature. Even death was not seen as a natural
occurrence, but a result of some offence caused to the gods.

For the great majority of the existence of the human race, the minds of
men and women have been full of this kind of thing. And not only in what
people like to regard as primitive societies. The same kind of
superstitious beliefs continue to exist in slightly different guises
today. Beneath the thin veneer of civilisation lurk primitive irrational
tendencies and ideas which have their roots in a remote past which has
been half-forgotten, but is not yet overcome. Nor will they be finally
rooted out of human consciousness until men and women establish firm
control over their conditions of existence.

Division of Labour

Frazer points out that the division between manual and mental labour in
primitive society is invariably linked to the formation of a caste of
priests, shamans or magicians:

“Social progress, as we know, consists mainly in a successive
differentiation of functions, or, in simpler language, a division of
labour. The work which in primitive society is done by all alike and by
all equally ill, or nearly so, is gradually distributed among different
classes of workers and executed more and more perfectly; and so far as
the products, material or immaterial, of his specialised labour are
shared by all, the whole community benefits by the increasing
specialisation. Now magicians or medicine-men appear to constitute the
oldest artificial or professional class in the evolution of society. For
sorcerers are found in every savage tribe known to us; and among the
lowest savages, such as the Australian aborigines, they are the only
professional class that exists.” (9)

The dualism which separates soul from body, mind from matter, thinking
from doing, received a powerful impulse from the development of the
division of labour at a given stage of social evolution. The separation
between mental and manual labour is a phenomenon which coincides with
the division of society into classes. It marked a great advance in human
development. For the first time, a minority of society was freed from
the necessity to work to obtain the essentials of existence. The
possession of that most precious commodity, leisure, meant that men
could devote their lives to the study of the stars. As the German
materialist philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach explains, real theoretical
science begins with cosmology:

“The animal is sensible only of the beam which immediately affects life;
while man perceives the ray, to him physically indifferent, of the
remotest star. Man alone has purely intellectual, disinterested joys and
passions; the eye of man alone keeps theoretic festivals. The eye which
looks into the starry heavens, which gazes at that light, alike useless
and harmless, having nothing in common with the earth and its
necessities—this eye sees in that light its own nature, its own origin.
The eye is heavenly in its nature. Hence man elevates himself above the
earth only with the eye; hence theory begins with the contemplation of
the heavens. The first philosophers were astronomers.” (10)

Although at this early stage this was still mixed up with religion, and
the requirements and interests of a priest caste, it also signified the
birth of human civilization. This was already understood by Aristotle,
who wrote:

“These theoretical arts, moreover, were evolved in places where men had
plenty of free time: mathematics, for example, originated in Egypt,
where a priestly caste enjoyed the necessary leisure.” (11)

Knowledge is a source of power. In any society in which art, science and
government is the monopoly of a few, that minority will use and abuse
its power in its own interests. The annual flooding of the Nile was a
matter of life and death to the people of Egypt, whose crops depended on
it. The ability of the priests in Egypt to predict, on the basis of
astronomical observations, when the Nile would flood its banks must have
greatly increased their prestige and power over society. The art of
writing, a most powerful invention, was the jealously guarded secret of
the priest-caste. As Ilya Prigogine and Isabelle Stengers comment:

“Sumer discovered writing; the Sumerian priests speculated that the
future might be written in some hidden way in the events taking place
around us in the present. They even systematized this belief, mixing
magical and rational elements.” (12)

The further development of the division of labour gave rise to an
unbridgeable gulf between the intellectual elite and the majority of
humankind, condemned to labour with their hands. The intellectual,
whether Babylonian priest or modern theoretical physicist, knows only
one kind of labour, mental labour. Over the course of millennia, the
superiority of the latter over “crude” manual labour becomes deeply
ingrained and acquires the force of a prejudice. Language, words and
thoughts become endowed with mystical powers. Culture becomes the
monopoly of a privileged elite, which jealously guards its secrets, and
uses and abuses its position in its own interests.

In ancient times, the intellectual aristocracy made no attempt to
conceal its contempt for physical labour. The following extract from an
Egyptian text known as The Satire on the Trades, written about 2000 B.C.
is supposed to consist of a father’s exhortation to his son, whom he is
sending to the Writing School to train as a scribe:

“I have seen how the belaboured man is belaboured—thou shouldst set thy
heart in pursuit of writing. And I have observed how one may be rescued
from his duties [sic!]—behold, there is nothing which surpasses writing…

“I have seen the metalworker at his work at the mouth of his furnace.
His fingers were somewhat like crocodiles; he stank more than fish-roe…

“The small building contractor carries mud…He is dirtier than vines or
pigs from treading under his mud. His clothes are stiff with clay…

“The arrow-maker, he is very miserable as he goes out into the desert
[to get flint points]. Greater is that which he gives to his donkey than
its work thereafter [is worth]…

“The laundry man launders on the [river] bank, a neighbour of the

“Behold, there is no profession free of a boss—except for the scribe: he
is the boss…

“Behold, there is no scribe who lacks food from the property of the
House of the King—life, prosperity, health!…His father and his mother
praise god, he being set upon the way of the living. Behold these
things—I [have set them] before thee and thy children’s children.” (13)

The same attitude was prevalent among the Greeks:

“What are called the mechanical arts,” says Xenophon, “carry a social
stigma and are rightly dishonoured in our cities, for these arts damage
the bodies of those who work in them or who act as overseers, by
compelling them to a sedentary life and to an indoor life, and, in some
cases, to spend the whole day by the fire. This physical degeneration
results also in deterioration of the soul. Furthermore, the workers at
these trades simply have not got the time to perform the offices of
friendship or citizenship. Consequently they are looked upon as bad
friends and bad patriots, and in some cities, especially the warlike
ones, it is not legal for a citizen to ply a mechanical trade.” (14)

The radical divorce between mental and manual labour deepens the
illusion that ideas, thoughts and words have an independent existence.
This misconception lies at the heart of all religion and philosophical

It was not god who created man after his own image, but, on the
contrary, men and women who created gods in their own image and
likeness. Ludwig Feuerbach said that if birds had a religion, their God
would have wings. “Religion is a dream, in which our own conceptions and
emotions appear to us as separate existences, beings out of ourselves.
The religious mind does not distinguish between subjective and
objective—it has no doubts; it has the faculty, not of discerning other
things than itself, but of seeing its own conceptions out of itself as
distinct beings.” (15) This was already understood by men like
Xenophanes of Colophon (565-c.470 B.C.), who wrote “Homer and Hesiod
have ascribed to the gods every deed that is shameful and dishonourable
among men: stealing and adultery and deceiving each other…The Ethiopians
make their gods black and snub-nosed, and the Thracians theirs grey-eyed
and red-haired…If animals could paint and make things, like men, horses
and oxen too would fashion the gods in their own image.” (16)

The Creation myths which exist in almost all religions invariably take
their images from real life, for example, the image of the potter who
gives form to formless clay. In the opinion of Gordon Childe, the story
of the Creation in the first book of Genesis reflects the fact that, in
Mesopotamia the land was indeed separated from the waters “in the
Beginning,” but not by divine intervention:

“The land on which the great cities of Babylonia were to rise had
literally to be created; the prehistoric forerunner of the biblical
Erech was built on a sort of platform of reeds, laid criss-cross upon
the alluvial mud. The Hebrew book of Genesis has familiarised us with
much older traditions of the pristine condition of Sumer—a ‘chaos’ in
which the boundaries between water and dry land were still fluid. An
essential incident in ‘The Creation’ is the separation of these
elements. Yet it was no god, but the proto-Sumerian themselves who
created the land; they dug channels to water the fields and drain the
marsh; they built dykes and mounded platforms to protect men and cattle
from the waters and raise them above the flood; they made the first
clearings in the reed brakes and explored the channels between them. The
tenacity with which the memory of this struggle persisted in tradition
is some measure of the exertion imposed upon the ancient Sumerians.
Their reward was an assured supply of nourishing dates, a bounteous
harvest from the fields they had drained, and permanent pastures for
flocks and herds.” (17)

Man’s earliest attempts to explain the world and his place in it were
mixed up with mythology. The Babylonians believed that the god Marduk
created Order out of Chaos, separating the land from the water, heaven
from earth. The biblical Creation myth was taken from the Babylonians by
the Jews, and later passed into the culture of Christianity. The true
history of scientific thought commences when men and women learn to
dispense with mythology, and attempt to obtain a rational understanding
of nature, without the intervention of the gods. From that moment, the
real struggle for the emancipation of humanity from material and
spiritual bondage begins.

The advent of philosophy represents a genuine revolution in human
thought. Like so much of modern civilisation, we owe it to the ancient
Greeks. Although important advances were also made by the Indians and
Chinese, and later the Arabs, it was the Greeks who developed philosophy
and science to its highest point prior to the Renaissance. The history
of Greek thought in the four hundred year period, from the middle of the
7th century B.C., constitutes one of the most imposing pages in the
annals of human history.

Materialism and Idealism

The whole history of philosophy from the Greeks down to the present day
consist of a struggle between two diametrically opposed schools of
thought—materialism and idealism. Here we come across a perfect example
of how the terms used in philosophy differ fundamentally from everyday

When we refer to someone as an “idealist” we normally have in mind a
person of high ideals and spotless morality. A materialist, on the
contrary, is viewed as an unprincipled so-and-so, a money-grubbing,
self-centred individual with gross appetites for food and other
things—in short, a thoroughly undesirable character.

This has nothing whatever to do with philosophical materialism and
idealism. In a philosophical sense, idealism sets out from the view that
the world is only a reflection of ideas, mind, spirit, or more correctly
the Idea, which existed before the physical world. The crude material
things we know through our senses are, according to this school, only
imperfect copies of this perfect Idea. The most consistent proponent of
this philosophy in Antiquity was Plato. However, he did not invent
idealism, which existed earlier.

The Pythagoreans believed that the essence of all things was Number (a
view apparently shared by some modern mathematicians). The Pythagoreans
displayed a contempt towards the material world in general and the human
body in particular which they saw as a prison where the soul was
trapped. This is strikingly reminiscent of the outlook of mediaeval
monks. Indeed, it is probable that the Church took many of its ideas
from the Pythagoreans, Platonists and Neo-Platonists. This is not
surprising. All religions necessarily set out from an idealist view of
the world. The difference is that religion appeals to the emotions, and
claims to provide a mystical, intuitive understanding of the world
(“Revelation”), while most idealist philosophers try to present logical
arguments for their theories.

At bottom, however, the roots of all forms of idealism are religious and
mystical. The disdain for the “crude material world” and the elevation
of the “Ideal” flow directly from the phenomena we have just considered
in relation to religion. It is no accident that Platonist idealism
developed in Athens when the system of slavery was at its height. Manual
labour at that time was seen, in a very literal sense, as a mark of
slavery. The only labour worthy of respect was intellectual labour.
Essentially, philosophical idealism is a product of the extreme division
between mental and manual labour which has existed from the dawn of
written history down to the present day.

The history of Western philosophy, however, begins not with idealism but
with materialism. This asserts precisely the opposite: that the material
world, known to us and explored by science, is real; that the only real
world is the material one; that thoughts, ideas and sensations are the
product of matter organised in a certain way (a nervous system and a
brain); that thought cannot derive its categories from itself, but only
from the objective world which makes itself known to us through our

The earliest Greek philosophers were known as “hylozoists” (from the
Greek, meaning “those who believe that matter is alive”). Here we have a
long line of heroes who pioneered the development of thought. The Greeks
discovered that the world was round, long before Columbus. They
explained that humans had evolved from fishes long before Darwin. They
made extraordinary discoveries in mathematics, especially geometry,
which were not greatly improved upon for one and a half millennia. They
invented mechanics and even built a steam engine. What was startlingly
new about this way of looking at the world was that it was not
religious. In complete contrast to the Egyptians and Babylonians, from
whom they had learnt a lot, the Greek thinkers did not resort to gods
and goddesses to explain natural phenomena. For the first time, men and
women sought to explain the workings of nature purely in terms of
nature. This was one of the greatest turning-points in the entire
history of human thought. True science starts here.

Aristotle, the greatest of the Ancient philosophers, can be considered a
materialist, although he was not so consistent as the early hylozoists.
He made a series of important scientific discoveries which laid the
basis for the great achievements of the Alexandrine period of Greek

The Middle Ages which followed the collapse of Antiquity were a desert
in which scientific thought languished for centuries. Not accidentally,
this was a period dominated by the Church. Idealism was the only
philosophy permitted, either as a caricature of Plato or an even worse
distortion of Aristotle.

Science re-emerged triumphantly in the period of the Renaissance. It was
forced to wage a fierce battle against the influence of religion (not
only Catholic, but also Protestant, by the way). Many martyrs paid the
price of scientific freedom with their lives. Giordano Bruno was burnt
at the stake. Galileo was twice put on trial by the Inquisition, and
forced to renounce his views under threat of torture.

The predominant philosophical trend of the Renaissance was materialism.
In England, this took the form of empiricism, the school of thought that
states that all knowledge is derived from the senses. The pioneers of
this school were Francis Bacon (1561-1626), Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679)
and John Locke (1632-1704). The materialist school passed from England
to France where it acquired a revolutionary content. In the hands of
Diderot, Rousseau, Holbach and Helvetius, philosophy became an
instrument for criticising all existing society. These great thinkers
prepared the way for the revolutionary overthrow of the feudal monarchy
in 1789-93.

The new philosophical views stimulated the development of science,
encouraging experiment and observation. The 18th century saw a great
advance in science, especially mechanics. But this fact had a negative
as well as a positive side. The old materialism of the 18th century was
narrow and rigid, reflecting the limited development of science itself.
Newton expressed the limitations of empiricism with his celebrated
phrase “I make no hypotheses.” This one-sided mechanical outlook
ultimately proved fatal to the old materialism. Paradoxically, the great
advances in philosophy after 1700 were made by idealist philosophers.

Under the impact of the French revolution, the German idealist Immanuel
Kant (1724-1804) subjected all previous philosophy to a thorough
criticism. Kant made important discoveries not only in philosophy and
logic but in science. His nebular hypothesis of the origins of the solar
system (later given a mathematical basis by Laplace) is now generally
accepted as correct. In the field of philosophy, Kant’s masterpiece The
Critique of Pure Reason was the first work to analyse the forms of logic
which had remained virtually unchanged since they were first developed
by Aristotle. Kant showed the contradictions implicit in many of the
most fundamental propositions of philosophy. However, he failed to
resolve these contradictions (“Antinomies”), and finally drew the
conclusion that real knowledge of the world was impossible. While we can
know appearances, we can never know how things are “in themselves.”

This idea was not new. It is a theme which has recurred many times in
philosophy, and is generally identified with what we call subjective
idealism. This was put forward before Kant by the Irish bishop and
philosopher George Berkeley and the last of the classical English
empiricists, David Hume. The basic argument can be summed up as follows:
“I interpret the world through my senses. Therefore, all that I know to
exist are my sense-impressions. Can I, for example, assert that this
apple exists? No. All I can say is that I see it, I feel it, I smell it,
I taste it. Therefore, I cannot really say that the material world
exists at all.” The logic of subjective idealism is that, if I close my
eyes, the world ceases to exist. Ultimately, it leads to solipsism (from
the Latin “solo ipsus”—”I alone”), the idea that only I exist.

These ideas may seem nonsensical to us, but they have proved strangely
persistent. In one way or another, the prejudices of subjective idealism
have penetrated not only philosophy but also science for a great part of
the 20th century. We shall deal more specifically with this trend later

The greatest breakthrough came in the first decades of the 19th century
with George Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831). Hegel was a German
idealist, a man of towering intellect, who effectively summed up in his
writings the whole history of philosophy.

Hegel showed that the only way to overcome the “Antinomies” of Kant was
to accept that contradictions actually existed, not only in thought, but
in the real world. As an objective idealist, Hegel had no time for the
subjective idealist argument that the human mind cannot know the real
world. The forms of thought must reflect the objective world as closely
as possible. The process of knowledge consist of penetrating ever more
deeply into this reality, proceeding from the abstract to the concrete,
from the known to the unknown, from the particular to the universal.

The dialectical method of thinking had played a great role in Antiquity,
particularly in the naive but brilliant aphorisms of Heraclitus (c.500
B.C.), but also in Aristotle and others. It was abandoned in the Middle
Ages, when the Church turned Aristotle’s formal logic into a lifeless
and rigid dogma, and did not re-appear until Kant returned it to a place
of honour. However, in Kant the dialectic did not receive an adequate
development. It fell to Hegel to bring the science of dialectical
thinking to its highest point of development.

Hegel’s greatness is shown by the fact that he alone was prepared to
challenge the dominant philosophy of mechanism. The dialectical
philosophy of Hegel deals with processes, not isolated events. It deals
with things in their life, not their death, in their inter-relations,
not isolated, one after the other. This is a startlingly modern and
scientific way of looking at the world. Indeed, in many aspects Hegel
was far in advance of his time. Yet, despite its many brilliant
insights, Hegel’s philosophy was ultimately unsatisfactory. Its
principal defect was precisely Hegel’s idealist standpoint, which
prevented him from applying the dialectical method to the real world in
a consistently scientific way. Instead of the material world we have the
world of the Absolute Idea, where real things, processes and people are
replaced by insubstantial shadows. In the words of Frederick Engels, the
Hegelian dialectic was the most colossal miscarriage in the whole
history of philosophy. Correct ideas are here seen standing on their
head. In order to put dialectics on a sound foundation, it was necessary
to turn Hegel upside down, to transform idealist dialectics into
dialectical materialism. This was the great achievement of Karl Marx and
Frederick Engels. Our study begins with a brief account of the basic
laws of materialist dialectics worked out by them.


1. Aristotle, Metaphysics, London, 1961

2. Asimov, I., New Guide to Science, London, 1987

3. Buchsbaum, R., Animals Without Backbones, 2 vols., London, 1966

4. Bukharin, N. I. and others, Marxism and Modern Thought, London, 1935

5. Burn, A. R., The Pelican History of Greece, London, 1966

6. Calder, N., Einstein’s Universe, London, 1986

7. Darwin, C., The Origin of Species, London, 1929

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