August Thalheimer: Introduction to Dialectical Materialism


3 - Greek Materialism

In the last chapter we considered how religion endured in capitalist society and especially how the economic and social role of the various classes determined their relation to religion. I shall now turn to a brief description of the different points of view which one can take towards religion. There are two fundamentally different positions. One is the position of rationalism. It is characteristic of this position to consider religion simply as something which is irrational and which sufficient knowledge will erase from the mind. The term "rationalists" is applied here because the French philosophers of the eighteenth century tool; the point of view of "reason" in their struggle against religion and the church; that is, the point of view that religion is simply something irrational, an error, which can and will be eradicated through knowledge. The characteristic of this position is that it is unhistorical. It does not comprehend religion as something which has emerged from historical forces and which must be destroyed by still other historical forces. I cite this position especially because we still find it very prevalent even today, and particularly among bourgeois revolutionaries or progressives. This position, though appearing to be very radical, is nevertheless not very effective in the struggle against religion.

The second position on religion is the position which accepts Marxist science, the position of dialectical materialism. This point of view differs from rationalism in that it looks upon religion as an historical phenomenon, as a phenomenon which has its roots in the material conditions of society, in its mode of production, and which, at a certain period, in fact, played a progressive role in the relation of society to nature and in the building of society itself. This conception opposes religion on the ground that it has now become a hindrance to further social development, though it still has material roots in capitalist society. The practical inference from this position is that it is not sufficient simply to destroy religion through knowledge, but that we must lay hold of the material roots of religion, of the mode of production, In order to overcome it completely. Such an attack produces a twofold change: First, the replacement of the contemporary class structure by classless socialist society. This destroys the most fertile source of religion, namely, the inability of capitalist society to control its own destiny. And second, with the transition to the socialist mode of production, the relation of society and of individuals to nature is also changed. Socialist, classless society bases itself, as far as its technology is concerned, upon the achievements bequeathed by capitalism, and develops them to their greatest efficiency. It is apparent that these two bases of religious fantasy cannot be destroyed through knowledge alone, but in the last analysis only through complete social revolution. This position does not preclude the necessity for dissemination of anti-religious information, for this spreading of information is itself part of the preparation for revolution. But it teaches how to estimate properly the effect of propaganda, and how to orient it correctly in the total labor of revolutionary preparation; that is, as a part which is subservient to the whole of the political and economic struggle. Hence this conception also teaches how to carry on the work of propaganda against religion most expediently and effectively.

Now I wish to speak of the theoretical and practical attitude of the Communist Party toward religion. The Party, as you know, is a voluntary organization of men who fundamentally hold to the same viewpoint. The fundamental viewpoint of Communism is that of dialectical materialism. It therefore follows that in the Communist Party itself every member is required to have freed or to be freeing himself of religious ideas and to assume the position of dialectical materialism. Any one who is still attached to religious ideas and continues to hold to them cannot, therefore, in the nature of the case, be a member of the Communist Party. You further know that every one who wants to become a member of the Communist Party in Russia has to go through preliminary schooling during which the viewpoint is explained. It also follows from this that the Party as such carries on anti religious propaganda. The Party also works through the medium of the school to eradicate religious superstitions from the minds of the younger generation, or to prevent them from arising.

As regards the place of religion in the Soviet Union in general  it is quite different from what it is in the Communist Party itself. The Communist Party is a voluntary association of the like-minded. The Soviet Union is an association of men of various dispositions. In the Soviet Union everybody has the right to hold and practice whatever religious ideas he pleases. There is only this difference from most, but not all, of the bourgeois States: that anyone who holds definite religious ideas and wishes to create organizations to serve these ideas must pay for them out of his own pocket. The soviet State assumes a wholly neutral position in regard to all church-going communities. They must support themselves, maintain their parishes, their priests, etc. And they must fulfill still another condition. This stipulates that religious communities carry on no counter-revolutionary agitation against the Soviet State. As you know, it often happens that priests are summoned before revolutionary tribunals and punished. This never occurs because of their religious ideas, propaganda, etc., but because of their counter-revolutionary activity. On condition that the religious community maintains itself and that it does not carry on propaganda against the Soviet State - under these reasonable conditions every religious society in Soviet Russia has free rein. The most important means employed in the Soviet Union to eradicate religious superstitions is anti-religious propaganda, and education in the building of socialism. Only complete material freedom, not merely legal freedom such as already exists in many bourgeois states, can give the full intellectual freedom which renders them competent to free themselves from religious ideas. And, furthermore, not until this material freedom is won, does the great mass of people have the necessary leisure, the necessary free time to pursue science and art.

It may be asked: What takes the place of religion after it is destroyed? To this the best answer is an aphorism of the poet Goethe, who said: "He who has art and science, has religion; he who has neither art nor science, ought to have religion," i.e., such a person needs religion. What a man like Goethe claimed only for a small group of highly cultured people but would deny to the great masses will apply to all. In bourgeois society some could become intellectually free; in a fully developed socialist society all can become free. This matter we must also view as dialectical materialists. From our general survey we have seen that while today it is a hindrance to social development that only a small number of the privileged have the material opportunity to become free, formerly, due to the underdeveloped state of the forces of production, it was a necessary prerequisite for the creation of conditions which now make the material and intellectual emancipation of the broad mass of the people possible. The emancipation of a minority from immediate productive work - of certain classes, castes, or ranks - was prerequisite to for the development of natural science and technology, which, as soon as the necessary social conditions are created, provide the material possibility for the free cultural development of all. In this connection, I want to point out to you what is meant by historical dialectics. You have already met the term several times. From this instance we see that it means that a phenomenon which is necessary under certain conditions and signifies progress, under changed historical conditions straightway changes to its opposite and becomes a hindrance to further development. In the role of religion in different historical periods we see the elucidation of the universal law of historical development, namely, development through opposites or contradictions. We shall further see that this law of development through contradictions is valid not only for historical motion, but that it is a law of all motion.

The struggles from which the modern world-view has emerged, have gone on for over two thousand years. It did not appear overnight. Along the path of these struggles lies the development of philosophy and modern natural science. Dialectical materialism is the last and highest step in this development, the end-result of the struggles which have raged since the earliest historical time. The point of departure for the modern world-view is ancient Greece. Here is the cradle of philosophy and natural science. Here were laid the foundations of the modern world-view. Therefore I shall begin with Greece. I shall also touch briefly upon India, to deal with the struggle against religion, and finally I shall deal with China.

First of all, a few words about the universal material conditions for the development of philosophy and science and for the disintegration of the popular religion in ancient times, in ancient Greece, in India, and in China. When I come to speak of Greece, India, and China, I shall become specific and describe the peculiar conditions leading to the destruction of the old religions in each of the countries mentioned. Of the universal conditions the first in importance is the advance in the development of the productive capacity, in the productiveness of the economy, in the mastery of nature. The advances from the primitive communistic stage are distinctly connected with the development of private property and a commodity economy. Most crucial for these advances is the development of agriculture. After this, the establishment of the first form of capital, merchant capital or business capital and money capital, plays an important role.

The second and closely related condition is this: that, with the development of a commodity economy in which merchant capital and money capital grow up alongside of the priestly class and the landowners, a new class of people appears who enjoy free time, who have leisure to develop themselves and to dedicate themselves to art and science. One can say quite generally that this development in ancient times is most intimately connected with the development of the slave economy - slave economy on the land (slave plantations) and slave economy in the cities, where the wholesale manufacture of industrial articles was carried on by slaves. Slave economy also plays an important role in shipping. The great merchant ships which in ancient times sailed the Black Sea, the Mediterranean Sea, etc., were, in the main, manned by slaves. Thus the basis of this entire development whichbegan to undermine ancient religion and which laid the groundwork for the modern world-view is the emergence and establishment of a. slave economy. Through the slave economy it first became possible for another class of free people to emerge, in addition to the priests - a class which had the necessary time to devote itself to other things than to the direct labor of earning a living. As Aristotle said, leisure is the premise of philosophy. In an earlier period, before slave economy is developed to its full height, we have an intermediate stage where free peasants and crafts-men emerge. Upon this foundation is built the authority of the so-called Tyrants in the Greek cities, that is, the despotism of one individual among the citizens of the city. The term, Tyrants, can easily be translated into Chinese; it means military commander. The consequences of this great economic and class upheaval were severe disturbances, changes, and upheavals in traditional moral and political views. It is clear that when a people who have lived hundreds and thousands of years in the same relationships are subjected to basic economic and social changes, all their thinking and especially their thinking on religious subjects, will be profoundly affected. In Greece, especially, the development of philosophy and natural science is closely related to the development of Greek commercial cities on the coast of Asia Minor, where, as early as the seventh and sixth centuries B.C., there emerged a materialistic viewpoint opposed to the priesthood. In India the turn against religion was related to the establishment and the strengthening of the military nobility and the merchantry who turned against the Brahman priests. In China, Lao-Tse and Confucius appeared at a time when the old feudalism was falling, when a free agriculture was emerging, and when, upon this foundation, the centralized, monarchical, bureaucratic state was being established.

I now turn to Greece. I shall first briefly describe the general conditions for the emergence of Greek natural philosophy. Here we are concerned with a number of philosophers commonly designated Ionians, after the group to which they belonged. The general basis for the emergence of this first philosophy is the development of the Greek commercial cities on the coast of Asia Minor. These cities, of which the most important were Miletus and Ephesus, stand culturally and economically, far above contemporary Greek development. They stand much higher than the cities of Greece itself, the Greek peninsula. In these cities for the first time it was possible for other people besides the piests to obtain great wealth and be in a position to dedicate themselves to free investigation. This development was further influenced by the fact that through the growth of commercial shipping the intellectual horizon of these Greeks of Asia Minor was tremendously widened. These first Greek merchants traversed the whole Mediterranean Sea and the Black Sea, etc., with their merchant ships. They came to know many strange peoples, religions, manners, and customs. Thus it came about that they grew critical of their own religion, of their own customs, and came to look upon all those things with a clearer vision. The development of shipping and commerce demands a correspondingly higher technical development. The commodities with which the ships were laden, the raw materials, were refashioned in the cities. There finally developed from commercial shipping a number of different, highly developed industries - one of the most important being the manufacture of wool into fine mantles. Other luxury industries also developed, the manufacture of Greek vases, for example, which were common in all the ancient maritime countries. Further, the manufacture of ornaments out of expensive metals and expensive stones, as well as the manufacture of costly ornamented weapons, played an important role. These commodities were made to sell to the kings, nobles and high officials of the great oriental kingdoms. The development of commercial shipping on the other hand was connected with the importing of grain and other vital necessities. This resulted in the impoverishment of the old native landed proprietors. The peasants who served these great landed proprietors were able to free themselves and go into the cities as craftsmen. There was established a class of free craftsmen in the Greek commercial cities of Asia Minor, and over these craftsmen the so-called Tyrant ruled.

Who was this Tyrant? He was usually a rich landed proprietor who turned to commerce and finance. He was as a rule one of the richest persons in the city. Because of his wealth and because of the presence of many freemen without land who sought occupation, he was able to hire a body of troops and to impose his authority upon the city by force.

This is the background and point of departure for Greek natural philosophy. Through the development of technology, handicraft and shipping, and through the extension of the geographical horizon, the prerequisites were created for seeking a natural explanation of the world, as opposed to the fantastic explanation of the priests. Men who had made long journeys within the bounds of the Mediterranean Sea, who had made themselves familiar with the elements of astronomy, of geography, etc., who found shipping necessary to them, and who had seen many foreign peoples and their customs - these men could undertake to build a scientific world-view. They had the necessary free time, the necessary means, and the impulse to acquire knowledge; and they also had the necessary independence for such an undertaking. Thus we understand how from such relationships philosophy could take its first flights and how criticism could overthrow the old popular religion.

I should like to add a few more words about the Tyrants and contemporary conditions. These Tyrants, it is very important to note, were supported by the people against the city nobility. With the help of the people they raised themselves above the city nobility, who were at the same time merchants. Thus they dominated the richest noble merchants - the merchant nobility. After they won over the people and established a body of troops for themselves, they oppressed the people. Thus, throughout all antiquity, the struggle against the Tyrants is considered a meritorious thing. The principal hold which they had over the people was the work which they provided for craftsmen on public buildings. The most beautiful buildings in the Greek commercial cities of Asia Minor were built by these Tyrants. Further, it is very important to mention that all these Greek cities on the coast of Asia Minor continually had to defend their national independence against the great Persian empire. They waged a national struggle for freedom. This struggle for freedom developed the intellectual powers, the self-consciousness of the cities, which became the foundation for free, intellectual development.

One more comment on the development of slave traffic. Slave traffic played an important role in these cities. In ancient times and even in the Middle Ages slaves were one of the chief articles of trade. But the slave economy in these cities was only in its infancy. In the seventh and sixth centuries most of the craftsmen of these cities were still freemen, that is, independent craftsmen or wage laborers.

I now turn to the most important Ionian philosophers of nature and their doctrines. The earliest of these philosophers of nature, also called the father of philosophy, is a certain Thales of Miletus. At this time Miletus was the richest of all the commercial cities of Asia Minor. She commanded a great merchant fleet andruled over a great tract of land. Very little of the theory of Thales has come down to us. But it is characteristic of him that he had a natural theory of the origin of the world. This, indeed, is one of the first questions which religion also seeks to answer: "How did the world begin?" Thales tried to give a natural explanation of this. The world, he said, came into being from water. This was the "beginning" and the true essence of all things. It was reasoned that all the other elements (at that time the elements were divided into water, fire, air, and earth) derived from water. This was based on the notion that all substances were unitary, that all substances were capable of changing into each other. Of course, this early philosophy could not establish this assertion in a manner such as is employed by chemistry today. The idea that life first originated from water was also part of the theory. You knows that modern natural science explains that all land animals arose from sea animals and that life first appeared in the sea. Hence, this proposition contains, as we see, an ingenious presentiment of future discoveries. It is natural that Thales should have hit upon the idea that water was the material source of the universe, living, as he did, in a commercial city that lay by the sea. It was a city in constant contact with this element of continually changing appearance, this element teeming with an inexhaustible wealth of living creatures useful to men - a city for which the sea was the foundation of economic life. It is also asserted of Thales that he made great advances in astronomy and geometry. He is said to have made journeys to the Egyptian priests, from whom he obtained a great deal of his knowledge. This indicates that the knowledge of the Egyptian priests became one of the starting points for philosophy. The Egyptian priests had a special motive for developing natural philosophy. Egyptian life depends upon artificial irrigation from the Nile. Without artificial irrigation the land would be a desert. In order to be able to regulate irrigation, the priests had to be able to predict the time of the Nile's ebb and flow. And to do this they had to observe the stars. Irrigation, like the building of temples, required surveying the land. These were the motives which led the Egyptian priests to develop the elements of surveying and astronomy, as well as of mathematics. "These elements were taken over, systematized, and further developed by the first Greek philosophers of nature.