Review of Philosophy for a Modern Man. H. Levy

The Philosophy of a Natural Scientist - Rejoinder

Clemens Dutt

Source: The Labour Monthly, Volume 20, Number 6, June 1938, pp.390-392 (982)
Transcription: Ted Crawford
HTML Markup: Mark Harris

Public Domain: Marxists Internet Archive (2010). You may freely copy, distribute, display and perform this work; as well as make derivative and commercial works. Please credit “Marxists Internet Archive” as your source.

[Following the review by Clemens Dutt of Professor Levy’s “A Philosophy for a Modern Man” in the April issue of the LABOUR MONTHLY, we published a reply by Professor Levy in last month’s issue. We publish this month a rejoinder by the reviewer, and will have to close the discussion with this statement.]

It is clear from the character of Professor Levy’s reply that he has failed to grasp the nature of the criticism made in any article.

That many leading scientists have come closer in their general outlook to the philosophy of Marxism is an outstanding sign of the present period and a fact of first-rate importance for the development of Marxism in this country. But for that very reason it is all the more important that where differences exist they should be made clear and discussed. This I have tried to do and it should not be in source of offence.

It is undoubtedly true that a few years back Levy was a critic of dialectical materialism, if not a hostile critic. Since then he has changed his attitude to some extent, but he must not complain if the rest of the world refuses to recognise that the philosophy of dialectical materialism has correspondingly altered.

Levy may ignore preceding work in this field, but there have been many eminent thinkers who have contributed to this philosophy and its basic character is independent of anything that he or I could write. To question this and ask for a new “explanation” of dialectical materialism in answer to criticism is to act like those opponents of Marxism who demand triumphantly: “Ah, but what is Marxism?”

In my review, with all due homage to Levy’s achievement, I attempt to bring forward certain points which seem to me to characterise the nature of his approach to the viewpoint of dialectical materialism and his difference from it. Eliminating minor criticisms, such as his correction of Marx, some of the chief points are:

(1) That Levy is preoccupied by “isolation,” which is not denied by mechanical materialists and does not constitute the essence of dialectics.

(2) That the central feature of his book is his “General Law of Change,” which is a mechanistic scheme and in contrast to the dialectical view of the identity of opposites and development by contradictions.

(3) That the application of his scheme to social changes naturally leads to mechanistic formulae of change, such as the “drive of technique” acting as the “main causal agency” of all social development.

It is noticeable that in his reply Levy does not attempt to deal in any fundamental way with any of these three points.

Take the central question of the “General Law of Change.” In his remarks here, as on other points, Levy talks very freely of misquotation and carelessness, although my account of his law is textual, undistorted and completely relevant. I am not even so careless as to say p.32 when I mean p.31. It can only he supposed that for Levy every quotation being an “isolate” is necessarily defective and unfair to use as evidence.

However, the point we are concerned with is the relation of his formula to the outlook of dialectical materialism. Levy is indignant because I have compared his view to that of Dühring of development by opposing forces. I agree that the parallel is not exact. But Levy does declare:

The quality q is recognised by the fact that its intensification is inimical to the continued existence of the given state S (p.112).

A statistical isolate involving the co-existence of Q and q prior to the dialectical change is considered as possessing a contradiction (p.113).

It is surely not unfair to regard Levy’s exposition of his law as his version of development by contradictions. It is natural to assume that contradiction involves an opposition. Apparently Levy does not like this, perhaps because the terms opposition, conflict imply a struggle, and Levy has laid it down in his previous essay that “inanimate matter does not struggle.”

In contrast to the dialectical view, with its logic based on the identity of A and not -A and the interpenetration of opposites, Levy sees only all change taking place by means of two processes, the first of which leads to the second and the second to the transformation of the state or situation S.

It seems perfectly reasonable to say that “if this is all that is meant by dialectical materialism, then its view of development would be a crude and mechanical one.” I do not say that Levy declares, I do not even imply that Levy implies -- the charge which he so hotly rebuts -- that this is all that is meant by dialectical materialism. I merely wish to contrast his Law of Change with the viewpoint of dialectical materialism.

At the same time it is in this connection that he makes his sole reference to dialectical materialism and it is not unlikely that many readers will assume that he is giving an exposition of dialectical materialism.

This it seems to me is the point which it is most essential to make clear. Just as the Plebs League and such like groups made a speciality of the propagation of a sort of British version of Marxism, so there is a danger of a British approach to dialectical materialism that ignores what has been done by the great international contributors in this field and attempts to purvey a modified version which is supposed to be better suited to British traditions. I do not say that this is the attitude of Professor Levy. But such an approach would bring with it precisely the same danger as that involved by Levy’s textbook, viz., the concealment of essential differences under an assumption of treating the same subject in an independent way.