Chris Harman

To be and not to be

(April 1988)

From Socialist Worker Review, No. 108, April 1988.
Transcribed by Christian Høgsbjerg.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

The latest volume of the Marx-Engels Collected Works brings together two of Engels’s writings that were much promoted by Stalinism and, therefore, have tended to be distrusted by revolutionary Marxists since the mid-1950s – Anti-Dühring and The Dialectics of Nature. Chris Harman argues that both have much to teach revolutionaries today – providing they are read critically.

Marx and Engels Collected Works
Vol. 25

Lawrence and Wishart £15

WHAT IS contentious, in both of these works by Engels, is the exposition of his ideas on dialectics.

Engels insisted that the tradition of idealist philosophy that culminated in the work of the early nineteenth century German philosopher Hegel, made one great discovery. Reality was constantly changing and the changes which took place could not be understood using the fixed notions we normally think with. These notions can describe very accurately how things are at a particular moment.

But eventually, in a longer or shorter time, things change and to describe them we then need completely different notions. To understand the behaviour of a living animal you use the notions of biology, but one day the living animal is bound to die and become an inert mass of dead matter to be explained in terms of chemistry and physics.

A substance is in liquid form and the laws of hydraulics tell us a great deal about its behaviour. It cools down, crystallising into a solid and suddenly the laws of hydraulics are completely inapplicable.

Nothing can be understood in isolation from its interconnections with other things. Everything is what it is, but at the same time it is in the process of becoming something else.

Engels, following Hegel, summed up this process of continual transformation of reality by saying that reality was always in contradiction with itself.

“So long as we consider things at rest and lifeless, each one by itself, alongside and after each other, we do not run up against contradictions in them ... But the position is quite different as soon as we consider things in motion, their change, their life, their reciprocal influence on one another. Then we immediately become involved in contradiction.”

The way we normally think about things is bound by the laws of formal logic. The most basic of these is that a thing cannot be both itself and its opposite. Such rules have to be kept to if we are not to speak nonsense. But, Engels insists, following Hegel, when we consider things in motion we have to recognise that the laws of formal logic break down.

A moving object is at a certain point and is not at that point. A human being is both alive and in the process of becoming dead. There was a time in the past when everything which exists today did not exist. And eventually a time will come when everything which exists today will no longer exist.

To think “dialectically” is to refuse to be satisfied with knowledge of things in their static state. It is to set out consciously to understand the contradictions within them which are continually forcing them to undergo change. It is to look for the elements in reality which are in contradiction with the existing state of affairs.

Seen in this way “dialectical thought” is not something enormously complicated. But it is diametrically opposed to much that has traditionally been said about the “method of science”. In Britain especially, what has reigned supreme has been empiricism – the belief that science develops simply through the collection of facts about things as they are.

Even where empiricism in its strict sense has been abandoned, the basic presupposition remains that science is based on testing theories against self-evident “facts”.

The difficulty with any such view, as Engels notes in the Dialectics of Nature, is,

“However great one’s contempt for all theoretical thought, one cannot bring two natural facts in relation with each other, or understand the connection existing between them, without theoretical thought, the only question is whether one’s thinking is correct or not, and contempt for theory is evidently the most certain way to think naturalistically and therefore incorrectly.”

He points out how the classic empiricists like Francis Bacon or Isaac Newton ended up in the wildest metaphysical speculation (about alchemy in the one case and the Revelations of St John in the other).

But Engels refused simply to ditch the empiricists’ concern for facts – for then all that would be left would be the superstitions. It was here that he would have parted company sharply with those critics of empiricism who have been associated with much “radical science” in the last twenty years. His aim was “dialectical thought” – understanding reality in all its ever changing complexity’, grasping both sides of its contradictory nature, seeing both the “facts” of the empiricists and the deeper processes that are continually doing away with the facts.

So far so good some critics of Engels say, but they then question what comes next in both Anti-Dühring and the Dialectics of Nature. For Engels goes on to take over from Hegel what he refers to as the “three laws of dialectics”.

He says these are “the laws of the transformation of quantity into quality and vice-versa”, “the law of the interpenetration of opposites”, and “the law of the negation of the negation”.

His formulations have been strongly attacked. If they do mean anything, it is said, they must be interpreted in the manner of the Stalinist philosophers of the 1930s and the 1940s as super historical laws which determine, in advance of any scientific investigation, how nature and history develops.

On the basis of these arguments most Marxists have, in recent decades, parted company with Engels.

I fear they have thrown the baby out with the bathwater. There are faults in many of the arguments Engels uses in Anti-Dühring and the Dialectics of Nature. But there is also a core argument that remains very important.

It is this. Traditional materialism quite rightly insisted that there are no supernatural processes. Life and, at the highest stage of life, mind and consciousness, are material processes. But traditional materialism saw these material processes as simply the mechanical interaction of the elementary building blocks which made up the universe.

To understand the complex phenomena of chemistry, biology, psychology and human history, all that was necessary was to reduce them to the physical laws which determined the interaction of atoms.

The problem with this approach is that it very quickly leads to an abandoning of any real attempt at a scientific understanding of the more complex phenomena. For to describe all the different physical interactions between atoms which bring them about is a task beyond the capacity of any human mind, therefore crude materialists end up with two choices.

Either they ignore the complexity of reality and reduce history and society to biology (as do socio-biologists and rat psychologists).

Or they end up by reintroducing religious, idealist notions through the back door, seeing consciousness as something completely separate from material reality.

The point of Engels’s materialist “turning upside down” of Hegel is to overcome this problem. He insists that the structure of reality itself is such that the complex grows out of the basic components of the universe, but is not simply reducible to them.

Engels’s argument was very well summed up by Trotsky.

“We call our dialectic ‘materialist’ since its roots are neither in heaven nor in the depths of our ‘free will’, but in objective reality, in nature. Consciousness grew out of the unconscious, psychology out of physiology, the organic out of the inorganic, the solar system out of nebulae. On all the rungs of this ladder the development, the quantitative changes were transformed into qualitative ...”

Engels sees “life” as a complex formation of matter which is able to reproduce its own conditions of existence.

It is once matter is formed into the complex bodies that make up “life” that you truly find the “interpenetration of opposites”. For life depends on the continual absorption of materials from its environment and the accretion of material into it. “Life consists primarily in the fact that at every moment it is itself and at the same time something else ...”

The first two of Engels’s “laws of dialectics” can then be understood not as super-historical laws determining how reality must behave, but rather as an account of the general structure of reality. Such an account is necessary because without it thought tries to ignore central features of reality and falls into empiricism, crude materialism and, ultimately, mystic idealism.

But what of the third “law” – the negation of the negation?

Here Engels himself is at his least convincing. The examples he gives seem either trite or difficult to comprehend.

Take the example of the oak tree and acorn. A double negation takes place, but ends up simply reproducing its starting point. Focussing on it does not depict reality as ever changing, but rather as static, as a circle not a spiral.

Engels’s poor arguments have had the effect that later Marxists have often simply dropped the negation of the negation.

Yet it is possible – and fruitful – to provide an account of it which places it right at the centre of Marxism. All that is required is to grasp that it is only really a feature of those self-reproducing complex combinations of matter we call life, and does not find its full form until those give rise to the even more complex combinations which have consciousness.

Inorganic objects are continually being negated in the simple but trivial sense of suffering change from external causes. But once matter has given rise to living organisms a change occurs. The organisms react back upon the external environment, transforming it. And the change is not simply a cyclical change (as the acorn analogy suggests): the living organism is able to encompass and go beyond its previous conditions of existence, to “negate the negation”. That was how the whole earth was transformed as the most primitive forms of protein gave rise, over billions of years, to the mass of life forms we know today.

For an enormous period of time this “negating” of the environment took place blindly, through the process of natural selection. But at a certain stage in natural history, what were selected by survival were organisms capable of more than a blind response, organisms that could make logical calculations about what was happening to them and respond with conscious control of the world around them.

These organisms are products of the external environment and cannot be understood separately from it. They are, however, capable of reacting in such a way as to go beyond that environment. They are objects that can become subjects.

The “negation of the negation”, so understood, occurs in embryo when inorganic matter gives rise to organic life, and finds its full development when organic life acquires conscious brain power.

It is central to a Marxist understanding because it enables us to grasp how human beings are both conditioned by the societies in which they find themselves and are more than their conditioning, because it enables us to understand the possibility of revolutionary practice. It was, of course, for this reason that Stalinism found it a convenient category to drop, and for this reason that there’s something to be said for looking again at both the main pieces in the latest volume of the Collected Works.

Last updated on 12.8.2013