G.V. Plekhanov

The Development of the Monist View of History

Chapter IV
Idealist German Philosophy

The materialists of the eighteenth century were firmly convinced that they had succeeded in dealing the death-blow to idealism. They regarded it as an obsolete and completely forsaken theory. But a reaction against materialism began already at the end of that century, and in the first half of the nineteenth century materialism itself fell into the position of a system which all considered obsolete and buried, once for all. Idealism not only came to life again, but underwent an unprecedented and truly brilliant development. There were, of course, appropriate social reasons for this: but we will not touch on them here, and will only consider whether the idealism of the nineteenth century had any advantages over the materialism of the previous epoch and, if it had, in what these advantages consisted.

French materialism displayed an astonishing and to-day scarcely credible feebleness every time it came upon questions of evolution in nature or in history. Let us take, for example, the origin of man. Although the idea of the gradual evolution of this species did not seem “contradictory” to the materialists, nevertheless they thought such a “guess” to be most improbable. The authors of the Système de la Nature (see Part I, ch.6) say that if anyone were to revolt against such a piece of conjecture, if anyone were to object “that Nature acts with the help of a certain sum of general and invariable laws,” and added in doing so that “man, the quadruped, the fish, the insect, the plant, etc., exist from the beginning of time and remain eternally unaltered” they “would not object to this.” They would only remark that such a view also does not contradict the truths they set forth. “Man cannot possibly know everything: he cannot know his origin” – that is all that in the end the authors of the Système de la Nature say about this important question.

Helvetius seems to be more inclined to the idea of the gradual evolution of man. “Matter is eternal, but its forms are variable” he remarks, recalling that even now human natures change under the influence of climate. [1] He even considered that generally speaking all animal species were variable. But this sound idea was formulated by him very strangely. It followed, in his view, that the causes of “dissimilarity” between the different species of animals and vegetables He either in the qualities of their very “embryos,” or in the differences of their environment, the differences of their “upbringing.” [2]

Thus heredity excludes mutability, and vice versa. If we adopt the theory of mutability, we must as a consequence presuppose that from any given “embryo” there can arise, in appropriate circumstances, any animal or vegetable: from the embryo of an oak, for example, a bull or a giraffe. Naturally such a “conjecture” could not throw any light on the question of the origin of species, and Helvetius himself, having once made it in passing, never returned to it again.

Just as badly were the French materialists able to ex-plain phenomena of social evolution. The various systems of “legislation” were represented by them solely as the product of the conscious creative activity of “legislators”; the various religious systems as the product of the cunning of priests, etc.

This impotence of French materialism in face of questions of evolution in nature and in history made its philosophical content very poor. In its view of nature, that content was reduced to combating the one-sided conception of matter held by the dualists. In its view of man it was confined to an endless repetition of, and some variations upon, Locke’s principle that there are no innate ideas. However valuable such repetition was in combating out-of-date moral and political theories, it could not have serious scientific value unless the materialists had succeeded in applying their conception to the explanation of the spiritual evolution of mankind. We have already said earlier that some very remarkable attempts were made in this direction by the French materialists (i.e., to be precise, by Helvetius), but that they ended in failure (and if they had succeeded, French materialism would have proved very strong in questions of evolution). The materialists, in their view of history, took up a purely idealistic standpoint-that opinions govern the world. Only at times, only very rarely, did materialism break into their historical reflections, in the shape of remarks that some stray atom, finding its way into the head of the “legislator” and causing in it a disturbance of the functions of the brain, might alter the course of history for entire ages. Such materialism was essentially fatalism, and left no room for the foreseeing of events, i.e., for the conscious historical activity of thinking individuals.

It is not surprising, therefore, that to capable and talented people who had not been drawn into the struggle of social forces in which materialism had been a terrible theoretical weapon of the extreme Left party this doctrine seemed dry, gloomy, melancholy. That was, for example, how Goethe [1*] spoke of it. In order that this reproach should cease to be deserved, materialism had to leave its dry and abstract mode of thought, and attempt to under-stand and explain “real life” – the complex and variegated chain of concrete phenomena – from its own point of view. But in its then form it was incapable of solving that great problem, and the latter was taken possession of by idealist philosophy.

The main and final link in the development of that philosophy was the system of Hegel: therefore we shall refer principally to that system in our exposition.

Hegel called metaphysical the point of view of those thinkers – irrespective of whether they were idealists or materialists – who, failing to understand the process of development of phenomena, willy-nilly represent them to themselves and others as petrified, disconnected, incapable of passing one into another. To this point of view he opposed dialectics, which studies phenomena precisely in their development and, consequently, in their interconnection.

According to Hegel, dialectics is the principle of all life. Frequently one meets people who, having expressed some abstract proposition, willingly recognize that perhaps they are mistaken, and that perhaps the exactly opposite point of view is correct. These are well-bred people, saturated to their finger tips with “tolerance”: live and let live, they say to their intellect. Dialectics has nothing in common with the sceptical tolerance of men of the world, but it, too, knows how to reconcile directly opposite abstract propositions. Man is mortal, we say, regarding death as something rooted in external circumstances and quite alien to the nature of living man. It follows that a man has two qualities: first of being alive, and secondly of also being mortal. But upon closer investigation it turns out that life itself bears in itself the germ of death, and that in general any phenomenon is contradictory, in the sense that it develops out of itself the elements which, sooner or later, will put an end to its existence and will transform it into its own opposite. Everything flows, everything changes; and there is no force capable of holding back this constant flux, or arresting this eternal movement. There is no force capable of resisting the dialectics of phenomena. Goethe personifies dialectics in the shape of a spirit [2*]:

In Lebensfluthen, im Thatensturm,
Wall’ ich, auf und ab,
Webe hin und her!
Geburt und Grab,
Ein ewiges Meer,
Ein wechselnd Weben,
Ein glühend Leben,
So schaff’ ich am sausenden Webstuhl der Zeit,
Und wirke der Gottheit lebendiges Kleid.

At a particular moment a moving body is at a particular spot, but at the same time it is outside it as well because, if it were only in that spot, it would, at least for that moment, become motionless. Every motion is a dialectical process, a living contradiction, and as there is not a single phenomenon of nature in explaining which we do not have in the long run to appeal to motion, we have to agree with Hegel, who said that dialectics is the soul of any scientific cognition. And this applies not only to cognition of nature. What for example is the meaning of the old saw: summum jus, summa injuria? Does it mean that we. act most justly when, having paid our tribute to law, we at the same time give its due to lawlessness? No, that is the interpretation only of “surface thinking, the mind of fools.” The aphorism means that every abstract justice, carried to its logical conclusion, is transformed into injustice, i.e., into its own opposite. Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice serves as a brilliant. illustration of this. Take a look at economic phenomena. What is the logical conclusion of “free competition”? Every capitalist strives to beat his competitors and to remain sole master of the market. And, of course, cases are frequent when some Rothschild or Vanderbilt succeeds in happily fulfilling this ambition. But this shows that free competition leads to monopoly, that is to the negation of competition, i.e., to its own opposite. Or look at the conclusion to which the so-called labour principle of property, extolled by our Narodnik literature, leads. Only that belongs to me which has been created by my labour. Nothing can be more just than that. And it is no less just that I use the thing I have created at my own free discretion: I use it myself or I exchange it for something else, which for some reason I need more. It is equally just, then, that I make use of the thing I have secured by exchange-again at my free discretion-as I find pleasant, best and advantageous. Let us now suppose that I have sold the product of my own labour for money, and have used the money to hire a labourer, i.e., I have bought somebody else’s labour-power. Having taken advantage of this labour-power of another, I turn out to be the owner of value which is considerably higher than the value I spent on its purchase. This, on the one hand, is very just, because it has already been recognized, after all, that I can use what I have secured by exchange as is best and most advantageous for myself: and, on the other hand, it is very unjust, because I am exploiting the labour of another and thereby negating the principle which lay at the foundation of my conception of justice. The property acquired by my personal labour bears me the property created by the labour of another. Summum jus, summa injuria. And such injuria springs up by the very nature of things in the economy of almost any well-to-do handicraftsman, almost every prosperous peasant. [4]

And so every phenomenon, by the action of those same forces which condition its existence, sooner or later, but inevitably, is transformed into its own opposite.

We have said that the idealist German philosophy regarded all phenomena from the point of view of their evolution, and that this is what is meant by regarding them dialectically. It must be remarked that the metaphysicians know how to distort the very doctrine of evolution itself. They affirm that neither in nature nor in history are there any leaps. When they speak of the origin of some phenomenon or social institution, they rep-resent matters as though this phenomenon or institution was once upon a time very tiny, quite unnoticeable, and then gradually grew up. When it is a question of destroying this or that phenomenon and institution, they presuppose, on the contrary, its gradual diminution, continuing up to the point when the phenomenon becomes quite unnoticeable on account of its microscopic dimensions. Evolution conceived of in this way explains absolutely nothing; it presupposes the existence of the phenomena which it has to explain, and reckons only with the quantitative changes which take place in them. The supremacy of metaphysical thought was once so powerful in natural science that many naturalists could not imagine evolution otherwise than just in the form of such a gradual increase or diminution of the magnitude of the phenomenon being investigated. Although from the time of Harvey it was already recognized that “everything living develops out of the egg,” no exact conception was linked, evidently, with such development from the egg, and the discovery of spermatozoa immediately served as the occasion for the appearance of a theory according to which in the seminal cell there already existed a ready-made, completely developed but microscopical little animal, so that all its “development” amounted to growth. Some wise sages, including many famous European evolutionary sociologists, still regard the “evolution,” say, of political institutions, precisely in this way: history makes no leaps: va piano (go softly) ...

German idealist philosophy decisively revolted against such a misshapen conception of evolution. Hegel bitingly ridiculed it, and demonstrated irrefutably that both in nature and in human society leaps constituted just as essential a stage of evolution as, gradual quantitative changes. “Changes in being,” he says, “consist not only in the fact that one quantity passes into another quantity, but also that quality passes into quantity, and vice versa. Each transition of the latter kind represents an interruption in gradualness (ein Abbrechen des Allmählichen), and gives the phenomenon a new aspect, qualitatively distinct from the previous one. Thus, water when it is cooled grows hard, not gradually ... but all at once; having already been cooled to freezing-point, it can still remain a liquid only if it preserves a tranquil condition, and then the slightest shock is sufficient for it suddenly to become hard ... In the world of moral phenomena ... there take place the same changes of quantitative into qualitative, and differences in qualities there also are founded upon quantitative differences. Thus, a little less, a little more constitutes that limit beyond which frivolity ceases and there appears something quite different, crime ... Thus also, states – other conditions being equal – acquire a different qualitative character merely in con-sequence of differences in their size. Particular laws and a particular constitution acquire quite a different significance with the extension of the territory of a state and of the numbers of its citizens.” [5]

Modern naturalists know very well how frequently changes of quantity lead to changes of quality. Why does one part of the solar spectrum produce in us the sensation of a red colour, another, of green, etc.? Physics re-plies that everything is due here to the number of oscillations of the particles of the ether. It is known that this number changes for every colour of the spectrum, rising from red to violet. Nor is this all. The intensity of heat in the spectrum increases in proportion to the approach to the external border of the red band, and reaches its highest point a little distance from it, on leaving the spectrum. It follows that in the spectrum there are rays of a special kind which do not give light but only heat. Physics says, here too, that the qualities of the rays change in consequence of changes in the number of oscillations of the particles of the ether.

But even this is not all. The sun’s rays have a certain chemical effect, as is shown for example by the fading of material in the sun. What distinguishes the violet and the so-called ultra-violet rays, which arouse in us no sensation of light, is their greatest chemical strength. The difference in the chemical action of the various rays is explained once again only by quantitative differences in the oscillations of the particles of the ether: quantity passes into quality.

Chemistry confirms the same thing. Ozone has different qualities from ordinary oxygen. Whence comes this difference? In the molecule of ozone there is a different number of atoms from that contained in the molecule of ordinary oxygen. Let us take three hydrocarbon compounds: CH4 (marsh gas), C2H6 (dimethyl) and C3H8 (methyl-ethyl). All of these are composed according to the formula: n atoms of carbon and 2n+2 atoms of hydrogen. If n is equal to 1, you get marsh gas; if n is equal to 2, you get dimethyl; if n is equal to 3, methyl-ethyl appears. In this way entire series are formed, the importance of which any chemist will tell you; and all these series unanimously confirm the principle of the old dialectical idealists that quantity passes into quality.

Now we have learned the principal distinguishing features of dialectical thought, but the reader feels himself unsatisfied. But where is the famous triad, he asks, the triad which is, as is well known, the whole essence of Hegelian dialectics? Your pardon, reader, we do not mention the triad for the simple reason that it does not at all play in Hegel’s work the part which is attributed to it by people who have not the least idea of the philosophy of that thinker, and who have studied it, for example, from the “text-book of criminal law” of Mr. Spasovich. [6] Filled with sacred simplicity, these light-hearted people are convinced that the whole argumentation of the German idealists was reduced to references to the triad; that whatever theoretical difficulties the old man came up against, he left others to rack their poor “unenlightened” brains over them while he, with a tranquil smile, immediately built up a syllogism: all phenomena occur according to a triad, I am faced with a phenomenon, consequently I shall turn to the triad. [7] This is simply lunatic nonsense, as one of the characters of Karonin [3*] puts it, or unnaturally idle talk, if you prefer the expression of Shchedrin. Not once in the eighteen volumes of Hegel’s works does the “triad” play the part of an argument, and anyone in the least familiar with his philosophical doctrine understands that it could not play such a part. With Hegel the triad has the same significance as it had previously with Fichte, whose philosophy is essentially different from the Hegelian. Obviously only gross ignorance can consider the principal distinguishing, feature of one philosophical system to be that which applies to at least two quite different systems.

We are sorry that the “triad” has diverted us from our exposition: but, having mentioned it, we should reach a conclusion. So let us examine what kind of a bird it is.

Every phenomenon, developing to its conclusion, be-comes transformed into its opposite; but as the new phenomenon, being opposite to the first, also is transformed in its turn into its own opposite, the third phase of development bears a formal resemblance to the first. For the time being, let us leave aside the question of the extent to which such a course of development corresponds to reality: let us admit for the sake of argument that those were wrong who thought that it does so correspond completely. But in any case it is clear that the “triad” only follows from one of Hegel’s principles: it does not in the least serve him as a main principle itself. This is a very essential difference, because if the triad had figured as a main principle, the people who attribute such an important part to it could really seek protection under its “authority”; but as it plays no such part, the only people who can hide behind it are maybe those who, as the saying has it, have heard a bell, but where they cannot tell.

Naturally the situation would not change one iota if, without hiding behind the “triad,” dialecticians “at the least danger” sought protection “behind the authority” of the principle that every phenomenon is transformed into its own opposite. But they never behaved in that way either, and they did not do so because the principle mentioned does not at all exhaust their views on the evolution of phenomena. They say in addition, for example, that in the process of evolution quantity passes into quality, and quality into quantity. Consequently they have to reckon both with the qualitative and the quantitative sides of the process; and this presupposes an attentive attitude to its real course in actual fact; and this means in its turn that they do not content themselves with abstract conclusions from abstract principles – or, at any rate, must not be satisfied with such contusions, if they wish to remain true to their outlook upon the world.

“On every page of his works Hegel constantly and tirelessly pointed out that philosophy is identical with the totality of empirics, that philosophy requires nothing so insistently as going deeply into the empirical sciences ... Material facts without thought have only a relative importance, thought without material facts is a mere chimera ... Philosophy is that consciousness at which the empirical sciences arrive relative to themselves. It cannot be anything else.”

That is the view of the task of the thinking investigator which Lassalle drew from the doctrine of Hegelian philosophy [8]: philosophers must be specialists in those sciences which they wish to help to reach “self-consciousness.” It seems a very far cry from the special study of a subject to thoughtless chatter in honour of the “triad.” And let them not tell us that Lassalle was not a “real” Hegelian, that he belonged to the “Left” and sharply reproached the “Right” with merely engaging in abstract constructions of thought. The man tells you plainly that he borrowed his view directly from Hegel.

But perhaps you will want to rule out the evidence of the author of the System of Acquired Rights, just as in court the evidence of relatives is ruled out. We shall not argue and contradict; we shall call as a witness a quite extraneous person, the author of the Sketches of the Gogol Period. We ask for attention: the witness will speak long and, as usual, wisely.

“We follow Hegel as little as we follow Descartes or Aristotle. Hegel now belongs to past history; the present has its own philosophy and clearly sees the flaws in the Hegelian system. It must be admitted, however, that the principles advanced by Hegel were indeed very near to the truth, and this thinker brought out’ some aspects of the truth with truly astonishing power. Of these truths, the discovery of some stands to Hegel’s personal credit; others do not belong exclusively to his system, they belong to German philosophy as a whole from the time of Kant and Fichte; but nobody before Hegel had formulated them so clearly and had expressed them with such power as they were in his system.

“First of all we shall point to the most fruitful principle underlying all progress which so sharply and brilliantly distinguishes German philosophy in general, and the Hegelian system in particular, from the hypocritical and craven views that predominated at that time (the beginning of the nineteenth century) among the French and the English: ‘Truth is the supreme goal of thought; seek truth, for in truth lies good; whatever truth may be, it is better than falsehood; the first duty of the thinker is not to retreat from any results; he must be prepared to sacrifice his most cherished opinions to truth. Error is the source of all ruin; truth is the supreme good and the source of all other good.’ To be able to appraise the extreme importance of this demand, common to German philosophy as a whole since the time of Kant, but expressed with exceptional vigour by Hegel, one must remember what strange and narrow restrictions the thinkers of the other schools of that period imposed upon truth. They began to philosophize, only in order to ‘justify their cherished convictions,’ i.e., they sought not truth, but support for their prejudices. Each took from truth only what pleased him and rejected every truth that was unpleasant to him, bluntly admitting that a pleasing error suited him much better than impartial truth. The German philosophers (especially Hegel) called this practice of seeking not truth but confirmation of pleasing prejudices ‘subjective thinking,’” (Saints above! Is this, perhaps, why our subjective thinkers called Hegel a scholastic? – Author) “philosophizing for personal pleasure, and not for the vital need of truth. Hegel fiercely denounced this idle and pernicious pastime.” (Listen well!) “As a necessary pre-caution against inclinations to digress from truth in order to pander to personal desires and prejudices, Hegel advanced his celebrated ‘dialectical method of thinking.’ The essence of this method lies in that the thinker must not rest content with any positive deduction, but must find out whether the object he is thinking about contains qualities and forces the opposite of those which the object had presented to him at first sight. Thus, the thinker was obliged to examine the object from all sides, and truth appeared to him only as a consequence of a conflict between all possible opposite opinions. Gradually, as a result of this method, the former one-sided conceptions of an object were supplanted by a full and all-sided investigation, and a living conception was obtained of all the real qualities of an object. To explain reality became the paramount duty of philosophical thought. As a result, extraordinary attention was paid to reality, which had been formerly ignored and unceremoniously distorted in order to pander to personal, one-sided prejudices.” (De te fabula narratur!) “Thus, conscientious, tireless search for truth took the place of the former arbitrary interpretations. In reality, however, everything depends upon circumstances, upon the conditions of place and time, and therefore, Hegel found that the former general phrases by which good and evil were judged without an examination of the circumstances and causes that give rise to a given phenomenon, that these general, abstract aphorisms were unsatisfactory. Every object, every phenomenon has its own significance, and it must be judged according to the circumstances, the environment, in which it exists. This rule was expressed by the formula: ‘There is no abstract truth; truth is concrete,’ i.e., a definite judgement can be pronounced only about a definite fact, after examining all the circumstances on which it depends.” [9]

And so, on the one hand, we are told that the distinguishing feature of Hegel’s philosophy was its most careful investigation of reality, the most conscientious attitude to any particular subject, the study of the latter in its living environment, with all those circumstances of time and place which condition or accompany Its existence. The evidence of N.G. Chernyshevsky is identical in this case with the evidence of F. Lassalle. And on the other hand we are assured that this philosophy was empty scholasticism, the whole secret of which consisted in the sophistical use of the “triad.” In this case the evidence of Mr. Mikhailovsky is in complete agreement with the evidence of Mr. V.V., and of a whole legion of other modern Russian writers. How is this divergence of witnesses to be explained? Explain it any way you please: but remember that Lassalle and the author of the Sketches of the Gogol Period did know the philosophy they were talking about, while Messrs. Mikhailovsky, V.V., and their brethren have quite certainly not given themselves the trouble of studying even a single work of Hegel.

And notice that in characterizing dialectical thought the author of the Sketches did not say one word about the triad. How is it that he did not notice that same elephant, which Mr. Mikhailovsky and company so stubbornly and so ceremoniously bring out on view to every loafer? Once again please. remember that the author of the Sketches of the Gogol Period knew the philosophy of Hegel, while Mr. Mikhailovsky and Co. have not the least conception of it.

Perhaps the reader may be pleased to recall certain other judgements on Hegel passed by the author of the Sketches of the Gogol Period. Perhaps he will point out to us the famous article: Criticism of Philosophical Prejudices Against Communal Ownership of Land? This article does speak about the triad and, to all appearances, the latter is put forward as the main hobby-horse of the German idealist. But it is only in appearance. Discussing the history of property, the writer asserts that in the third and highest phase of its development it will re-turn to its point of departure, i.e., that private property in the land and the means of production will yield place to social property. Such a return, he says, is a general law which manifests itself in every process of development. The author’s argument is in this case, in fact, nothing else than a reference to the triad. And in this lies its essential defect. It is abstract: the development of property is examined without relating it to concrete historical conditions-and therefore the author’s arguments are ingenious, brilliant, but not convincing. They only astound, surprise, but do not convince. But is Hegel responsible for this defect in the argument of the author of the Criticism of Philosophical Prejudices? Do you really think his argument would have been abstract had he considered the subject just in the way in which, according to his own words, Hegel advised all subjects to be considered, i.e., keeping to the ground of reality, weighing all concrete conditions, all circumstances of time and place? It would seem that that would not be the case; it would seem that then there would not have been just that defect we have mentioned in the article. But what, in that event, gave rise to the defect? The fact that the author of the article Criticism of Philosophical Prejudices Against Communal Ownership of Land, in controverting the abstract arguments of his opponents, forgot the good advice of Hegel, and proved unfaithful to the method of that very thinker to whom he referred. We are sorry that in his polemical excitement he made such a mistake. But, once again, is Hegel to blame because in this particular case the author of Criticism of Philosophical Prejudices proved unable to make use of his method? Since when is it that philosophical systems are judged, not by their internal content, but by the mistakes which people refer-ring to them may happen to make?

And once again, however insistently the author of the article I have mentioned refers to the triad, even there he does not put it forward as the main hobby-horse of the dialectical method. Even there he makes it, not the foundation but, at most, an unquestionable consequence. The foundation and the main distinguishing feature of dialectics is brought out by him in the following words: “Eternal change of forms, eternal rejection of a form brought into being by a particular content or striving, in consequence of an intensification of that striving, the higher development of that same content ... – whoever has understood this great, eternal, ubiquitous law, whoever has learnt how to apply it to every phenomenon – ah, how calmly he calls into play the chance which affrights others,” etc.

“Eternal change of forms, eternal rejection of a form brought into being by a particular content” ... dialectical thinkers really do look on such a change, such a “rejection of forms” as a great, eternal, ubiquitous law. At the present time this conviction is not shared only by the representatives of some branches of social science who have not the courage to look truth straight in the eyes, and attempt to defend, albeit with the help of error, the prejudices they hold dear. All the more highly must we value the services of the great German idealists who, from the very beginning of the present century, constantly spoke of the eternal change of forms, of their eternal rejection in consequence of the intensification of the con-tent which brought those forms into being.

Earlier we left unexamined “for the time being” the question of whether it is a fact that every phenomenon is transformed, as. the German dialectical idealists thought, into its own opposite. Now, we hope, the reader will agree with us that, strictly speaking, this question need not be examined at all. When you apply the dialectical method to the study of phenomena, you need to remember that forms change eternally in consequence of thehigher development of their content.” You will have to trace this process of rejection of forms in all its fullness, if you wish to exhaust the subject. But whether the new form is the opposite of the old you will find from experience, and it is not at all important to know this beforehand. True, it is just on the basis of the historical experience of man-kind that every lawyer knowing his business will tell you that every legal institution sooner or later is transformed into its own opposite. Today it promotes the satisfaction of certain social needs; today it is valuable and necessary precisely in view of these needs. Then it begins to satisfy those needs worse and worse. Finally it is transformed into an obstacle to their satisfaction. From something necessary it becomes something harmful – and then it is destroyed. Take whatever you like – the history of literature or the history of species – wherever there is development, you will see similar dialectics. But nevertheless, if someone wanted to penetrate the essence of the dialectical process and were to begin, of all things, with testing the idea of the oppositeness of the phenomena which constitute a series in each particular process of development, he would be approaching the problem from the wrong end.

In selecting the view-point for such a test, there would always turn out to be very much that was arbitrary. The question must be regarded from its objective side, or in other words one must make clear to oneself what is the inevitable change of forms involved in the development of the particular content? This is the same idea, only ex-pressed in other words. But in testing it in practice there is no place for arbitrary choice, because the point of view of the investigator is determined by the very character of the forms and content themselves.

In the words of Engels, Hegel’s merit consists in the fact that he was the first to regard all phenomena from the point of view of their development, from the point of view of their origin and destruction. “Whether he was the first to do it is. debatable,” says Mr. Mikhailovsky, “but at all events he was not the last, and the present-day theories of development – the evolutionism of Spencer, Darwinism, the ideas of development in psychology, physics, geology, etc. – have nothing in common with Hegelianism.” [10]

If modern natural science confirms at every step the idea expressed with such genius by Hegel, that quantity passes into quality, can we say that it had nothing in common with Hegelianism? True, Hegel was not the “last” of those who spoke of such a transition, but this was just for the very same reason that Darwin was not the “last” of those who spoke of the variability of species and Newton was not the “last” of the Newtonists. What would you have? Such is the course of development of the human intellect? Express a correct idea, and you will certainly not be the “last” of those who defend it; talk some nonsense, and although people have a great failing for it, you still risk finding yourself to be its “last” de-fender and champion. Thus, in our modest opinion, Mr. Mikhailovsky runs a considerable risk of proving to be the “last” supporter of the “subjective method in sociology.” Speaking frankly, we see no reason to regret such a course of development of the intellect.

We suggest that Mr. Mikhailovsky – who finds “debatable” everything in the world, and much else – should refute our following proposition: that wherever the idea of evolution appears “in psychology, physics, geology, etc.” it always has very much “in common with Hegelianism,” i.e., in every up-to-date study of evolution there are invariably repeated some of the general propositions of Hegel. We say some, and not all, because many modern evolutionists, lacking the adequate philosophical education, understand “evolution” abstractly and one-sidedly. An example are the gentry, already mentioned earlier, who assure us that neither nature nor history makes any leaps. Such people would gain a very great deal from acquaintance with Hegel’s logic. Let Mr. Mikhailovsky refute us: but only let him not forget that we cannot be refuted by knowing Hegel only from the “text-book of criminal law” by Mr. Spasovich and from Lewes’s Biographical History of Philosophy. He must take the trouble to study Hegel himself.

In saying that the present-day teachings of the evolutionists always have very much “in common with Hegelianism,” we are not asserting that the present evolutionists have borrowed their views from Hegel. Quite the reverse. Very often they have just as mistaken a view of him as Mr. Mikhailovsky has. And if nevertheless their theories, even partially and just at those points where they turn out to be correct, become a new illustration of “Hegelianism,” this circumstance only brings out in higher relief the astonishing power of thought of the German idealist: people who never read him, by the sheer force of facts and the evident sense of “reality,” are obliged to speak as he spoke. One could not think of a greater triumph for a philosopher: readers ignore him, but life confirms his views.

Up to this day it is still difficult to say to what extent the views of the German idealists directly influenced German natural science in the direction mentioned, although it is unquestionable that in the first half of the present century even the naturalists in Germany studied philosophy during their university course, and although such men learned in the biological sciences as Haeckel speak with respect nowadays of the evolutionary theories of some nature-philosophers. But the philosophy of nature was the weak point of German idealism. Its strength lay in its theories dealing with the various sides of historical development. As for those theories, let Mr. Mikhailovsky remember – if he ever knew – that it was just from the school of Hegel that there emerged all that brilliant constellation of thinkers and investigators who gave quite a new aspect to the study of religion, aesthetics, law, political economy, history, philosophy and so forth. In all these “disciplines,” during a certain most fruitful period, there was not a single outstanding worker who was not indebted to Hegel for his development and for his fresh views on his own branch of knowledge. Does Mr. Mikhailovsky think that this, too, is “debatable”? If he does, let him just try.

Speaking of Hegel, Mr. Mikhailovsky tries “to do it in such a way as to be understood by people uninitiated in the mysteries of. the ‘philosophical nightcap of Yegor Fyodorovich’ as Belinsky disrespectfully put it when he raised the banner of revolt against Hegel.” [6*] He takes “for this purpose” two examples from Engels’s book Anti-Dühring (but why not from Hegel himself? That would be much more becoming to a writer “initiated into the mysteries,” etc.).

“A grain of oats falls in favourable conditions: it strikes root and thereby, as such, as a grain, is negated. In its place there arises a stalk, which is the negation of the grain; the plant develops and bears fruit, i.e., new grains of oats, and when these grains ripen, the stalk perishes: it was the negation of the grain, and now it is negated itself. And thereafter the same process of ‘negation’ and ‘negation of negation’ is repeated an endless number” (sic!) “of times. At the basis of this process lies contradiction: the grain of oats is a grain and at the same time not a grain, as it is always in a state of actual or potential development.”

Mr. Mikhailovsky naturally finds this “debatable.” And this is how this attractive possibility passes with him into reality.

“The first stage, the stage of the grain, is the thesis, or proposition; the second, up to the formation of new grains, is the antithesis, or contradiction; the third is the synthesis or reconciliation” (Mr. Mikhailovsky has decided to write in a popular style, and therefore leaves no Greek words without explanation or translation) “and all together they constitute a triad or trichotomy. And such is the fate of all that is alive: it arises, it develops and provides the origin of its repetition, after which it dies. A vast number of individual expressions of this process immediately rise up in the memory of the reader, of course, and Hegel’s law proves justified in the whole organic world (for the present we go no further). If however we regard our example a little more closely, we shall see the extreme superficiality and arbitrariness. of our generalization. We took a grain, a stalk and once more a grain or, more exactly, a group of grains. But before bearing fruit, a plant flowers. When we speak of oats or some other grain of economic importance, we can have in view a grain that has been sown, the straw and a grain that has been harvested: but to consider that the life of the plant has been exhausted by these three stages is quite unfounded. In the life of a plant the point of flowering is accompanied by an extreme and peculiar straining of forces, and as the flower does not arise direct ‘from the grain, we arrive; even keeping to Hegel’s terminology, not at a trichotomy but at least at a tetrachotomy, a division into four: the stalk negates the grain, the flower negates the stalk, the fruit negates the flower. The omission of the moment of flowering is of considerable importance also in the following respect. In the days of Hegel, perhaps, it was permissible to take the grain for the point of departure in the life of the plant, and from the business point of view it may be permissible to do so even today: the business year does begin with the sowing of the grain. But the life of the plant does not begin with the grain. We now know very well that the grain is something very complex in its structure, and itself represents the product of development of the cell, and that the cells requisite for reproduction are formed precisely at the moment of flowering. Thus in the example taken from vegetable life not only has the point of departure been taken arbitrarily and incorrectly, but the whole process has been artificially and once again arbitrarily squeezed into the framework of a trichotomy.” [11]

And the conclusion is: “It is about time we ceased to believe that oats grow according to Hegel.” [7*]

Everything flows, everything changes! In our day, i.e., when the writer of these lines, as a student, studied the natural sciences, oats grew “according to Hegel,” while now “we know very well” that all that is nonsense: now “nous avons changé tout cela.” But really, do we quite “know” what “we” are talking about?

Mr. Mikhailovsky sets forth the example of a grain of oats, which he has borrowed from Engels, quite otherwise than as it is set forth by Engels himself. Engels says: “The grain as such ceases to exist, it is negated, and in its place appears the plant which has arisen from it, the negation of the grain. But what is the normal life-process of this plant? It grows, flowers, is fertilized and finally once more produces grains of oats [12], and as soon as these have ripened the stalk dies, is in its turn negated. As a result of this negation of the negation we have once again the original grain of oats, but not as a single unit, but ten-, twenty-, or thirty-fold.” [13] For Engels the negation of the grain was the entire plant, in the cycle of life of which are included, incidentally, both flowering and fertilization. Mr. Mikhailovsky “negates” the word plant by putting in its place the word stalk. The stalk, as is known, constitutes only part of a plant, and naturally is negated by its other parts: omnis determinatio est negatio. But that is the very reason why Mr. Mikhailovsky “negates” the expression used by Engels, replacing it by his own: the stalk negates the grain, he shouts, the flower negates the stalk, the fruit negates the flower: there’s a tetrachotomy at least! Quite so, Mr. Mikhailovsky: but all that only goes to prove that in your argument with Engels you do not stop even at ... how shall I put it more mildly ... at the “moment” ... of altering the words of your opponent. This method is somewhat ... “subjective.”

Once the “moment” of substitution has done its work, the hateful triad falls apart. like a house of cards. You have left out the moment of flowering – the Russian “sociologist” reproaches the German Socialist – and “the omission of the moment of flowering is of considerable importance.” The reader has seen that the “moment of flowering” has been omitted not by Engels, but by Mr. Mikhailovsky in setting forth the views of Engels; he knows also that “omissions” of that kind in literature are given considerable, though quite negative, importance. Mr. Mikhailovsky here, too, had recourse to a somewhat unattractive “moment.” But what could he do? The “triad” is so hateful, victory is so pleasant, and “people quite uninitiated in the mysteries” of a certain “nightcap” are so gullible!

We all are innocent from birth,
To virtue a great price we pin:
But meet such people on this earth
That truly, we can’t help but sin ...

The flower is an organ of the plant and, as such, as little negates the plant as the head of Mr. Mikhailovsky negates Mr. Mikhailovsky. But the “fruit” or, to be more exact, the fertilized ovum, is really the negation of the given organism being the point of departure of the development of a new life. Engels accordingly considers the cycle of life of a plant from the beginning of its development out of the fertilized ovum to its reproduction of a fertilized ovum. Mr. MikhaiIovsky with the learned air of a connoisseur remarks: “The life of a plant does not begin with the grain. We now know very well, etc.”: briefly, we now know that the seed is fertilized during the flowering. Engels, of course, knows this just as well as Mr. MikhaiIovsky. But what does this prove? If Mr. Mikhailovsky prefers, we shall replace the grain by the fertilized seed, but it will not alter the sense of the life-cycle of the plant, and will not refute the “triad.” The oats will still be growing “according to Hegel.”

By the way, supposing we admit for a moment that the “moment of flowering” overthrows all the arguments of the Hegelians. How will Mr. Mikhailovsky have us deal with non-flowering plants? Is he really going to leave them in the grip of the triad? That would be wrong, because the triad would in that event have a vast number of subjects.

But we put this question really only in order to make clearer Mr. Mikhailovsky’s idea. We ourselves still remain convinced that you can’t save yourself from the triad even with “the flower.” And are we alone in thinking so? Here is what, for example, the botanical specialist Ph. Van Tieghem says:

“Whatever be the form of the plant, and to whatever group it may belong thanks to that form, its body always originates in another body which existed before it and from which it separated. In its turn, at a given moment, it separates from its mass particular parts, which become the point of departure, the germs, of as many new bodies, and so forth. In a word it reproduces itself in the same way as it is born: by dissociation.” [14]

Just look at that! A scholar of repute, a member of the Institute, a professor at the Museum of Natural History, and talks like a veritable Hegelian: it begins, he says, with dissociation and finishes up with it again. And not a word about the “moment of flowering”! We ourselves understand how very vexing this must be for Mr. Mikhailovsky; but there’s nothing to be done – truth, as we know, is dearer than Plato.


1. Le vrai sens du système de la nature, London 1774, p.15.

2. De l’homme, Œuvres complètes de Helvétius, Paris 1818, vol.II, p.120.


In the tides of Life, in Action’s storm,
A fluctuant wave,
A shuttle free,
Birth and the Grave,
An eternal sea,
A weaving, flowing,
Life, all-glowing,
Thus at Time’s humming loom ’tis my hand prepares
The garment of Life which the Deity wears!
, Part I, Scene I (Bayard Taylor’s translation.)

4. Mr. Mikhailovsky thinks this eternal and ubiquitous supremacy of dialectics incomprehensib!e: everything changes except the laws of dialectical motion, he says with sarcastic scepticism. Yes, that’s just it, we reply: and if it surprises you, if you wish to con-test this view, remember that you will have to contest the fundamental standpoint of modern science. In order to be convinced of this, it is sufficient for you to recall those words of Playfair which Lyell took as an epigraph to his famous work Principles of Geology: “Amid the revolutions of the globe, the economy of Nature has been uniform, and her laws are the only things that have resisted the general movement. The rivers and the rocks, the seas and the continents have been changed in all their parts; but the laws which direct these changes, and the rules to which they are subject, have remained invariably the same.”

5. Wissenschaft der Logik, (Second ed., Leipzig 1932), Part I, Book 1, pp.383-84. – Tr.

6. “Aspiring to a barrister’s career,” Mr. Mikhailovsky tells us, “I passionately, though unsystematically, read various legal works. Among them was the text-book of criminal law by Mr. Spasovich. This work contains a brief survey of various philosophical systems in their relation to criminology. I was particularly struck by the famous triad of Hegel, in virtue of which punishment so gracefully becomes the reconciliation of the contradiction between law and crime. The seductive character of the !tripartite formula of Hegel in its most varied applications is well known ... And it is not surprising that I was fascinated by it in the text-book of Mr. Spasovich. Nor is it surprising that thereupon it drew me to Hegel, and to much else ...” (Russkaya Mysl, 1891, Vol.III, part II, p.188). A pity, a very great pity, that Mr. Mikhailovsky does not tell us how far he satisfied his yearning “for Hegel.” To all appearances, he did not go very far in this direction.

7. Mr. Mikhailovsky assures us that the late N. Sieber, when arguing with him about the inevitability of capitalism in Russia, “used all possible arguments, but at the least danger hid behind the authority of the immutable and unquestionable tripartite dialectical development” (Russkaya Mysl, 1892, Vol.VI, part II, p.196). He assures us also that all of what he calls Marx’s prophecies about the outcome of capitalist development repose only on the “triad.” We shall discuss Marx later, but of N. Sieber we may remark that we had more than once to converse with the deceased, and not once did we hear from him references to “dialectical development.” He himself said more than once that he was quite ignorant of the significance of Hegel in the development of modern economics. Of course, everything can be blamed on the dead, and therefore Mr. Mikhailovsky’s evidence is irrefutable.

8. See his System der erworbenen Rechte (Second ed.), Leipzig 1880, Preface, pp.xii-xiii.

9. Chernyshevsky, Sketches of the Gogol Period of Russian Literature, St. Petersburg, 1892, pp.258-59. In a special footnote the author of the Sketches magnificently demonstrates what is the precise meaning of this examination of all the circumstances on which the particular phenomenon depends. We shall quote this footnote too. “For example: ‘Is rain good or bad?’ This is an abstract question; a definite answer cannot be given to it. Sometimes rain is beneficial, sometimes, although more rarely, it is harmful. One must inquire specifically: ‘After the grain was sown it rained heavily for five hours – was the rain useful for the crop?’ – only here is the answer: ‘that rain was very useful’ clear and sensible. ‘But in that very same summer, just when harvest time arrived, it rained in torrents for a whole week – was that good for the crop?’ The answer: ‘No, That rain was harmful,’ is equally clear and correct. That is how all questions are decided by Hegelian philosophy. ‘Is war disastrous or beneficial?’ This cannot be answered definitely in general; one must know what kind of war is meant, everything depends upon circumstances, time and place. For savage peoples, the harmfulness of war is less palpable, the benefits of it are more tangible. For civilized peoples, war usually does more harm than good. But the war of 1812, for example, was a war of salvation for the Russian people. The battle of Marathon [4*] was a most beneficial event in the history of mankind. Such is the meaning of the axiom: ‘There is no abstract truth; truth is concrete’ – a conception of an object is concrete when it presents itself with all the qualities and specific features and in the circumstances, environment, in which the object exists, and not abstracted from these circumstances and its living specific features (as it is presented by abstract thinking, the judgement of which has, there-fore, no meaning for real life).” [5*]

10. Rasskoye Bogatstvo, 1894, Vol.II, Part II, p.150.

11. Ibid., pp. 154-57.

12. Engels writes, strictly speaking, of barley, not oats: but this is immaterial, of. course,

13. Anti-Dühring, Moscow, 1954, p. 188. – Ed.

14. Traité de Botanique (2nd ed.), Paris 1891, Part 1, p.24.



Editorial Notes

1*. Of this Goethe wrote in Wahrheit und Dichtung (Truth and Poetry): “Forbidden books, doomed to be burned, which caused such an uproar at the time, had no influence whatever on us. As an example I shall cite Système de la Nature, which we acquainted ourselves with out of curiosity. we could not understand how such a book could be dangerous; it seemed to us so gloomy, so Cimmerian, so deathlike, that it was difficult for us to endure it and we shuddered at it as at a spectre.”

2*. Quotation from Faust by Goethe.

3*. Karonin, S., pseudonym of Petropavlovsky, Nikolai Yelpidiforovich (1853-1892), Russian narodnik wrtiter.

4*. The Battle of Marathon, in which the Athenians beat the Persians in 490 B.C., pre-determined the favourable outcome of the Second Greek-Persian War for th3 Greeks and promoted the prosperity of Athenian democracy.

5*. N.G. Chernyshevsky, Collected Works, Vol.III, Goslitizdat Publishing House, 1947, p.208.

6*. Belinsky wrote to Botkin on March 1, 1841, about Hegel’s philosophy: “My humble thanks, Yegor Fyodorych, I bow to your philosophical nightcap, but with all due respect due to your philosophical philistinism I have the honour to inform you that if I managed indeed to climb to the highest rung of the ladder of development, I would even there request you to give me an account of all the victims of the conditions of life and of history, of all the victims of hazards, of superstition, the Inquisition, of Philip II and so on and so forth, otherwise I shall throw myself down head first from the top rung.” (Cf. V.G. Belinsky, selected Letters, vol.2, Goslitizdat Publishing House, 1955, p.141.

7*. The article by Mikhailovsky from which this and the following quotation are taken, On Dialectical Development and the Triple Formulae of Progress, was included in his Collected Works, Vol.VII, St. Petersburg 1909, pp.758-80.

8*. Lines from Offenbach’s operetta La Belle Hélène (text by Meilhac and Halévy).


Last updated on 23.12.2004