Plekhanov 1907

Joseph Dietzgen

Source: Georgi Plekhanov, Selected Philosophical Works, Volume 3 (Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1976), pp. 100-16.
Transcribed: for the Marxist Internet Archive by Paul Flewers.

Moscow Editor’s Note: ‘The article was published in the journal Sovremenny Mir, nos 7-8, 1907. Sovremenny Mir (Contemporary World) – a literary, scientific and political monthly published in St Petersburg from 1906 to 1918.’

Ernest Unterman, Antonio Labriola and Joseph Dietzgen: A Comparison of Historical Materialism and Monistic Materialism (translated from the German by I Naumov, edited by P Dauge, St Petersburg, 1907, published by P Dauge).

Joseph Dietzgen, The Positive Outcome of Philosophy: Letters on Logic, Especially Democratic Proletarian Logic (translated from the German by P Dauge and A Orlov, with a Preface to the Russian Edition by Eugene Dietzgen, and a portrait of the author, St Petersburg, 1906).

A section of the reading public in Germany, Holland and Russia is now very much interested in Joseph Dietzgen. His philosophical works, which until recently were known only to a few, have begun to exert an influence on the development of philosophical thought among the enlightened European proletariat. That is why we consider it useful to discuss the books mentioned above.

The first of these is from the pen of the American Socialist Ernest Unterman in the form of a postscript to the English translation of the famous work by Antonio Labriola, Discorrendo di socialismo e di filosofia (the translation was published in Chicago in 1906).

Mr Dauge thought it would be worthwhile to publish Unterman’s work in the Russian translation by I Naumov. But he was wrong. This book will not and cannot bring anything of value to Russian readers. The author knows too little of the subject which his book, or more correctly, his pamphlet, professes to explain. Anyone who does understand it – true, there are few now in Russia, and abroad too, unfortunately – may assure himself of this by reading the following – in its own way valuable – passage from Unterman’s pamphlet:

The founders of scientific socialism inverted Hegelian dialectics and transformed it into a practical method of historical research. They had, indeed, squared their own accounts with German classical philosophy and eighteenth and nineteenth century bourgeois materialism. But they limited themselves from the outset to the practical social implications of their new theory. They had to specialise in order to accomplish something great, and they selected with keen insight those specialties which bore most directly upon the practical problems of their time. To what extent they had penetrated independently into the problem of cognition before they made this choice, no one can know but those comrades who have charge of the unpublished joint manuscript of Marx and Engels written in 1845-46. [1] But it is safe to say that this manuscript would have been published by this time, if it contained such a contribution to historical materialism as that supplied by Joseph Dietzgen. This assumption is further strengthened by the fact that Marx and Engels acknowledged Dietzgen’s merit and called him ‘the philosopher of the proletariat’. And it is further borne out by the fact that even the latest writings of Engels, such as Anti-Dühring and Feuerbach, in the passages dealing directly with the problems of cognition, free will, moral consciousness, do not contain anything which materially modifies the original conception of human consciousness formulated by Marx. (p 9)

What then was this ‘original conception of human consciousness formulated by Marx'? Mr Unterman admits frankly that he does not know. But on the other hand he knows very well that the founders of scientific socialism inverted dialectics, placing it on its feet. But what is meant by placing dialectics on its feet? Mr Unterman says nothing about that, so let us turn to the original. Marx says:

To Hegel, the life-process of the human brain, that is, the process of thinking, which, under the name of ‘the Idea’, he even transforms into an independent subject, is the demiurgos of the real world, and the real world is only the external, phenomenal form of ‘the Idea’. With me, on the contrary, the ideal is nothing else than the material world reflected by the human mind, and translated into forms of thought. [2]

What is that? It is a theory of cognition and, besides, a theory of a definite type, a materialist theory of cognition. Consequently, Mr Unterman had every opportunity to form some idea of the ‘conception of human consciousness formulated by Marx’ without waiting for the publication of the philosophical work of Marx and Engels, which has not been published to this day. But, evidently, he did not even realise that this opportunity was there for him to take. Like others before him, he repeated that ‘Marx and Engels inverted dialectics’, but it seems to have escaped his notice that it would have been impossible for them to have done so without the aid of a definite theory of cognition. A most penetrating writer is Mr Unterman! True, it looks as though he can plead an extenuating circumstance; the Marxist theory of cognition is still unelaborated. But he could have helped in this misfortune by exercising his own powers... if he had had any. In the lines quoted from Marx that to Hegel the process of thinking is transformed into a subject, there is an idea taken wholly from Feuerbach. This should have reminded even Mr Unterman of the generally known fact that Marx’s theory emerged by way of criticism from Feuerbach’s philosophy, just as Feuerbach’s philosophy emerged by the same way from Hegel’s philosophy. If Mr Unterman had taken the trouble to acquaint himself with Feuerbach’s philosophy he would have had plenty of data at his disposal on which to judge Marx’s theory of cognition. Unfortunately, he did not take that trouble. Further. Marx’s well-known – long since published – theses on Feuerbach’s philosophy would have revealed to our learned author precisely in what respects Marx considered Feuerbach’s philosophy unsatisfactory.

This would have furnished him with new facts upon which to judge Marx’s gnosiology. And if he had only put all these facts to use, he would not have found the perusal of Engels’ Anti-Dühring and Feuerbach so fruitless, and would have understood in the end that it is out of the question to use Dietzgen to ‘supplement’ Marx.

But Mr Unterman has a very superficial knowledge of Marx’s theory and knows nothing at all of its philosophical origin. Finally, and almost the most important point, E Unterman is not even a dilettante in philosophy, but simply an... ignorant philistine.

We are not surprised that he finds it necessary to ‘supplement’ Marx. It is a well-established custom nowadays that as soon as some self-professed Marxist finds rents and gaps in his own world-outlook he at once says to himself anxiously: ‘Marx’s theory needs correcting and supplementing.’

Mr Unterman tells us also that Marx and Engels ‘squared accounts’ with classical German philosophy and French bourgeois materialism. Good. But how did they do that? By utilising what had been acquired by both German philosophy and materialism. German philosophy, while keeping to the dialectical method, was saturated with idealism; ‘bourgeois’ materialism, [3] on the other hand, ignored dialectics almost completely. In making materialism dialectical, Marx and Engels rejected idealism for all time. But this does not mean that by making materialism dialectical they rejected materialism, just as to place dialectics on its feet is not to finish with dialectics. Of course, the dialectical materialism of Engels and Marx differs in many respects from, say, eighteenth-century French materialism. But this difference is the simple and inevitable result of the historical development of materialism.

After all eighteenth-century French materialism in its turn differed not only from the materialism of Democritus and Epicurus but even from the materialism of Hobbes and Gassendi. It is plain from one of Engels’ articles in the newspaper Volksstaat, in which he recommended the French socialists to popularise ‘the splendid materialist literature of the eighteenth century’ [4] among the French working class, that the founders of scientific socialism were not by any means as scornful of this ‘bourgeois’ materialism as is the erudite Mr Unterman.

But Mr Unterman knows nothing at all of all this and very proudly considers himself, thanks to Joseph Dietzgen, as being farther advanced in comparison with Marx and Engels.

However that may be, our author is firmly convinced that Marx’s original (and to him, Unterman, quite unknown, as may be seen even more clearly from his pamphlet than from his own admission) understanding of human consciousness has been considerably supplemented by Joseph Dietzgen.

What arguments did he use to substantiate this conviction in lecturing the ‘narrow Marxists'? Some excerpts from Joseph Dietzgen’s works which prove unquestionably that this highly gifted German workman – Joseph Dietzgen was actually a manual worker – had great philosophical talent, but which do not contain a single theoretical principle that could be acknowledged as new in comparison with those enunciated in the works of Marx, Engels and Feuerbach.

Mr Unterman is naive enough to believe that his excerpts throw new light on the ‘problem of cognition’. Comparing them with some quotations from the works of the late Antonio Labriola, he takes great satisfaction in pointing out to us that this comparison ‘reveals at a glance their characteristic theoretical difference. Historical materialism takes its departure from human society’, proletarian monism from the ‘natural universe (Weltall)’ (p 24). This strange man, who has read both Ludwig Feuerbach and Anti-Dühring, has nevertheless not understood that historical materialism was only the application to sociology of the method of materialist dialectics, whose starting point is precisely the ‘Weltall’. It would seem as if he had not really read that part of Engels’ preface to Anti-Dühring where the author says that Marx and he applied materialism to history. [5] What is the point of ‘departure’ of the materialism which explains social development? Society. The earth rests on whales, the whales rest on water, water on the earth. [6] Clear?

All this does not stop Mr Dauge from thinking of Mr Unterman as a serious writer and warmly recommending him to Russian readers. But Mr Dauge appears even more naive than the quite naive Mr Unterman. He says: ‘Joseph Dietzgen discovered dialectical materialism simultaneously with Marx and Engels and – as the latter openly acknowledged – independently and apart from them.’ (p iv). One might conclude from this that Joseph Dietzgen was a dialectical materialist. But further on in the same work of Dauge’s we read:

We indeed find many points of similarity between Bogdanov and Dietzgen and we are certain that the former, by developing and extending the philosophical work he has begun, will arrive finally and by the logic of things – ‘independently’ of Dietzgen, as Dietzgen did ‘independently’ of Marx – at proletarian natur-monism, to which, perhaps, he may give another name, but which will have the same philosophical content. (p viii)

So Mr Bogdanov’s ‘philosophical’ thinking is developing naturally in the direction of dialectical materialism... You have no fear of God, Mr Dauge! Conclusion: the reader will lose exactly nothing even if Mr Unterman’s pamphlet never came into his hands. Productions like these are instructive only in one sense. The very fact that they can appear at all shows to what a low level philosophical education in the international socialist movement of our day has sunk. But there is little need to emphasise anew this most distressing truth. Suffice it to recall that in ‘the land of thinkers’ Mr Bernstein’s ‘critical’ remarks on materialism and dialectics did not get their deserts by being laughed out of court by the Social-Democrats. [7]

Now to Joseph Dietzgen. His son, Eugene Dietzgen, in a preface to the Russian translation, also describes his father’s philosophical teaching as an important supplement to Marxism (p iv). He says:

If the founders of historical materialism, and their followers, in a whole series of convincing historical investigations, proved the connection between economic and spiritual development, and the dependence of the latter, in the final analysis, on economic relations, nevertheless they did not prove that this dependence of the spirit is rooted in its nature and in the nature of the universe. Marx and Engels thought that they had ousted the last spectres of idealism from the understanding of history. This was a mistake, for the metaphysical spectres found a niche for themselves in the unexplained essence of the human spirit and in the universal whole which is closely associated with the latter. Only a scientifically verified criticism of cognition could eject idealism from here. (p iv)

Despite all our respect for the noble memory of the German worker-philosopher, and despite our personal sympathy for his son, we find ourselves compelled to protest resolutely against the main idea of the preface from which we have just quoted. In it, the relationship of Joseph Dietzgen to Marx and Engels is quite wrongly stated. If Engels wrote that historical materialism had driven idealism from its last refuge, that is to say, from the science of human society, he believed that the triumph of materialism over idealism, as regards both ‘the nature of the universe’ and the human spirit, was an incontestable fact. Engels was a convinced materialist. Of course, one may dispute his materialism, but he ought not to have reproaches hurled at him which he does not at all deserve. Evidently, Eugene Dietzgen thinks that materialism does not have its own ‘criticism of cognition’. But that too is an error that could only have been committed by someone ill-informed on the history of materialism. Marx’s words about materialist dialectics which I referred to earlier contain the basic foundation of historical materialism and at the same time, even in the first place, a very definite ‘criticism of cognition’. It could be argued that this ‘criticism’ is expounded there much too briefly, but even if that is the case, we are still confronted with the question of how this – perhaps indeed too briefly expounded – ‘criticism of cognition’ stands in relation to the ‘criticism’ set forth by the author of The Positive Outcome of Philosophy. If these two ‘criticisms’ contradict each other, we have to choose between them, not supplement one by the other. If, on the other hand, Joseph Dietzgen’s ‘criticism of cognition’ does not contradict the criticism elaborated much earlier by the founders of scientific socialism, but is simply a more detailed and more or less successful exposition of it, then, surely, it is at least strange to talk of Joseph Dietzgen supplementing Marx, and supplementing in the sense meant by Eugene Dietzgen, viz, of giving a new philosophical substantiation of historical materialism. We must add that the ‘criticism of cognition’ contained in Marx’s characterisation of materialist dialectics is set out in much greater detail in Engels’ works, especially in Part I of Anti-Dühring (Philosophy). [8]

True, it is expounded there in a polemical rather than a systematic form. However, if this is a shortcoming, then it is a purely formal one, in no way affecting the content of the philosophical ideas enunciated by Engels in his controversy with Dühring. Moreover the polemical form might, perhaps, make it difficult for some novice in philosophy to understand Engels correctly. But for people who venture to talk about the extent to which Marx’s theory requires to be supplemented, such a formal difficulty should not be an obstacle to understanding the philosophical section of Anti-Dühring. But Eugene Dietzgen does not even mention these philosophical views of Marx and Engels. It is as if he had not even heard of them, which is very strange! After this, what value can be placed on his indication that Marx’s theory is ‘incomplete'? Eugene Dietzgen says:

In our opinion, four main phases of dialectics can be distinguished in the nineteenth century: Hegelian, or purely reflective; Darwinian, or biological; Marxist, or historico-economic; and Dietzgenian, or universal natur-monistic. (p vi)

In view of what we have said, it is clear that to describe materialist dialectics as historico-economic dialectics is to commit a serious blunder. And this blunder clearly proves by its very existence that Eugene Dietzgen completely fails to understand the place of Marx’s theory in the history of philosophy and its relation to the philosophy of Feuerbach, whose views were also, without any doubt, ‘natur-monistic’.

Since he fails to master this highly important fact it would have been better if Eugene Dietzgen had refrained from trying to show just what is ‘lacking’ in Marx’s theory.

It will be useful to note here one more point, that Eugene Dietzgen describes Hegel’s dialectics as purely reflective.

We need only ponder the following lines written by the same Eugene Dietzgen to understand just how naive this is.

According to him, his father’s dialectics furnishes us with the cognitive-critical key to:

1) The solution of all riddles [sic!] by the consistent application of the dialectical-productive method of investigation which, proceeding consciously from sensuous or concrete reality, and basing itself on the organic unity of being, is able to reconcile all contradictions and at the same time sharply to distinguish temporally or spatially limited, relative opposites.

2) The more fundamental understanding of historical materialism and the Marxist analysis of the capitalist mode of production, clearly showing to the proletariat the means and aim of its economic emancipation in socialism.

3) Solving the problem of beginning and end, the relationship between form and content, appearance and essence, might and right, the individual in contrast to society and nature, the subject and the object, freedom and dependence, equality and distinction, the temporary and the eternal, the relative and the absolute, the particular and the general.

4) The knowledge of the essence of things and phenomena, or the criterion of relative truth.

5) Abolishing the opposition between materialism and idealism. (p vi)

As regards a more thorough understanding of historical materialism and analysis of capitalism, we shall wait till these are disclosed in the collected works of Eugene Dietzgen himself, or those of Pannekoek or any of the other writers who prefer Joseph Dietzgen’s ‘key’ to Karl Marx’s method. In regard to the solution of ‘all riddles’ concerning the questions of beginning and end, relation of form to content, etc, etc, we would ask Eugene Dietzgen: Is that not just ‘purely reflective dialectics’, and did Hegel’s philosophy not deal with all that? He will tell us, perhaps, that Hegel resolved those reflective questions (that is to say, questions concerning the mutual relations of concepts) in an idealist sense, whereas the author of The Positive Outcome of Philosophy gives them a ‘natur-monistic’ solution. But this can only mean that Hegel’s dialectics has an idealist basis, while Joseph Dietzgen’s dialectics has its basis in a ‘natur-monistic’ world-outlook. From this it inevitably follows that Hegel’s dialectics has as its main distinguishing feature its idealist basis. Why then does Eugene Dietzgen not call it idealist, instead of conjuring up a new, very inexact and very clumsy title for it? Inexact philosophical terminology leads to unclarity of philosophical concepts and sometimes, incidentally, the latter gives rise to the former and is evidence of it. But Eugene Dietzgen is reluctant to use the terms ‘idealism’ and ‘materialism’. They remind him of ‘one-sided’ conceptions, the opposition between which was ‘abolished’ by his father’s monism. Let us see exactly how Joseph Dietzgen ‘abolishes’ the opposition between idealism and materialism.

To abolish the opposition between two given concepts, it is essential to have at least an accurate idea of the one and the other. What idea did Joseph Dietzgen have, say, of materialism?

On pages 62-63 of the book we are analysing, The Positive Outcome of Philosophy, we read:

In order to explain the process of thought, we must elucidate it as a part of the universal process. It is not the cause which created the world, either in the theological or in the idealist sense, nor is it a mere act of the brain substance, as the materialists of the last century present it. The process of thought and its cognition are a particularity in the general cosmos.

Thus the materialists of the last, that is to say, the eighteenth century, did not understand that the process of thought is a particularity in the general cosmos. They thought it was ‘a mere act of the brain substance’. However, we can distinguish three or even four shades in the materialism of the eighteenth century: the materialism of La Mettrie and Diderot; the materialism of Helvétius; the materialism of Holbach; and the materialism of the Englishmen Hartley and Priestley. Which of these shades of materialism has Joseph Dietzgen in mind? No one knows. And what is meant by not a ‘mere act of the brain substance'? Again, nobody knows. But to proceed. Maybe the matter will be cleared up in the following exposition.

On page 97, in the Letters on Logic, Joseph Dietzgen says:

The human skull performs the function of thinking as involuntarily as the chest does that of breathing. However, we can, by our will, stop breathing for a while... In the same way, the will can control the thoughts.

We shall not dwell here on the question of the extent to which thought can be controlled by will, but shall ask our reader to pay attention to the words: ‘The human skull performs the function of thinking... as the chest does that of breathing.’ That, according to our author, is exactly what the eighteenth-century materialists said. Why then does Joseph Dietzgen declare them to be one-sided? And what, in his opinion, is the difference between function and action? This, too, remains unknown.

On page 72 of the same book, it says:

The old logic could not lay down any valid laws of thought, because it had too high an idea of thinking itself. For it thought was not only an attribute, a mode, a particle of true nature, but the nature of truth was spiritualised by it into a mystical substance. Instead of forming the concept of spirit out of flesh and blood, it tries to resolve [explain – GP] flesh and blood by means of the concept.

There is something very wrong said here about the ‘old logic’. [9] It is quite true that not ‘flesh’ must be explained by concept but concept by ‘flesh’. However, this is precisely what the eighteenth-century materialists said and what Feuerbach repeated after them in the nineteenth century, when he rebelled against Hegel. Why then does Joseph Dietzgen declare that materialism is one-sided? This also remains his secret.

On the following page, Joseph Dietzgen reproaches the ‘old logic’ that ‘it elevates the spirit to the first place and [but? – GP] relegates flesh and blood to the last’. Here, too, is a clumsy expression, probably the work of Messrs the Translators (traduttori traditori!) but the clumsily expressed idea is quite correct, and again it proves to be a completely materialist one. Once more: Why does Joseph Dietzgen declare that materialism is one-sided?

To put the matter bluntly, Joseph Dietzgen had only a vague idea of materialism. He says of himself (p 169):

As a rule, I acquaint myself with philosophical works of the second and third order merely by glancing over the preface, the introduction and perhaps the first chapter. Then I am approximately informed as to what I may expect further on.

It is our view that Joseph Dietzgen, because of the extremely widespread contempt for French materialism which prevailed in Germany, ‘acquainted himself’ in just that way with the works of the French materialists too, and, having acquainted himself with them in such a superficial and totally unsatisfactory manner, he concluded that materialism was really one-sided, as all the German pastors kept on repeating, and undertook to ‘abolish’ its one-sidedness, to ‘reconcile’ it with idealism. Such a method of ‘abolishing opposites’ was, of course, doomed to utter failure from the start. And we must add that though Joseph Dietzgen had a much more correct conception of idealism than he had of materialism, he was not fully correct even in that. For instance, what he had to say about Kant was often far from true, although it did conform, we agree, to the widespread current opinions on that philosopher. Even Hegel’s philosophy he obviously knew only in general outline. We get this impression because Joseph Dietzgen often seems to be knocking at an open door and solving with incredible effort contradictions that were long ago resolved incomparably better, more fully and deeply, in Hegel’s Logik. Why should he have knocked at an open door if he knew that the door was already open? But that was just the trouble – he didn’t know.

Marx and Engels, who were thoroughly familiar with both idealism and materialism, did not ‘abolish’ the opposition between these two concepts, but firmly declared themselves to be materialists. Dietzgen son will probably tell us that this is what constitutes their one-sidedness.

But we take a different view of the matter, and to substantiate this we invite the reader to examine with us Joseph Dietzgen’s key ‘to the solution of all [excusez du peu!] riddles’.

The philosophical significance of this remarkable ‘key’ could be characterised by a very brief sentence from Joseph Dietzgen himself: ‘Nature comprises all.’ (p 12) But that is comprehensible only to people well-versed in the history of philosophy, and there are few such people. Consequently a more detailed exposition is needed:

The red thread winding through all these letters [Joseph Dietzgen says in his Thirteenth Letter on Logic (p 154)] refers to the following point: the thinking apparatus is a thing like all other things, a part or attribute of the universe. It belongs in the first place to the most general category of being, and is an apparatus which produces a detailed picture of human experience by classification or distinction into categories. In order to use this apparatus correctly, one must clearly recognise that world unity is multiform and that all multiformity is a monist whole.

The same thought is expressed in different words in the Fifth Letter:

The zoologists have always known that all species of animals belong to the animal kingdom; but this order was, with them, more of a mechanical affair... The grouping of all animals, from the minutest to the biggest, in one kingdom, appeared before the time of Darwin to be an order which had been accomplished by thought alone, as an order of thought, while since Darwin it has been known as an order of nature.

What the zoologist did to the animal kingdom, must be done by the logician to being in general, to the infinite cosmos. He must show that the whole world, all forms of its being, including the spirit, are logically connected, related and welded together.

A certain narrow materialism asserts that everything is done when it has pointed out the interconnection between thought and brain. A good many things may still be discovered with the help of the dissecting knife, microscope and experiment; but this does not make the function of logic superfluous.

True, thought and brain are connected just as intimately as the brain and the blood, the blood and oxygen, etc; but thought in general is connected quite as intimately with all being as is the whole of physics.

That the apple is not dependent only on the stem which attaches it to the tree, but also on the sunshine and rain, that these things are not one-sidedly but universally connected, this is what logic shall especially teach you in regard to the spirit, to thought. (p 110)

We shall not stop here to prove what was well known to all, even to the ‘narrowest’ of materialists of all times: that ‘thought’ is connected not only with the ‘brain’, but also with all being in general.

Here again Joseph Dietzgen is knocking at an open door, and again he need not have done so had he known better the subject he undertook to expound. He would have found many pages in Holbach’s Système de la Nature explaining the connection between ‘thought’ and ‘being’.

The fallaciousness of Joseph Dietzgen’s charge against materialism is at once plain to anyone familiar with eighteenth-century materialism. [10] We shall not enlarge on the point that it is awkward to oppose the classification by ‘thought’ to classification by ‘nature’, since the latter is certainly at one and the same time reflective. We have already said something about this. Now we are not arguing with Joseph Dietzgen, but trying to understand him. To do this we must pay the greatest attention to that part of the extract quoted where it says that the whole world, all forms of being, are logically connected, related and welded together.

This idea is the basis of all Joseph Dietzgen’s logic, or – since his logic embraces his theory of cognition, [11]his gnosiology. And this idea, in the most varied ways – with endless, wearisome, inessential and often lumbering repetition – is set forth both in his The Positive Outcome of Philosophy and Letters on Logic. And it is, of course, a correct but badly expounded idea, which was developed by Heraclitus in ancient times (and he had nothing in common either with the proletariat or with a ‘proletarian logic’ of some special kind) and in the nineteenth century by Hegel and the Hegelians, including the materialists Feuerbach, Marx and Engels. [12] In Anti-Dühring and Ludwig Feuerbach and in the extract from Anti-Dühring published as a pamphlet entitled Socialism: Utopian and Scientific, this idea is a great deal better expounded, is more simply and lucidly explained than in Joseph Dietzgen’s Letters on Logic and The Positive Outcome of Philosophy. This idea is the basis of all dialectics. And since it is the basis of all dialectics, it alone is insufficient to characterise a particular dialectical method. We know of the idealist dialectics of Hegel and the materialist dialectics of Marx. What was Joseph Dietzgen’s dialectics? We know that his son calls it ‘natur-monist’. What variety of dialectics is this? Well, listen.

On page 45 of the book we are analysing, The Positive Outcome of Philosophy, Joseph Dietzgen says:

I have thus explained that logic has as yet not been conscious that the knowledge it produces with its basic principles does not offer us truth itself, but only a more or less accurate picture of it. [13] I have, furthermore asserted that the positive outcome of philosophy has substantially added to the clearness of the portrait of the human mind. Logic seeks to be ‘the science of the forms and laws of thought’. Dialectics, the legacy of philosophy, aims to be the same, and its first paragraph runs: not thinking produces being, but being produces thinking, of which (being) thinking is the part which is engaged in portraying truth. From this follows a fact which can easily obscure the meaning of the theory, viz, that the philosophy which has bequeathed to us logical [?] dialectics or dialectic logic, must explain not only thinking, but also, at the same time, the original, of which thinking furnishes copies.

Without stopping to consider some awkward and inaccurate expressions, we shall observe that the principal idea in this passage is purely materialistic. Even Engels’ words are used, although according to Engels it is not that being produces thinking, but that it determines thinking. This is a substantial difference, but we shall not dwell on it since it is obviously a slip of the pen on Joseph Dietzgen’s part. It is sufficient for us to know that our author is here a materialist, one who is convinced that thought is ‘engaged’ [14] in portraying truth, that is, being.

So the ‘first paragraph’ of Joseph Dietzgen’s ‘natur-monist’ dialectics ‘proclaims’ what had been proclaimed much earlier by Marx’s materialist dialectics: ‘The ideal is nothing else than the material world reflected by the human mind, and translated into terms of thought.’ Where is the difference? There is none. How then did Joseph Dietzgen ‘supplement’ Marx? In no way! True, the ‘first paragraph’ of dialectics is set out in the book of Joseph Dietzgen – whose main works were published much later than the main works of Marx and Engels – much more wordily than in Marx and Engels. But although more lengthy, Joseph Dietzgen’s exposition is so very haphazard, in places so ineffectual and so frequently befogged by the imperfect lucidity of the author’s philosophical thinking, that sometimes it not only does not explain the meaning of the ‘first paragraph’ but rather obscures it. What then is the matter? Why then did he undertake to ‘supplement’ Karl Marx with Joseph Dietzgen? It is precisely because – and only because – Dietzgen’s philosophical thinking is not distinguished by complete lucidity. This seems to be paradoxical, but, unfortunately, it is true.

In the passage we have just quoted, there is one strange proposition: Being ‘produces’ thought, which however is part of being. If the words ‘being produces thought’ mean the same as Marx’s ‘the ideal is nothing else than the material world reflected by the human mind, and translated into terms of thought’, then the words ‘thought is... a part of... being’ compel us to doubt whether Joseph Dietzgen’s philosophy is identical to Marx’s. And it is just this possible doubt which attracts to Joseph Dietzgen people who are influenced by contemporary idealism and wish at any cost to place an idealist head on historical materialism.

In his exposition, Joseph Dietzgen is partly loyal to materialism, and then he reiterates that metaphysical logic ‘has overlooked the fact that knowledge which is produced with its own rules, is not the truth, not the real world, but only an ideal, that is, more or less apt picture of it’ (p 44).

Here, the ideal world is only the reflection of the material world. But sometimes Joseph Dietzgen gets himself entangled in his own addition: ‘thinking is part of being’, that is, the ideal world is part of the material world. Then he writes in all seriousness: ‘Is not the air, or the scent an ethereal body?’ (p 22) And on page 122 we read: ‘being or the universe, spirit and matter, embraces all forces, including heaven and hell [sic!], in a single circle, a monistic whole’. It is such a great muddle, so ambiguous, that here, indeed, Joseph Dietzgen’s philosophy does begin to resemble the very ‘original’ philosophy of Mr Bogdanov. It is known that anything distinguished by muddled thinking is at home in this philosophy. Here, Mr P Dauge, in his own way, is right but he is mistaken when he takes this for dialectical materialism. [15]

Space does not permit us to follow up all the regrettable logical consequences of the muddle that has crept into Joseph Dietzgen’s understanding of the ‘first paragraph’ of materialist dialectics; his completely erroneous views of the criterion of truth, and so on. We shall restrict ourselves, therefore, to the remark that, in spite of his son’s opinion, Joseph Dietzgen was unable to solve the problem of the relation of the subject to the object, and that it was this that brought about his logical downfall. We shall add that Joseph Dietzgen’s error arose, apparently, from a highly praiseworthy endeavour to pull the theoretical ground from under the feet of speculative philosophy, which placed spirit – in one or other of its conceptions – outside and above the world. In opposition to this philosophy, Joseph Dietzgen put the proposition that ‘being is everything; it is the essential content of everything, outside it there is nothing and can be nothing, because it is the cosmos, that is, the infinite’ (p 26). It goes without saying that as an argument against speculative philosophy, this has absolutely no value, since to repudiate the existence of extra-universal spirit by a simple recital of the proposition that the world contains in itself all being, is to base oneself on a tautology, fully identical with that which Eugene Dühring once placed as the cornerstone of his philosophy and which Engels ridiculed so scathingly in the first part of Anti-Dühring: ‘All-embracing being is one.’ [16] But Joseph Dietzgen thought this tautological expression was almost the most important ‘outcome’ of philosophy. With its aid, he attempted to solve all contradictions. Thus on pages 127-28, in the Eighth Letter on Logic, addressed, as all these letters were, to his son, he says:

The most vivid, and, perhaps, the most instructive illustration of the correct meaning of contradictions, is given by the contrast between truth and untruth. These two poles are... more widely separated than the North Pole and the South Pole, and yet they are as intimately connected as these two. Generally accepted logic will hardly listen to the demonstration of such a senseless unity as that of truth and untruth. Therefore you will pardon me, if I illustrate this example by other opposites, if you like, by the contrast between day and night. Let us assume that the day lasts twelve hours and the night likewise. Here day and night are opposites; where it is day it cannot be night, and yet day and night constitute one single day of twenty-four hours, in which they both dwell harmoniously. It is exactly the same with truth and untruth. The world is the truth, and error, the appearance and lies, embodied in it, are parts of the true world, just as night is part of day, without violation of logic.

We may honestly speak of appearance real and true lies, without any contradiction. Just as unreason contains reason, so also untruth lives constantly and inevitably in truth, because the latter is all-embracing, it is the universe.

But in what way is day here reconciled with night? Firstly, it is assumed that a day is equal to twelve hours, and then it is postulated that a day stretches out to twenty-four hours, that is to say, there is now no place for night, the duration of which was formerly twelve hours. When there is no place for night, it is clear that there can be no place either for opposition between night and day. By means of such naive methods, based on the fact that one and the same expression is used in different senses, one may indeed with the greatest ease reconcile anything, solve all ‘riddles’, and ‘abolish’ all the oppositions in the world. But... is that really an answer?

Joseph Dietzgen had to choose between Hegel’s idealist dialectics and Marx’s materialist dialectics, and he was strongly inclined towards the latter. But since he had not studied the question adequately, and was even insufficiently acquainted with it, he got himself mixed up in his own arguments against speculative philosophy and imagined that he had succeeded in ‘reconciling’ the opposition between idealism and materialism. To say nothing of the fact that this inability to cope with his own philosophical thinking was not a sign of strength but of weakness on Joseph Dietzgen’s part. To Dietzgen himself, however, and just because he was unable to contend with his own philosophical thinking, this manifestation of weakness seemed, on the contrary, to be a manifestation of his superiority over ‘one-sided’ materialism.

And those who are now trying to ‘supplement’ Karl Marx and Frederick Engels with Joseph Dietzgen view this weakness of Dietzgen’s in the same way as he did. We well understand what the Germans mean when they talk of piety in the relationship of children to parents. So that it does not enter our head to ridicule the undoubtedly exaggerated opinion which Eugene Dietzgen has of his father’s philosophy. But Eugene Dietzgen must also, for his part, understand piety in the relationship of pupil to teacher. Therefore he must not complain because we have firmly rejected his attempt to ‘supplement’ Marx. As for the Untermans, Dauges, Orlovs, etc, their inclination to ‘supplement’ in the way mentioned appears to us the simple product of ignorance, weakness of philosophical thinking, and downright literary carelessness. These people have no other extenuating circumstances while those we have just enumerated hardly attenuate anything.

In no 2 of Rus [17] for the present year (1907) there is a feature by GV Kolomiitsev, entitled ‘Music of Today (Richard Wagner and the Search for New Gods)’. We were interested in the following passage:

Here I should like to dwell on one phenomenon which seems to me very typical of our harassing and impetuous times. I refer to the strongly developed fear of being found ‘backward’ in questions of musical art, a fear aroused by falsely acquired snatches of the past. In connection with the search for something new at any cost, this fear prompts us to find ‘novelty’ and ‘genius’ far too often where at most there is something a good deal less ‘significant’, and above all, in its essence, anything but ‘new’.

Such a fear is also noticeable in our Marxist literature. It explains – in the first instance – very much, including the constant efforts to ‘supplement’ Marx: now with Kant, now with Mach, and now, finally, with Joseph Dietzgen.

In conclusion, we beg our readers not to think that we attach no importance to the philosophical works of the author of Letters on Logic. No, no, and no again! That is not at all our attitude to them. In our view, they merely have no significance as supplementing Marx, but in themselves they are sufficiently interesting and in places instructive; although Joseph Dietzgen’s Letters on Logic are strikingly, awfully poor in comparison with Hegel’s Science of Logic (Wissenschaft der Logik.)

Joseph Dietzgen’s too fervent admirers do him the most harm; when they contrast him with giants like Hegel and Marx, they make him appear a lot smaller than he really was.

We advise reading Joseph Dietzgen only after the most careful study of Marx’s philosophy. It will then be easier to see how he approximates in his teaching to the founders of scientific socialism, and where he has to yield ground to them, lags behind them. Otherwise, reading Joseph Dietzgen will give the reader, together with not unimportant and not uninteresting, but in no way new, details, much and harmful confusion.

Looking at the matter from another angle, it would be a great deal less awkward to study Joseph Dietzgen if someone at last took pity on Russian readers and retranslated the most important works of the German worker-philosopher from the barbarian language of Dauge and Orlov into literary Russian. That would be a great boon, indeed!


Notes are by Plekhanov, except those by the Moscow editors of this edition of the work, which are noted ‘Editor’, or the MIA, which are suitably noted.

1. The reference is apparently to The German Ideology – Editor.

2. Karl Marx, Capital, Volume 1 (Moscow, 1974), p 29 – Editor.

3. Evidently Mr Unterman thinks that the materialism of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was ‘bourgeois’ in character, but the idealism of the same period was not. Why he should think so is something he himself cannot explain.

4. The reference is to Frederick Engels’ statement in his article ‘Programme of the Blanquist Commune Emigrants’ from the series Flüchtlingsliteratur (Emigrant Literature). See Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Selected Works, Volume 2 (Moscow, 1973), p 383 – Editor.

5. Frederick Engels, Anti-Dühring (Moscow, 1975), p 15 – Editor.

6. In Russian folklore there is a saying that the earth rests on three whales – Editor.

7. Plekhanov reminds the reader that Eduard Bernstein’s revision of Marxism had not been decisively rebuffed by German Social-Democracy – Editor.

8. Note from the collection From Defence to Attack: Feuerbach’s criticism of Hegel’s speculative philosophy served as the basis for this very criticism. (See my pamphlet Fundamental Problems of Marxism.) [See Georgi Plekhanov, Selected Philosophical Works, Volume 3 (Moscow, 1976), p 125 et seq – Editor. Available at Fundamental Problems of Marxism – MIA.]

9. It is possible, though, that the incorrectness is the fault of the translators. They did not translate Joseph Dietzgen into Russian literary language, but into some kind of special one of their own, which is more worthy of the title barbarian. I am sorry not to have at hand the original works of Joseph Dietzgen, which were so kindly sent to me by his son, with whom I now have to cross philosophical swords.

10. It is interesting to note, by the way, that Feuerbach also advanced the same fallacious charge against materialism. And this, too, is explained by the fact that Feuerbach, in keeping with the good old German custom, had only a very vague idea of the history of materialism. He shunned ‘La Mettrie’s truffle pie’ in the self-same work where he (Feuerbach) fully agreed with the views of the author of L'Homme-machine.

11. ‘Our logic’, says Joseph Dietzgen, ‘is a theory of cognition.’

12. Feuerbach was most undoubtedly a materialist, although he liked to attack the ‘limited’ materialists, so great was the strength of this much honoured custom in Germany, from whose influence many, many German Social-Democrats, including the most ‘radical’, have still not freed themselves.

13. J Dietzgen is not responsible for the style: we have already mentioned that Messrs Dauge and Orlov have translated his book not into Russian but into a ponderous, barbarous language of their own which Herzen would have called ‘bird language’.

14. Again, an unfortunate expression, but we do not intend to waste time on expressions.

15. At best – any resemblance with Mr Bogdanov could, of course, only be at the worst possible – this confusion of thought includes an obscure allusion to Spinozism. But even with the aid of the most clear Spinozism, one cannot ‘excel’ materialism. The materialists La Mettrie, Diderot, Feuerbach, Marx and Engels were Spinozists who had merely ceased to identify God with Nature (see A Critique of Our Critics, pp 154-66). [See Plekhanov’s article ‘Bernstein and Materialism’ in Georgi Plekhanov, Selected Philosophical Works, Volume 2 (Moscow, 1974), pp 326-39 – Editor. Available at Bernstein and Materialism – MIA.] Feuerbach has already explained Spinoza’s relation to materialism.

16. ‘"All-embracing being is one.” If tautology, the simple repetition in the predicate of what is already expressed in the subject – if that makes an axiom, then we have here one of the purest water, Herr Dühring tells us in the subject that being embraces everything, and in the predicate he intrepidly declares that in that case there is nothing outside it. What colossal, “system-creating thought"!’ (Frederick Engels, Philosophy. Political Economy. Socialism (Anti-Dühring) (translated from the German, Fourth Edition, St Petersburg, 1907), p 30). [Frederick Engels, Anti-Dühring (Moscow, 1975), p 52 – Editor.]

17. Rus (Russia) – a liberal bourgeois daily, published in St Petersburg in 1903-05 – Editor.