August Thalheimer: Introduction to Dialectical Materialism


Preface to the German edition

The following lectures, under the title of "The Modern World-View," were delivered in Moscow in the spring of 1927 before second-term students of the Sun Yat-Sen University. They were delivered in German, and every paragraph or section was followed by a translation into Chinese. The brevity, of the individual lectures is ascribable to this devious method of presentation, which at times limited a single lecture to three-quarters of an hour and necessarily made them extremely concise.

At the same time, the need for translation demanded the simplest possible style. Moreover, the presentation had to be as elementary as possible because of the great differences in education among my Chinese listeners, differences between those who had been students in Europe and the young workers. Especially in European history and literature was there much that could not be taken for granted - although, of course, one could assume a great deal of knowledge of Chinese history and literature which is not part of the average European education.

Since the course had to be completed within a comparatively short time, a systematic and exhaustive treatment was impossible; it had to be limited to those fundamental theoretic concepts which were most important to the given audience.

The purpose of the lectures was to help the Chinese listeners, as well as possible Chinese readers, towards an independent orientationto the principal philosophic world-views which impinged upon them. For this reason the historical form of presentation was chosen. It also accounts for the review of ancient Indian and Chinese philosophy as well as pragmatism. Unfortunately, sufficient source-material for a contemplated treatment of the currents in modern Chinese philosophy was not available.

The lectures were stenographically recorded and only slightly edited, and they remain essentially as given. It was therefore further intended to add to the small number of literary quotations contained in the lectures. Instead, however, marginal notes were placed beside each paragraph or section to help the reader's perspective.1)

The author hopes that the lectures will also be of use to European readers who wish to be introduced to dialectical materialism. He refers, above all, to young revolutionary workers.

The reader trained in Marxism will notice that a number of themes are treated here either for the first time or in new connections. Some of these are ancient dialectics, ancient Indian and Chinese philosophy, and the development of the inner connections between the main propositions of materialistic dialectics.

I should be pleased if the ideas sketched here inspired further detailed Marxist research.

August Thalheimer

Moscow, June 1927



Preface to the American edition

For details about the origin of this book, which reproduces a series of lectures, the reader is referred to the preface of the German edition, reprinted here.

The book has appeared in Russian, Japanese, and Spanish, as well as in German. The original German edition has long been out of print. Owners of copies in Germany have to conceal them carefully from the eyes of the "Gestapo," the government secret police. Consequently the translators had considerable difficulty hunting out an extra German copy.

For American readers the following comments may be in order: The book is meant for readers who have no special philosophic training, but who are connected with the labor movement - that is, it is meant primarily for workers. In virtue of their class position and their class experience much of its content will be clearer to them than to bourgeois intellectuals, who, though they may indeed be practiced in abstract thought, will approach the subject with their peculiar class prejudices, with deep-rooted habits of thought, and with traditional academic concepts.

I have taken pains to present the subject in the simplest possible language and to relate it as much as possible to everyday experience. But let no one therefore be misled into thinking that the subject itself is "simple" or "commonplace." The fruits of more than two thousand years of painstaking and involved intellectual labor are contained in materialistic dialectics - a labor shared by many peoples. The readers may rest assured that it is much easier to present the subject in traditional philosophic language. For students this might have certain superficial advantages. But it would not make the problem itself any easier nor would it help the workers, who constituted the main contingent of my European readers and whom I chiefly wish to address here in America as well.

Usually, when confronted with an introduction to a science, one assumes that the science itself already exists in elaborate systematic form, in formal texts. But this does not apply to materialistic dialectics, and it can be safely said that it will still be some time before there will be a text for materialist dialectics as systematic and complete as Hegel's Logic is for idealistic dialectics, or as many texts on formal logic. To make way for such a text a tremendous amount of preliminary labor is necessary, among other things, the critical examination of all materials in the history of philosophy as sources.

Readers who wish to go more deeply into the subject should refer to the works of Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, Plekhanoff, Labriola, Franz Mehring, and Lenin, who treat of the problems of philosophy and the history of philosophy. And, if they wish to go further and make independent investigations in the field of materialistic dialectics, they should, on the basis of the groundwork thus laid, make a critical study of the principal works of philosophy and the principal contributions of modern natural science, as well as the Marxist social sciences.

Readers who have neither the opportunities nor the inclination for this sort of study (and these will doubtless be in the majority) are advised that conscious participation in the struggles of our time, which is uncommonly full of sudden crises and sharp contradictions, will provide more than enough material for a deeper understanding of the fundamental concepts and methods of materialistic dialectics. Such participation can make these principles and methods a vital part of oneself, an instrument of thought for daily use — i.e., it can teach one to "think dialectically".

This book is not meant for casual spectators; nor is it meant for those who are or wish to be academic philosophers. It is intended primarily as a tool for practical and conscious participants in the class struggle of today

Perhaps it may also be of some service to natural scientists who wish to become acquainted with unbiased methods of thought which depart from tradition but which are closely related to the "instinctive" materialism of natural-science practice.

August Thalheimer

Paris, December, 1935.


1) As a matter of convenience these marginal notes in the German text have in large measure been used in the Analytical Table of Contents in the English edition, rather than where originally intended.