August Thalheimer: Introduction to Dialectical Materialism


1 - Religion I

Our topic is the "modern world-view." Immediately this question arises: Is there a uniform modern world-view accepted by everyone, in the sense that there is a uniform physics or chemistry? Physics and chemistry are unquestionably uniform systems which one can expound in the same way all over the world. Of course, in these sciences, too, there are moot questions, but these moot questions remain within the bounds of the science. They only arise upon a common basis of accepted scientific achievement. And they are settled by methods which are accepted by all concerned - that is, by experiments. This is true of such problems as arise in physics, those, for example, in relation to the theory of relativity. Thus there is the important and very much discussed question whether there is an ether, a material medium of light. Now in physics we answer such questions by experiments, and this problem was actually tackled by a series of experiments by famous physicists, particularly by the American physicist, Michelson. Then there are a whole series of other problems which arise in this connection, such as the question of apparent irregularities in the orbit of the planet Mercury, the question of the path of a ray of light which passes close to the sun, etc. For all these questions in physics there is a uniform method of research, a uniform solution. The same is true of problems in chemistry. Recently, for example, the question arose whether it was possible to change lead or quicksilver into gold. Several investigators maintained that it could be done, but it was demonstrated through more exact experiments that for the present it cannot be done. Or other problems of chemistry: the problem of the composition of the ultimate chemical elements—atoms. Here too experiment has led to further disclosures and to uniform solutions. Atoms have been finally analyzed into smaller elements. Therefore, all things considered, we can say that there are a number of sciences which are uniform, which one can uniformly cxpound, and which are determined by uniform methods.

The case is quite different with questions of world-view. There is no uniform, universally accepted, modern world-view - as there is a uniform physics or a uniform chemistry or botany. There are, as we know, wholly opposed world-views which wage violent war on each other, which do not accept each other's methods. What is true for one philosophy is false for the others, what is false for one is true for the others. For instance, I am a Communist and as a Communist represent a very definite viewpoint, namely, historical or dialectical materialism. But this world-view co-exists with others opposing it which also call themselves "modern" and which wage violent war on dialectical materialism, while at the same time dialectical materialism wages violent war on them. Moreover, there is a further consideration: You see on the one hand that this theory of historical materialism is uniform. Wherever it is presented, it is presented in the same manner. When a dialectical materialist deals with certain questions, he treats them in the same way as another dialectical materialist; one more skillfully, the other less skillfully; one with more, the other with less knowledge of the facts. But the method is one and same.

But consider on the other hand the world-views which stand opposed to historical materialism. Here are a whole host of different viewpoints on nature and on history. To begin with, there are a great number of world-views which we call religion. Religion is a definite world-view. As you know, there is not one but a great number of religions each of which maintains that it alone is right and that all others are wrong, and that letter-spacing: it alone points out to men the right path in life and the way to a happy life after death, that it alone delivers men from all evil and suffering. Besides these different religions there are various other world-views of a philosophical nature. Such conceptions are well-nigh as numerous as professors of philosophy. There are a whole host of schools of philosophy in America and Europe, and, depending upon where you go, you will be told that one or another is the philosophy. Here the case is the same as with religions: each maintains that it alone is right and that all the others are wrong. Such world-views occur in great number not only in America and Europe; as you know, there are also in China a whole host of philosophic systems which war with each other, which compete with each other for your attention. The question therefore arises: How shall we correctly orient ourselves in this difficult situation? How shall we solve the problem of describing the modern world-view without causing a hullaballoo in our minds?

Since I accept a definite modern world-view, dialectical materialism, the impression might be received that this will be a one-sided report. Perhaps someone might propose that we seek to get a cross-section of all the different viewpoints and possibly find therein what is common to all and present it as "the modern world-view." But these viewpoints so contradict each other, they set out from such different premises and employ methods so different that if I contrived to put them all together into one lump and then pared away the contradictions there would be nothing left. The problem becomes all the more difficult since you who read these lectures are not possessed of blank minds. Rather, each one of you already holds to this or that world-view more or less clearly, either as a result of inculcated religious attitudes or as a result of other environmental influences - language, lectures, books, etc. Thus I cannot assume that you will receive what I shall say about modern world-views without prejudice. Consequently, I shall approach the problem in the following manner: I shall present dialectical materialism as the most advanced modern world-view, yet not simply as something ready-made, but in its historical setting, in its development. I shall therefore try to show how and from what sources historical materialism came into being. Secondly, from the standpoint of historical materialism, I shall try, together with you, to come to an understanding of the most important and influential world-views in Europe, America and China which co-exist with historical materialism, so that we may confute or even accept them, supplement or improve them. I choose this type of presentation to help you arrive at an independent orientation, and to help you find your way among the various intellectual currents which will sooner or later confront you. I consider best the method used by the famous German philosopher, Kant. He used to say to his listeners: I do not want to teach you philosophy - that is, a hard and fast doctrine - but I wish to teach you how man philosophizes, how man orients himself in relation to nature and history. It is the same with philosophy as with a craft, shoemaking, let us say. If I discuss shoemaking, it will be of little value if I do not show how the thing is practically handled. Likewise, you will gain little if I speak at great length on dialectical materialism but fail to point out how man applies this world-view to the fundamental problems of social theory, history, natural science, epistemology, etc., so that he may consistently elaborate and solve them.

Therefore, in my presentation of historical or dialectical materialism I shall apply the method of historical materialism itself. Through this procedure you will become acquainted with two special characteristics of dialectical materialism at the same time: I present dialectical materialism itself as something which comes into being, that is, as something historical. It is a peculiar quality of historical materialism that it views all things in both natural and human worlds nor as completed, not as finished once and for all, but as emerging, continually changing, and ultimately disappearing. And secondly, when I show you how historical materialism emerged from a world-view or from various world-views which were directly opposed to it, you will see here a special kind of dialectical materialism: you will perceive that development comes about through contradictions, that a thing always develops out of its opposite. This proposition demands detailed clarification and foundation, which it will receive later. What obtains for all things also obtains for historical materialism itself, and this we shall have to show. When we consider at closer range the different world-views which today stand opposed to each other, we can distinguish beneath apparent confusion very definite groupings, very definite categories. When we examine them from this point of view, we find two fundamental tendencies. These two tendencies of the modern world-view are in close correspondence with the underlying class division which is characteristic of modern capitalistic society. Just as the working class and the bourgeoisie stand opposed to each other, so we see that the modern world-views are grouped in accordance with these two fundamental tendencies. One tendency is the proletarian. To it belongs historical or dialectical materialism, otherwise known as Marxism. The other is the bourgeois tendency, whichis represented by the different forms of the so-called idealistic world-view. These two fundamental tendencies are as definitive of the world-views as difference between the two classes is definitive of social life and economics. In addition, there is still a third tendency, which stands apparently between the two, between the proletarian and the bourgeois, and which fancies itself as standing above the other two tendencies, but which is really only a special form of the bourgeois outlook. This type of world-view corresponds to that class which stands between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie, namely, the petty bourgeoisie. Just as the petty bourgeoisie stands socially between proletariat and bourgeoisie, so there is a series of world-views which stand between the materialist tendency of the proletariat and the idealist tendency of the bourgeoisie. But just as the petty bourgeoisie cannot in actuality assume a neutral, intermediate position between proletariat and bourgeoisie, but must decide in favor of one or the other class, and must form an alliance with one or with the other, so the world-views of the petty bourgeoisie cannot stand above or between materialism and idealism. All of these viewpoints are actually varieties of the idealistic or bourgeois tendency.

In what follows I shall try to present these fundamental tendencies in their historical development. Accordingly, we need not treat them in very great detail, listing many names, dates, etc.; but we need only make the basic concepts as clear and distinct as possible. From the standpoint of China, only the great lines of European cultural history are of importance. I want to tell you briefly what I shall mainly deal with as regards the prehistory and later development of historical materialism, and the views opposed to it. Of course, dialectical materialism itself will be the focal point. First, 1 shall deal with the question of religion as the oldest and fundamental conception, from which all the others have emerged. Then I shall deal with the most important world-views as they were developed in antiquity, in ancient Greece, in India, and in China - again not in detail, but only in broad and general outline. Then I shall enter upon a treatment of French materialism, that is, that world-view which prepared the way for the greatest and most significant bourgeois revolution at the end of the eighteenth century. I shall treat French materialism separately because of its essential contribution to the development of historical materialism. Then I shall present the most important stages in the development of classical bourgeois philosophy in Germany: Hegel and Feuerbach. I single out these two because, like the French materialists, they made a surpassing contribution to the building of the modern dialectical viewpoint. Finally, when we have viewed the history of dialectical materialism in its principal phases, we shall seek to orient ourselves in relation to the most important intellectual currents of the present day in America, in Europe, and in China.

We may now turn immediately to our first topic, a consideration of religions. We begin with religion because religion, as you know, is the oldest of all world-views. I shall not deal with the different forms of religion in different countries and ages. That would have no value for us. Rather, I am going to deal only with that which is universal and fundamental in religion. I shall take up the question in what fundamental way it differs from the modern world-view, how religion emerges, what material bases it has, how religion becomes separated from science and finally disintegrates, and what particular stand Communism takes on the question of religion.

The first question: What distinguishes religion from the modern, scientific dialectical-materialistic world-view? What is the peculiar, essential characteristic of religion? The essential characteristic of religion I can designate thus: Religion is the product of fantasy, of the imagination, as opposed to the modern world-view which is a product of science. Or it may also be contrasted thus: Religion is rooted in belief, science in knowledge. But it is not true that religion, as opposed to science, is solely a product of free fantasy, that it comes into being without previous experience. The case is just the same with religious fantasy as it is with every other fantasy. Every fantasy, all poetry, has a distinct empirical basis which is elaborated in a fantastic way. Science likewise has its empirical basis, but it elaborates it in a manner diametrically opposite to religion; not through fantasy, but through logic, through research and through reason.

In order to present this contrast as simply as possible, I want to give you an example of how one and the same event is treated by religion and by science. Let us take a phenomenon like rain. Rain is a phenomenon of extraordinary importance to the material life of mankind. Among peoples whose principal occupation is agriculture the fate of the population is in large measure dependent upon the frequency, quantity, and local distribution of rain. But rain is a phenomenon which lies outside man's control. Man cannot cause it to come and go as he pleases. What, then, does religion do? What do primitive peoples do? They represent the natural phenomenon of rain as the product of a fantastic being, of a god of rain. Such rain-gods are found among primitive folk in highly varying forms. The problem then is to influence these lords of rain by those methods known through experience to exert an influence on mighty beings. These are gifts (sacrifices), supplications (prayers), threats or symbolic acts which are supposed to represent real acts (ceremonies). Among some peoples we find

specialists for this purpose, so-called rain-makers, who believe that they can conjure up rain through ceremonies, incantations, etc.

Science views rain quite differently. It considers it not as the product of a god, spirit, or demon, but as the product of natural causes, of given natural forces. It seeks the causes of rain not in the arbitrary will of fantastic beings which are supposed to be hidden behind the phenomenon, but in the phenomenon itself and in its relation to the general organization of nature. Thus there is a special science, meteorology, which deals with rain, observes its manifestations, and arranges these observations with special reference to the question: What is the cause and what is the effect? Under what conditions does rain fail to appear, in what regions does it appear, etc.? We are not yet so far advanced in the science that we can always predict exactly the occurrence of rain, nor can we produce it at will. Thus an Australian rain-magician is apparently much farther advanced than a modern student of meteorology, who predicts rain more or less exactly, but cannot produce it. You see here the fundamental contrast between the method of religion and that of science. A second, very well-known example: the remarkable phenomenon of thunder, on which everyone reflects. The religious person conceives that there is a god of thunder who travels over the clouds in a chariot or who brings forth the tumult with an instrument. He has various magical means by which he believes he can make thunder.

Science, as we know, treats thunder very differently, namely, as a noise which is bound up with the occurrence of an electric discharge, lightning. We are not yet so far advanced that we can actually bring forth thunder and lightning on a large scale. But on asmall scale, in the laboratory, we can already produce events identical with thunder and lightning.

To sum up what we have learned from these examples: the peculiar characteristic of religion is that it fantastically elaborates a certain cycle of experiences, he they in nature or in history, and in such fashion that gods, spirits or demons are represented as the producers, lords or masters of natural phenomena. In the most developed forms of religion there are not many spirits, gods or demons, but only one god who is the supreme ruler of nature, a fantastic being who is supposed to sit above and beyond the world, whose nature can he recognized as the projection of man himself, whose capacities are fantastically elevated, and who has these capacities without a body appertaining. Perhaps we should not say that there is one god, but rather that there is a ruling family: the father, the son, and the holy ghost, who together rule the world. From the elementary form which this assumes with the Australian Negro to the form which it takes in the Christian religion there is a long chain of development, but in fundamental principle it is the same throughout. Today under modern capitalism there are, to be sure, extraordinarily refined forms in which the religious idea is far removed from the primitive conception of rain-god held by the Australian Negro. If eve probe deeply, however, we discover that these very refined conceptions hark back to the mystical beings of primitive people, who arbitrarily control events.

Quite different is the method of science. What does science do? It observes and collects facts; it arranges them in groups, classes, etc.; it analyzes them, seeks rules as to how the consequences derive from the precedent facts, how concomitants mutually affect each other, how the facts occurred. It investigates - and this is very important - how social forms come into being and how they change; and moreover, on the basis of natural science it builds technology, and on the basis of social science, politics. Thus, in accordance with known laws, it places the forces of nature at the service of human ends, at the service of the establishment of use-values, or social institutions. In this respect religion, no matter what name it may bear, fundamentally differs from modern science, from the modern world-view.

I proceed now to my next topic, namely, to the question: "What are the main sources of religious conceptions?" We can distinguish two main sources from which religious conceptions flow. The first source is the relation of man to nature - his dependence, in fact, upon nature and his desire to master in fantasy the forces of nature which he cannot master in reality, by offering sacrifices, praying, performing ceremonies, etc. The second and no less important source from which religious conceptions and religious fantasies flow are the relations of individual men to society; that is to say, the totality of social relations. Now, the basis of social relations in turn is the mode of production, i.e. the relationships into which men enter with each other while producing, with certain instruments, useful things for the maintenance of life; or the social way in which they produce their material livelihood.

We shall now consider these two sources of religion, first of all in the most primitive social forms. As for dependence upon nature: it is clear that the less developed men are - technically and economically - so much more dependent are they upon nature, and they aye more inclined to view all natural phenomena through the eyes of religious fantasy. If you consider primitive man, armed with only the most elementary implements of stone, bone, or wood, scarcely able to sustain life by hunting, fishing, etc., it is clear that from such relations of dependence upon nature the most varied religious ideas must develop. Or take the primitive farmer: he is extremely dependent upon the forces of nature, on the sun, the wind, the rain, on the river which flows past his land. As long as man is style='letter-spacing:.2pt'>unable to supervise all these relations, to foresee them, and conquer them technically to a certain degree, he will seek mastery over these things through religious Ideas. In this connection I want to remind you of the distinctive characteristics of the ancient religion of China, which naturally is a religion of farmers; in it

the forces of nature which are most important for the farmer, such as rain, the heavens, the stars, etc., play a decisive role in the religious idea. If you consider the different social forms and their religions you will find that they always stand in exceedingly close connection with the way in which such a society stands in relation to nature. I do not wish to go into any further detail on this question, but simply to indicate the general aspect of the matter.

The second source from which the religious idea flows is the social relations of men with each other. These social relations show that the individual man in society is dependent upon the whole, that over against him a higher power is placed. In early times the society as a whole exercised a very powerful influence upon the individual, and the subordination of the individual to the family and to the tribe was extraordinarily great. For the individual, morals, laws, customs, usages and precepts of universal scope had the force of imperative commands. But their meaning and purpose were not generally, not even in the majority of instances, clear to the individual or understood by him. Conformity was instinctive, automatic. Primitive society was itself still a kind of natural organism. Its codes, precepts, customs, etc., affected individuals just like the uncomprehended forces of nature. Indeed, primitive social organizations in general reacted to their own regulations as they did to theseinmutable forces of nature. And from this characteristic of social organization there naturally arose the religious idea as its support and sanction. For example: everywhere in the South Seas we have the so-called tabu-commandments, that is, commandments which declare that such and such groups of men must not hunt and eat such and such animals at certain times, or not collect and eat certain plants. Such commandments once had a distinct significance. They were equivalent to the regulation of production; they effected a kind of division of labor and a kind of regulation of consumption. But these commandments later became obscure, became automatic. From them certain religious commandments developed to the effect that such and such spirits, demons, etc., had issued such and such commandments and would see to their observance by threat of punishment.

Still another example that comes very close to home: one of the oldest, perhaps the oldest religious idea is that of reverence for the souls of the dead, the spirits of the ancestors. Even in the most primitive religious ideas this plays a very important role. The spirits of the ancestors cannot be explained as the personification of a natural phenomenon, but they can easily be explained in terms of social relations. The souls of the dead, which are revered by their descendants, preserve the continuity, in the imagination of course, between ancestors and descendants. They assure thecontinuous recognition of the traditional social order. The ancestral spirit of the family or the tribe personifies its order. Especially potent sources of religious ideas develop when class conflicts come to the fore, for then religious ideas become a means through which the ruling class holds the exploited and oppressed class in obedience and subjection. Moreover, as soon as class conflicts arise in the course of the social division of labor, there emerges a distinct class or caste which specializes in religious matters, namely, the priests. This class is more or less freed from direct productive labor and lives upon the surplus product of the others. For this priestly caste religious ideas become a means by which to support and preserve their privileged status in society. We must not think of this matter as if it were sheer imposture. On the contrary, this class or caste, like their ideas, grew out of social and natural relations. Hence they became just as widely accepted by the mass of people as by the priests. They constituted a world-view adapted to primitive relationships and to primitive methods of thought. As a dialectical materialist one must recognize that for a certain limited period this priesthood played a progressive role. In a time when men had to exert themselves to the utmost to produce even the barest essentials of life, the priests represented a social stratum which did not directly participate in labor and, therefore, could occupy themselves with a number of socially important problems for which this very freedom from directly productive labor was prerequisite. Thus it was the priests who first developed the elements of science. The beginnings of astronomy can be traced back to the Egyptian and Babylonian priests; the first elements of geometry were discovered by priests; they discovered how to measure land; they developed the ground-plan for constructing temples; they predicted the rise and fall of the waters of the Nile, etc. The priestly caste developed the seeds which, in the form of philosophy and natural science, finally put an end to all priests and all religion.