August Thalheimer: Introduction to Dialectical Materialism


8 - From Natural-Science Materialism to Dialectical materialism

The last chapter took us as far as Feuerbach. I will briefly recapitulate the progress Feuerbach made over Hegel and the deficiencies which h he evinced. The principal advances which Feuerbach made are:

1. The transition from idealism to materialism.

2. The scientific rejection of religion. Feuerbach disclosed religion as the handiwork of men. Man creates God and the deities after his own image. Since Feuerbach, religion has been scientifically dead, scientifically vanquished. But I shall soon point out that it is not yet dead in practice.

3. Moreover, philosophy as a special science opposed to natural science, as a science which explains things purely through the mind, without experience, was also buried by Feuerbach.

These are the principal advances which were made by Feuerbach over Hegel.

Now I shall consider the two fundamental deficiencies in Feuerbachian materialism. The first is that Feuerbachian materialism is only natural-science materialism; that is, it is an incomplete materialism. Incomplete because Feuerbach was unable to give a materialistic explanation of the process of history. In Feuerbach there is here a distinct lack. He does not know what to say. When confronted with the task of explaining history, other natural-science materialists resort to the old idealism. This is either the usual idea that historical progress is conditioned by the progress of thought, ideas, or, even more naively, that great men make history through the thoughts which, more or less by accident, crop up in their minds. This is the first deficiency. The second, with Feuerbach, is that he lacks the dialectical method. Yet this dialectical method was the great revolutionary advance which Hegel had made over all his predecessors. This advance was lost on Feuerbach. He recognizes dialectics neither in natural science nor in history.

The decisive advance over the natural-science materialism of Feuerbach was made by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. They were also the founders of scientific socialism. This decisive advance occurred in the middle of the forties, some few years before the outbreak of the German revolution, Feuerbach himself had written his book, The Essence of Christianity, in 1839, and his Thoughts on the Philosophy of the Future in 1843. Marx and Engels took only a few more years to reach the point which Feuerbach had attained. Feuerbach was still a bourgeois revolutionary and belonged to the most radical, most progressive section in the bourgeois revolution. Marx and Engels also began as radical bourgeois revolutionaries, but they later went over to the side of the working class and became the founders of scientific socialism. They became socialist or proletarian revolutionaries, and only then was it possible for them to advance beyond the radical bourgeois position. Marx and Engels studied Hegel, the philosopher who dominated the entire period throughout the twenties and thirties, and Feuerbach.

Historical or dialectical materialism was developed by them not only from German philosophy; other phenomena of the time also contributed. The most important are the following two: I. The contemporary class struggles in England. This was the time of the Chartist movement in England, the first great modern working class movement. In England, then economically the most highly developed country, any one could see that the true explanation of political struggles resided in the class struggle between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. It was also unmistakably clear that this struggle between working class and bourgeoisie was based on the economic position of the two classes, on the fact that the bourgeoisie was in possession of all the means of production and piled up riches upon riches, while the working class, lacking means of production, was dependent solely on the sale of its labor power. Thus, here was the most obvious place to study the materialistic explanation of historical events. As you know, Friedrich Engels spent several years in England as a young man. He here developed his interest in the workers' movement and received his first impulse toward historical materialism.

The second impulse came from the history of the French Revolution. This had the greatest influence on Marx, who at this time was living in Paris and devoting himself to an exhaustive study ofthe history of the French Revolution. The bourgeois historians of the French Revolution had already seen that the events of the French Revolution could be explained in terms of the struggles of the different classes. Class struggles as the propelling force of political history became especially clear to Marx through the study of the French Revolution, while Engels came to understand the economic basis of the class struggle between the proletariat and bourgeoisie. Since these two men, Marx and Engels, came together, since they applied the dialectical method which they had learned from Hegel, and since with Feuerbach they passed from idealism to materialism, the elements were brought together for the creation of dialectical materialism, and, at the same time, the scientific elements for the generation of socialism.

What was the nature of this decisive advance which Marx and Engels made over Feuerbach? 1. Feuerbach found the key to the materialistic explanation of nature. Marx and Engels found in addition the key to the materialistic explanation of history. Marx and Engels found this explanation in the manner and mode in which men acquired their living, how they produced their material livelihood. For this they used the expression "mode of production." The mode of production means nothing more than the manner and mode by which man earns a living. As Marx and Engels bluntly said: man must eat and drink before he can philosophize. All other things follow and are conditioned by the way he procures food and drink. This simple knowledge is the foundation of the materialistic explanation of history. With this, idealism was overthrown, the idealistic world-view was driven from its last refuge and completely vanquished. Feuerbach had driven God and the spirits from nature; Marx and Engels drove God and the spirits from history too. Of course, the God of the historical idealists was not crudely conceived as a personal God determining all historical events, but he was something more refined. Thoughts or ideas, lesser gods, so to speak dominated history and were supposed to determine historical events. Just as God, according to the religious writings of the Jews, is said to have created the world out of his mind, out of nothing, so, according to the conception above, the world-spirit is supposed to bring forth history. With this conception Marx and Engels made a radical and fundamental break. They recognized neither great nor small, neither crude nor refined gods in history, but they understood that in history, just as in nature, the material foundation determines the ideal, determines thought. Thus for the first time the conception of supersensual and higher beings or forces was completely destroyed. The last refuge of higher, super-sensual forces and powers was demolished. Through this advance the supersensual creative role of the Spirit, which even Hegel had acknowledged, was definitely played out, and, at the same time, religion and philosophy as a special kind of interpretation of life were completely discredited.

The second decisive advance of Marx and Engels over Feuerbach consisted in the fact that Marx and Engels again took up the dialectical method, which Feuerbach had dropped. But they did not take up this method in the form in which Hegel had left it. In Hegel we have an idealistic dialectics. We have already seen what this was. In Marx we have a materialistic dialectics; that is, Marx conceived of dialectics as the sum of the universal laws of motion of the real, material world and the laws of thought in the minds of men corresponding, to these universal laws. In other words, the real, material world is dialectical; it follows the laws of dialectics; and dialectics also operates in the human mind since the human mind is also a part of the material world. Thus Marx and Engels retained the positive contribution of the history of philosophy. The history of philosophy which, as you have seen, embraces more than two thousand years, is not simply a mass of errors in the light of dialectical materialism. As long as philosophy sought a special kind of world explanation opposed to the natural-science, materialistic explanation of the world, its attempt was fruitless and it only piled error upon error. Philosophy, however, did make one real substantial contribution: the knowledge of man's capacity for thought. In the two or three thousand years in which man has pursued philosophy, real progress has been made. The outcome is dialectics, theory of knowledge, and logic. Dialectics was lost upon Feuerbach; with Marx and Engels it is preserved and further developed into materialistic dialectics. Concerning this materialistic dialectics we shall speak in greater detail in the next chapter.

Thus one can say that Marx and Engels discovered dialectics, and at the same time they did not discover it. I will now turn to the chief problems of the theory of knowledge from the point of view of dialectical materialism.

The first problem to be solved is the fundamental problem presented by the idealistic and the materialistic world-views. This is the problem of the relation of thought to the external world which we can perceive through the senses, and thus the problem whether the external world, this table, this tree, this lamp - whether all this exists independent of my existence, whether all this has an objective existence independent of my existence, or is present only in my consciousness. This is the so-called problem of the objectivity of the external world. This is one of the basic problems of the theory of knowledge. Common sense has an immediate answer at hand. Of course the lamp-post exists independent of my consciousness, and I note this when I hit it with my nose. Likewise I am impressed with the fact that a tree exists independent of my consciousness if it falls upon my head.

But common sense is not the ultimate arbiter in questions of science. Against this doctrine of common sense the idealistic philosophers have posed very weighty, significant objections. They say that in the last analysis the tree does not physically enter my head - this can happen, but it puts an end to thinking - but rather the tree enters my head only as an idea; it enters only into my consciousness. And if I inquire into everything that happens to me, I find, according to the idealistic conception, that all that I know are conscious states, ideas which I have in my head. And hence idealism comes to the conclusion that there is no world independent of human consciousness, but that everything exists only in my consciousness. I cannot know what is not contained in my ideas. Accordingly, idealism says, consciousness is all, and if I think that anything else exists outside of me, then I am making an error of common sense. This applies not only to the tree, the lamp-post, etc., but it also applies to other men, and in the last analysis, this line of reasoning leads me to the conclusion that only I exist, only my consciousness exists, and that all other men exist only in my idea. This is the final logical conclusion of this idealistic world-view.

A few more interesting consequences follow from the contention that the world exists only in my idea. If this is the case, the earth can have had no existence before the arrival of man. This consequence is unavoidable. A second consequence: Whenever a man is asleep - and I am assuming that he sleeps without dreaming - the world always comes to an end, since, if no consciousness exists, no world can exist. These are important consequences. But the question is: How can one refute the conception or the idea that everything that exists, exists only in the ideas of men?

If we cannot answer this, then we must accept the doctrine of idealism. But we must try. One might perhaps answer: I know that the tree exists independent of me when I run into it. To this idealism can reply: if I run into a tree, I know this also only through my consciousness. The pain which I feel is an idea, a part of consciousness. Or let us take another case: I am struck by a bullet. According to the common notion, this exists quite independent of me. But when I become aware of this bullet, I become aware of it, too, only through my idea. Hence, this argument is not worth very much. One must go deeper. We come to closer grips with the problem if we formulate the matter thus: according to the idealistic conception everything that I know, that I feel, that I can sense, is present in consciousness, in thought, in nay head. Now I pose the question differently: is what exists in my head, in my consciousness, everything? The conclusion of continuous investigation of human consciousness is that this consciousness itself contains in its very essence the knowledge that my consciousness is not everything, but only a part of the world. This consciousness is the first condition and the point of departure of every thought. In self-consciousness itself we find the solution. It consists in the knowledge that my consciousness is not everything, but that a world confronts me which is different from my consciousness. Or, otherwise expressed: thought is a part of Being and stems from Being, but not the reverse. Thus, in the last analysis, the problem is solved in line with common sense, but not with the means of common sense. It is solved on the basis of the results of thousands of years of research into human thought, research which constitutes the real substance of philosophy.

I should like to discuss further the example of the tree which we have already used. The tree is, as I have already said, in my consciousness. Only in this way do I know of it. But at the same time I distinguish it from myself in my consciousness; I know that I am something different from a tree. Only through this distinction is thought possible. Then there is another little problem to which I wish to refer. There are not only ideas which correspond to actual things, but there are also purely subjective ideas. At night I look, for example, at the heavens and discover in some spot the glimmer of a star. This star can actually exist, or the impression can simply be the result of some disturbance in my eye. How can I distinguish whether it is really a star or merely some disturbance in the eve that arouses the impression of a star?

I will give another example in order to make this question clear. As you know, there are mentally deranged persons who have certain erroneous sense impressions. Such a person believes, for example, that he hears certain noises which of course are not present. He simply imagines them. How am I to distinguish a real noise from such an imagined noise?

I might tell you of something which once happened to me. I was going to bed. Suddenly it seemed to me that the wall shook and the pictures on the wall began to rattle. For this different explanations are possible: 1. The person who experiences this is not sober, and 2. an earthquake may have occurred. How shall I distinguish?

Here is the final determinant: I convince myself that my sense perception is either a subjective illusion or that it is true by checking whether all men observed it. If, for example, I am an astronomer and I see a star in the heavens, then I relay this observation to all other astronomical observatories to see if they observe it. If no one else sees it besides me, then it is a delusion. This is the determining factor by means of which distinguish subjective from objective facts. Subjective experiences are limited to those who have them; objective experiences are had by all.

In the above-mentioned case of the earthquake, there is a simple means of determining whether one is quaking oneself or whether the earth is quaking, if one looks out of the window. If other men are also looking out of the window to determine whether the earth is quaking, one can accept the fact that there is an earthquake. But if one is alone in making this test, the assumption must be that the unsteadiness comes from one's own feet.

We now turn to the second question: is this external world whose objectivity and independence from thought we have now proved - is this external world of a material, corporeal nature? This is the contention of materialism. Or is the external world of a spiritual nature? This is the contention of idealism. Hegel, for example, says that things exist outside of human consciousness, but also that things are not of a material, corporeal nature, but spiritual. This is objective idealism. Materialism maintains that the external world is of a corporeal nature. This has been adequately proved by natural science.

One more question and I will close. We have already said that natural science has established that the external world is of a material nature. It consists of matter in its various forms and motions. Now the question is, what is thought itself? Is it something material or is it something else? The answer is: we observe that thought itself is bound to a material substance, to the human brain. It is a function of it, just as there is a function of the muscles, or just as it is a function of the glands to secrete fluids. Moreover, thought functions only in connection with material stuff, with sense perceptions. In this double sense thought is material too. Sensation in general, the simplest kind of consciousness, is bound up with the existence of the organism. The most highly developed stage, understanding and reason, is bound up with man and a special organ, the brain.