O. Yakhot: What is Dialectical Materialism?
Source: What is Dialectical Materialism?, pp. 42-61
Translated by: (from the Russian) Clemens Dutt
Published: Progress Publishers, Moscow
Transcription/HTML Markup: Mike B. for MIA, 2008
Public Domain: Marxists Internet Archive (2008). You may freely copy, distribute, display and perform this work; as well as make derivative and commercial works. Please credit “Marxists Internet Archive” as your source.
Life, everyday practical activities, convince us that the world exists it is of a material nature objectively, independently of man, of his consciousness, sensations and desires. Science testifies to this by proving that the Earth came into existence long before man or any living organisms, that is to say it existed independently of them. The objective character of the world, i.e., its existence apart from and independently of consciousness, implies that it is of a material nature.
It may be asked: since objective idealists admit that the world exists apart from human consciousness, does it not follow that they recognise the material nature of the world? By no means. It is true that objective, in contrast to subjective, idealists admit that the world exists apart from human consciousness. But they do not acknowledge that it is independent of consciousness; they regard it as a product of consciousness. The recognition of the material nature of the world—its existenceapart from and independent of consciousness—is the characteristic feature of materialist theory. This fundamental scientific thesis underlies Lenin's theory of matter.
We are surrounded by an infinite number of objects and phenomena. Stones and trees, grains of sand and the sun, animals and automatic lathes, the seas and oceans, the stars and planets, and much more besides—all of this we denote by the single word matter. Perhaps you find it perplexing that a single word can be used to cover such a countless multitude of things and phenomena, so different and remote from one another. A little reflection, however, will make it easier to understand why this is so.
Consider, say, how many flowers there are in the world. They are innumerable; there must be thousands of millions. But we have the one word "flower" and we use it to denote a rose, a tulip, a forget-me-not, a fox-glove, and so on. Let us take a more complicated example. You are sitting in a chair reading a book. You have a pencil in your hand, and pen, ink and paper are beside you. On the table is a lamp and nearby is a bookcase. Can you use a single name to denote the book, pencil, table, etc.? Of course, for they are all things. The word "thing" applies to all of them. In logic it is called a concept.
How are such concepts formed? Although flowers are all different from one another, they have much in common. It is what they have in common that makes it possible to embrace them all in the general concept "flower". This does not include the features that make one flower different from another, but, on the contrary, just those features which are common to all of them. We set aside or, as it is said, abstract from (as it were "disregard") the features which distinguish one flower from another. Hence such concepts are called abstract.
Thus, concepts reflect the common and essential features belonging to different objects and phenomena independently of the individual peculiarities of each of them.
You will probably have noticed that some concepts embrace a wider circle of objects or phenomena than others. Thus the concept "thing" is much wider than the concept "pen" or "table". The latter are included in the concept "thing".
You may perhaps ask: do there exist concepts that are extremely wide, that have the maximum possible range? They do exist. If a concept embraces all objects and phenomena ranging, say, from a grain of sand to the human brain, it can be said to have the maximum range.
The concept "matter" is of this kind. It follows that "matter" is also a concept, just as much as "flower" or "thing", but a very wide one, the widest possible. It is distinguished from ordinary concepts by expressing the essential and common characteristics not of some one group of things, but of all things and phenomena in the world—of everything around us. Philosophy studies concepts of maximum range. They are called philosophical categories. Matter is a philosophical category.
What then are the common and essential properties, the similarities, characterising all things? First and foremost, they consist in the fact that all things are of a material nature, existing objectively, i.e., apart from and independent of human consciousness. They all have this single foundation.
Is this, however, the sole property common to all objects in the world? It is not. They have yet another important property in common. When, for instance, we wash in hot water we have a sensation of warmth. When we look at the trees in a forest, we sense, we see, various colours—the white trunks of birch trees, the green colour of leaves. Consequently, things, which exist independently of its, possess the property of acting on our sense organs and evoking corresponding sensations.
Now that we have become clear about the most general properties of things and phenomena, we can give a definition of the concept of matter. In his work Materialism and Empirio-Criticism, Lenin wrote: "Matter is a philosophical category denoting the objective reality which is given to man by his sensations .... Matter is that which, acting upon our sense organs, produces sensation; matter is the objective reality given to us in sensation, and so forth."1
As you see, matter is that which surrounds us, everything that exists objectively—the boundless external and material world, which by acting on our sense organs produces sensations.
From the preceding talk you already know that in antiquity (and also about a hundred years ago) some materialists conceived matter as being a definite "material" of which all things consist. Democritus, for example, regarded atoms as being the primary basis of all matter.
In the 17th and 18th centuries, science regarded atoms as being indivisible, indestructible and eternal. They were the "ultimate bricks" of the universe, the building material of which the whole world was made. This view prevailed in the 19th century as well. But, as already mentioned, at the end of the 19th century discoveries were made which threw doubt on the correctness of such a conception of the primary basis of matter.
What were these discoveries?
In 1896 the French physicist Becquerel accidentally left some uranium ore close to a closed packet of photographic film. Some time later he noticed that the film had blackened. He concluded that uranium ore gives out rays, invisible to the eye, that can penetrate cardboard and blacken a photographic film. This began the study of the remarkable phenomena which were named radioactivity.
Before long a new chemical element was discovered and named radium. Later, this "great revolutionary", radium, began to make no small stir in the world.
The rays emitted by radium testified to something that was the direct opposite of what was known about the atom until then. These rays were found to consist of minute particles of three kinds: alpha (α)—particles with a positive electric charge, beta (β)—particles, or electrons, with a negative charge, and gamma (γ)—rays having no electric charge. The uranium atom had apparently disintegrated into these particles. But for over two thousand years it had been held that the atom was indivisible. Scientists at first suspected a mistake had been made.
But there was no mistake. By the end of the 19th century it was firmly established that the opinion about the indivisibility of the atom had simply to be discarded; the atom was divisible. It disintegrated and at the same time many old notions disintegrated as well.
Other discoveries, too, indicated the collapse of the old notions of matter and its properties. At the beginning of this century, for example, the famous physicist, Albert Einstein, showed that the ideas of space and time that had been held in physics since the time of Galileo and Newton required to be radically altered. Einstein's new ideas were the basis of his theory of relativity.
Since Newton's time scientists had considered that the mass of a body at rest or in motion was constant, unchanging. Modern research, however, showed that the mass of the electron does not remain constant but varieswith the velocity of the electron.
Thus, the recent scientific discoveries overthrew the old notions of the indivisibility of the atom, the constancy of mass and the invariability of space and time. There began a revolution in natural science, as Lenin called it.
Bourgeois idealist philosophers were not slow in taking advantage of these discoveries. They argued along the following lines: the indivisible atom which was regarded as the basis of matter is found to divide into fragments. Hence the very foundations of the edifice of materialism and its central element—matter—have collapsed.
Furthermore, mass used to be considered the essential property of all bodies, of matter. But it turns out that the mass of the electron varies with its velocity. Consequently part of its mass has "disappeared". Hence "matter also disappears". These philosophers therefore concluded: materialism is bankrupt. Since this conclusion was made on the basis of the new data of physics, collected at the turn of the century, this trend of idealist philosophy was called "physical idealism", a term introduced by Lenin in his book Materialism and Empirio-Criticism, published in 1909. Lenin crushingly refuted the inventions of the idealists.
What really happened to science at the turn of the century? New knowledge was obtained. The existence of electrons, protons and the atomic nucleus was previously unknown. All these data showed that our natural-scientific picture of the world, our ideas of the structure of matter, had changed. But did these new data justify the conclusion that electrons, atomic nuclei, etc., were of a non-material nature? Let us see.
Do electrons exist objectively, independently of man, or not? Of course, they do. Lightning, for example, is nothing but a powerful stream of electrons. And we know that lightning occurred before man existed.
Some idealist philosophers maintain that the electron is of a non-material nature because it does not act on our sense organs, it cannot be seen. But this is not the case. Electrons and other minute atomic particles are studied by means of very delicate instruments. The tracks of their movements can even be photographed. Hence they do act on our sense organs, although this occurs through the medium of special apparatus. Thus, these particles exist objectively and act on our sense organs; hence, they are of a material nature.
Lenin concludes therefore that matter has by no means "disappeared". It is simply our knowledge of it that has altered. It was previously thought that the world consisted of minute particles—atoms. Now we know more, we have deepened our knowledge and discovered that there exist more minute particles—electrons. But the electron is just as inexhaustible as the atom. This means that science will reveal a more and more profound natural-scientific picture of the world, for more and more will become known of the structure, state and properties of the concrete forms of matter.
Lenin's words have been confirmed.
Modern science has made many new discoveries about the structure of matter. At first only the electron and proton were known, but now over 30 different "elementary" particles have been discovered. And so, not only atoms, but electrons and other particles are of a material nature. Materialism has by no means been "overthrown".
Lenin's ideas philosophically substantiated the major scientific thesis that there exist two basic forms of matter—substance and field.
Substance, as understood in modern physics, is a form of matter consisting of particles possessing its own mass (mass at rest). They include the so-called elementary particles.
Field is a material structure connecting bodies with one another and transforming action from one body to another. There is the electromagnetic field (one variety of which is light), the gravitational field, and the nuclear field connecting the particles of the atomic nucleus.
These two forms of matter—substance and field—cannot be divorced from one another. Under certain conditions they are converted into each other. Thus two particles of matter—a pair consisting of an electron and a positron—under definite conditions become converted into a photon—a particle of the electromagnetic field. This implies that one form of matter —substance—has been transformed into another form—light, electromagnetic vibrations, which is the same thing as the electromagnetic field. Thus, no disappearance of mass occurs in nature.
The historic service rendered by Lenin is that by his analysis of the significance of the scientific discoveries he upheld materialism and convincingly showed that metaphysical materialism must not be confused with dialectical materialism. The former holds that matter consists of immutable and indestructible atoms. The starting point of dialectical materialism is that matter cannot be reduced to an "ultimate brick"—the atom; nor can it be reduced to some sort of "eternal" property. Matter possesses not one property, but innumerable properties; just as there is a great diversity of objects in the world, so their properties too are equally diverse. This has been confirmed by scientific discoveries. That is why Lenin wrote: "Modern physics is in travail. It is giving birth to dialectical materialism."2
Lenin showed further that the theory of the structure of matter must not be confused with the philosophical definition of matter as an objective reality. Scientific discoveries decide the question of the structure of matter, whether it consists of atoms or electrons, or whether there are also other particles. Philosophy, however, tackles a different question: whether the world, and hence these particles, exists objectively, apart from human consciousness. Consequently, no matter what new "particles" science discovers (and it is continually discovering new ones) materialism cannot be overthrown, for these particles themselves are of a material nature, existing objectively, independently of man and mankind.
Therefore, the philosophical concept of matter must not be confused with the question of the natural-scientific picture of the world. Our notions of the structure, state and properties of concrete forms of matter—the natural-scientific picture of the world—are continually changing, for scientists acquire ever deeper knowledge of the world and its structure. It follows that the new discoveries have refuted the old knowledge of the natural-scientific picture of the world, but not the philosophical concept of matter, which concerns the objective existence of the world and not its structure. However greatly our ideas of this picture of the world may alter, they cannot testify to the disappearance of matter. As Lenin said, what disappears is the boundary of our knowledge of matter. But the material nature of the world, matter as an objective reality, receives fresh confirmation.
But why is it that idealists so zealously combat the concept of matter?
The French Catholic philosopher Alfred Ancel has said that what he dislikes most about Marxism is the dialectical theory of matter". "The Church would not condemn Marxism," he says, "if it did not arbitrarily exclude all intervention of God in the origin and development of the world; if Marxism has to be condemned, it is only on account of its materialism." That, it appears, is the "root of the evil" of Marxist philosophy!
The theory of matter precludes all divine intervention. It makes nonsense of the religious inventions about the creation of the world. All religions are alike in maintaining that God created the world "out of nothing". Science, however, has firmly established that in nature nothing arises out of nothing and nothing disappears without a trace. In science this finds expression in a special law, the law of the conservation of mass or, in other words, the law of the conservation of matter. The only possible conclusion is that drawn by materialism: matter never came into existence, it has always existed and will always exist. The world is eternal, it was not created by anybody. The scientific thesis of the eternity of matter radically undermines religious belief in the creation of the world.
This thesis of the eternity of matter often evokes questions from students of Marxist philosophy. They ask: "How is it possible that matter has always existed? Must it not have come into being at some time?" There is nothing surprising about these questions. In his lifetime a person comes to see that everything has a beginning and end. That is why he asks: who created matter? Science answers: it has always existed.
As far back as Greek antiquity, Heraclitus wrote that the world was not created by any God nor any man, but was, is, and will be eternal.
What proof is there of this important conclusion?
There are very many facts in favour of it. Take, for example, the law of the conservation of matter.
Let us begin with a domestic example. You burn firewood in a stove. At first sight it seems to have disappeared, leaving only a little ash. But careful weighing of the products of combustion shows that there has been a gain, not a loss in weight. For they contain the same substances that were in the wood before it was burnt and in addition those taken from the air during burning.
The great Russian scientist Lomonosov drew attention to such a fact. He concluded that no body or element could be annihilated nor could it arise out of nothing. He formulated this idea in the law of conservation of matter.
It follows from this most important law of nature, that the religious myth of God's creation of the world out of nothing is entirely fallacious. If we assume there was a time when there was nothing in the universe, i.e., there was no matter, there was nothing from which it could arise. But since matter exists it means that it never came into existence but has always existed and will exist. It is eternal and immortal. The scientific thesis of the eternity of matter radically undermines the religious faith in the creation of the world.
Furthermore; since matter is the basis and source of all the phenomena of nature, there cannot be any such phenomenon not existing objectively and really, and not susceptible of being studied by the sense organs, physical apparatus or other scientific means. That being the case, there is no room for religious tales about angels or spirits, no room for divine Providence.
If, indeed, angels do exist, why do they not manifest themselves in any way? Even the very minute electrons have become available for man's study. Why are angels not detectable whether by our sense organs, physical apparatus or anything else? Nor is the effect of their "actions" observable. Is there anything in the world of which it can be said: this was the work of angels? There is not. Consequently, neither God, nor angels, nor the "other world", exist. The Church is unable to refute this conclusion. That is why the materialist concept of matter is so hateful to the idealists and the Church. That is why they try to refute it by saying that "matter has disappeared". Since they cannot succeed in that, they try at least to distort the true meaning of the concept of matter.
They assert: suppose matter has existed eternally, materialism will gain nothing from that. Let us imagine, they say, the infinitely remote epoch when instead of the present universe there existed some kind of formless, motionless matter. It remained in that state for an infinitely long time. But a time came when matter had to emerge from the state in which it had been until then. But if it had been motionless until then, how did it suddenly come into motion? Within matter itself, say the idealists and the Church, there cannot he any basis for such a change. Consequently, there must be some power, outside and apart from nature or matter, which brought this dead matter out of its state of "dormancy" and immobility. This power is God.
But does matter really require some higher power to give it this impulse?
Ask someone who has not studied Marxist philosophy what motion is, and you will probably be given something like the following answer: "Motion is change of place. If an object remains in one place, it does not move. A stone, for instance, does not change its position unless someone throws it." But take a look at the stone at rest. Motion is, nevertheless, taking place within it: the atoms, molecules, electrons and protons, which we know to be present in all bodies, are in continuous motion. A house, too, is not motionless, it moves together with the Earth around the Sun. Suppose that we are seated at a meeting and must not move. Our blood, however, is circulating, and complex motions are taking place in our body: new cells are being formed and old ones dying or being destroyed. This is also motion. It follows that the problem of motion is much more complicated than is sometimes thought.
People see that a stone lies where it is until it is thrown, and that a motor-car does not move until the chauffeur drives it. It is roughly on arguments of this kind that the Church bases its opinion that matter was in a motionless state until a higher power, God, communicated the "first impulse". Even such an eminent scientist as Newton could not explain the motion of matter from matter itself. He considered that God imparted tic 'first impulse" to nature, that God "wound the clock" and only after this did motion become an inherent characteristic of matter. But is such a dead, motionless state of matter possible? In other words: was there a time when matter but not motion existed?
About two hundred years ago science had investigated only one form of motion-displacement in space. At that time Ii was possible to assume that a body would remain at rest until some external force brought it out of this state. This view was then applied to nature as a whole. But the development of physics, chemistry and biology showed that motion occurs in various forms.
Take, for example, heat. It turned out that this was the result of the motion of a vast number of molecules, as in the case of water. Water becomes hot owing to the motion of the molecules. This is not mechanical motion, but something new and more complex. An electric current is a flow of electrons. And a chemical reaction is motion, combination of ions, a still more complex process. A living organism, too, as already mentioned, is always in a state of motion. Incessant processes take place in human society: the social order changes, people themselves change.
What conclusion should be drawn from all this? It is that various forms of motion exist in nature. There is, firstly, displacement in space of particles of matter or bodies, i.e., the mechanical form of motion. Secondly, heat and electrical processes, or the physical form of motion. Thirdly, chemical reactions, the combination of ions, the chemical form of motion. Fourthly, changes occurring in living organisms, or the biological form of motion. Fifthly, the social form of motion, i.e., changes taking place in social life.
It cannot be said, therefore, that motion is simply displacement of bodies in space, for this is only one form of motion. What we have been considering is the question of what motion is in the most general, philosophical sense of the word. This implies primarily determining what is the chief, characteristic feature of all forms of motion. Motion, Engels wrote, "comprehends all changes and processes occurring in the universe, from mere change of place right up to thinking".3 It follows that motion comprises all changes taking place in objects or phenomena, that is to say, in the world, in matter. It is change in general.
Is it possible for matter to be in a state in which no changes take place in it? Of course not. Even in the remote past when there were no people, no animals, no living cells, matter underwent changes. Bodies consist of molecules and atoms and the latter are in constant motion. Hence, there never was any ossified, absolutely motionless body. Furthermore, if there were atoms, molecules and electrons, there could not fail to be chemical reactions. Hence, there was also the chemical motion of matter.
It is easy to see, therefore, that matter never was in a state in which it existed without motion. Hence, we say motion is a form of the existence, of the being, of matter. Motion is an inseparable property of matter or, as philosophers put it, an attribute of matter. There is no matter without motion, it exists only in motion.
This conclusion is confirmed by the irrefutable evidence of our practical experience. When a mechanical lathe is in operation, its parts become hot. This means that the mechanical form of motion (the rotation of individual parts) is converted into the heat form of motion. In an engine one can observe the reverse process; steam produced by combustion is used to move the wheels. Here heat energy is converted into mechanical energy.
By generalising such facts, science reached the conclusion that motion cannot be created out of "nothing", nor can it disappear into nothing. Motion can only be transformed from one into another form. This important proposition of natural science was called the law of the conservation and transformation of energy (energy in physics is a measure of the motion of matter).
If at some time matter had been in a motionless state, motion would not have arisen in it. Hence, motion is always inherent in matter, and the latter has no need of any "first impulse". There was never such an "impulse".
This does not mean that dialectical materialism denies the existence of rest. Rest exists in nature, but it is relative. This means that there is no phenomenon in which everything is at rest, in which there is no motion. This was shown above.
If a body is at rest it is so relatively to something. During a journey by car, for example, we are at rest relative to the moving car. But this is not absolute rest, for continual changes are taking place in our body.
The dialectical conception of rest is radically different from the metaphysical conception. Metaphysics conceives rest as the absence of all motion. Dialectical materialism is opposed to this conception.
What is of decisive importance in nature is not rest, although it does exist, but movement, development, change.
1. Lenin, Collected Works, Vol. 14, pp. 130, 146.
2. 2) Lenin, Collected Works, Vol. 14, p. 313.
3. Engels, Dialectics of Nature, p. 92.