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The Philosophy of Marxism

By Cliff Conner

Published by Walnut Publishing Co., Inc. in conjunction with Socialist Action
November 1992

Dedicated to the Memory of GEORGE NOVACK
(1905-1992) Marxist Philosopher and Teacher


The year 1993 marks the bicentennial of the assassination of the French revolutionary leader Jean-Paul Marat. What Marat represented has never been expressed more movingly than in these lines by Victor Hugo:

“They said Marat is dead. No. Marat is not dead. Put him in the Pantheon or throw him in the sewer; it doesn’t matter—he’s back the next day. He’s reborn in the man who has no job, in the woman who has no bread, in the girl who has to sell her body, in the child who hasn’t learned to read; he’s reborn in the garrets of Rouen; he’s reborn in the basements of Lille; he’s reborn in the unheated tenement, in the wretched mattress without blankets, in the unemployed, in the proletariat, in the brothel, in the jailhouse, in your laws that show no pity, in your schools that give no future... Oh, beware, human society: you cannot kill Marat until you have killed the misery of poverty. (This was not published by Victor Hugo, but was intended for his Quatre-Vingt-Treize (“Ninety-Three”). It was quoted by Jean Massin in Marat (Le Club Francaise du Livre, 1970).)

Today the commentators and pundits say Marxism is dead. The debacle of the Soviet and East European regimes, which falsely claimed to be Marxist, is being depicted as the ultimate failure of Marxism. But Marxism, like the spirit of Marat, will survive as long as the need for social revolution persists.

Marxism is a social theory that originated as a response to the social problems engendered by the capitalist mode of production: Imperialist war, massive impoverishment, racism, oppression, alienation, the destruction of the environment, and the like. Those problems have not disappeared, as the U.S. war against Iraq, the uprising in Los Angeles, the explosive growth of homelessness, the famine in Somalia, and the stirrings of fascist movements in Europe all attest.

To the contrary, the contradictions of capitalism have grown to crisis proportions as we approach the 21st century. As long as they continue to plague the human race, or until a better social theory comes along, Marxism cannot perish. Marxism is, however, clearly on the defensive in the wake of recent events. Millions of Eastern European workers, who took to the streets in revolutionary action against their governments, acted under the misconception that then-oppressors were Marxists. Countering the confusion born qf decades of Stalinist misrule is a daunting prospect, but it cannot be avoided.

This pamphlet is the third incarnation of an attempt to restate some of Marxism’s most fundamental philosophical propositions. The material presented here was first offered as a series of classes at a Socialist Action national educational conference in the summer of 1989. The lectures were later published serially in Socialist Action newspaper from September 1991 through January 1992.

The speed with which events have unfolded in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union has already (only three years later!) left some of the material too far out of date; it has been edited accordingly. Sources of quotations have been added, but no attempt has been made to edit out the “speechisms” characteristic of an oral presentation.

It should be apparent that this pamphlet offers but a brief introduction to the basic ideas of Marxist philosophy. I hope it will stimulate readers to pursue the subject in more depth. A good place to start is with the works of George Novack that are cited in the footnotes.

Cliff Conner, November 1992

Does the philosophical foundation of Marxism stand up to the test of events?

“One of the principal propositions of dialectical materialism asserts that nothing can be fully understood unless and until its entire course of development has been disclosed and grasped.”George Novack [1]

The purpose of these classes is to redirect some of our attention to our ideological roots. We are confronted with some extremely complicated political issues right now. I’m thinking particularly of the immense changes that are taking place in the Soviet Union, Eastern Europe, and China. If we are able to make sense of what’s happening now in those places, it is due to the tact that we and our predecessors have worked out, on the basis of many years of experience, a coherent picture of how societies develop and change—a science of society.

But that general historical framework rests on an even more general understanding of how the world works. The ultimate foundation of our analysis of current political events, then, lies in the fundamental philosophical principles of Marxism, that is, the method of thinking called dialectical materialism.

Even a perfect understanding of dialectical materialism, of course, can’t guarantee accurate political conclusions. But without a solid philosophical foundation, political activity is nothing more than a series of accidents. So let’s step back for a moment and reconsider some of the most general philosophical questions that human beings have been grappling with for thousands of years.

In this class, I’m going to concentrate mainly on materialism. Later, we’ll focus more on dialectics. In practice, we wouldn’t want to separate the two, but it’s a convenient way to divide the subject into two classes.

When I hear the word “materialism,” the first thing I think of is Samuel Johnson’s response to idealists who claim that material objects exist only in our minds. He kicked a large stone, it hurt his foot, and he said that no further proof was necessary.

It is tempting to think that this is all that has to be said about materialism and idealism. It seems clear-cut enough; let’s just dismiss all the idealist claptrap out of hand. But unfortunately, it’s not that simple. Philosophical idealism has a strong material basis in class society, as we will see, and consequently it also has a strong basis in human psychology.

On top of that, the philosophical positions of idealism are by no means as frivolous or foolish as they seem when we think about Dr. Johnson kicking the stone. Materialists like ourselves can’t simply ignore or. brush aside the arguments of idealism; it is necessary to understand them and answer them.

Neither materialism nor dialectics began with Marx, of course. Both had their origins in the world of the ancient Greeks. To understand something as fully as possible, it is necessary to understand how it developed, from the very beginning. So let’s start at the beginning and work our way forward to the class struggle of today.

The first philosophers

The beginning of philosophy took place on the Ionian coast, an area in Asia Minor which is now part of Turkey, but which in the 6th century B.C. was colonized by Greeks.

The most fundamental question in philosophy was the first one that was tackled by those ancient Ionians: “What is? What is it that exists? What is Being? What is the world made of?”

The older Egyptian and Sumerian civilizations had developed elaborate myths to explain where the world came from and what it was made of, but these were supernatural explanations that were to be accepted on the basis of religious authority. The Ionian Greeks in the 6th century B.C. were apparently the first to attempt to interpret the world in terms of observed natural processes.

They came up with a number of answers, and they debated and tried to defend their answers in a logically consistent way. The first in the line of Ionian philosophers was Thales, and his answer was: Water. Everything in the world, in the final analysis, comes from water. A little later another philosopher, Anaximenes, asserted that the ultimate stuff of which the world was made was not water, but air. And other answers were suggested Heraclitus believed the ultimate element was fire.

In spite of the diversity of these answers, they all had one thing in common: All agreed that the world was made of some fundamental material element. They sought the causes of things and events within nature itself. This was a revolutionary change from the supernaturalistic cosmologies of the Egyptians and Sumerians. The first philosophers, then, were materialists, and materialism is as old as philosophy itself.

The Greek idealists

The materialist outlook did not remain unchallenged for long, however. A school of philosophers based in Elea developed the notion that the world we think we know—the world we see with our eyes and feel with our hands—is not real at all. It is all an illusion. And the way you can tell that it is an illusion is because it changes.

If something really exists, they believed, then it would be permanent and unchanging. Take yourself, for example; what kind of existence did you have a hundred years ago? What kind of existence will you have a hundred years from now?

Anyway, it seemed to them that any concept of being—of existence—that only had to do with things that are here today and gone tomorrow was trivial; not worth much. If something is real, if something exists, it has to exist past, present, and future.

If the world around us—the one we can see and touch—is not permanent and eternal, and therefore is not real, what is? Well, nothing in our experience is permanent and eternal, but we can still imagine something that lasts forever and doesn’t change. We can form a mental picture. The only true, unchanging reality, then, must be somewhere in the realm of thoughts, or ideas, rather than in the material world. This is the central tenet of idealism, and so the fundamental battle lines in philosophy were drawn—materialism versus idealism.

Idealists believe in the priority of mind over matter, that is, that in the creation of the world, mind, or thought, or some kind of intelligence came first, and matter came later. Materialists believe the opposite: that the material world existed prior to and independently of mind; that mind is something that developed from the evolution of matter.

The Atomists

The early idealists raised some important questions about the problem of change in the material world. Another materialist school of thought came up with an answer. These were the atomists, who said that the world is made up of extremely small pieces of material they called atoms.

These atoms, they said, combine to make up all of the larger things we see in the world. The atoms themselves are permanent and unchanging, except that they move around a lot, and when they move the things that are made up of them change. In this way the atomists thought they could account for change in a world with a permanent material basis.

In those early days of philosophy, materialism remained the predominant trend. But that came to an end in Athens in the 4th century B.C. with what has been called the Socratic revolution. From a political standpoint, it would be more accurate to call it a counterrevolution. Socrates founded an idealist school of thought that was developed, in different ways, by Plato and Aristotle, and for at least the next 2000 years idealism dominated philosophy.

The Ionian philosophers had begun by studying the physical world. Socrates and Plato shifted the focus of philosophy from the world of nature to the world of human society. In itself, this was a positive contribution to extending the scope of philosophy. But the way they went about it was not so positive: they took human psychology as their model of the world as a whole and imposed the laws of thought and consciousness on nature. That was the basis of their idealist outlook.

Now—that’s a very brief thumbnail sketch of the origins of materialism and idealism, but let’s look a little deeper into the matter. Let’s ask, first, why did philosophy originate when and where it did? Why were the Ionian Greeks the first to philosophize, rather than the Egyptians or the Sumerians? And then, let’s also consider why it was, a couple of hundred years later, idealism was able to triumph over materialism and remain dominant for 2000 years.

Why did philosophy come about?

The way we approach these questions has to do with our own philosophical position. If we were idealists, we would say that the ideas were the determining factor, that the Egyptians and Sumerians were simply mentally underdeveloped; that the Ionian Greeks had superior minds.

But since we’re not idealists, and we don’t believe that ideas have an independent reality of their own, we aren’t satisfied with that answer. As materialists, we look for some explanation that connects the ideas of these ancient peoples to their material circumstances.

The Ionian Greeks looked at the world in a new way because they were living in a new world. Their social environment was so radically different from that of the Egyptians and Sumerians that it gave rise to an entirely different kind of consciousness.

The central feature of the Egyptian and Sumerian civilizations was their agricultural base. Social relationships were largely determined by the fact that their food supply depended on a system of tight, centralized control over the water supply. Survival, then, required a totalitarian form of social organization that dominated every aspect of their peoples’ lives, including their thinking.

All learning and knowledge was monopolized by conservative priestly castes who were themselves subordinate to absolute monarchs. Such a social climate nourishes traditionalism and discourages original, creative thought. It should not be surprising, then, that radically new cosmologies did not surface or take root in Egypt or Sumer.

On the other hand, very different forms of social organization were beginning to develop in the Greek world, and especially on the Ionian coast, in about the 8th century B.C. Here the economies were not based totally on agriculture; a considerable amount of mercantile activity began to develop.

The increasing role of commerce in the economy led to a growth in the numbers and importance of nonagricultural social classes—namely merchants, manufacturers, artisans, shipbuilders, and sailors. I’m not suggesting that these new social classes represented a majority of the people. Even in the cities, “they were a minor fraction of the population, but their very existence introduced a new dimension into the quality of the community and its structure.”[2]

The new Greek settlements that grew up on the Ionian coast were trading centers. They exported oil, wine, weapons, pottery, jewelry, and clothing and imported grain, fish, wood, wool, metals, and slaves. These port cities were populated by immigrants from all over the Greek world and elsewhere, as well as by the natives of Asia Minor. They were people of diverse backgrounds who were away from their traditional settings and exposed to a variety of foreign outlooks and customs.

The existence of this multilingual, multiethnic population in a commercial economy during an economic boom created a situation conducive to intellectual ferment.

New forms of government

As the merchant and artisan classes grew in strength, new forms of government developed. First, the hereditary kings who originally ruled the independent Ionian city-states were replaced by the rule of aristocracies of noble families. Then later, by the middle of the 7th century B.C., the aristocracies were overthrown by coalitions of merchants and manufacturers. Then, in the 6th century, these merchant oligarchies were replaced by tyrants.

The words “tyrant” and “tyranny” have very bad connotations today, but they didn’t at first Tyranny was a new form of government that reflected the development of class struggles between the rich merchants and the ordinary people, the plebians.

The plebians became a real political force. They fought for their interests by waging strikes and rioting and generally creating social turmoil. Then some prominent politician would step forward and claim to represent the interests of “the people.” If he succeeded in winning the leadership of the plebian masses, this politician would seize power and set up a tyranny. These tyrants were something like the familiar populist demagogues of the modern world (like Peron of Argentina or Qaddafi of Libya).

Within a generation or two, the tyrants became what their name implies today—repressive and unpopular—and then they, too, would be overthrown and replaced, in some cases by democratic republics.

On the Ionian coast there was one city in particular that stood out as the most dynamic; that was Miletus. It had experienced an unprecedented maritime expansion. This one city had established 90 colonies all around the Black Sea, and had a virtual monopoly of trade in that important area. This colonization of the Black Sea area began about 650 B.C.—that is, only about 50 years before the first philosopher, Thales, appeared in that city.

Today if you try to think of a name symbolizing extreme wealth, “Rockefeller” or “Trump” or “Leona Helmsley” might come to mind, but in the ancient world the personification of wealth was King Croesus of Lydia. The thriving economy of Miletus enriched its upper merchant class to the point where King Croesus himself went to the bankers of Miletus when he needed to borrow money.

But as the upper classes got richer in Miletus, the plebians got stronger, too. A tyranny was established in 604 B.C.; it was thrown out a few years later; there were two generations of political turmoil; a constitutional regime came to power, then a new tyranny; and finally a democratic government was established that ruled Miletus until it fell to the Persians in 546.

These rapid shifts in government reveal a population that was politically active and difficult to suppress or intimidate. The social climate was one in which thought and speech were relatively unchained; it was a tumultuous “marketplace of ideas.”

It isn’t surprising that this environment stimulated new ways of looking at the world; it would be surprising if it had not.

The merchant economy

Those individuals who have become known to us as the first philosophers and first materialists were not simply Miletians; they were a product of the Miletian merchant class—either themselves merchants or under the influence of merchants. That is to say they were not detached ivory-tower thinkers; they were prominent and active citizens of Miletus.

Thales, for example, is reported to have been a shrewd businessman. We have this account of Thales’ activity from Aristotle: “It is said that, having observed through his study of the heavenly bodies that there would be a large olive crop, he raised a little capital while it was still winter, and paid deposits on all the olive presses in Miletus and Chios, hiring them cheaply ... and so made a large profit”[3]

Whether this anecdote is based on fact or not, it illustrates the perceived connection between commerce in Ionia and the origins of philosophy.

Many of the specific ideas of the Ionian philosophers can be traced directly to the economic activities going on around them. I mentioned earlier that Anaximenes believed that air was the primordial element of the material world. He explained, for instance, that clouds are produced from air by a process he called “felting.”[4] Felting was a word used to describe an important manufacturing technique that involved subjecting woven materials to high pressure. It is clear that Anaximenes derived philosophical ideas from analogies drawn from the productive activities of the time.

I also mentioned that Heraclitus believed that fire was the primordial substance. Listen to the metaphor he used to express this idea: “All things are an equal exchange for fire and fire for all things, as goods are for gold and gold for goods.”[5] Again, it is obvious that the commercial activities surrounding Heraclitus had a great impact on his thinking.

In general, the mercantile economy created fertile ground for philosophy because participating in commerce affects the way a person looks at the world and the things in it Although merchants may handle a great variety of products, what they’re really interested in is reducing them to a single general dimension, namely the monetary value as expressed in a commodity’s price. Trade prompts the merchant “to institute comparisons, enables him to discover the general element in the mass of particular details, the necessary element in the mass of accidentals, the recurring element which will result again and again from certain conditions.”[6]

That is exactly the way that Thales and the other early materialists approached the question of what the world is made of: they were trying to discover the general element in the mass of particular details.

The point I’ve been illustrating at some length here is that materialism did not originate by great minds thinking thoughts of pure reason in a vacuum, but were a product of material circumstances, a product of the class struggle in the ancient world. That is what is summed up by the materialist epigram “Being determines consciousness.”

The material basis for the ascent of idealism in the ancient world

In the 4th century B.C., materialism faded and idealism— spearheaded by Socrates—became the predominant philosophical tendency in ancient Greece and Rome. Why was the Socratic revolution so successful?

From a purely ideological point of view, we could say that the early materialists simply could not answer all of the questions they set out to answer. There were too many things about the real world that they just could not explain.

One obvious problem is the difference between a living body and a dead body. There is no apparent material difference, and yet there is certainly an important distinction to be made between a live human being and a corpse. How can the difference be explained other than by the presence or absence of some immaterial “life spirit” or “soul?”

The idealists also pointed out, in answer to the atomists (one of the materialist schools), that to describe the real world it isn’t enough to account for the mere presence of a heap of atoms. You also have to account for how the atoms are organized, and how they got that way. A human body isn’t just a random collection of matter; it is matter arranged in a particular form, and the form is just as important as the matter itself. The development of a chick embryo from a mass of undifferentiated material into an intricately formed living organism seemed beyond explanation. The materialists suggested some answers, including organic evolution, but these were conjectures without evidence, and they weren’t very convincing at the time.

The idealists considered the development of an egg into a chick or an acorn into an oak tree to be evidence of a cosmic plan governed by a universal intelligence. This was where the “argument from design” came from: Complex living organisms appear to have been designed— therefore there must have been a designer.

The inadequacy of the early materialists’ ideas helps to explain their eclipse, but it is not the primary factor. Again, it’s necessary to turn to the social context. The Socratic revolution was brought to its culmination not by Socrates, but by his pupil, Plato.

Plato’s political philosophy

I think the eminent historian of science George Sarton put it best when he described Plato’s Republic as “the work of a disgruntled fanatic.” Plato, he said, was “a disgruntled old man, full of political rancor, fearing and hating the crowd ... his prejudices had crystallized and he had become an old doctrinaire. ... Plato was witnessing a social revolution, and he could not bear it at all. His main concern was—how could one stop it?”[7]

That, I think, is the key to understanding Plato. All of his philosophy was devoted to defending the interests of the ruling elite of a “slave-owning, class-divided, chauvinistic city-state which was already an anachronism.”[8] He despised Athenian democracy and praised the repressive dictatorial regime in Sparta. Because of this, Sarton compared Plato to Americans during World War II who admired fascists and the Nazis.[9]

It is necessary to stress the link between Plato’s idealism and his politics. As classical scholar Benjamin Farrington puts it: The whole philosophy of Plato is a political philosophy, and the controlling purpose of his whole life ... was the construction of a system of belief and a system of education which, being imposed by the governing authority, would guarantee the well-being of the State.”[10]

Plato upholds the “noble lie”

Plato is sometimes thought of as a philosopher who personified the ideals of truth and truthfulness as the highest virtues. This is extremely ironic, because Plato, in fact, believed that government was only possible on the basis of a lie. According to Farrington, be “devoted his life to the elaboration” of that lie.[11]

To uphold that lie, Plato urged that the books of the materialist philosophers, the lonians, be destroyed, and “that his own fraudulent book [the Laws] should be imposed by the State as the one and only obligatory source of doctrine.”[12] For dissenters who objected to his plans, he advocated the death penalty. This is Plato’s idea of a political Utopia, as he spells it out in The Republic.

What was the famous “noble lie” that Plato wanted to impose as the official doctrine of the State? Here is how he Describes it in The Republic. He wrote in dialogue form, of course, and he has one of his interlocutors ask him: “How then may we devise one of those needful falsehoods of which we lately spoke—just one royal lie?”

Then he answers: “I propose to communicate [the audacious fiction] gradually, first to the rulers, then to the soldiers, and lastly to the people ... Citizens, we shall say to them in our tale, you are brothers, yet God has framed you differently. Some of you have the power of command, and in the composition of these he has mingled gold, wherefore also they have the greatest honor; others he has made of silver, to be auxiliaries; others again who are to be husbandmen and craftsmen [farmers and workers] he has composed of brass and iron; and the species will generally be preserved in the children.”[13]

This, then, was Plato’s “noble lie”—that social distinctions were created by God and that the ruling class is the ruling class because God made its members out of better material. The rulers, the aristocrats, are the Golden Men, while the ordinary people are made of brass and iron.

As part of this effort, Plato promoted two separate religions—a sophisticated, abstract one for the intelligentsia, and a cruder one, with the old Olympian-type gods and goddesses, for the ignorant masses.

As part of his program, Plato explicitly counterposed his idealism to the materialism of the Ionians, who either did not believe in the gods at all, or believed that if there are gods, they take no interest in human affairs.

Three anti-elitist schools

Aristotle didn’t agree with Plato on everything, but he did support the idea that untrue religions were a political necessity; he called them “myths that have been introduced to persuade the multitude, and on account of their utility in regard of social custom and the public good.”[14] Also, while Aristotle’s philosophy was quite different from Plato’s, it was still fundamentally a variety of idealism.

Aristotle founded his Lyceum as a rival school to Plato’s Academy, but it, too, was an elitist institution, only open to upper-class youth. In opposition to both of them, three anti-elitist schools arose in Athens, and these sought support among the common people. They were the Epicureans, the Stoics, and the Cynics.

The Cynics in particular “appealed to those who felt themselves simple and oppressed”; their doctrine has been called “the philosophy of the proletariat of the Greek world.”[15]

It’s necessary to remember, though, that the proletariat of the ancient world was not the same as the modern proletariat—it was not a class of wage-workers.

The Cynics might best be compared to the hippies of the 1960s. Their social protest took the form of ostentatious renunciation of prevailing cultural norms. Like the hippies, they wore outrageous clothes and adopted provocatively anti-establishment lifestyles as a means of shocking the solid citizens. The Cynics, then, represented for the most part a negative reaction to the oppressive social system. Like the hippies, they attracted a lot of attention, but were, just a passing phenomenon.

The Stoics were a more serious tendency. Most of the Stoic teachers were Asians—non-Greeks who naturally were repelled by the chauvinism of Plato’s and Aristotle’s schools. To Plato, Asians were barbarians, and all barbarians were enemies by nature; to Aristotle, Asians were slaves by nature. The Stoics’ answer was to stress the essential similarity of all human beings—that all people are brothers and sisters—in support of the ideal of the solidarity of the human race.

But alas, the Stoics eventually sold out. Their political trajectory was very similar to that of the Christians, who came later. They started out as militant opponents of the status quo, but as they grew and became established they began to seek respectability, and to seek accommodation with the ruling powers, and finally they wound up supporting the society they had previously challenged.

Epicureans defend materialism

The third tendency, the Epicureans, started out very much like the Stoics. In fact, at first they were often confused with each other; many outsiders had a hard time telling them apart. But there were two big differences. First, the Stoics were idealists and the Epicureans were materialists. And second, the Epicureans never sold out; the consistency of their doctrine over seven centuries is remarkable.

The Epicureans are of particular interest to us because they were the primary defenders of materialism in the ancient world. Epicurus did not like Plato at all, and derisively called him the “Golden Man.” He hated Plato’s “noble lie” and his use of religious superstition as a political tool. Farrington praised Epicurus as “the first man known to history to have organized a movement for the liberation of mankind at large from superstition.”[16]

Something of the social character of the Epicurean school can be seen in the fact that it was the only school that admitted women and slaves to membership.

The Epicurean school was not a revolutionary political party. Epicurus’s battle was ideological, not political—in fact, he urged his followers to avoid politics. Some Marxist philosophers, including George Novack, have criticized Epicurus for this, but I’m inclined to be more indulgent. In Greek and Roman society, the material basis was lacking on which to create a more advanced social structure, so revolutionary politics might have been an exercise in futility.

What I’ve been trying to illustrate is that the ideological struggle between materialism and idealism had a social basis. Idealism did not come out on top because Plato was smarter than Epicurus or because his ideas were superior in any objective sense. Idealism triumphed because it served as ideological support for the rule of a small privileged elite. In the “Communist Manifesto,” Karl Marx and Frederick Engels observed: “The ruling ideas of each age have ever been the ideas of its ruling class.[17]

The critical role played by method in making philosophical generalizations

Up to this point, there has been a certain simplicity to our story. It seems that from the standpoint of social justice and social progress, the materialists have been the “good guys” and the idealists have been the “bad guys.”

But the correlation becomes much less clear-cut in more recent times. In 17th-century England, for example, we find the great materialist philosopher Thomas Hobbes in the most reactionary political camp, and we find the most militant revolutionaries attached to mystical religious sects. We also find the most important contribution to materialist philosophy being made by the great idealist philosopher Rene Descartes—who based his system on the proposition: “I think, therefore I am.”

Descartes developed the notion of two real worlds, completely separate—one of the mind and one of matter. This was a more modern version of the idea that the gods exist but don’t interfere in the world of nature.

Descartes said that we can’t really examine the world of the mind, but we can examine the world of nature, and so he directed most of his attention to the material world. Many of the scientists and philosophers that he influenced only paid attention to what he had to say about the material world, and they ignored the other part.

On the other hand, Descartes’ method was purely idealist. It was the same method Plato used. And I want to focus on this as one of the main points of this class, because it is such a common methodological error. It has even caused problems in the Marxist movement, as we will see.

A priori method of reasoning

What I’m talking about is the a priori method of reasoning. Plato took mathematics—and in particular, geometry—as his model of inquiry. In geometry, as you know, you start with certain very simple, .basic propositions, or axioms, and by deductive logic you can discover a great body of truth, all by pure reason, all by just using your mind. Plato believed that that was the road to all truth. Any truth that couldn’t be found by pure reason wasn’t worth knowing.

Descartes also believed that all truth, all knowledge, could be deduced from basic a priori truths, which he defined as “clear and distinct ideas.” He tried to deduce a whole system of physics from a few axioms, but the results he achieved in physics are quite forgettable. The real advances in physics came from scientists like Galileo, who actually manipulated and observed physical objects as a way of determining physical laws.

Here we see counterposed two opposite methods of investigating nature. The idealist method is to try to determine the laws of physics by thinking—by deducing them from abstract first principles. The materialist method is to investigate the material world directly—to look at it, and touch it, and experiment with it.

Materialists like Galileo also used their minds, of course. They reflected upon what they saw; they reasoned about their experiments. Their starting point, however, wasn’t mind, but matter.

This is all pretty obvious, isn’t it? Everybody should know this. What’s the big deal? Well, as I said before, even people who consider themselves Marxists can get caught up sometimes in trying to argue from first principles. Let me give you a relatively recent example. (I say relatively recent, because up to now we haven’t gotten beyond the 17th century.)

This involves the Cuban Revolution. There was a British Trotskyist organization that held the position that Cuba had not had a revolution but remained a capitalist country—and they could prove it. Look, they said, we’ve always agreed that to make a revolution in the epoch of imperialism a Leninist party is necessary. We all agree that there was no Leninist party in Cuba. Therefore, there could not have been a revolution in Cuba. It’s as simple as one-two-three.

This is a classic example of a priori reasoning. It is always tempting because it is so much easier to come up with answers when you save yourself the trouble of actually looking at what’s happening in the real world.

There’s nothing wrong with using this kind of reasoning in a provisional way. In fact, it is necessary to do so. But if you reach a conclusion based on a priori reasoning, you can’t assume that you’ve finished the job. You have to test that conclusion against the material world to see if it holds water.

This is an important point, because Marxists are routinely accused of arguing from a priori principles. But dialectical materialism can’t be treated as a set of abstract propositions from which you can deduce knowledge about the real world.

Frederick Engels wrote a book to make this point. The central purpose of his Anti-Duhring was to show that Eugen Duhring’s philosophical and political conclusions were worthless because they were derived from an a priori method.

Reject all generalizations?

There is a mirror-image problem of going too far in the opposite direction. Avoiding the a priori method does not mean rejecting all generalizations. Generalizations are indispensable to any method of obtaining scientific knowledge.

To take an up-to-date example: With regard to China today, what should our attitude be toward the reform wing of the bureaucracy represented by Zhao Ziyang? We could start by thinking in general terms. The Chinese bureaucracy is a Stalinist bureaucracy. Stalinist bureaucracies cannot be reformed. It follows that Zhao Ziyang is part of the problem rather than part of the solution.

That chain of reasoning is based upon the proposition that “all Stalinist bureaucracies are unreformable.” Is that simply an a priori that should be rejected out of hand? Not at all. It is a generalization based on more than half a century of historical experience with Stalinism.

That proposition was a hard-won generalization, paid for in blood, and we are not inclined to discard it lightly, without good reason, without some solid evidence to the contrary. We don’t treat it as an absolute truth, but as a provisional conclusion that we will use as a basis for political action. If we simply rejected all such generalizations, we couldn’t take any action; we’d be paralyzed.

The a priori method is an idealist method, but not all idealists were as thoroughly committed to it as Plato was. Aristotle, for example, was a much more down-to-earth kind of scientist. He wrote volumes and volumes on biology and he drew many conclusions by actually looking at nature, not by deduction from a priori principles.

Another form of idealism

But Aristotle was an idealist in another sense: his whole view of the world was a teleological one. Now, “ideological” is one of those $25 words that just can’t be avoided; there’s no substitute for it. And since Marxists are often accused of teleological thinking, I think it’s worth discussing.

Teleology is the proposition that everything that happens is a step toward some definite end; everything that happens is part of the unfolding of a predetermined plan that is built into nature. It is not hard to see where this idea comes from and why it seems attractive.

Consider Aristotle, who was one of the greatest biological observers of all time. Consider the acorn that invariably develops into an oak tree as if according to plan. Consider the chick embryo that grows into a chicken. Everywhere Aristotle looked he saw things apparently changing according to the unfolding of a built-in plan. And he generalized that to all of nature.

All “natural” motion, Aristotle thought, was an attempt by nature to reach a state of perfection. In physics, solid objects fall to earth because that is part of their built-in need to return to the center of the universe. The sun, moon, and stars go around the earth in perfect circles because that is their built-in plan.

Why is this an idealistic conception? Because if there is a built-in plan, then there must be some kind of universal mind or cosmic intelligence that devised the plan. Whether it is called God, or nature, or the absolute ideal, it is all the same thing—mind is assigned priority over matter. Furthermore, if everything in nature is striving toward some ideal, perfect state, then that must be true for humans and human society, too.

One of the major themes in the development of modern science has been the struggle against Aristotle’s teleology. The biggest step forward was probably Darwin’s explanation of evolution, which took the teleology out of biology.

Marx’s method

How is it that Marxists—and even Marx himself—have been accused of teleological thinking? Well, didn’t Marx say that there has been a natural progression in the development of human society from feudalism to capitalism, and that there is a natural next step to socialism? Doesn’t that imply that society is developing according to an inner logic, or plan, toward some ideal state?

When summarized in this brief manner, Marx’s view of history does bear some resemblance to a teleological schema, but the resemblance is only superficial.

First of all, Marx based his account of the development of societies in the past on a careful study of the historical evidence. Secondly, his projection of future social developments was founded on the same empirical basis. In principle, then, Marxism is no more teleological than Darwin’s explanation of natural selection, or an astronomer’s prediction of the next solar eclipse.

Nonetheless, it has often happened that Marxism has been misunderstood as a teleological doctrine—and not only by its enemies. The German Social Democratic Party, for example, held the Ideological view before World War I that the downfall of capitalism was inevitable—guaranteed by an iron law of history.

This idea served to justify the erroneous political conclusion that the role of the revolutionary party is to wait. If capitalism will crumble all by itself, then the party’s first obligation is to avoid political activities, like demonstrations or strikes, that would give the police an excuse to repress the party. I don’t mean to suggest that this ideological error was the root cause of the German Social Democrats’ failure as a revolutionary party, but it was pan of the problem.

The 2000-year dominance of idealism that began with Plato came to an end with the scientific revolution of the 16th and 17th centuries. This ideological revolution was a product of a much more fundamental social revolution that was occurring in Western Europe and especially in England —namely, the rise to dominance of the capitalist mode of production.

Ideology of the bourgeoisie

The ideology of the rising bourgeoisie was not idealist, but materialist. Their materialism was of a specific kind, however, and it was expressed best by philosophers and scientists like Descartes, Hobbes, and Boyle. Their outlook came to be known as the “mechanical philosophy.” Although many of the mechanical philosophers were deeply religious people, their scientific thinking was conducted along strictly materialist lines.

Their particular brand of materialism, however, was hampered by some severe limitations. They considered everything in the material world to be explainable, in the final analysis, by mechanical principles. Even human beings were regarded as very elaborate machines. For that reason, this kind of materialism is called mechanical materialism.

Mechanical materialism arose just at the time that capitalism was beginning to transform industrial production through the use of machinery; it provided an ideology that suited the rising bourgeoisie; perfectly.

Later, of course, after they became the ruling class, the capitalists found they faced a new threat from below, from the working class. The ideological benefits of idealism as a weapon in the class struggle once more became apparent.

Ruling-class ideology today is a melange of mechanical materialism and idealism—a wishy-washy agnosticism that can’t make up its mind on the most fundamental philosophical questions. Most professional philosophers in American universities will tell you that the counterposition of materialism and idealism is a dead issue; no longer relevant.

For those who reject the ruling-class ideology, however, materialism is still very relevant. Without our materialist outlook, we would be completely unable to maintain our revolutionary bearings.

The advance notice for these classes gave them the title: “Dialectical Materialism and its Application to the Class Struggle Today.” I hope nobody feels cheated by the fact that I’ve spent more time discussing the class struggle in ancient Greece than the class struggle today, because there is a connection between the two.

The link between materialism as a philosophical point of view and our current political program lies in the method of historical materialism. Marx and Engels developed that method by analyzing the past: “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles,” they wrote in the Communist Manifesto.[18] Then they applied that same method of historical materialism to the analysis of their contemporary political situation.

This method penetrates beneath the superficial appearance of events. The focus is not on individuals, but on social classes, and social classes are defined by their role in the process of economic production. Again, “being determines consciousness”—individuals play a role in political events that is strongly influenced by their class interests.

To take one example: Without the method of historical materialism, we might jump to the conclusion that the restoration of capitalism is inevitable in Eastern Europe. Large numbers of workers in Eastern Europe say they don’t like socialism, they don’t care for Marxism, they are attracted to the American way of life, and so forth. If all of this is taken at face value, it would seem that a counterrevolution is unavoidable.

But since the restoration of capitalism would not be in the workers’ class interests, we are justified in doubting that that is what they are talking about. And sure enough, on closer inspection we find that when East European workers complain about socialism and Marxism, their real hostility is aimed at their repressive governments and against the Kremlin’s “great-power chauvinism.”

If they praise the American dream, they mean they want to raise their standard of living and have the right to organize independent trade unions and read uncensored newspapers. Nowhere are workers demanding the reprivatization of their factories or their national economies.

Impelled by class interests

What all this shows is that the workers are impelled by their material circumstances—their class interests—not in the direction of capitalism, but toward socialist democracy. The restoration of capitalism in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, then, can be expected to meet with resistance. Although the form, the magnitude, the timing, and the outcome cannot be predicted, the rise of capitalist exploitation in that part of the world can only give rise to class struggle.

In American politics, our principled opposition to the Democratic and Republican parties results from a similar application of historical materialism. Democratic Party candidates like Bella Abzug or Jesse Jackson often appear attractive to people we work with in movements for social change. But our materialist understanding of the class struggle in ancient Greece and in 18th century France gives us a different perspective.

We know the class basis of the Democratic Party and we know that its material interests are fundamentally opposed to those of the women’s movement and the struggle for Black liberation.

No matter how talented, sincere, or progressive-minded a Jesse Jackson or Bella Abzug may be, they cannot contribute to the process of social change as long as they are representing a political institution devoted heart and soul to defending the status quo.

I’ve tried to show that, from ancient Greece to the class struggle today, a materialist method is indispensable to a scientific understanding. But we will see that while a materialist outlook is necessary, it’s not enough. It has to be a certain kind of materialism— dialectical materialism, which is the subject of the next class.

Dialectics: The method of logic that understands ever-changing reality

"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the age of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to heaven, we were all going direct the other way.

The opening lines of Charles Dickens’ great novel of the French Revolution, A Tale of Two Cities, captures the highly contradictory nature of those events. Some people might find this unsettling: “Which one was it? Was it the best of times or the worst of times? You can’t have it both ways!”

But that’s just the point: To understand the French Revolution you must have it both ways. And it’s not simply a matter of saying that it was the best of times for some people and the worst of times for others. Not at all! For the aristocrat, it was the best of times because he was winning his political independence from the monarchy, but the worst of times because he was losing his dominant social position. For the sans culottes (the plebian supporters of the radicals) it was the best of times because they were struggling against their oppressors and winning, but the worst of times because they were being subordinated to the domination of a new ruling class, the bourgeoisie.

For the petty-bourgeois revolutionary leaders like Robespierre, it was the best of times because they were turning the world upside down, but the worst of times because they couldn’t sustain the radical revolution they had initiated.

So if Dickens seemed to be contradicting himself, the paradoxes did not originate with him; the contradictions were in the material reality of the revolutionary events themselves. It is the nature of revolutions to be contradictory.

Dialectical logic

As Marxists, we are interested in understanding the processes of social revolution. To do so, it is necessary to utilize a form of logic that can take contradictory phenomena into account: Dialectical logic, the logic of revolutionary change.

Previously, we talked about materialism and noted that bourgeois philosophy had culminated in the development of mechanical materialism. “Give me matter and motion,” Descartes exclaimed, “and I will construct the universe.”

As a general statement, there is nothing to object to here; the universe can be thought of as essentially matter in motion. The problem with mechanical materialism lies in the narrowness of its conceptions of both matter and motion. It considered matter to be made up of tiny little inert bits of material; in the words of Isaac Newton: “solid, massy, hard, impenetrable, moveable particles.”[19]

Motion was considered to be nothing more than displacement—that is, a change of location from one position to another. The mechanical materialists believed that all phenomena could in principle be explained in terms of this kind of matter in this kind of motion. Another way of saying the same thing is that everything from the stars above to the human body functions in the same way that machines do.

In the 17th century, this was a revolutionary and highly progressive way of thinking. The narrowness of its conceptions, however, left it vulnerable to criticism. The machine analogy requires that all motion be initiated by an impulse; that is, by the physical contact of two bodies. Such a concept makes it very difficult to explain why heavy bodies fall to the earth and why magnets make iron move from a distance.

Moreover, using the machine as a model of the universe and everything in it produced a static picture of reality. The mechanical materialists recognized the existence of motion, of course, but it was the repetitive motion of a machine that simply moves things around from place to place. What is missing, above all, is any explanation of development. Many processes of change cannot be reduced to displacement.

How does fire turn wood into charcoal? How does water harden into ice in cold weather? How does gunpowder explode? And, most importantly, how do living things reproduce and grow?

From Heraclitus to Hegel

The German philosopher George Hegel looked at the world and saw continuous change. Like all philosophers, Hegel pondered the question “What is? What is it that exists?” This had always been understood as the question of being, but in Hegel’s reformulation it was a question of becoming.

According to this way of looking at things, nothing exists in a static sense; everything that exists is changing into something else. Hegel found that the old way of thinking based on Aristotle’s logic was inadequate for comprehending a changing reality, so he devised a new system of logic that he called “dialectics.”

Hegel found a precedent for his dialectical outlook among the first philosophers—among the Ionian Greeks whom we talked about earlier. There was Heraclitus, who held that the universe is fire. But what qualified Heraclitus as the discoverer of dialectical logic was his statement that “everything is in flux.”[20] Everything is changing. Nothing is standing still; nothing is staying the same; everything is in the process of becoming.

Heraclitus illustrated his contention with a famous example: You can never step in the same river twice.[21] Now, you could go step in the Mississippi River today and probably go back 10 years later and step in the Mississippi River again. But Heraclitus would argue that if you did, you would not be stepping in the same river twice. The name of the river would have stayed the same, but the river itself would have changed—all the old water would be gone and replaced by an entirely new quantity of water.

Even if you put your foot in, pull it out, and stick it right back in again— even then you have not stepped in the same river twice, because it is continuously flowing.

Aristotle’s formal logic

So dialectics began with Heraclitus, but his great insight into the ever-changing nature of reality remained a philosophical curiosity for more than 2000 years until Hegel developed it into a system challenging Aristotle’s logic.

Aristotle attempted to formulate the laws of thinking. He attempted to reduce the complexities of human reason to a set of formulas, and what he came up with is known as formal logic.

Aristotle did a brilliant job of it. The laws of formal logic that he derived were valid and they still retain their validity today. But they are only valid up to a point —they are not sufficient for comprehending reality insofar as it is in flux—and as Heraclitus said, everything is in flux. Dialectical logic does not invalidate formal logic, but assigns it to a limited sphere of applicability.

The central principle upon which formal logic is built can be expressed in a simple formula that at first glance appears to be a self-evident truth: “A equals A.”

This is the law of identity that says that every individual thing is identical to itself. I am identical to myself. You are yourself. A building is identical to itself.

Beginning with this law of identity, you can derive all of formal logic. One important corollary is the law of the excluded middle. That is, if “A equals B” is a true statement, then “A is not equal to B” must be a false statement A is either identical to B or it is not. It is one or the other, there is no middle ground.

It follows from this that when we sort things into categories, we can do so precisely. We can sort fruit into separate baskets of apples, oranges, bananas, and so forth, because an apple equals an apple, but an apple does not equal an orange or a banana.

In formal logic, then, the lines dividing categories are sharp and distinct and allow for no ambiguity.

The law of identity and the law of the excluded middle are so intuitively appealing that it is no wonder that they went virtually unchallenged for more than 2000 years. But wait! What about Heraclitus’s point? Is the Mississippi River identical to itself or not?

Well, if you specify a given instant of time you might say, “The Mississippi River at exactly midnight last night was identical to the Mississippi River at exactly midnight last night,” but that is a rather trivial case and it begs the question of whether there is such a thing as an amount of time so small that all motion is frozen within it.

But not everything flows like a river; some things are solid, like the chair you’re sitting on, for example. Nevertheless, if you were to examine its microscopic structure you would find that it too, is continuously changing.

For all practical purposes, it might be acceptable to apply the law of identity to the chair—the chair is identical to itself. Lock the chair up in a storeroom and go back next year and it will probably still be, for all practical purposes, the same chair.

So the law of identity can be useful and can be considered provisionally valid when applied to things that change relatively slowly or applied over relatively short time spans. But it is important to remember that in no case is it ever absolutely true.

The law of non-identity, then, is the foundation of dialectics, but it is a very shaky foundation. You can’t build a solid, eternal, unchanging structure on it. You can find recipe books that provide all the rules for using formal logic, but dialectical logic does not lend itself to that. It is built on the explicitly self-contradictory basis of the law of non-identity.

Why would anybody want to build a system of logic on a self-contradictory axiom? The point is that dialectics is not only a system of logic; that is to say: dialectics is not only a depiction of the way human beings think about things. When Heraclitus said “Everything is in flux,” he was talking about the way things really exist in the material world.

This was the point Engels made in his Dialectics of Nature—that Hegel’s laws of dialectics describe the processes of change and development as they really occur at all levels of the natural world—subatomic as well as the intergalactic level—at the physical, the biological, the psychological, and social levels.[22]

New developments in science

In his Dialectics of Nature, Engels cited the most up-to-date scientific research available to him. Since his death, of course, there has been what some have called “permanent revolution” in science. In fact, scientific developments after Engels have continued to support his contention that nature is dialectical.

Dialectical logic is the logic of changing phenomena; the logic of motion. It has been said that formal logic is to dialectical logic as a still photo is to a motion picture. The metaphor is an appropriate one. The roots of contradiction lie in change, or motion, itself.

I mentioned earlier that organic development—the growth of living things—is a more complex form of motion than mere displacement of a solid body from one place to another. A mechanical materialist might argue that even organic development can be thought of, in the final analysis, as a composite of very many small particles moving around from place to place. But even the simplest form of motion—movement from point A to point B—embodies contradiction. To update Engels’ Dialectics of Nature, we could point to the findings of quantum mechanics that show that, on the subatomic level, particles move from place to place in a very complex way. The laws of classical mechanics cannot describe the motion of electrons and neutrons and the like. These particles don’t have trajectories in the classical sense.

And if you ask: “Is the electron at point A or is it not?” the answer can’t satisfy the requirements of formal logic. You can’t answer that question with a definite “yes” or “no;” the best you can do is give a statistical estimate of the probability of the electron’s location.

And it’s not just a question of the limitations of measurement, either. The electron is and is not at point A. In other words, the electron violates the law of the excluded middle. Every subatomic particle in the universe is continuously violating the law of the excluded middle.

Physicists have also finally resolved the age-old dispute over whether light is a continuous wave or made up of discrete particles. The answer is: Both!

Furthermore, it was discovered that all of the subatomic entities are also characterized by this wave-particle duality. How can anything be both continuous and discrete at the same time? This is so contradictory that it’s almost impossible to conceive of what it means. We find, therefore, a profound violation of the law of the excluded middle built into the very fabric of the material world.

Quantum mechanics, then, has given a new dimension to Heraclitus’s statement that everything is in flux. Motion is inseparable from matter, all matter is in a perpetual process of change. In other words, matter itself is inherently contradictory: Every object is both one thing and becoming something else at the same time.

Zeno’s paradoxes

The contradictions of motion were not unknown to the early Greeks. In the 5th century B.C., Zeno of Elea formulated a number of paradoxes of motion. He illustrated one with a story about a race between Achilles and a tortoise. Achilles is much faster than the tortoise, so he gives him a 100-yard head start. They take off and after Achilles has run 100 yards, the tortoise, of course, is still in the lead, because he has run a short distance while Achilles covered the 100 yards. So let’s say that the tortoise is now at point X, and they’re both still running. By the time Achilles gets to point X, the tortoise has moved ahead to point Y. Then, by the time Achilles reaches point Y, the tortoise has moved on again. You can repeat this an infinite number of times, so it would seem that Achilles can never catch up to the tortoise.

In the real world, of course, Achilles would catch up to the tortoise and blow right by him. But if you apply certain very well established rules of arithmetic to this problem, you find that Achilles never catches up.

These rules of arithmetic are based in formal logic. Zeno showed through his paradoxes that formal logic and the material world are not in agreement. So he and his followers decided to keep the logic and discard the material world They adopted the idealist view that the material world is only an illusion.

The other conclusion that could be drawn from Zeno’s paradoxes is that if mathematics doesn’t adequately describe the real world, the fault must be with the mathematics. The problem, then, would be to develop new mathematical techniques that would be able to describe motion.

Zeno’s paradoxes involved problems having to do with the concept of infinity, and especially with infinitely small times and distances, or “infinitesimals.” To describe most forms of motion, it was necessary to develop a mathematics of infinitesimals, and that was accomplished in the 17th century by two people, independently—Newton and Leibniz. They formulated the branch of mathematics we call calculus. But this calculus proved to be very troubling to philosophically minded people who noticed that, although arithmetic seemed to be based on formal logic, calculus seemed not to be.

The best-known critique of the logical foundations of calculus was that of the idealist philosopher George Berkeley. Berkeley showed that calculus manipulated infinitesimal quantities in an ambiguous way, treating them sometimes as if they were very small but real quantities, and other times as if they were zero. He called them “ghosts of departed quantities,” and demanded that the mathematicians decide whether they are something or nothing. According to the law of the excluded middle, these infinitesimals cannot be both something and nothing at the same time.

Nevertheless, mathematicians, scientists, and engineers continued to use the calculus to great advantage. Although it wasn’t formally logical, it could very accurately describe physical processes involving matter in motion.

Mathematicians and philosophers put a great deal of effort into trying to put mathematics on a solid, rigorous formal logical foundation. They started with arithmetic, which they thought would provide the basis for all the rest of mathematics.

Bertrand Russell and Alfred North Whitehead believed they had accomplished this feat with their Principia Mathematica in 1913. But in the 1930s, Kurt Godel proved that they had not succeeded and showed, in effect, that not even arithmetic, let alone calculus, can be reduced to formal-logical rules. Or, to put it another way, even arithmetic cannot be considered to be entirely free of contradictions.

The logic of computers

What I have been trying to show here is that the limitations of formal logic can be demonstrated even in those fields of science usually considered most exact and most immune to contradiction. If formal logic is inadequate as a basis for physics and mathematics, how much less adequate it is for the biological, psychological, and social sciences.

But by saying formal logic is inadequate, I don’t intend to give the impression that I mean it is obsolete or useless. Not by a long shot.

For formal logic, the 20th century has been the best of times and the worst of times. George Novack, in his book, Introduction to the the Logic of Marxism, makes the point that formal logic not only still has an important role to play in human thinking, but is still capable of further development.[23]

Novack wrote that in 1942, and he couldn’t have been more prophetic if he had seen the future in a crystal ball. Within a few years, one of the great technological revolutions in human history began to unfold—and it was based precisely on the development of formal logic. I am speaking of the formal logic machine, better known as the digital computer.

The basis of computer logic is purely formal. To a computer, “A equals A.” If it tries to contemplate “A is not equal to A,” it generally goes into an endless loop. The fundamental unit of computer logic is the “bit” of binary information, which is capable of only two mutually exclusive states. In binary terms, it must be either zero or one. It has been described as a sort of tiny switch that can be turned off or on. It must always be one or the other; it can’t be halfway in between. In other words, it obeys the law of the excluded middle.

There are other kinds of computers, but the computers that we are familiar with today are binary digital computers, and that makes them formal-logic machines. As powerful as they are, their formal-logic limitations are evident That is most dearly indicated by work carried out in the field known as “AI”—artificial intelligence.

Contradictions confuse computers

Just a few years ago, some artificial intelligence researchers believed they were on the verge of a breakthrough that would produce computers capable of genuine thinking; capable of carrying out human mental tasks better than we could do ourselves. This has long been a major theme of science fiction, the best known example probably being HAL in the film “2001.”

Today, that optimism has been considerably muted. It has proven very tricky to construct a machine that can routinely accept the proposition that “A is not equal to A”—that is, a machine that can handle contradiction.

The first attempts to deal with this problem were strictly mechanical. If the machine were confronted with a contradiction, rather than going into an endless loop its program would instruct it to stop and move to a second level, wherein it might reexamine the same problem from another angle. If it runs into a contradiction on the second level, the program would “pop up” to a third level, and so on.

The ability of such a machine to resolve contradictions is limited to the number of levels built into its program. It is still, in principle, a formal-logic machine.

Other attempts have been made in a different direction. Rather than increasing the raw power of the standard program, the aim is to mimic human thought processes. The most interesting attempt so far has been the development of “fuzzy logic.”

An article in the New York Times reported: The idea behind fuzzy logic is to allow computers to behave more like people. And people, unlike computers, are not precise.” The point is to give computers the “ability to handle ambiguity.” The main advocate of fuzzy logic says: “We have to come to terms with the pervasive imprecision of the real world.”[24]

The concept of fuzzy logic illustrates the key difference between human logic and digital computer logic. The computer organizes its information into absolute categories with rigid boundary lines; the human mind is capable of processing a great deal of contradictory information without breaking down. It is somewhat ironic that the human mind’s capacity for fuzzy thinking is its greatest asset.

Let me hasten to assure you that I’m not recommending fuzzy thinking as a general method. But it is important to guard against overly formalistic thinking, especially in politics. Those who demand absolutely unambiguous political situations before they will take action will wind up never taking action. That is a characteristic of sectarians, and it illustrates the link between formal logic and sectarian politics.

The experience of the past decade or so has shown that no matter h powerful a computer is, no matter how fast it can crunch numbers, there certain kinds of problems that humans can handle better. The difference is that humans are capable of dialectical logic.

Computers can be programmed to play a pretty good game of chess. But when someone once compared political strategy to a game of chess, Trotsky pointed out the weakness of the analogy. In chess the rules always remain the same and the pieces maintain stable identities, whereas in political struggles the strength of contending forces varies and the rules change continuously.

A computer does well in chess because its strongest virtue is its consistency. But in a rapidly changing political situation, absolute consistency can be too much of a good thing. I think that is what Emerson must have meant when he said, “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.”

What makes the dialectical materialist method superior? It explains more.

So far, we have not progressed beyond Heraclitus’s contention that everything is in flux. Hegel went further, going beyond the mere assertion of change, by investigating and describing, in a general way, how things change.

According to the mechanical way of looking at the world, the fundamental mechanism of change is impact—the interaction of one body bumping into another. Change, in this view, is something that is caused by forces external to a body.

Hegel had a very different view of the world. If he had a model of reality, it was not the machine but the organism. The kind of change he was interested in was organic development—processes of birth, growth and death.

To a dialectical thinker, an entity is not a homogeneous clump of inert matter but a dynamic unity of opposites containing opposing forces within itself that are in continuous struggle against each other. Change occurs as a result of the interaction of these forces; for example, when they become unbalanced and one overpowers the other.

All this may seem highly metaphysical, perhaps even mystical. Hegel, after all, was an idealist. To see how all of this applies to the material world, let us consider some specific examples.

You might think that if these abstractions about inner forces applied to anything, it would be to biological or social organisms rather than to stable physical objects like tables or chairs. But how stable are tables and chairs? Most of them only last a few years, or a few hundred years at most.

Stars and nations as models

Let’s consider a much more stable class of objects: the stars of the firmament, which are apparently stable over billions of years. The story of stellar evolution is another addition that Frederick Engels would surely want to make if he could put out a new addition of his book, Dialectics of Nature.

The typical history of stars has been found to consist of a series of extremely violent explosions separated by long periods of stability. During a stable period, the star consists of a massive globe of material producing energy by nuclear fusion. The energy of the nuclear fusion process creates an outward pressure on the star’s material. But the gravitational force of the star’s material creates an inward pressure. These two forces balance each other and the star remains stable for a few billion years until the nuclear fuel begins to give out and the fusion process slows down.

Then the gravitational forces get the upper hand, the star implodes with tremendous violence, the energy of the implosion ignites a higher-level type of fusion reaction, and the process begins again on a higher level.

When stars appear stable, then, they are essentially a unity of two opposed forces, a unity of opposites; and when stars change, it is due to an interaction between those two forces that combine to create a new and qualitatively different kind of star.

Now let’s consider another kind of object—a social organism. These days the most typical form of organization of human society is the nation state. Nation states have traditionally been perceived as homogeneous entities. This is where patriotic ideology comes from—the idea that all French people, for example, have essentially the same interests and that any threat to those interests comes from outside.

A country like France, however, is better understood not as a homogeneous entity, but as a dialectical entity—a unity of opposites. The opposites are the capitalist class and the working class. These two classes are tied together into a single productive system by bonds of mutual dependence—they need each other—and at the same time they are locked in struggle against each other because in the final analysis their class interests are irreconcilable. The whole thing is a living contradiction.

What makes this dialectical model better than the patriotic one is that it explains more. Above all, it can account for social change. Human societies, like stars, are characterized by revolutionary explosions separated by periods of apparent stability. During the stable periods the opposing forces continue to develop until the balance shifts, a revolution erupts, and a qualitatively new kind of social order emerges, based on a more advanced system of production.

Quantity into quality

Another of Hegel’s insights into the process of change is usually summed up in the ponderous phrase: “The transformation of quantity into quality.”

His classic example is the transformation of water into steam. If water is heated, its temperature changes by numerically measurable increments. If its temperature rises degree by degree from 97 degrees Centigrade, to 98, to 99, the water has changed in that it has gotten hotter, but it is still water. Add one degree, however, to 100 degree Centigrade, and it ceases to be water. It becomes steam; it is transformed into something qualitatively different A qualitative leap has occurred, a revolutionary transformation.

Atomic bombs and nuclear reactors have given us an unsurpassable illustration of this law, and Engels would surely have appreciated this one, too. When the nuclear fuel is brought together, if there is less than a certain exact amount, which is called the “critical mass,” nothing will happen. But if a little more fuel is added, and a little more, and a little more, eventually the “critical mass” will be reached and the nuclear chain reaction will be initiated.

I was reminded of the transformation of quantity into quality by an article I read in the newspaper about resort beaches in New Jersey.[25] Health inspectors periodically check the ocean water for fecal coliform bacteria. They measure it in parts per milliliters of water. If it is below 200 parts, they allow the beaches to remain open; above that number, they close them down. Some resort owners were caught throwing chlorine tablets into the ocean just before the inspectors were due to arrive.

It was a futile attempt, as it turned out, to prevent a transformation of quantity into quality, but it was rather remarkable to see capitalists sneaking around trying to “unpollute” the environment.

“Which side are you on?”

I have been focusing so far on contradictions and showing the positive benefits of fuzzy logic and so form. But the point is not that we should throw up our hands and say, “Oh, what the hell—if everything is in flux, we’ll never get a handle on it, so why bother?” The point is to recognize the existence of contradictions and change so as to be able to take them into account It is also important to remember that the laws of formal logic are still of great value, as long as we don’t treat them as absolutes.

Earlier I used a line often used in arguments: “Well, which is it? You can’t have it both ways.” And I said that this is an appeal to the formal-logic law of the excluded middle. I didn’t mean to imply that it is always a false statement. In some cases it can support a valid position; in others a false one. The difference lies in the specific cases at hand. For example:

“Way down in Harlan County
There are no neutrals there
You’ll either be a union miner
Or a scab for J.H. Blair.
Which side are you on, boys,
Which side are you on?”

The song says there are only two sides—there is nothing in-between. Which side are you on? It’s a classic application of the law of the excluded middle, and one that all Marxists would defend as valid.

Although lines between categories are never absolute, it is often possible to recognize categories that are sharply enough bounded for all practical purposes. It is usually possible to distinguish clearly between existing species of animals, for example, while recognizing that in their evolutionary history the dividing lines were not absolute.

Likewise, in the class struggle it is possible to recognize the class line— the boundary separating the capitalist class from the working class—to avoid crossing it. In general, to cross a picketline of striking workers is to cross the class line and be on the wrong side of the struggle.

But even this general rule is not absolute. In 1968, the teachers’ union in New York City called a reactionary strike, a racist strike against the Black and Puerto Rican communities; in that situation class-conscious workers were duty-bound to cross the picketlines. Fortunately, such exceptions to the general rule are rare.

In electoral politics, we recognize a class line separating the interests of the working class from those of both the Democratic and Republican parties. For us, it is matter of principle not to support any Democratic or Republican politician. This is not an a priori moral absolute; it is a practical conclusion based on historical analysis of the role of those parties as organs of capitalist-class rule.

But in some political situations the class line is more complex than a simple boundary between capitalists and workers. When the Kremlin intervened in Eastern Europe and the Stalinists said: “Which side are you on?” we said, “We’re on the side of the workers who are fighting against you.”

This would seem to be a simple enough matter of class solidarity, but it must be remembered that Stalinists are not the only ones who have taken a reactionary position on that question. The leaders of the Cuban Revolution have also gone wrong in this regard, as has the Socialist Workers Party.

These few rather familiar examples should be enough to illustrate the point that the logic of political strategy and tactics cannot be reduced to formulas. An understanding of dialectical logic won’t provide a ready-made procedure for cranking out answers to tactical questions, but it can help to avoid the pitfall of over-formalism.

The most common manifestations of formalistic thinking are sectarianism and ultra-leftism. A group like the Spartacist League, for example, certainly doesn’t have a monopoly on sectarianism, but it has been a familiar practitioner of what Lenin called the “infantile sickness” of ultra-leftism.[26]

The Spartacists are famous for their ultimatistic slogans and their inability to collaborate with any other political forces. Who can forget their slogan for the anti-Vietnam War movement: “All Indochina Must Go Communist Now!” The all-or-nothing character of their demands reflects an unwavering attachment to the law of the excluded middle.

The Spartacists are also known for insisting upon a full revolutionary socialist program as a condition for their participation in political action coalitions. This is the hallmark of sectarianism, and it, too, flows from a formalistic, all-or-nothing approach to politics. To their way of thinking, you either wave the banner of socialist revolution in every demonstration or you are a betrayer. There is no middle ground.

This approach to politics is characterized by its invariant nature. It essentially puts forward the same answers at all times and all places: “Socialism Now!”—“Revolution Now!” It doesn’t take changing situations into account.

The possum syndrome

When I first came across this kind of political behavior, it reminded me of something I’d seen when I was growing up in Tennessee. One day I came across a possum, and somebody had tied its back leg to a tree with a rope about 20 feet long. I watched this possum for a while. It walked slowly straight ahead until the rope stopped it and it couldn’t go any further. Then it would turn back in the opposite direction and go until the rope stopped it again. Then it would turn back again and do the same thing. And it kept doing this over and over again until I cut the rope, and then it just kept slowly walking away into the distance in a straight line.

Now, we see political groups acting like that possum quite often. The Workers World Party (WWP), for example, deserves the credit for calling the very first demonstration against the Vietnam War. But it was an explicitly left-wing demonstration called under explicitly anti-imperialist slogans. A few hundred left-wingers showed up, and for that period—1963—that was rather impressive. But they called essentially the same demonstration over and over again throughout the course of the war.

In 1969 and 1970, when the Socialist Workers Party was mobilizing millions of people against the war, the Workers World Party was still organizing the same narrow “anti-imperialist” demonstrations. They were against imperialism, so they went in a straight line toward their goal—and although it was completely ineffective, they kept doing it again and again. I called that the “possum syndrome.”

In politics, the shortest distance between two points is not always a straight line. We can express this “possum syndrome” in formal logic terms. As the possum sees it, there are only two alternatives. Either you are going straight toward your goal, or you’re not going toward your goal at all. Nothing else is possible; the middle is excluded.

But of course, in politics, there are always other alternatives. Sometimes a tactical retreat is necessary. Sometimes an indirect route is the best way to reach a goal.

Stalin and Lysenko

While it is necessary to guard against falling into the sterility of formalism, it is also necessary to beware of those who abuse the dialectical method. Since dialectical logic can comprehend contradiction, it lends itself to being misused as a phony method for turning an argument inside out.

After all, Marxist ideology, or any kind of ideology, can be used in two different ways. Lenin and the Bolshevik Party used Marxist ideology as a guide—as a means of trying to figure out what to do next at every step along the way. Stalin’s use of Marxist ideology turned it upside down. To Stalin it was not a guide to policy, but a method of generating phony excuses to justify, after the fact, any policy he wanted to implement.

One of Stalin’s proteges, Trofim Lysenko, appealed to dialectics against the science of genetics. He said that if nature is dialectical, then genetics must be false. In the abstract, Lysenko’s point was at least plausible. According to dialectics, the are no absolute categories, no rigid boundaries in nature. But the guiding principle of genetics is that there is an impassable barrier separating living organisms from the genetic material they carry, their DNA.

This means that if you “pump iron” and build up huge muscles, that won’t have any effect at all on the genes you pass on to your children. They won’t be born more muscular, if they want big muscles, they’ll have to “pump iron” themselves.

Lysenko violently disagreed with this proposition. He claimed that he could improve Soviet agriculture rapidly. He said he could create new, superior species of wheat by subjecting seeds of wheat to environmental stresses. The biologists who understood genetics—and there were some good Marxists among them—told him it was nonsense. Lysenko responded that the laws of dialectics insured that he could not be mistaken. But, of course, he was. And since he had Stalin on his side, his policies were adopted and the geneticists were harshly repressed.

Lysenko treated the laws of dialectics as a priori truths to be imposed on nature. This is the method of idealism, and Lysenko proved once again that it doesn’t give worthwhile results.

Setting Hegel right-side up

I have alluded a number of times to some of the conclusions of modern physics. Ever since the beginning of the 20th century, there has been a strong current of opinion to the effect that these findings constitute a refutation of materialism. The discovery that atoms are not hard particles like tiny little billiard balls was cheered by idealist philosophers as a vindication of their idealism.

The peculiarity of matter at the sub-atomic level, however, only refutes mechanical materialism—and the viable alternative to mechanical materialism is not idealism but dialectical materialism.

In conclusion, dialectics was originally developed by Hegel in the framework of an idealist philosophy. Marx and Engels took Hegel’s abstractions and put them right-side up, on their feet, as they said, by incorporating dialectical logic into a materialist view of the world. This was a philosophy well suited to Marx’s purpose of interpreting the world as a prerequisite to changing it.

Dialectical materialism conceives of capitalist society not as a perpetual-motion machine in mechanical equilibrium, but as an organism , with a finite lifespan. Bourgeois ideologists consider revolutions to be aberrations, unnatural disturbers of the natural order. But in fact, nothing is more natural than the qualitative leap that we call a revolution.

The bourgeois ideologist denies the contradictions of capitalist society. We not only recognize those contradictions, we also anticipate that they will deepen to the point of crisis, bringing about the opportunity for a revolutionary reconstruction of society.

When that opportunity arrives, we want to be prepared for it. Those who are locked into formal logic will assume that a small socialist organization will not have a large role to play in a revolutionary situation. But dialectical thinkers know that acorns grow into oak trees and that in revolutionary situations it is possible for small organizations, if they know what they’re doing, to grow rapidly in size and influence. Therein lies the dialectical source of our revolutionary optimism.

I began this discussion on dialectics with a quotation from Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times...”

I’ll end with a quotation from the Communist Manifesto by Marx and Engels: “...everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. All fixed, fast-frozen relations are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air.”[27]



1. George Novack, The Origins of Materialism (New York: Merit Publishers, 1965, p. viii.

2. M. I. Finley, The Ancient Greeks (New York: Penguin Books, 1979), p. 34.

3. Aristotle, Politics. See The Presocratic Philosophers by G. S. Kirk, J. E. Raven, and M. Schofield. Second Edition (Cambridge: Cambridge U. Press, 1957), pp. 80-81

4. See Kirk, Raven, and Schofield, op. cit., p. 145.

5. Ibid., p. 198.

6. Karl Kautsky, Foundations of Christianity (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1972), p. 205.

7. George Sarton, A History of Science: Ancient Science through the Golden Age of Greece (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard U. Press, 1960), pp. 412,409.

8. Benjamin Farrington, Science and Politics in the Ancient World (New York; Barnes & Noble, 1966), p. 119.

9. Sarton, op. cit., p. 409.

10. Farrington, op. cit., p. 91.

11. Ibid., p. 126.

12. Ibid., p.l27.

13. Plato, The Republic, Book III, p. 414.

14. Aristotle, Metaphysics, Book XII, Chapter 8, p. 1074b (quoted by Farrington, op. cit., p. 111).

15. T. Gomperz, Greek Thinkers, Vol. II, p. 148 (quoted by Farrington, op, cit., p. 112).

16. Farrington, op. cit., p. 126.

17. Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Manifesto of the Communist Party (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1965), p. 71.

18. Ibid., p. 39.

19. Isaac Newton, Opticks (New York: Dover, 1952), p. 400.

20. See Kirk, Raven, and Schofield, op. cit., pp. 185-186.

21. Ibid., pp. 194-195

22. Frederick Engels, Dialectics of Nature (New York: International Publishers, 1940).

23. George Novack, An Introduction to the Logic of Marxism (New York: Merit Publishers, 1966).

24. Andrew Pollack, “Fuzzy Computer Theory: How to Mimic the Mind?” New York Times, April 2, 1989, p. Bl.

25. Robert Hanley, “Sea Sanitizers Get Summonses and Smiles,” New York Times, July 21, 1989, p. Bl.

26. V.I. Lenin, “Left-Wing Communism—An Infantile Disorder,” Selected Works (New York: International Publishers, 1967), Vol. III.

27. Marx and Engels, op. cit., pp. 44-45.


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