From Workers Revolutionary Party Internal Bulletin.
Copied with thanks from the Gerry Healy Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).
“All knowledge”, says Thornett, “begins from the struggle of man against nature, now in the form of the class struggle – the conflict of revolutionary theory in the form of the party with spontaneity in the form of the class.” (p. 20, Internal Bulletin: Thornett on Philosophy)
This, as we shall show is a vulgar one-sided materialist conception of history, which in turn leads the author inevitably into the swamp of subjective idealism.
Despite their protestations to the contrary, Thornett and his followers reject dialectical materialism as the theory of knowledge of Marxism. Like all idealists they are so anxious to discredit their Marxist opponents with slander and lies that they invariably resort to tearing quotations from their context, rewriting the history of the Trotskyists movement in the subjective way they would like to see it written, and slyly papering the whole thin over with references to “man’s struggle against nature”. They then sit back hoping that the resultant confusion will stampede the young membership of our movement to pull back from building the Workers Revolutionary Party on the basis of the consistent struggle for dialectical materialism, the theory of knowledge of Marxism.
Surrounded by his small clique of petty bourgeois idol-worshippers who, like Thornett, made absolutely no theoretical contribution to the development of Marxism during the time they were in the WRP, they dismiss our consistent struggle for dialectical materialism as a “schoolboy” exercise. Here they have the unqualified support of every anti-Trotskyist renegade from the Blick-Jenkins group to the French OCI, reinforced by the Pabloite SWP of the USA, the IMG and its rag-bag the Unified Secretariat. Even the professional centrists such as those around Tribune speak approvingly of Thornett against the WRP.
In his critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, Marx insisted that philosophy was the head and the proletariat the heart. “The emancipation of Germany” , he said, “is the emancipation of man. The head of this emancipation is philosophy, its heart is the proletariat. (p. 142, Cambridge University Press edition.) This was Trotsky’s method in 1939–40 when he waged his last great battle against the opponents of dialectical materialism and it is our method today.
Let us remind Thornett that much more talented revisionists such as Burnham and Shachtman have in the past sought refuge in a similar subjective idealist method only to wind up breaking from the movement on the fundamental principles of Marxist philosophy. Whilst Burnham and Shachtman protested loudly when Trotsky introduced polemic over the class nature of the USSR, Thornett knows that this is not enough today within the Workers Revolutionary Party whose cadres have for many years now been consciously educated in the Marxist Philosophy as insisted by Trotsky in his historic struggle of 1939–40. Herein lies the basic difference between then and now. Trotsky insisted upon tracing the differences to their philosophical roots, much to the annoyance of his opponents; Thornett advocates falsification of our philosophical method from the word go.
In doing this he has overlooked the most vital element in the struggle between Marxism and revisionism. Subjective idealists can at times develop what appears to be the most plausible arguments, on the basis of quotations torn from their material context, skilful but false references to history, interlaced with a pandering to the everyday spontaneous requirements of the working class. The mess is then served up to the middle class and politically immature workers with references to the “suffering” of the authors (Thornett & Co.), under the “anti-democratic” and “dictatorship regime” of the party leadership. For those who don”t like reading but like the look of Thornett’s face, there is always gossip about the alleged private life of this or that leader of the party to drag them into line.
In a serious discussion on Marxist philosophy this method cannot work. The Marxist conception of the dialectic is abstracted from the universal movement of matter in motion, which includes nature, society and the class struggle. Here there is neither room for compromise or a lasting basis for falsification. Without being aware of it, Thornett’s emphasis in his paragraph on the central reference in our polemic has revealed in all its crudeness the disorientation of the subjective idealist, who is so eager to destroy his opponents that he winds up destroying himself.
Marxists start from the unconditional primacy of universal matter in motion.
In Anti-Duhring, Engels explains the dialectical relation between matter and motion as follows:
Motion is the mode of existence of matter, hence more than a mere property of it. There is no matter without motion, nor could there ever have been. Motion in cosmic space, mechanical motion of smaller masses on a single celestial body, the vibration of molecules as heat, electric tension, magnetic polarization, chemical decomposition and combination, organic life up to its highest product, thought – at each given moment each individual atom of matter is in one or other of these forms of motion. All equilibrium is either only relative rest or even motion in equilibrium, like that of the planets. Absolute rest is only conceivable in the absence of matter. Neither motion as such nor any of its forms, such as mechanical force, can therefore be separated from matter nor opposed to it as something apart or a1ien, without leading to an absurdity. (p. 402)
And again, man is part of nature which in turn is part of universal matter in motion. Engels describes the relation between man and nature as follows:
In like manner, every organic being is every moment the same and not the same; every moment it assimilates matter supplied from without, and gets rid of other matter; every moment some cells of its body die and others build themselves anew; in a longer or shorter time the matter of its body is completely renewed, and is replaced by other molecules of matter, so that every organic being is always itself, and yet something other than itself. (ibid., p. 32)
Man, since he is part of nature, belongs inseparably to the eternal motion of matter – but, precisely because he is part of Nature, Man is forced, in order to satisfy his physical needs, not to remain a passive spectator of Nature but to consciously alter matter and motion through production.
In the German Ideology Marx and Engels describe such activity in the following way:
But life involves before everything else eating and drinking, or habitation, clothing and many other things. The first historical act is thus the production of means to satisfy these needs, the production of material life itself. And indeed this is an historical act, a fundamental condition of all history. (German Ideology, p. 16)
Being, that is living man’s unity and dependence upon nature determines consciousness – “Nature”. said Engels, is “proof of dialectics.” Man is part of Nature as an integral part of the universa1 movement of matter. Through the struggle to develop the productive forces he is in conflict with nature. It is from this material relationship that we abstract the core and essence of all dialectical thinking, the unity and conflict of opposites, the conflict of opposites being the source of all development. Man is part of nature and in conflict with it. This is the starting point of all knowledge and not Thornett’s one-sided assertion that knowledge begins “from the struggle of man against nature”.
Thornett subjectively separates the struggle between man and nature from the fundamental unity of man with Nature, thus destroying the dialectical relationship between the subjective (men’s thoughts) and the objective material world. He then transfers the source of consciousness to the brain as something separate from Nature. Here is the basis of all idealism, that it is consciousness which determines being and not being which determines consciousness. Having subjectively separated man’s struggle with nature from the unity of this struggle with nature, Thornett can only start from the threadbare idealist baggage of idealist reasoning which begins in his own head, and is arbitrarily used to prove any argument which he thinks necessary to attack the Workers Revolutionary Party. That is why we designate his method that of subjective idealism.
Subjective idealism is a method of bourgeois ideological analysis. It starts from the conception that in the beginning, there was the word, in this case Thornett’s word. In reality, our analysis must begin from the deed based on the purposive activity of man tied to nature, engaged in production against nature in order to live. Thornett posits his idealist theories as dead abstractions on living purposive activity – practice – and emerges with all the subjective idealist political conclusions he would like to see. Marxists start from the richness of living perception of the universal movement of matter, that is, we proceed from the individual to the universal. Here is how Lenin describes the process in Volume 38 of his Collected Works, p. 361:
Consequently the opposites (the individual is opposed to the universal) are identical: the individual exists only in the connection that leads to the universal. The universal exists only in the individual and through the individual. Every individual is (in one way or another) a universal. Every universal is (a fragment, or an aspect, or the essence of) an individual Every universal only approximately embraces all the individual objects. Every individual enters incompletely into the universal etc., etc. Every individual is connected by thousands of transitions with other kinds of individual (things, phenomena, processes), etc. Here already we have the elements, the germs, the concepts of necessity, of objective connection in nature etc. Here already we have the contingent and the necessary, the phenomenon and the essence –
Lenin thus describes living perception as the process through which the revolutionary party grasps the universal movement of matter.
The results of Man’s struggle against Nature when separated from their unity with Nature can only produce relative abstract concepts (things in themselves separated from the objective world). It is from their unity with Nature that these concepts reflect the Universal movement of matter. The “thing in itself” must find its reflection in the universal movement of matter, and it can only do this through its unity with the universal movement of matter.
Subjective idealists such as Thornett base their thought concepts on the mechanical comparison of one relative political conclusion with another which they derive from the class struggle. (In society – all human beings – this is the reflection of man’s struggle against nature.) However there is within each relative concept drawn from the class struggle an absolute (universal movement of matter). No sooner do we derive a concept than it becomes an abstraction which can only find its reflection in the Universal movement of matter through us (life).
“There is,” says Thornett, “no real discussion or analysis within the Party of the party’s practice in the class struggle.” But to him this is an exercise carried out on the basis of the comparison of abstract concepts, between what we did within this union as against some other union, or this campaign as against some other campaign. He sets out with his subjective impressions of these experiences and separates them from the living experience of the Workers Revolutionary Party as a whole united and in conflict within the class struggle and Man’s struggle against Nature. That is why he remains silent when the Party asks him to explain its correct leadership within the trade union dispute at Cowley when he was victimized last year. Here was a major experience in which all the Party’s knowledge of work in the trade unions, its press and the ATUA, was brought to bear. If there were fundamental errors in our trade union work why did they not emerge at Cowley? Thornett is silent here because he prefers, through his method of mechanical comparison, to subjectively drag snippets of trade union problems out of their context of the whole work of the party as in the case of the All Trades Unions Alliance. From this method of subjective idealism when he refuses to answer almost eight years work at Cowley he slips automatically into the crudest distortions of the Party’s Position.
His rejection of dialectical materialism as the theory of knowledge of Marxism leads Thornett naturally to an anti-party position. For the first nine months of 1974 he voted for every major decision which the CC made except on the July amendments to the constitution. He then attacks the CC for carrying out the very decisions he voted for himself. Having cut loose from leadership responsibilities he sets out to launch a vicious attack on the character of leading members and behind the back of leading committees, peddling his slander by constitutionally ignoring the democratic rights of those he slandered. Small wonder he became the bright boy of all the revisionist renegades, who like himself enthusiastically practise the method of subjective idealism.
Through the separation of the conflict between man and nature and the class struggle from their unity with nature, Thornett can only proceed to falsify and lie about the experiences of the Workers Revolutionary Party in its everyday practice.
This is the essence of subjective idealism. 
The dialectical process of cognising objective reality consists in the transition from living perception to abstract thought and from this to practice. Subjective idealists posit their abstract thoughts on living practice. They set out to make living practice comply with their abstract thoughts. Marxists, starting from the Universal (living perception) posit their immediate abstractions of this Universal on the abstract knowledge already posited within themselves (the Party). In the initial stage of living perception this takes place through the dialectical transition of thought concepts into one another, reflecting the self-movement of universal matter.
Lenin explains the dialectical movement of thought as follows:
Dialectics in general is “the pure movement of thought in Notions” (ie., putting it without the mysticism of idealism: human concepts are not fixed but are eternally in movement, they pass into one another, they flow into one another, otherwise they do not reflect living life. The analysis of concepts, the study of them, the “art of operating with them” (Engels) always demands study of the movement of concepts, of their interconnection, of their mutual transitions).
In particular, dialectics is the study of the opposition of the Thing-in-itself (An sich), of the essence, substratum, substance – from the appearance, from “Being-for-Others”. (Here, too, we see a transition, a flow from the one to the other: the essence appears. The appearance is essential.) Human thought goes endlessly deeper from appearance to essence, from essence of the fist order, as it were, to essence of the second order, and so on without end.
Dialectics in the proper sense is the study of contradiction in the very essence of objects: not only are appearances transitory, mobile, fluid, demarcated only by conventional boundaries, but the essence of things is so as well. (Vol. 38, pp. 253–4)
Living perception grasps the Universal whilst the Universal is in turn reflected into living perception. The immediacy of living perception is contained in the dialectical moment of SEMBLANCE. This is thought concept which has not yet penetrated the Universal movement of matter. All thought concepts are part of universal matter in motion, but initially before they penetrate into it they are a Reflection of it. The transition from Semblance is into its opposite, Appearance. Through the self movement of matter, the abstract knowledge already posited within us (EXISTENT OBJECT) finds its reflection in Appearance. (Already derived from living perception in the form of Semblance).
The unity of SEMBLANCE and APPEARANCE is a moment – Essence. The beginning of the penetration of dialectical thought through us (the Existent object) into matter is the start of the moment of Actuality. Lenin explained on page 158 of the Philosophical Notebooks that “The unfolding of the sum total of the moments of Actuality NB equals the moments of dialectical cognition.” Dialectical thought concepts are now entering matter through us via the self-impulse of universal matter in motion. As this takes place we arrive at the second moment of actuality which is Causality. At the moment of Causality, the Cause, (Essence), cancels itself into Effect (abstract thought already posited within us as a result of a similar dialectical process). Likewise the Effect cancels itself into the Cause.
We use the term Cancel here because it is at this moment when Dialectical thought enters matter in motion that we have in such Causality the posited moments of dialectical cognition. This is the highest approximation of thought to Universal matter in motion. Finally through the self-movement of matter the NOTION appears as an abstraction from the cancellation of cause into effect and vice-versa.
It is this Abstract Notion which is called Abstraction (From living Perception to Abstraction.
Now or Practice (the activity generated by the self-impulse) take over from the self movement of matter.
The abstract Notion can only be reflected in the external objective world of the Universal Movement of Matter. This is realised through our practice. The Notion becomes transformed into the idea. Here there is a moment before the idea becomes an abstraction when the idea as the thing in itself becomes the objective idea facing the objective world as part of the Universal movement of matter. This is the moment of objective truth. Through our practice we again proceed to posit living perception (dialectical thought concepts) on our abstract idea (ideas). We do this not by contemplating the world but by changing it through building the Workers Revolutionary Party.
The conflict with Thornett is one that embodies the basic principles of dialectical materialism as the theory of knowledge of Marxism. There could by and there will be no compromise with his practice which is derived from the method of capitalist ideology – subjective idealism.
1. “Regarding the practice in certain sciences (e.g., physics) of taking various ‘forces’, etc. for ‘explanation’, and of pulling in (stretching), adjusting the facts, etc., Hegel makes the following clever remark: ‘It is now seen that the so-called explanation and proof of the concrete element which is brought into Propositions is partly a tautology and partly a confusion of the true relationship; partly, too, it is seen that this confusion served to disguise the trick of Cognition, which takes up the data of experience one-sidedly (the only manner in which it could reach its simple definitions and formulas) and does away with refutation from experience by proposing and taking as valid experience not in its concrete but as example, and only in that direction which is serviceable for the hypotheses and the theory. Concrete experience being thus subordinated to the presupposed determinations, the foundation of the theory is obscured, and is exhibited only from that side which is in conformity with the theory.’” (p. 210, Lenin’s Philosophical Notebooks)
Last updated: 9.11.2013