Leningrad Institute of Philosophy

A Textbook of Marxist Philosophy


SOME LITTLE ASSISTANCE is needed to those who sit down for the first time to read a book on dialectical materialism, written by Russians for Russian students. The very name of the new philosophy raises questions. What is dialectic? Is the new philosophy really no more than the discredited materialism of the nineteenth century?

The book itself will be the best answer to these questions but it may help towards the understanding of the book if we take these two fundamental difficulties, which probably disconcert a good many would-be students of dialectical materialism, and endeavour to throw some light on them from the standpoint of Western philosophy.

What is Dialectic?

Dialectical thought is the study of things in their relations and in process of development and change. “The opposite of dialectics is the isolated consideration of things, and the consideration of things only in their fixity.” It is dialectical to look out for the special characteristics of a thing in a new set of relations and then to adapt one’s forms of thought to the new form which reality has taken. Dialectics, therefore, is not an abstract system of logic which men are asked to accept, it is necessary because the nature of the world requires it. There are no fixed properties in the concrete world, therefore there should be no fixed concepts in our science. There are no final scientific laws, therefore our thought must avoid dogmatic finality.

A rationalist may try to make out that nature shows a smooth continuous progression from simple to complex in which the higher, if we knew enough detail, could be predicted from the lower. But this conception of uniformity is one of those static moulds into which man pours his thought and in doing so does violence to reality. For nature is not continuous but discontinuous. It cannot be reduced to mere variations of one fundamental reality. In reality there is novelty and therefore gaps between the old and the new. Now if by reason itself one means precisely continuity and unchangeability then nature is irrational. Dialectics, however, challenges this conception of reason and moulds thought to the changing surface of events. In other words it gives us a conception of reason derived from the living nature of reality, not from a man-made static logic.

Non-dialectical thinking, on the other hand, is always getting itself into difficulties. How, for instance, is the control of the physiological mechanism by mind to be explained? Static thinking finds it difficult to show how mind can possibly affect matter except by a miracle. That is because by matter is meant a physiological mechanism such as is found before mind has anything to do with it. Such matter is mindless. But since mind certainly exists, and since it has nothing to do with mindless organic matter, it must be a thing apart, pure mind. The riddle then is how mind and matter interact. There would be no riddle but for static thinking. Dialectical thought allows the concept of matter to change from one evolutionary level to another. At one level matter is mindless, at the next it is minded. Matter itself thinks when organized in a brain. Because the properties of matter outside the grey matter of the (brain do not include thought, that is not to say that in the unique set of conditions which obtain in the brain quite new properties may not emerge.

Dialectical thinking is particularly important in politics. There it is often called realism. Instead of trying to force social change according to certain abstract ideals, the realist is bound to take the situation as it is at its particular stage of development and frame his policies accordingly. Quixotic idealists are anti-dialectical. Good tacticians, men of shrewd practical judgment think dialectically, not abstractly.

Every successful scientist, engineer and physician is a dialectician because his thought conforms to the stuff he works in and enables him to handle it. He cannot do his thinking in isolation from reality.

Dialectical thinking is not an esoteric secret, it is simply the way to think in relation to the world one wishes to control, therefore it can be said that all effective thinking is dialectical.

Why Materialism?

By materialism we usually mean either the reduction of all phenomena to inert matter and its movements, or the evaluation of life in terms of eating and drinking. Dialectical materialism means neither of these things. Where it differs from every form of Idealism is in its belief that in the evolution of the universe the non-living preceded the living. There was a time when there was no mind. Mind is a characteristic of matter at a high stage of its development. Dialectical materialism fully recognizes the progressive enrichment of evolving matter from level to level, and fully accepts the reality of mind and of spiritual values.

It is only mechanistic materialism thinking statically instead of dialectically that shuts its eyes to such obvious facts. Dialectical thinking is strictly empirical, and this may be regarded as another aspect of its materialism. Whatever facts emerge in experience must be recognized; but transcendental objects it does not recognize. In the Middle Ages there was a fierce controversy between nominalists and realists. The nominalists said that concepts are only products of human thought, and that real existences are always concrete and individual. The realists asserted that ideas and ideals have an actual existence of their own. Plato held that Beauty exists in the ideal world from which it descends to dwell for a moment only in beautiful objects, which all eventually lose their beauty.

In this controversy the dialectical materialist would be wholly on the side of the nominalists and against Plato. Beauty exists, but never apart from beautiful things. Goodness exists but never apart from good people. Thought exists but not apart from brains. The simple truth is that form and matter are inseparable, but at the same time distinct. The form that matter takes may be the form of beauty or of thought, the form is real but it is always a form of matter. That is sound Aristotelianism as well as sound dialectical materialism, and it would trouble no one if we did not so frequently assume that platonic mysticism is the only respectable philosophy.

Dialectical materialism therefore does not believe in the dualism of soul and body. But it does not therefore deny the existence of mind. The modern psychology which does not require “a soul,” and therefore rejects both interactionism and parallelism, does not reduce mental processes to physiological, but discovers in the organism at a certain level of brain development a control of behaviour in terms of foresight and purpose. It is as unnecessary to attribute this new function to the indwelling of a soul as to explain sensation in the lower animals in this way. Granted a sufficiently developed brain a new pattern of behaviour becomes possible and actually appears. This shows that the organism when it attains a given complexity has new properties which must neither be reduced to physiological reflexes nor attributed to the intrusion of some alien element.

Emergent Evolution

Dialectical materialism recognizes the emergence of new qualities at different levels.

This evolutionary materialism is sometimes known as “emergent evolution,” and has been ably expounded by Lloyd Morgan, Alexander and Roy Wood Sellars. Unfortunately it is sometimes compromised by being combined with philosophical parallelism in order to give to the evolutionary process a teleological character. But it is unnecessary to postulate a directive spiritual force if, as the emergent evolutionists themselves demonstrate, the material factors at any one stage are in themselves sufficient cause for the next. Most evolutionists therefore already hold the dialectical rather than the vitalist or parallelist form of emergent evolution.

The doctrine of emergence is of the greatest importance for the whole question of development and change in nature. Although development implies the emergence of novelty, scientists are extremely sensitive to any tampering with the principle of continuity. But a doctrine of pure continuity rules out the emergence of the really new, since everything is a combination of the original elements. The result is that in defence of continuity evolution itself may be denied, since without real change evolution is meaningless. On the other hand in defence of change continuity may be denied, in which case once again there is no evolution. Two possibilities are open, one can merely assert that as an empirical fact there is both change and continuity. But the mind is unsatisfied with what falls short of a rational explanation. The other possibility is afforded by the new dialectic which repudiates the disjunctive method in thinking which is responsible for all these difficulties. The disjunctive method treated existences as mutually exclusive and owning their content. The dialectical or conjunctive method treats them as interpenetrating and sharing their content. Thus a special character in some object, is not derived from the character of its components taken severally but from the distinctive relationships of these components, from a special configuration. There is a function jointly exercised. This avoids the error of demanding that if a new quality emerges at a given moment it must have emerged from somewhere. Where was it before it emerged? This puts the whole question wrongly. Emergence is treated like the emergence of a duck from beneath the surface of a pond. If it appears it must have been under the water before. But that is not what emergence means at all. When two colourless fluids are mixed and the result is a red fluid the redness was nowhere before it emerged; it is a character belonging to a particular configuration. Dialectical materialism will have nothing to do with hylozoism or panpsychism; it does not believe that life and mind have always existed in imperceptible degrees and had only to grow in quantity until they were big enough to be noticed, thus emerging. It believes that they appeared for the first time at a definite period in the history of matter, and that they are the inevitable consequence or concomitant of certain material patterns.

When it comes to defining the agent of change, dialectical materialism has its most suggestive theory to offer. Its conception of movement and contradiction as inherent in all matter and all relationships is, of course, derived by inversion from Hegel. What Hegel and Bradley show to be the inherent instability of any particular relationship as conceived, Marx shows to be characteristic of all relationships as concrete, as well as conceived. Development through contradiction is not due to some mystical force working within the material content of the world, but is an observed characteristic of all life and matter. Contradictions and their emergence do not have to be projected into facts quite innocent of them, you have only to examine reality to find them. To be convinced of the dialectic of nature, look around you!

The Dialectic of Social Change

It is not only in physical and biological phenomena that dialectical development takes place. It is the driving force behind human evolution and social development.

Man is partly determined by his environment. But his relation to his environment is not a static one. In the first place the environment itself is as much the creation of man as man is the creation of the environment. Interaction is continuous. The changes wrought by man react on man himself and then man proceeds to yet further changes. Man fells forests and practises a crude husbandry, as a consequence soil erosion sets in and man launches vast irrigation projects like the Tennessee Valley experiment, which in turn change the social habits and industrial structure of a whole area, introducing electrification, scientific agriculture, new industries and a new level of social development. But this awakens the fierce antagonism of vested interests outside the Tennessee Valley so that the relation of the district to its environment, politically, brings into existence new internal movements and institutions. It is such mutual influences and corresponding adjustments which lead, not only to gradual change, but, after a cumulative process of parallel modification, to a revolution.

The process of soil erosion is gradual and homogeneous. However far it is prolonged it does not of itself become a series of dams and irrigation canals; but when the social pressure due to erosion and its consequences reaches a certain degree of intensity the social organism produces a mutation and grapples with the environment in a new way. It is human intervention in the manner rendered, necessary by the actual conditions that revolutionizes the situation. But it is also worth noting that a failure to interrupt the gradual process of erosion itself leads to abrupt and violent changes, to disastrous floods, to famines, and to social collapse.

To take another example. The pressure of the law of supply and demand on the price of labour power causes the workers to form trade unions, restrict the supply of labour, and get a better price for it, a better wage. The employers policy thus produces an opposite tendency. But the trade union eventually finds that competitive industry cannot afford to pay a living wage, whereupon it has to fulfil a new role or perish. It must struggle for power, to supersede the employing class, and in so doing pass beyond the two-class economic system in which one section owns the tools and the other sells its labour power. The continuance of the old struggle is rendered impossible by the accumulation of parallel or converging changes resulting from the inter-relatedness of economic factors and social movements. It is not a pendulum movement, or simple action and reaction, but a condition of deadlock, of crisis, to which these converging changes have inevitably led. The impasse shows itself in a choking of the forces of production, a paralysis, leading to fierce competitive struggle for economic existence and, unless something is done, to war and social chaos. But the moment the transition is effected the whole face of things is transformed, the whole structure of things is re-patterned. Certain entities disappear, others come into existence. Eternal laws vanish. Values change. Human nature itself changes. There is no human institution that is the same afterwards. In particular the weight of various factors is altered. What had been feeble and unable to grow in the old order is released and stimulated and becomes a dominant force. As an example consider adult education for workers. Under capitalism this remains puny and ineffective nor is it possible to get it beyond a certain point no matter what efforts are made. But in a workers’ state, where workers rule and industry is self-governing, an immense impetus to education is received, and a remarkable release of latent forces occurs.

Note the importance and fruitfulness of this conception, how many knots it unties and controversies it clears up. Endless confusion results from persistently refusing to admit the change of properties which a new pattern brings with it, to admit the disappearance of old laws and the emergence of new ones consequent upon such re-patterning.

Our example has been a social one. It might just as well have been biological. It is a similar process wherever you find it. The properties of matter in all its forms are relative. Changes in matter are always arising out of the situation caused by the self-development of a given situation. Such changes always lead to new properties and laws emerging and a new relation between object and environment. Dialectical materialism analyses the laws of evolutionary change and applies them to society as well as to nature.

Dialectics and Metaphysics

Dialectical materialism takes up a somewhat hostile attitude to metaphysics. Why is this? It is because “the persistent problems of philosophy” are not, as is usually supposed, merely problems for thought, but problems inseparably connected with stages in social development which carry with them contradictions insoluble at these particular levels.

For instance the failure of a pre-scientific world to understand nature creates special intellectual problems for the philosophy of that period which only clear up when science advances. Or again, before the discovery of emergent evolution philosophy will be troubled with dualism and vitalism, and there will be no help for it.

These very problems of pre-Marxian philosophy indicate that men are not yet in the position to solve them. Now it is the false formulation of a problem that creates a philosophy. Restate it correctly and the problem disappears—and so does the philosophy! There are no insoluble problems in philosophy but only problems wrongly stated. Hence most contemporary metaphysics is due either to ignorance or to confusion of thought. The list of metaphysical problems which disappear as we proceed to higher organizational levels is a long one and in recent years a school of logical positivists has appeared which threatens to sweep the last of them away. In certain respects the logical-positivists approach the position of dialectical materialism but their view is a purely logical one and takes no cognizance of the changes in thought due to social evolution.

Ayer in his recent book, Language, Truth and Logic, says that metaphysics must eventually disappear, because it tries to say something about what is not matter of fact, whereas the only way to avoid senselessness is either to explain the use of the words and special terms we use (called by Ayer and Russell “symbols”) or to say something verifiable about matter of fact. To consider anything at all as existing prior to and independent of the concrete is complete folly unless we are working out mere logical possibilities, clearing up the meaning of language, stating in advance how we propose to think, and what is going to count for us as proof. Apart from this, which is the real job of philosophy, the only other kind of truth is matter of fact, which must be verifiable in principle by some future sense-experience. To affirm what is not empirically verifiable is to talk nonsense. Professor Schlick of Vienna, writes:

“What about metaphysics? It is evident that our view entirely precludes the possibility of such a thing. Any cognition we can have of ‘Being,’ of the inmost nature of things, is gained entirely by the special sciences; they are the true ontology, and there can be no other. Each true scientific proposition expresses in some way the real nature of things—if it did not, it would simply not be true. So in regard to metaphysics the justification of our view is that it explains the vanity of all metaphysical efforts, which has shown itself in the hopeless variety of systems all struggling against each other. Most of the so-called metaphysical propositions are no propositions at all, but meaningless combinations of words; and the rest are not ‘metaphysical’ at all, they are simply concealed scientific statements, the truth or falsehood of which can be ascertained by the ordinary methods of experience and observation. (In the future) Metaphysical tendencies will be entirely abandoned, simply because there is no such thing as metaphysics, the apparent descriptions of it being just nonsensical phrases.”

Dialectical Materialism and Contemporary Philosophy

The “logical-analytical method” of Wittgenstein and his followers is by no means the only modern philosophy that approximates in certain points to the new dialectic. Benedetto Croce, for all his errors, is condemning abstractness when he insists that philosophy is identical with history and that both are the self-consciousness of life itself. Troeltsch, many of whose positions are open to the gravest criticism, is right when he insists that the fundamental philosophical question is what is the main trend of historical matter of fact and how does it dominate each special domain, such as law, education, art, politics, and philosophy, and in his insistence that historical activism should supersede historical contemplation. Whitehead’s energetic opposition to the whole Kantian bifurcation of nature and mind is a wholesome reaction from dualism.

It would appear, in fact, that not only are scientific discoveries confirming the standpoint of dialectical materialism but that Western philosophers are increasingly discarding metaphysical concepts, though still reluctant to accept an outlook which undermines the buttresses of the existing order.

There is, however, one tendency in recent Western philosophy with which the dialectical materialists are thoroughly familiar, though we are not as thoroughly acquainted as we should be with their treatment of it. This is due to an historical accident. In 1908 a group of leading Russian socialists living in exile in Capri, became profoundly interested in the new positivism of Mach and Avenarius. They proceeded to recast philosophical Marxism along positivist lines. Lenin at once saw that this philosophy was both unsound and also anti-socialist in its implications. He proceeded to write an exhaustive criticism which displayed a surprising knowledge of philosophy and a clear grasp of the question at issue. Lenin’s Materialism and Empirio-Criticism has never been sufficiently appreciated by philosophers although it was one of the first and most trenchant criticisms of a sceptical system which so far from disappearing has grown widely in recent years. This scientific positivism has been popularized in recent years by Eddington, Bertrand Russell and others in science, and by Durkheim and Levy Bruhl in sociology. As Lenin rightly discerned, it opens wide the door to solipsism and superstition and has been eagerly seized upon by theologians to buttress irrationalism and supernaturalism. It therefore happens that this criticism as developed in modern dialectical materialism is immediately relevant to much contemporary philosophy and surprisingly up-to-date.

Philosophy and Politics

No exposition of dialectical materialism can proceed for long without an excursion into political controversy. Again and again in this textbook we shall meet with practical applications to contemporary Russian problems. At first this may appear disconcerting and irrelevant, but a great deal would be lost if the theory remained on the abstract plane and never allowed itself to be mingled with practice.

In fact this is quite impossible, for this philosophy first of all reflects every kind of material and social change and helps us to understand it, and of such changes none are so important as political changes. Secondly, however, since political change requires above all things just such an understanding of events, a philosophy of this sort will itself be an indispensable agent of such change. Hence the political importance of this philosophy. Under these circumstances it is not difficult to understand two peculiarities of communist philosophy, firstly it is taken seriously by everyone in Russia and is studied and debated universally with great insistence on correct conclusions; secondly, no discussion proceeds very far without plunging into political controversy. The first peculiarity will occasion suspicion in those who are influenced by the apparent irrelevance of ordinary philosophy to real problems in life and politics. But is it unimportant to reach correct conclusions in aeronautics? Is it not a matter of life and death? Is it not the responsibility of authority to see that aeronautical engineers are provided with correct and verified formula? This will explain the earnest and polemical tone of Russian political controversy. On more than one occasion the preservation or destruction of the new civilization has depended on a right understanding of social change and the transvaluations brought about by repatterning. The great collective farm controversy is a case in point. This has become the classical working example by means of which every phase of dialectical materialism is demonstrated.

The second peculiarity arises from the insistence on the material unity of the world. We are here in this real world and all our thinking is about it. Moreover we think about it not as if we were looking at it from the moon, but because it is a going concern and we are on it. Every moment it is doing something and going somewhere, and it does nothing of itself. Its direction and its action are due to our activity and our thought. The job of philosophy is not to explain, to analyse, to sum up as good or bad, as rational or irrational, a finished universe outside itself, but to take the primary responsibility of understanding how the world changes and in directing that change. Philosophy is the self-consciousness of a self-moving, self-directing world in process of progressive development.

Its goodness is not a fixed quantity but may be more to-morrow according to whether we know how to improve it. It is not either rational or irrational. It is as irrational as our ignorance and lack of control.

If philosophy is the analysis of social development we can understand the frequent incursions of dialectical materialism into the realm of social action. The contact is as close as that between the research department of a medical school and the hospital. Western philosophers who feel a little resentful and irritated at this philosophy of action might remember that it was Bradley who said, “There is no more fatal enemy than theories which are not also facts,” and that both Plato and Hegel would have warmly approved of this indissoluble connection of politics and philosophy. It is a fin de siècle intellectualism that finds itself “above the battlefield.”

Determinism and Freedom

This brings us to another characteristic of Russian philosophy. It is often supposed that the materialist conception of history is a form of fatalism. Nothing could be farther from the truth. On the contrary it holds that man is a self-directing organism. But consciousness and physiological processes are not two separate things. The organism man is a physiological mechanism that knows what it is doing. The mistake hitherto has been to make a false antithesis. If a physiological mechanism then not self-directing. If self-directing then parallelism or interactionism. Modern psychology, and also dialectical materialism, goes back to Aristotle, man is a “minding” animal. “Consciousness, instead of being a stream outside of the process of physiological change, is simply a characteristic of some facts of organic behaviour.”1 When a particular movement is made which intervenes in the course of events, that particular movement is only explicable on the ground that when it took place the organism knew what the effect on his environment was going to be before it occurred.

This is also true socially. Man is conditioned but not determined by social structure and the stage of economic development, An airman is most strictly conditioned by the laws of flight and his machine, by the changing atmosphere and his supplies of petrol and electricity; but he is free in so far as he accepts, understands, and utilizes those conditions. Freedom is the knowledge of necessity. If you want to loop the loop you must do this and that, and there are some things that cannot be done at all. So in politics, you can only find out what to do, what is possible and what impossible, what is profitable and what profitless, by knowing what stage of development society has reached, what contradictions are maintaining the tension of the structure, what forces are weakening and what are strengthening, in what direction society must move to escape impasse or disaster! Moreover such knowledge is not astronomical, as though watching a collision of heavenly bodies which an observer could only predict. It is operative. The measure of knowledge determines the measure and quality of control. There may be stages in which men and whole classes act almost instinctively if they are to carry social development to a farther stage, but this is the age in world evolution at which man for the first time comes to social self-consciousness and takes himself on to the next stage. Hence Lenin fiercely opposed the popular doctrines of “drift,” of leaving it to the instinctive upsurge of the masses, the theorists and “leaders” merely coming in at the tail. Lenin even coined the phrase Khvostism—“tailism”—to denote this lagging behind. He argued that by “setting up the “spontaneous” movements of the imperfectly conscious mass into the one law of the labour movement, this theory ruled out the constitution of an organized revolutionary party and had for its inevitable consequence the abandonment of all political action to the bourgeois liberals.”2 Hence the importance of the task of bringing the whole working class to consciousness, since it is their historic mission to emancipate the world. Hence the permeation of the Russian proletariat with genuine political education and philosophical discussion, which is deliberately denied to the masses in fascist countries. It is a genuine attempt at popular enlightenment and self-direction and it has already gone too far for anyone wishing to keep the multitude in tutelage to be able to do so.

The Impossibiliy of Dogmatism

Should the charge of dogmatism be levelled at this political education one can point to two characteristics of dialectical materialism which are continuously undermining the dogmatic attitude. Firstly its belief in fluid concepts. While avoiding pure relativism, dialectical materialism drills its students, using scores of examples drawn from current politics, in the habit of regarding things as changing with changing circumstances both in their properties and in the laws that govern them, and even as passing over into their opposites. “Capitalism” is not a fixed concept. The capitalism of the nineteenth century was progressive. It was releasing the forces of production. Capitalism in the world it has thus created is beset by difficulties for which its very achievements are responsible. It has now become retrogressive. It restricts production and moves in the direction of impoverishment, chaos and destruction. “Democracy” is not a fixed concept. At first it sets the bourgeoisie free to develop capitalism, later it may be a facade to delude the politically helpless worker that he is governing himself while really he is being governed by a veiled dictatorship; later an aroused and suffering proletariat trying to use the democratic rights hitherto only nominally theirs may find in the defence of their constitutional rights against Fascism that the preservation of democracy is the proletarian revolution. “Man” is not a fixed concept. Human nature is not unalterable. His character and habits arise not from fixed instincts but, as psychology shows, from conditioning. He is what his institutions make him, but he made those institutions and can make new ones. “The whole of history is nothing but the progressive transformation of human nature.” Now it is impossible for a philosophy of this sort to be dogmatic in the vicious sense and, when we remember its stress on practice, we see here too a characteristic bound up with the doctrine of fluid concepts which also precludes dogmatic rigidity. For dogmatism always arises out of abstraction. It is when thought is regarded as giving us in itself, apart from experience, the pattern of reality that a static system of doctrines is built up and can continue. Dialectical materialism creates systems out of reflection on the facts, verifies them by action on the facts, and corrects and amplifies them by the changes brought about by that very action. Its method precludes vicious abstraction.

If further proof were wanted it can be found in the plain fact that the history of Bolshevism has not been marked by the rigid enforcement of inflexible dogmas. So far is this from being the fact that its enemies have never ceased to reproach it with abandoning its principles. How often have we not been told that Russia has reverted to capitalism, has abandoned Lenin’s plans, has betrayed its internationalism and so on. It is the opponents of Stalin and the official philosophy who have stuck rigidly to dogmatic and schematic policies. Of course consistency may be more virtuous than what may be termed vacillation and opportunism, but that is not the point at issue at the moment. If the Russians are guilty of this kind of fault (if it is a fault) they are certainly not guilty of being dogmatists.

Does Philosophy matter?

We are now more in a position to see why such practical people as the Russian communists are deeply concerned about philosophy. It is frequently assumed that a practical man can do very well without a philosophy, that the religious and metaphysical beliefs of a scientist or a politician have no kind of relation to their life’s work, and that speculation constitutes a more or less leisure time occupation like music or golf.

But the Russian knows that a man’s creed matters, that it may be a positive force behind exploitation and parasitism and that you cannot destroy the social disease if you do not accompany your political and industrial measures with the refutation of capitalist philosophy and the propagation of an alternative. It is for this reason that philosophical discussion plays such an important part in Russia to-day. In every higher technical school, institute, and university philosophy is a compulsory subject in the curriculum. Works chemists, textile engineers, agricultural experts and school teachers are thoroughly trained in philosophy. They know the fallacies of the system they repudiate and they have a system of their own to be “the master light of all their seeing.”

This will occasion surprise in those who have always understood that the first principle of Soviet philosophy was the economic determination of ideas. But although no creed comes into existence as a mere development of thought and out of all relation to social needs yet once a creed is born it has an activity and force of its own. If it is believed it will help to perpetuate the social system to which it belongs, if it is overthrown one of the buttresses of that system will be taken away. Therefore the Russian is inclined to believe with Chesterton that the practical and important thing about a man is his view of the universe.

“We think that for a landlady considering a lodger, it is important to know his income, but still more important to know his philosophy. We think that for a general about to fight an enemy, it is important to know the enemy’s numbers, but still more important to know the enemy’s philosophy.”

There has been no great movement in history that was not also a philosophical movement. The time of big theories was the time of big results. Our modern politicians who call themselves practical and belittle philosophy are mediocrities, and their policies are opportunist and vacillating.

It is not difficult to see why this is so. In the first place the main philosophical tendencies are always closely allied to the conflicting social and political movements of the day. A totalitarian philosophy lends support to State absolutism. Irrationalism fosters political “thinking with your blood.” In the last century, when Spencer transformed the biological theory of evolution into a philosophy, its theory of progress through struggle and the survival of the fittest made a popular theoretical instrument for furthering the interests of the economic class that throve on competition. A philosophy may not be consciously advanced with such an aim but it will be seized upon and will spread widely if it reinforces the aims of a large section of the community engaged in struggle with an opposing class.

Secondly, fundamental questions are never of purely speculative interest, but frequently arise out of or are suggested by the urgent social problems of the time. Even the philosopher who isolates himself and devotes his attention to what he imagines to be purely theoretical questions is affected by the spirit of the age and is unconsciously answering its questions. Bradley, a recluse, in his famous essay on “My Station and its Duties,” argued that the community was a moral organism which knows itself in its members so that to know what is right we have merely to imbibe the spirit of the community. “It is a false conscience,” he says, “that wants you to be better than the world as it is.” His essay is largely an apologia for functionalism, and functionalism which accepts the present class stratification as permanent is simply fascism.

Why not do without Philosophy?

Nor is it possible to avoid all contamination with philosophy by becoming the perfect philistine and restricting one’s attention solely to the practical sphere—the tendency of British labour leaders. For if the devil of philosophy is thrown out and the empty spaces of the mind swept and garnished, “Then goeth he, and taketh with himself seven other devils more wicked than himself, and they enter in and dwell there; and the last state of that man is worse than the first.” The mind that is not made up is peculiarly susceptible both to atmosphere and to passing fashions, it yields all too easily to powerful and specious movements of thought and is “tossed to and fro, and carried about with every wind of doctrine.” The human mind is more eager and curious than that of the pragmatic politician, and there will not be lacking vehement and persuasive philosophies of a dubious character likely to infect those not rendered immune by having a considered philosophy of their own.

It is indeed impossible to keep the mind free from philosophy. “We have no choice,” says A. E. Taylor, “whether we shall form metaphysical hypotheses or not, only the choice whether we shall do so consciously and in accord with some intelligible principle or unconsciously and at random.” The philistine’s mind is a mass of prejudices, unexamined assumptions, shallow and insufficiently substantiated generalities and dogmas. The man who says he is no philosopher is merely a bad philosopher.

The Relation of Theory and Practice

This insistence on the importance of “hard facts” is a reaction from speculative theories and pure abstraction, but sound theory is only the eye of practice and practice is blind without it. Just as a doctor must unite a sound knowledge of human physiology and pathology with his practical experience and cannot know too much to be a good physician, so a politician must understand all there is to know of the laws of social change and the structure of society if his leadership is to take the class whose interests he represents anywhere but on to the rocks.

The truth is that if form and content, which in this case are theory and practice, can be divided so as to be merely related they are of little importance. Philosophy and practice that fall below a certain standard can be discussed in this way; above that standard, theory and practice are not opposed, nor merely related; they are one. There is more than a bond—there is union and fusion.

Whitehead contrasts these two aspects of reason; the first seeking an immediate method of action, the second a complete understanding.

“The Greeks have bequeathed to us two figures, whose real or mythical lives conform to these two notions—Plato and Ulysses. The one shares Reason with the Gods, the other shares it with the foxes. Ulysses has no use for Plato, and the bones of his companions are strewn on many a reef and many an isle!”3

Until Philosophers are Kings

If in previous social crises political leaders could do no more than “play by ear” that is not necessary to-day; the knowledge of the social process given by the dialectical approach provides the basis for a conscious transformation of society. The way out is therefore being found by a whole class coming to a consciousness of its destiny and it follows that the leaders of that class must be enlighteners and therefore themselves enlightened. “Till the philosophic race have the government of the city, neither the miseries of the city nor of the citizens shall have an end, nor shall this republic, which we speak of in way of fable, come in fact to perfection.”4

But if rulers must be philosophers that means that in a State where the workers rule the workers must themselves be philosophers. This accounts for the severe training in dialectical materialism which is found in all Russian technical and higher education in the Soviet Union. It is felt in Russia that an engineer or a chemist who does not understand the philosophy of Socialism is not likely to be of much use in the new order. That is why thorough training in dialectical materialism is universal. Not only are the kings all philosophers in the republic, but the workers are all kings, or kings in the making. They must all be trained for rule and responsibility. “Every kitchenmaid must learn to rule the country.”

The result is that every educated Russian has something of that philosophic spirit which Shaw remarked in Marx when he wrote:

“ . . . he never condescends to cast a glance of useless longing at the past, his cry to the present is, always ‘Pass by; we are waiting for the future.’ Nor is the future at all mysterious, uncertain or dreadful to him. There is not a word of fear, nor appeal to chance, nor to providence, nor vain remonstrance with nature . . . nor any other familiar sign of the giddiness which seizes men when they climb to heights which command a view of the past, present and future of human society. Marx keeps his head like a god. He has discovered the law of social development, and knows what must come. The thread of history is in his hand.”

That the Russians are submitting themselves to a vigorous intellectual discipline will be clear from the reading of this book which is not an easy one. It is significant that Hegel’s Logic has been translated into Russian and has been printed in editions running to tens of thousands. It is doubtful whether fifty copies a year are sold in England. This, coupled with the practical dialectic of unending controversy and argument and with the constant test of practice, has made of the new philosophy a virile and sinewy intellectual instrument. Its outlines are rough and its details unfinished. It needs elaboration, expansion, much filling in of detail, a good deal of correction and revision, but in spite of this it is fundamentally an excellent illustration of its own thesis, the emergence on a higher level of a new evolutionary type, the fruit of the clash of opposites, the working out of older systems to exhaustion and yet to fulfilment, a reordering of the whole problem of philosophy.



1. Everett Dean Martin, Psychology, Ch. V.

2. Mirsky, Lenin, p. 41. See also Lenin, What is to be done? Collected Works, Vol. IV.

3. Whitehead, The Function of Reason.

4. Plato, Republic.

Next: I. The Conflict between Idealism and Materialism