Gerry Healy



The Relevance of Materialism and Empirio-Criticism Today

     (Marxist Monthly Vol. 1 No. 12, February 1989)

  PART FIVE OF SEVEN PARTS              

   The Method of Materialist Dialectics

   Engels in his polemic with Duhring brilliantly defined the method of materialist dialectics: ‘When we consider and reflect on nature at large or the history of mankind or our own intellectual activity, at first we see the picture of an endless entanglement of relations and reaction, permutations and combinations, in which nothing remains what, where and as it was, but everything moves, changes, comes into being and passes away. We see, therefore, at first the picture as a whole with its individual parts still more or less kept in the background; we observe the movements, transitions, connections, rather than the things that move, combine and are connected.’ (p.30 Anti-Duhring 1977 editions).

   In the next paragraph, Engels explains the method of materialist dialectics towards the scientific comprehension of the parts which are contained within the background of the whole picture. He refers to the previous paragraph and explains the abstraction process of dialectical logic through which this analytical process takes place. ‘But this conception, correctly as it expresses the general character of the picture appearances as a whole, does not suffice to explain the details of which this picture is made up, and so long as we do not understand these, we have not a clear idea of the whole picture. In order to understand these details , we must detach them from their natural or historic connections and examine each of them separately, its nature, special causes, effects, etc: (pages 30-31 Anti-Duhring) (our emphasis - GH).

   The method of dialectical logic through which ‘we observe the movements, transitions, connections, rather than the things that move, combine and are connected’ is the negation of the negation process. This contains implicitly the law of the unity, conflict and interpenetration of opposites (objective ‘whole’ negated into subjective finite thought), and quantity into quality and vice-versa. The containment of the ‘old’ within the ‘new’ constitutes internal contradiction within the ‘parts’ (transitions and connections). Through the negation of the negation process these parts build up into a ‘sum and unity of opposites’ (P,221 Vol.38) within which Semblance establishes the union of the historical synthesis containing analysis. The ‘parts’ have then been mediated (analysed) into essence in existence’.  

   ‘Essence in existence’ consists of mediated ‘parts’ which as ‘contents’ are in transition into the appearance of a new ‘whole, The ‘parts’ which are in the background of the picture have been mediated in a dialectically established continuous synthesis within the external world itself, from which they are negated.

   When they appear from what was previously the ‘journey inwards’, as Marx said, they now emerge on the ‘journey outwards’. That is to say, when each ‘part’ is ‘detached from its natural and historical connections’ they have now to be examined separately with the ‘cause’ generated by the motion of the external world through its transition and connection with the part, which then becomes an effect. Each part is analysed in a relation between it and the motion of the external world. Cause and effect, as Engels explains, are conceptions which only hold good in their application to individual cases; but as soon as we consider the individual cases; but as soon as we consider the individual cases in their general connection with the universe as a whole, they run into each other, and they become confounded, when we contemplate the universal action and reaction in which causes and effects are cause there and then, and vice versa.’ (P.32-33 Anti·Duhring. See pages 205-206 Critique of Political Economy)

   Semblance, as a sub-division of essence, is the ‘journey inwards’ through negation of negation directly from the external beginning, i.e. from the identity of the external source of sensation. This results in a ‘sum and unity of opposites’ which becomes the determinate content of what appears. Semblance, which is the law-governed content whose form is the ‘indeterminate beginning’ of Being as a moment, is determinate, containing the ‘sum and unity of opposite contents’. Negation of negation after Semblance is from ‘content to content’. As Hegel explains, ‘Semblance and Appearance are immediately determined so diversely.’ (P.131 Vol. 38). This is the substance of the new ‘whole’. This dialectical process constitutes the transition from the abstract to the concrete. [Concrete to Abstract? – Ed.]

   We refer to this quotation recognising the basic attitude of Lenin and Engels towards Hegel. The latter summed up his position in a few lines of Anti-Duhring: ‘Hegel was an idealist. To him the thoughts within his brain were not the more or less abstract pictures of actual things and processes, but, conversely, things and their evolution were only the realised pictures of the ‘Idea’, existing somewhere from eternity before the world was. This way of thinking turned everything upside down and completely reversed the actual connection of things in the world’ (p. 35  Anti-Duhring). That remark prompted Lenin, two decades later to assert: ‘I am in general trying to read Hegel materialistically. Hegel is materialism which has been stood on its head according to Engels .. .’ (P.104 Vol.38) When studying Hegel, who equated the world with his ‘absolute idea’, we start from the universality of the real material world.

   Engels, however, enthusiastically explains the achievements of Hegel, when in a preceding paragraph on page 34 he writes: ‘This new German philosophy culminated in the Hegelian system. In this system  - and herein is its great merit – for the first time the whole world, natural, historical, intellectual, is represented as a process, i.e., as in constant notion, change, transformation, development; and the attempt is made to trace out the internal connection that makes a continuous whole of all this his movement and development. From this point of view the history of mankind no longer appeared as a wild whirl of senseless deeds of violence, all equally condemnable at the judgment-seat of mature philosophic reason and which are best forgotten as quickly as possible, but as the process of evolution of man himself. It was now the task of the intellect to follow the gradual march of this process through all its devious ways, and to trace out the inner law running through all its apparently accidental phenomena.’ (P. 34 Anti-Duhring).

   Hegel ‘stood on his feet’ is materialism; that is why ‘when we contemplate that universal action and reaction in which causes and effects are eternally changing place’ we do so because ‘semblance and appearance are immediately determined so diversely’. The historical ‘content’ is established through the negation of the abstraction process, incorporating semblance as its core. Its transition to appearance is defined by Lenin (p.222 Element 6, Vol. 38), as ‘the struggle respectively unfolding of these opposites, contradictory strivings etc.’ The ‘opposites’ referred to here emerge in the ‘sum and unity of opposites’ [parts) in struggle with its less powerful ‘opposites’ [parts), providing the impulse for the transition to appearance, in which they are detached, ‘from their natural and historical connection’ and analysed separately, each ‘part’, opposition to the others, to establish their ‘contradictory strivings’. [Our inserts - GH].

   In the process of emerging appearance, the relation between the analysis of the parts’ with the external world is direct. ‘Cause’ starts from the motion of the external world becoming ‘effect’ in the changing ‘part’ and vice versa. The universal action and reaction of causality requires ‘the union of analysis and synthesis – the break-down of the separate parts, and the totality, the summation of these parts’ (P.222, element 7, Vol. 38) which establishes the substance of all the parts as an ‘ever-changing whole’, This is defined by Lenin: ‘the relations of each thing (phenomenon etc) are not only manifold but generally universal. Each thing, (phenomenon, process etc) is connected with every other.’ (P.222, Element 8, Vol. 38)

   The first thing we encounter when we consider ‘matter in motion’ is  Reciprocal Action. Substance as cause, (our emphasis), expresses reciprocal action. (Engels. P 231, Dialectics of Nature) We cannot go back further than to knowledge of this reciprocal action for the very reason that there is nothing behind to know. (Ibid.)

   The ‘inner unity’ of the ‘old’ and the ‘new’ as internal contradiction which emerges in the ‘sum and unity of opposites’ establishes substance in consciousness. Through the union of analysis and synthesis this has become the content of ‘appearances’ in which the ‘parts’ have become established analytically in their relation of cause and effect and vice versa. Substance consists of diverse natural and historical phenomena which include man and his consciousness.

   It is the reciprocity of matter in motion which is responsible for the emergence of all its changes and forms. When established through the use of dialectical logic it becomes the active cause of all its own forms. It no longer needs to be acted upon by the motion of the external world. Substance becomes cause which has its effect in the external world. The concept of substance presents matter not as something opposed to consciousness.  It incorporates being and consciousness as opposites out of whose reciprocal interaction the Actuality of the real world is reproduced. All positivist thinking rejects substance as imagination, which in turn leads to eclecticism and theoretical disintegration.  

                                                         Necessity – Freedom – Chance

‘The proof of Necessity’ wrote Engels, ‘lies in human activity, in experiment, in work’ (P.229-230 Dialectics of Nature) Taking due note of Engels’ leap from theory to practice, Lenin commented: ‘The cunning concoction of definitions is one thing, while practice is another. For Engels, all living human practice permeates the theory of knowledge itself, and provides an objective criterion of truth.’ (P.190 Vol.14) To avoid being ‘the slaves of blind necessity’ we must commit ourselves to a training in dialectical logic in order to negate the objective laws nature into subjective thought. Only then can we become masters of nature and avoid becoming the unconscious playthings of ‘blind necessity’. As Lenin emphasised: ‘The mastery of nature manifested in human practice is the result of an objectively correct reflection in the human head of the phenomena and processes of nature (dialectical - our insertion), and is proof of the fact that this reflection (within the limits of what is revealed by practice) is objective, absolute, eternal truth.’ 9p,190 VoI.14) …. ‘They’ (the Machists) ‘have taken their Philosophy from an eclectic (our emphasis) pauper’s broth, and are continuing to offer his hotch-potch to the reader. They take a bit of agnosticism and a morsel of idealism from Mach and add to it a bit of dialectical materialism, and call this hash a development of Marxism: (P.190 VoI.14).

   In his book Knowledge and Error, the second German edition, Mach outlined his subjective idealist position as follows: ‘It is a matter of the presuppositions which we bring (man heranbringt) to the consideration I things … But during the investigation, every thinker is of necessity a theoretical determinist’ (P.191 Vol. 14) The ‘matter of the presuppositions’ can only be the subjective idealist product of self-created thought images of previous ‘successes or failures’. To which Lenin replied: ‘Is this not obscurantism, when pure theory is carefully partitioned off from practice; when determinism is confined to the field  “investigation”, while in the field of morality, social activity and all fields other than “investigation”, the question is left to a “subjective” estimate?’

   In the field of ‘investigation’ says Mach,’ ‘I am a determinist’ who bases is ‘investigations’ on the ‘preconceptions’ of thought or self-created mages. He rejects outright the bedrock of materialist philosophy based on the dialectical unity of theory guiding practice. Mach understood through his subjective idealist approach that the world was a product of thought, and in this case he occupies a position of ‘voluntarist metaphysics’ which ranges from idealist metaphysic to ‘phenomenalist’ agnosticism.

   Necessity is a philosophical category which embraces dialectical and historical materialism. It is universal because it is manifested in nature, society and thought. Freedom is a category of historical materialism manifested only in Society through the actions of an individual in the building of the ‘Marxist Party’ as the leadership of the ‘class struggle’. Those members who join the ‘Marxist Party’ are aware of building it as a necessity for the development of leadership in the working class. Freedom as a category of historical materialism is an awareness of necessity. It cannot be understood except from the standpoint of the method of materialist dialectics.

   Lenin notes that ‘neither Lunacharsky, nor the whole crowd of other Machist would-be Marxists “notices” the epistemological significance of Engels’ discussion of freedom and necessity. They read it and they copied it but they could not make head or tail of it. (P.187 Vol.14)

   Freedom’ wrote Lenin, quoting Engels, ‘does not exist in an imaginary independence from natural laws, but in the knowledge of these laws, and in the possibility of systematically making them work towards definite ends. This holds good in relation both to the laws of external nature and to those which govern the bodily and mental existence of men themselves –two classes of laws which we can separate from each other at most only in thought, but not in reality. Freedom of the will therefore means nothing but the capacity to make decisions with knowledge of the subject. Therefore the freer a man’s judgment is in relation to a definite question, the greater is the necessity with which the content of this judgment will be determined …. Freedom therefore consists in the control over ourselves and over external nature, a control founded on knowledge of natural necessity (Naturnotwendigkeiten) (P.187-188 Vol. 14’. ‘

   Materialist dialectics relates freedom to man’s purposeful activity. As such it is inseparably connected to men as social beings. At the same me, the practice of human beings rejects absolute freedom of will, whose activity is governed by the conditions under which they work in everyday life. They work under objective conditions governed by a definite necessity, which incorporates the level of their knowledge and the development of the productive forces. They are governed in particular by their class positions as members of the capitalist class, the middle class and the working class. These positions are in turn determined by the interaction of the world class struggle within the political revolution now under way in the Soviet Union, and within the class struggle in the country in which their practice is carried out. Social beings do not and cannot enjoy absolute freedom of will, although to some extent, depending again on their class positions, they have at times more than one choice of practice in their daily lives. In this law-governed dialectical relation objective necessity governs the freedom of choice of social beings.

   A correct understanding of ideological work on the essence of freedom based upon materialist dialectics is essential for a training in Marxism. Freedom cannot be combined with the arbitrary action of individuals who want to act as individuals without regard to social necessity. In his polemic with Mr. Mikhailovsky (Vol. 1 Collected Works, page 159), Lenin writes:

   Jot without interest is the next thing Mr. Mikhailovsky has to say about historical necessity, because it reveals if only partly, the real ideological stock-in-trade of “our well-known sociologist” (the title enjoyed by Mr. Mikhailovsky, equally with Mr. V.V., among the liberal members of our “cultured society”). He speaks of the “conflict between he idea of historical necessity and the significance of individual activity”: Socially active figures err in regarding themselves as active, when as a matter of fact they are “activated” marionettes, manipulated from a mysterious underground by the immanent laws of historical necessity”  - - such, he claims, is the conclusion to be drawn from this idea, which he therefore characterises as “sterile” and” diffuse”. Probably not every reader knows where Mr. Mikhailovsky got all this nonsense about marionettes and the like. The point is that this is one of the favourite hobby-horses of the subjective philosopher – the idea of the conflict between determinism and morality, between historical necessity and the significance of the individual. He has filled reams of paper on the subject, and has uttered an infinite amount of sentimental, philistine nonsense in order to settle this conflict in favour of morality and the role of the individual. Actually there is no conflict here at all: it has been invented by Mr. Mikhailovsky, who feared (not without reason) that determinism would cut the ground from under the philistine morality he loves so dearly. The idea of determinism, which postulates that human acts are necessitated and rejects the absurd tale about free will, in no way destroys man’s reason or conscience or appraisal of his actions. Quite the contrary, only the determinist view makes a strict and correct appraisal possible instead of attributing everything you please to free will. Similarly, the idea of historical necessity does not in the least undermine the role of the individual in history: all history is made up of the actions individuals who are undoubtedly active figures. The real question that arises in appraising the social activity of an individual is: what conditions ensure the success of his actions, what guarantee is there that these actions will not remain an isolated act lost in a welter of contrary acts?’

   Freedom consists in man’s knowledge of the dialectical laws of nature and his ability to use them towards the achievement of his practical objectives. A knowledge of the Materialist theory of reflection which asserts the interaction of the objective and subjective within their unity in  the process of cognition demands objective activity in the class struggle, because such problems can be resolved only in revolutionary practice as the most important category of materialist dialectics.

To be continued by a further two parts