Gerry Healy



41 Years on - Trotsky’s Struggle


Dialectical Materialism

By G. Healy

News Line 22 August 1981

NLImagePage 66

     News Line 22 August 1981

     Click on Image to enlarge

   One year before he was assassinated by Stalin, Trotsky was obliged to wage one of the most important political struggles of his life in defence of the dialectical materialist method.

   Looking back now over those 41 years, it is possible to envisage future historians arriving at the conclusions that Trotsky was the greatest revolutionary specialist on the counter-revolutionary role of the Soviet bureaucracy.

   After founding the Fourth International in the autumn of 1938, he became engaged in what was literally a life and death struggle inside the Socialist Workers Party of the United States against those who rejected dialectics.

   It is impossible, of course, to separate those two major experiences. Taken together, from a background of many others, they were an integral part of Trotsky’s contribution to the Marxist-Leninist tradition, which is so proudly embodied in the International Committee of the Fourth International today.

   In the autumn of 1939 he was called upon to explain why several leading members of his own movement claimed that they accepted Marxism, but without the dialectic.  

Trotsky tossed this impudent claim to one side by saying that that was in effect accepting ‘a clock without a spring’. There are presently many such fraudulent groups, which while adhering to Trotskyism, hang on to the coat-tails of that New York group which tried to separate the dialectical method from Marxism 41 years ago.

   The reader might well ask how such groups can be so disorientated that they opt for such pitiable existences. The answer is not difficult to understand. We have only to glance at the writings of Lenin to appreciate that he was, and is, the greatest dialectical materialist of the 20th century. [Text as original – Ed.]

   Now that the capitalist world heads for the greatest revolutionary confrontations of all time, Embodying some of the revolutionary traditions of the 20th. century, they remain firmly trapped in the cobwebs of idealism. Too cowardly to declare the open rejection of dialectics, as the opposition did in the United States in 1939, they content themselves with keeping silent and concentrating instead upon declaring what a ‘revolutionary act’ it is to join the Labour Party and of course link up with that outstanding and dangerous muddlehead Wedgwood Benn.

   A glance at the historical record will show us that from the early 1840’s dialectical materialism was the most powerful weapon scientifically forges by the founders of our movement.

Lenin and the Dialect if 1917

   Less that two years before he died, Lenin completed one of his most important articles, entitled On the Significance of Militant Materialism. The following quotation from this article should establish without a doubt the validity of our claim:  

   ‘In my opinion, the editors of Pod Znamenem Marksizma should be a kind of Society of Materialist Friends of Hegelian Dialectics. He suggested a systematic study of Hegelian dialectics from a ‘materialist standpoint’,  that is, he went of to explain, ‘the dialectics which Marx applied practically in his Capital and in his historical and political works …’ [Pod Znamenem Marksizma had recently been launched as an independent journal dedicated to the defence of the materialist outlook – Ed.] Lenin went on:

   ‘Modern natural scientists (if they know how to seek, and if we learn to help them), find in the Hegelian dialectics, materialistically interpreted, a series of answers to the philosophical problems which are being raised by the revolution in natural science and which make the intellectual admirers of bourgeois fashion “stumble” into reaction.’ (P. 233, Volume 33, Collected Works)

   In a further article in the same volume, Lenin wrote contemptuously  of our ‘petty bourgeois democrats’:

   ‘They have completely failed to understand’, he wrote, ‘what is decisive in Marxism, namely its revolutionary dialectics.’ (P. 476, Vol. 33, my emphasis, GH)

   Some twelve years earlier in the dark days of his second emigration, he had written about the historical development of Marxism as follows:

   ‘“Our doctrine”, said Engels, referring to himself and his famous friend, “is not a dogma, but a guide to action.” This classical statement stresses with remarkable force and expressiveness that aspect of Marxism which is very often lost sight of.’

   ‘And by losing sight of it, we turn Marxism into something one-sided, distorted and lifeless, we deprive it of its life-blood, we undermine its basic theoretical foundations – dialectics, the doctrine of historical development, all embracing and full of contradictions; we undermine its connection with the definite practical tasks of the epoch which may change with every new turn of history.’ (Certain Features of the Historical Development of Marxism, P. 39, Vol.17 Collected Works)

   Some three years earlier, on February 5, 1907, just as the oppressive conditions which forced him into the second emigration were building up, he referred again to ‘that famous friend, (Marx), as follows:

   ‘The Marxian doctrine, (dialectics), has fused the theory and practice of the class struggle into one inseparable whole’. (P.107, Vol. 12, collected Works)

   This was written at a time when Lenin was working on his book, Materialism and Empirio-Criticism, and already engaged in open political warfare against the bourgeois democrats who were busy turning their backs on the significance of the 1905 Revolution.

   ‘Our Russian intellectuals, who vulgarise Marx in a Philistine manner, in the most revolutionary times teach the proletariat a policy of passivity, of submissively “drifting with the currant”, of timidly supporting the most unstable elements of the fashionable Liberal Party.’ (Op. Cit. P. 108)

The Fourth International is Based upon Marxism-Leninism

   ‘It is historical experience’, Trotsky writes in 1939, ‘that the greatest revolution in all history was not led by the party which started out with bombs, but with the party which started out with dialectical materialism.’ (P. 100, In Defence of Marxism.)

   He recalls in the same book that his ‘first serious conversation with comrades Shachtman and Warde in the train immediately  after his arrival in Mexico in January1937, ‘was devoted to the necessity of persistently propagating dialectical materialism …’


   ‘I insisted most strongly on the earliest possible publication of a theoretical organ, having again in the need to educate the party, first and foremost its new members, in the spirit of dialectical materialism.’ (P. 142, In Defence of Marxism.)

   Trotsky’s concern for the education of his American party in those critical days was spelt out in a most forthright manner. It was necessary he said, because ‘In the United States … the bourgeoisie systematically installs vulgar empiricism in the workers more than anywhere else … it is necessary to speed up the elevation of the movement to a proper theoretical level.’ (Ibid.)

   From his Exile in Mexico City, Trotsky had little influence so far as the dialectical education of his American party was concerned. This was due more than anything else to the unfavourable, predominantly reactionary nature of the objective situation throughout the capitalist world on the eve of World War II.

   In periods of reaction, especially in the major capitalist countries, it is difficult to develop dialectical materialism. In such situations bourgeois ideological sources exert a powerful pressure on the intelligentsia and the working class. Even where attempts are made to revive interest in the dialectical method, those who do this sometimes reflect elements of philosophical idealism themselves, which constantly undermines even their most sustained efforts.  

   There is an insidious revisionist method which endeavours to convey agreement by a silent acceptance of dialectics. Seldom will an opponent declare his of her hostility or scepticism towards the dialectic. On the contrary, they will endeavour to add it on to all the other confusion which they muddle along with. Their silence is usually a smokescreen for obscuring their liquidation of anything to do with theory into blind activism.

   This was so especially in the period of the boom, when an atmosphere of live and let live, kind of ‘common sense’ approach prevailed amongst normally hard-working campaigners for socialism. Trotsky understood this mood well when he wrote:

   ‘Common sense’s basic capital consists of the elementary conclusions of universal experience, not to put one’s fingers in fire, whenever possible to proceed along a straight line … not to tease vicious dogs, and so forth. Under a stable social milieu, common sense is adequate for bargaining, healing, writing articles, leading trade unions, voting in parliament, marrying and reproducing the race.’ (Their Morals and Ours.)

   But when the objective situation changes rapidly, as it is doing today, all this common sense and making-it-up-as-you-go-along point of view is so much worthless baggage that cannot solve a single important problem.

   When the class struggle is sharpening under conditions in which the struggle about who will take the power is posed, then we are marching straight into the social revolution, which is the position in Britain today. Trotsky anticipated times like the present. On page 8 of his booklet, Their Morals and Ours, he wrote:

   ‘Heaven remains the only fortified position for the military operations against dialectical materialism.’

   Assuming we have to include the SAS among the heavenly hordes doing the fortifying, let us now get down to the organisation of our own dialectical materialist offensive.

The Marxist Offensive

   The world is today sharply and irrevocably divided between the dialectical materialist camp and innumerably forms of idealism running rife in the universities and the big-business media. These latter forces are aided, abetted and reinforced by dozens of professional purveyors of idealist rubbish, ranging between pragmatism, empiricism, positivism and neo-positivism, within the working class.

   They come from renegade Trotskyist groups, Stalinists and opportunists of all kinds. A lot of their time is centred on efforts to create a mystique about the dialectical method as something which resembles a kind of religion or ‘gobbledegook’, as the young ‘career boys’ from the universities would say.

   During the Stalinist era the dialectical method was presented generally as a set of laws with examples of how they were to be applied. This produced very little change so far as the students were concerned. They simply continues as idealists striving to impose the laws artificially upon whatever they were thinking and doing, and constructed their own examples as to what they thought was happening politically – a kind of educated guess-work.

   No one could possibly become a dialectical materialist in this way and the source of such confusion was not in the minds of the students but in the counter-revolutionary role of Stalinism. When Stalin murdered the most important leaders of the October Revolution after the infamous Moscow Trials of the late 1930’s, this was not just another of his countless brutal sadistic killings. Stalin beheaded the revolution itself, because whatever the strength and shortcomings of the individuals in the old Bolshevik leadership, collectively it was the most powerful social revolutionary force that the planet has ever seen.

   It was not just Lenin and Trotsky as the outstanding revolutionary leaders – they functioned and were able to function as important and decisive parts of this whole leadership.

   The great surge forward that the Party had made in the development of the dialectical method was an integral part of the October Revolution itself. It is of decisive importance to understand how Lenin approached the question of dialectical training. Let us recall that it was Marx before him who set the example of how Hegel should be ‘stood on his materialist feet’. For this, it is necessary to make the most careful study of the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 with particular attention to the chapter Critique of the Hegelian Dialectic and Philosophy as a Whole.

   Lenin made both an exhaustive and thorough-going analysis in his Conspectus of Hegel’s Science of Logic. There were fundamental reasons why this had to be done, and has to be done today, as we shall presently see.

   Firstly we must break once and for all from the old Stalinist and idealist method of training which can be likened to some kind of ‘do-it-yourself’ kit of ‘dialectical laws’ for immediate application, together with suitable examples of how they should work, at least in our heads. This was the method which Stalin used in his pamphlet Dialectical and Historical Materialism, (September 1938), reinforced by his protégé Adoratsky in a similar pamphlet. Those who still use such an approach today, in one way or another, follow in their footsteps.

Hegel’s Method

   For the key towards an understanding of the method of dialectical training today is still the objective idealist Hegel  and the way in which both Marx and Lenin stood him on his materialist feet.

   For Hegel the universal, including nature, were still abstractions. In practice he began from an abstract image of what ever task he was going to carry out. He then imposed this image upon the act itself, thereby alienating his own image from himself. He abstracted human thought from himself and then proceeded to counter-pose it to himself.

   He omitted to take into account the self-movement of matter. Consequently he started out with objectified images, then proceeded to impose these objectified images upon his physical acts in the external world, thus alienating these self-imposed images. In this way he was an un-critical observer of the objective world. It was simply a process of shuttling abstract images forward upon what was to him an equally abstract external world, alienating them there for a moment, and then shuttling them back again into his head. For Hegel the negation of the negation was an empty process.

   However, unknown to Hegel, this was not the barren process it appeared to be. Despite the objectification and alienation of these images, the moment of his act itself was a positive finite moment of the real world, which was incorporated and returnable apart from his abstract image in his negation of the negation. Thus, without setting out to acquire real knowledge, Hegel began to accumulate such knowledge in the development of his concepts. As Marx Explains:

   ‘Hegel’s positive achievement here, in his speculative logic, is that the definite concepts, the universal fixed thought forms in their independence vis-à-vis nature and the mind are a necessary result of the general estrangement of the human being and therefore also of human thought, and that Hegel therefore brought these together and presented them as moments of the abstraction process.’ (Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844)

   These scientific concepts denoting ‘moments of the abstraction process’ can be empty and devoid of content under certain conditions, just like the name ‘John’ until it is attached to a human being. As concepts for the purpose of analysis, they become not only related to different moments, but establish as scientific relation to each other.

    Hegel, in his own idealist way, unconsciously, in the historical sense created the knowledge of concepts. He did it, as countless human beings before him have done other things, great and small, as a result of practice. With his shuttle service of abstract estranged images, he quite unconsciously made contact with the real external world which he then promptly blocked out with the continued traffic of abstract images through his head.

   His quarrel was not with his images, but the real world itself. Fortunately for all of us he was obliged to indirectly reflect the real world in his concepts, since for scientific purposes they could only be developed out of empty abstractions, whereas Marx insisted that a man who thinks does so because  that is his ‘real life activity’. Hegel’s conception of real life activity was an abstract schema.

The Future of Hegel’s Concepts

   Looking back now at Lenin’s proposal to the editors of Pod Znamenem in 1923, that they launch a ‘Society of Materialist Friends of the Hegelian Dialectic’, one can understand and appreciate more clearly this proposal. For Lenin, like Marx, really appreciated Hegel’s contribution to the dialectical method. They opposed Hegel, but to the end of their lives his main books were kept open right by their side. To re-read carefully the following comment by Lenin on Hegel is to sense the undertone of critical appreciation which he had for the old philosopher.

   ‘Movement and “self-movement”’, wrote Lenin, ‘(this arbitrary (independent), spontaneous, internally-necessary movement), “change”, “movement and vitality”, “the principal of all self-movement”. “impulse”, (Treib) to “movement” and to “activity” – the opposite to “dead Being”, - who would believe that this is the core of “Hegelianism”, of abstract Hegelianism?  This core had to be discovered, understood, rescued, laid bare, refined, which is precisely what Marx and Engels did.’ (P. 141, Vol. 38)

   And on page 278, Volume 38, Lenin notes: Hegel sensuously “believed”, thought, that materialism a as a philosophy was impossible, for philosophy is the science of thinking, of the Universal, but the Universal is thought. Here he repeated the error of the same subjective idealism that he always called “bad” idealism. Objective (and still more, absolute) idealism came very close to materialism by its zig-zag, (and somersault), even partially became transformed into it.’

   Hegel’s scientific concepts have by no means revealed or completed their impressive contribution to Marxist analysis. Indeed, they are becoming more and more indispensable to physicists and those who work in the natural sciences. There is indeed plenty of room, still, for a ‘Society of Materialist Friends of the Dialectic’ in Britain.

   It is quite a long time since Marx and Engels wrote in the German Ideology as follows:

   ‘ … the development of an individual is determined by the development of all the others with whom he is directly or indirectly associated and that the different generations of individuals entering into relations with one another are connected with one another, that physical existence of later generations is determined by their predecessors, and that these later generations inherit the productive forces and forms of intercourse accumulated by their predecessors, their own mutual relations being determined thereby.

   ‘In short it is clear that development takes place and that the history of an individual cannot possibly be separated from the history of preceding or contemporary individuals by this history. (Marx and Engels Collected Works, Vol. 5, page 438)

   What they are saying is something like this: The collective content of man’s knowledge is rising by leaps and bounds. Through the flexible use of Hegelian concepts and the categories that give rise to them, we shall learn how to analyse this new knowledge as it grows and expands. But this can only be done when we ourselves become familiar with Hegel and learn to ‘stand him on his materialist feet’ in the process of using his concepts to cognise to objective world.