Gerry Healy


The Ass’s Ears of Soviet Philosophy

A review of Fundamentals of Dialectics, by Yu. A. Kharin

News Line 12 October 1981

By G. Healy

Progress Publishers, Moscow

Distributors: Central Books Ltd., London

On sale at all Paperbacks Centres, price £2:99

   It must be said that present day Soviet philosophers treat dialectics in a far more objective and scientific way that their predecessors in the Stalinist era.

   The glorification of Stalin the dictator represented an almost continuous orgy of subjective idealist knee-bending in every aspect of Soviet life. His small booklet on dialectical materialism, which became the keynote of everything that was to be said on this vital subject, has not been heard of for the past quarter of a century.  

   Since his death, fresh generations of Soviet scientists and philosophers have arrived on the scene with large quantities of books and publications to their credit, which add impressively to the wealth of material both verifying and extending the dialectical materialist method.

   They are scientifically honest and open about their work when explaining problems, and sometimes successes, which they have had, especially in the field of micro-particle development in physics.  

   These Men and women are scientists whose potentiality is derived from the socialist property relations established by the October 1917 Revolution. These property relations still assert themselves despite the counter-revolutionary role of the bureaucracy, now under the guidance of Leonid Brezhnev. In turn they reflect the intensity of the class contradictions which are inherent in this base, just like the powerful “Solidarity” movement in Poland.


A Common Error

   The most common errors arise in their inability to grasp the all-important difference between Dialectical Materialism and Historical Materialism as methods. These are not the same thing, as Lenin explains in his essay, On the Question of Dialectics.

   In his Capital, Marx first analyses the simplest, most common and everyday relation of bourgeois, (commodity), society, a relation encountered billions of times, viz., the exchange of commodities. In this very simple phenomenon, (in the “cell” of bourgeois society), analysis reveals all the contradictions, (or germs of all the contradictions), of modern society. The subsequent exposition shows us the development, (both growth and movement), of these contradictions and of this society in the summation of its individual parts, from its beginning to its end.

   “Such must be the exposition (or study) of dialectics in general (for with Marx the dialectics of bourgeois society is only a particular case of dialectics.)” (Page 360-361, Lenin’s Collected Works, Vol. 38)

   “Dialectics”, Lenin insists, “is a property of all human knowledge in general.” (Op. Cit. page 362, our emphasis). We must start our analysis always from the “whole”, (unity of all its parts), which is why Marx had to stand Hegel on his materialist feet before he could write Capital, which analysed bourgeois society “as a particular case of dialectics.” (Historical materialism.) Indeed, Marx was obliged to return more than once in his writing of Capital to consult Hegel at source.


   To Marx as an outstanding dialectician there was no such thing as dialectical laws which were basic truths, fixed for all time. The dialectical materialist method itself must instantly reflect the movement and change of the external world, not just the objective idealist application of fixed dialectical laws, as if they were abstract universal truths, to the movement and changes going on around us in nature and in society as part of nature.

   If this were the case we would qualify perhaps, as nothing more than gifted amateurs in the field of dialectics. It would depend on how deeply we were involved, through our practice, in the subject matter under review and how familiar we are with the treatment of Marx and Lenin on the dialectical method, when analysing similar material of an earlier period.

Should we be Content with Ancient Recipes?

   This approach would still leave us open to grave inaccuracies and errors for the simple reason that it rules out contradiction which has its source in the difference between the two periods of history under examination. To go around replacing the need for dialectical analysis of the present with a system which stamps quotations derived from previous dialectical analysis by Marx and Lenin, just won’t do.

   Even where its practitioners are dedicated scientists who are working the clock round to establish objective truth in their particular branch of science, they still remain imprisoned in the method of objective idealism when it comes to establishing dialectically the relation between the ever-changing “whole” to its ever-changing parts, and vice versa, at a particular moment in time.

   The essence of Hegel’s objective idealism consisted of stamping his absolute universal and abstract idea upon the real world under conditions in which he became estranged from the real world within his own self-created abstraction.

   If all that is required is a cook-book of what appears to be relevant abstract quotations from the pioneers of the dialectical method, to be available for suitable engraving upon the manifold changes of the present, then what is the purpose of setting out to prove in practice what these changes mean? For, have we not become estranged ourselves in the cook-book of our propagandist elders? So that all we need to do is consult the ancient recipes?

   In the Soviet Union, during Stalin’s leadership of the bureaucracy, the philosophical method which predominated was subjective idealism. In the Brezhnev era it is one of objective idealism. What other conclusions can we draw from the scarcely disguised frustration of the late E.V. Elyenkov, when in his introduction to his invaluable book Dialectical Logic, he wrote:

   “In philosophy, more than any other science, as Hegel remarked with some regret in his Phenomenology of Mind, ‘the end of final result seems … to have absolutely expressed the complete fact itself in its very nature; contrasted with that the mere process of bringing it to light would seem, properly speaking, to have no essential significance.’

  “That is very aptly put. So long as dialectics (dialectical logic) is looked upon as a simple tool for proving a previously accepted thesis, (irrespective of whether it was initially advanced as the  rules of mediaeval disputes required, or only disclosed at the end of the argument, in order to create the illusion of not being preconceived, that is of saying, ‘Look, here is what we have obtained although we did not assume it’), it will remain something of ‘no essential significance.’ When dialectics is converted into a simple tool for proving a previously accepted (or given) thesis, it becomes a sophistry only outwardly resembling dialectics but empty of content.” E.V. Ilyenkov, Dialectical Logic, page 6)

The Self-Relation of Opposites

   Ilyenkov was here referring to the objective idealist blind alley of Hegelian dialectics. If he were still alive, it is reasonable to assume that a recent book, Fundamentals of Dialectics, would have invoked his interest along similar lines.

   It must be said, however, that the author, Yu. A. Kharin, does refer to “positive aspects of Hegel’s dialectic.” (Page 4). The use of the term “positive” here, as we shall explain, can only be relegated to the objective idealist confusion of the author. In a book of this sort he is obliged, in our opinion, to define what the term “positive” means in relation the Hegelian dialectics, otherwise the reader could well be left to his own imagination in determining what lay behind the author’s use of the term.

   Contrast this to the dialectical materialist way in which Marx outlined Hegel’s “positive achievements.” The “positive” side of Hegel was abstracted by Marx after he had thoroughly analysed and abstracted the negative features of his objective idealist philosophy.

   “Hegel”, he wrote, “having posited man as equivalent to self-consciousness, the estranged object – the estranged essential reality of man – is nothing but consciousness, the thought of estrangement merely – estrangement abstracted and therefore empty and unreal expression, negation.” (Page153, Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts 1844)

   From this summary of the negative features of Hegelianism, Marx then speaks of its “positive features” in their self-relation.

   “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 mind are a necessary result of the general estrangement of the human being and therefore also of human thought.” (Ibid.)

   After a thorough-going analysis of Hegel’s negative features, Ilyenkov also carefully explained how his “positive” features” arose out of predominantly negative ones:

   “After what Hegel had done it was only possible to advance in a single direction, along the road to materialism, to a clear understanding of the fact that all the dialectical schemas and categories revealed in thought by Hegel were universal forms and laws reflected in the collective consciousness of man, of the development of the external real world existing outside of and independent of thought. Marx and Engels had already begun a materialist rethinking of the Hegelian dialectic at the beginning of the 1840’s, and the materialistically rethought dialectic fulfilled the role, for them, of the logic of the development of the materialist world outlook.” (Page 251, Dialectical Logic.)


The Dialectical Moment in Contrast to Sophistry.

   When analysing the concepts positive and negative care must be taken to undertake this in their self-relation to one another.

   The dialectical moment revealed through the concept Positive, (Law of Identity), must be transcended by its own Negative through the sensuous Cognitive process of external Reflection. This is accomplished when the Positive dissolves itself into its own negative with the Law of Identity establishing the Law of Difference between the two.

   Thus the Positive as a concept is transcended from the Lower to the Higher under conditions in which it is both terminated and simultaneously preserved. (Page 108, Volume 38, Lenin’s Collected works)

   Kharin’s Fundamentals of Dialectics reveals the sophistry of its author when he uses the concept Positive not in self-relation to its own Negative, but as if there is nothing between the two. Lenin explained the difference between Sophistry and Dialectics with a quotation from Hegel:

   “For sophistry is an argument proceeding from a baseless supposition which is allowed without criticism or reflection; while we term dialectic that higher movement of Reason where the terms appearing absolutely distinct pass into one another through themselves, through what they are, and the assumption of their separateness cancels itself.” (Volume 38, Page 107)

   The author, on page 41, further emphasises the sophistry of his method when he writes:

   “What is the Marxist revolution in philosophy?” asks Kharin. In reply to this question he says, “we want to stress once again that the dialectical materialist outlook on the world both rejected the whole preceding philosophy and used all that was valuable and progressive in it and in human culture in general.”


   The terms rejected, valuable and progressive are an even cruder version of sophistry than the use of the Positive on the previous page in relation to Feuerbach and Hegelianism.

   On page 109 of Volume 38 Lenin explains how Marxism, whilst it had its beginnings in the previous philosophy, made the leap beyond it to scientific thought:

   “Dialectics is the teaching which shows how opposites can be and how they happen to be (how they become) identical”. On the previous page he spelt out the dialectical process through which this was manifested.

“Aufbehen = ein Ende Machen

                    = erhhalten

          (aufbewahren zugleich)

“supersede = terminate = maintain,  (simultaneously to preserve)

   Kharin claims that “the dialectic-materialist outlook on the world … rejected the whole preceding philosophy” He replaces the term transcended, which established the dialectical synthesis between terminated and preserved for the term rejected.

   The opposite term to rejected in self-relation is accepted. Instead of establishing what lies between “accepted” and “rejected” in their dialectical relation, he stamps the whole process with the terms “valuable” and “progressive”, which are devoid of content.

A Hotch-potch of Sophistry

   Now comes the time when the author, emboldened by his own sophistry sets out to “forge” his “simple tool” for proving, as Ilyenkov wryly remarked, “ a previously accepted (or given) thesis.”

   Kharin outlines his thesis as follows: “Dialectical and Historical Materialism therefore arose and are now developing as a single philosophical Marxist teaching. (Page 44, our emphasis)

   This is nothing more than a muddled effort to transform sophistry into some kind of dialectical system. To give the hotch-potch an authoritative twist, Kharin further asserts on the same page that: “The revolution in philosophy means finally that Marxism has put an end to the distinction (our emphasis) between the working people, and the former contemplativeness of cognising reality.

   This is wrong, as we shall see, when we pose the following question for analysis.  If we, for example, continue from the “single philosophical Marxist teaching”, what does this “put an end to the distinction” mean? The author himself passes on to what he considers to be the use of a safe quotation from Marx on his Thesis on Feuerbach, which he mistakenly hopes will help him out.

   “The philosophers”, wrote Marx, “have only interpreted the world in various ways: the point, however, is to change it.”

   But such an important and decisive declaration came some time after Marx had stood Hegel on his materialist feet in that all important chapter on the Hegelian dialectic in the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts. The author is aware of this when he writes: “Feuerbach correctly insisted on the primacy of nature, but he was unable to comprehend its objective dialectics” (Page 40)  

How Marx Transcended Hegel and Feuerbach

   Marx not only based his dialectical materialist method on Feuerbach’s “primacy of nature”, but he transcended its limitations through the elaboration of his dialectical materialist method.

   Indeed, this is where the “positive aspects” of Hegel’s “objective idealist” dialectics come in, as we have already seen, through the elaboration of scientific concepts and categories as the product of Hegel’s “objective dialectics”

   Both in the case of Feuerbach and Hegel, the dialectical materialism of Marx both “superseded”, terminated and “preserved” what was positive in both their writings. Marx used Feuerbach’s primacy of nature to reveal the objective idealism of Hegel, whilst at the same time he used the positive aspects of Hegel’s concepts to expose the passive contemplation of Feuerbach’s materialism.

   The distinction between the philosophical contributions of Feuerbach and Hegel on the one hand were transcended by the dialectical materialist method of Marx, whilst at the same time, they were “terminated” and “preserved”.

   The author’s “single philosophical Marxist teaching”, which put “an ends to the distinction” between philosophy as “pure theory” and the practical activity of the working people, is nothing more than an exhibition of objective idealist formalism as against Marxist dialectics.

   Both the “distinction” and the “single philosophical Marxist teaching” must be “transcended”, “terminated” and simultaneously preserved by the dialectical materialists of today, no less than in the future, just as they were in the days of Marx and Lenin.


The “Ass’s Ears”

   Thus “single” and “distinct” as formal thoughts must not be counter-posed to one another under conditions where identity is their law, thus allowing, as Hegel Wrote, “the contradictory content which lies before it to drop into the sphere of sensuous representation, into space and time, where the contradictory terms are held apart in spatial and temporal juxtaposition and thus come before consciousness without mutual contact.” (Page 227-228 Volume 38)

   In the process of cognition the individual (single) becomes the particular (distinct) and the particular (distinct) becomes the Universal (plural and distinct) through external reflection.

   The Universal (indistinct and plural) then becomes the individual again through external reflection in cognition.

  Lenin comments on the above paragraph from Hegel as follows:

   “‘Come before consciousness without mutual contact’ (the object) – that is the essence of anti-dialectics. It is only here that Hegel has, as it were, allowed the ass’s ears of idealism to show themselves – by referring time and space (in connection with sensuous representation) to something lower compared to thought.

   “Incidentally, in a certain sense, sensuous representation is, of course lower. The crux lies in the fact that thought must apprehend the whole ‘representation’ in its movement, but for that thought must be dialectical. Is sensuous representation closer to reality than thought? Both yes and no.

   “Sensuous representation cannot apprehend movement as a whole, it cannot, for example, apprehend movement with a speed of 300,000km per second, but thought does and must apprehend it. Thought, taken from sensuous representation, also reflects reality; time is a form of being of objective reality. Here, in the concept of time (and not in the relation of sensuous representation of thought) is the idealism of Hegel.” (Page228, Volume 38)

   The error of author Kharin is that in his formal counter-posing of “single” and “distinct” as the lower forms, he disregards contradiction which must appear in its negative self-relation of absolute essence in the higher form. Whilst he acknowledges “time” and “space” as the “fundamental conditions for matter to exist in motion’ (Page 66), in practice he ignores the concept of time in the manifestation of contradiction.

   The words “distinction” and “single” are terms or concepts embracing opposites, which in dialectical relation to one another are transformed into one another through a process of “superseding”, “terminating” and simultaneously preserving them.

   The use of concepts (terms) enables us to dialectically isolate the new moments of the external world and establish through analysis and synthesis (synthetic analysis) their connection and manifold relations in thought with the objects and processes of the external world.

   As we proceed from “low” to “high” through the process of Cognition and the use of “synthetic analysis”, then we utilise categories to reveal what this movement means. Thus Quantity into Quality, Negation of Negation etc., are categories.

   Let us, once more, at the risk of repetition, return to Lenin on page 109 of his Philosophical Note-books, when he emphasised how “Dialectics is the teaching which shows how Opposites can be and how they happen to be (how they become) identical – under what conditions they are identical, becoming transformed into one another – why the human mind must grasp these opposites not as dead, rigid, but as living, conditional, mobile, becoming transformed into one another. In reading Hegel …”

   Thus opposites such as “single” and “plural” and “distinction” and “indistinction” have a particular meaning in their infinite movement and self-relation to one another. If they are treated separately and what lies between them is dialectically not understood, then we descend into sophistry.

   The dialectical laws and categories such as quantity into quality and vice versa, negation of the negation, interpenetration of opposites and their transformation into one another, may be described through the movement of moments, but only on condition that they are revealed as the dialectical manifestations of movement and change within a single moment.

   Thus the single becomes the plural and vice versa, and distinction becomes indistinction and vice versa.


   The author notes the differences between the contributions of Hegel, Feuerbach and Marx, but not their negation and transformation into one another to form a “unity” of both “lower” and “higher” which is Marxism as a world scientific outlook.

   Whether one holds “single” and “distinct” apart as the objective idealist method does, they do make contact in the universal self-movement of matter.

   Thus, holding them apart as opposites is the “ass’s ears” of objective idealism of Soviet philosophy in the era of Brezhnev.

   They hold apart the dialectical developments in Physics from the class struggle, while they juxtapose the class struggle to peaceful co-existence with imperialism.

Like all the writings by Soviet philosophers, a great deal of conscientious preparation together with some very helpful charts has gone into this book. To the dialectical materialist method of the school of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky within its outer form of Hegelian concepts and categories, these can be very useful indeed,

   The book is a “must” for all serious revolutionary fighters.