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From mechanical materialism to dialectical-materialism

  1. Apr 14, 2003 #1
    From mechanistic materialism to dialectical-materialism


    As already noted above before Marx made clear the truth that people made history unconsciously, it being determined in the final analysis by the development of the productive forces. Materialism was predominantly mechanistic and, as a consequence idealist in outlook. True, both idealist and materialist recognized change, they could do nothing else: night follows day, the seasons succeed one another, life is born, grows old and dies etc. For the idealist, this change was seen as the intention of some divine authority, something outside matter not being subject to the laws of the material world itself. Nevertheless, while they sought material reasons for change they also sought, like the idealist, for something fixed, something changeless. This they found in a material particle "the eternal and indestructible atom". Thus all changes to these materialists were produced by the movement and interaction of unchanging atoms.

    The world, to the mechanical materialist consisted of nothing but particles of matter in interaction. Each particle being in an isolated existence distinct from each other. In their totality they formed the world and in their interactions the totality of everything which happens in the world. In this manner the materialists of the day looked upon physical processes, plant and animal life, even man as a machine. The Philosopher Descarte in the 17th century said all animals were complicated machines; man excepted since he had a soul; but his 18th century followers considered men also as machines, though very complicated. And so, the question upper most in the minds of mechanical materialists was: "What is its mechanism? How does it work? To take an example, Newton's discoveries about the solar system. He demonstrated its mechanism in terms of gravity and mechanical forces. But as to how this originated or developed he simply was not interested. And this was the attitude of other scientists of that time. For all they cared the originating aspect of their discoveries could be the result of creation by God. Voltaire and Thomas Paine postulated a "Supreme Being" and so kept the door open to idealism.


    Just like metaphysical thought Mechanistic materialism was progress for its time. It waged a fight against idealism and the church in a mechanistic manner of taking nature to bits as one would a machine; seeing how each part functioned as well as suggested improvements to correspond with requirements of men. It suited bourgeois production methods, their conception of the "rights of man" as well as their revolutionary slogan of "equality for all" in face of the law and parliamentary democracy. But such abstract reasoning ignored the fact that man's nature is determined by the changing economic forces and the society built from such. Men are not what they are "by nature", but become what they are as a result of their social activity. Nor are all men by nature equal. This bourgeois conception of abstract equality was ridiculed by Engels in the following:

    "The real content of the demand for equality is the demand for the abolition of classes. Any demand for equality which goes beyond that of necessity passes into absurdity". (Anti-Duhring)

    Most of the leading utopian socialists based their theory on mechanical materialism. Their socialism was an ideal society. Something possible of realization if man's nature had the will to do so. Out of conviction that socialism only became possible if society could be won over as "just" and best suited to human nature, Robert Owen was inspired to appeal to Queen Victoria and the Archbishop of Canterbury to support his socialist programme!

    Karl Marx replied to this utopian theory that the character and activity of man was determined by environment and education in the following from his Thesis on Feuerbach:

    "The materialist doctrine that men are products of circumstances and upbringing and that, therefore, changed men are produced by changed circumstances and upbringing, forgets that circumstances are changed precisely by men and that the educator must himself be educated."

    In these few words Marx shows that changes in society are not the result of mechanical results from changed circumstances, but arise from their own activity in changing their circumstances. As to what the real material causes at work in human society which determine new ideas and new activities; mechanical materialism had no answer. It was unable to explain the laws of social development and the consequent change in society. The same mechanistic materialism pervades the minds of workers' leaders today, with the result that things should in the Hegelian sense have long ago passed away by becoming unreal still remain as a monument to futility. In this sense bourgeois parliamentary democracy still occupies pride of place on the stage of mediocrity, playing its capricious game of "ins" and "outs" while capitalism loads increase suffering on mankind to maintain its survival.

    The limitations of the mechanistic approach -now becoming more obvious to the modern world -must yield place to dialectical materialism. Outmoded mechanistic thought can no longer serve as guide to the struggle for socialism. Dialectical materialism, the development of which was the stupendous work of Marx and Engels, must take its place. The comparison of dialectics to mechanistic thought which follows will show WHY?

    [to be continued]
    Last edited: Apr 14, 2003
  2. jcsd
  3. Apr 14, 2003 #2
    From mechanistic materialism to dialectical-materialism [part 2]



    The first dogmatic assumption of mechanical materialists is its basis of permanent stability of things, their fixed properties: "the indestructible atom."
    Engels disposes of this with a definition of dialectical materialism from his work: Ludwig Feuerbach,

    "The world is not to be comprehended as a complex ready-made things, but as a complex of processes, in which things apparently stable, no less then their mind-images in our heads, the concepts, go through an uninterrupted change of coming into being and passing away.

    Today, science is completely in accord with this. The atom, once considered eternal and indivisible, is now dissolved into electrons, protons and neutrons, and these are not eternal and indestructible any more than that of the atom. Science shows that they too, come into being, pass away and to through many transformations. The idealist philosopher C.E.M. Joad wrote: "Fifty years ago scientific materialism was dominant; matter was composed of little hard bullets called atoms; it was something infinitely attenuated and elusive; it is a hump in space time, a 'mush' of electricity, a wave of probability undulating into nothingness . Joads remarks were leveled at mechanical materialists; he either didn't know about dialectics or preferred to ignore it. Wrote Lenin, 'The electron is as inexhaustible as the atom, nature is infinite". (Materialism and Empirio-Criticism).

    The next dogmatic assumption of mechanistic materialism is the assumption that change can only take place through the action of some external cause. Nothing ever moves unless there is something else to propel it. It never changes unless interfered with. Is it any wonder that his type of materialism had the belief in a prime mover a Supreme Being to provide the initial impulse.

    Showing that matter cannot be separated from motion Engels (Anti-Duhring) completely refutes the dead theory of matter of the mechanists:

    "Motion is the mode of existence of matter. Never anywhere has there been matter without motion, nor can there be. Motion in cosmic space, mechanical motion of smaller masses on the various celestial bodies, the motion of molecules as heat or as electrical or magnetic currents, chemical combination or disintegration, organic life - at each moment each individual atom of matter in the world is in one or other of these forms of motion. A body for example, may be on the ground in mechanical equilibrium, may be mechanically at rest: but this in no way prevents it from participating in the motion of the earth and in that of the whole solar system, just as little as it prevents its most minute parts from carrying Out the oscillations determined by its temperature, or its atoms from passing through a chemical process. Matter without motion is just as unthinkable as motion without matter".

    Apart from Kant's nebula theory of the earth's existence the discovery of the inseparableness of matter and motion eliminated the need for any prime mover or Supreme Being as creator. Matter in motion has no origin no beginning. In seeking the cause for social development we will not find it in the actions of great men but through the development of the internal forces, that is, in the changes in the social forces of production.

    The last error of mechanistic theory we wish to touch on is the theory known as "economic determinism". According to this theory the whole change within society is explained by the change of economic forces within society. Here we witness the mechanical device of reducing a complex motion to a single simple form - the process of social change, including all the political, cultural and ideological developments to one simple economic process, namely the productive forces. But the task of explaining social development by reducing it to that of an economic process is incorrect. The task is to show how, on the basis of the change in the economic forces all the various forms of social forces arise and play their part in the complex movement in society.


    In so far as we have discussed history it has been from the idealist standpoint, that spirit in primary and matter secondary. We have examined the greatest exponent of this idealism, Hegel, and showed how his arguments were never able to be conclusive because of their identity with the primacy of spirit over matter. Karl Marx reversed this. He studied historical development from the basis of matter being primary and spirit secondary. Because Marx did not not leave any basic philosophical work on this aspect of history there arose among many "experts" and "critics" of Marxism the belief that he was not a philosopher at all. This viewpoint also existed among marxist opportunists like K. Kautsky and revisionists like E. Bernstein. It is also disputed by many contemporary Marxists, who through lack of study of Marx's works use as a cover their contention of its being out of date.

    True, Marxist philosophy is not set Out according to traditional philosophical disciplines. There are no such things as Marx's ontology, epistemology, logic, ethics, aesthetics and so on. The fact is Marx's philosophical thought is deeply merged with his sociological, economic and political analysis that one is not able to tell where one ends and another begins. Another reason for it not being necessary for any basic philosophical work was that Marx reproached philosophers for having only interpreted the world instead of his point to change it.

    Consequently Marx's philosophy is a philosophy of action! A philosophy of practice: the standpoint that it is not just theory but also the demand of the act of changing the world and participating in the change.

    Engels regarded as the great basic question of all philosophy the relationship of thinking to being. To the question "which is primary, spirit or nature?" He divided philosophers into two camps; the idealists who insist that the spirit is primary, and the materialists who regard nature as primary. Lenin considered two more basic questions of philosophy to be: "Did nature exist before man?" and "does man think by means of brains?" To both these questions Lenin answered in the affirmative. To this question Plekhanov replied: "Idealism says, without a subject there is no object. The history of the earth shows that the object existed long before the subject appeared, i.e., long before any organism appeared which had any perceptible degree of consciousness. The idealist says: reason dictates its laws to nature. The history of the organic world shows that "reason' appears only on a high rung of the ladder of development. And as this development can be explained only by the laws of nature, it follows that nature dictated its laws to reason. The theory of development reveals the truth of materialism."

    [to be continued]
    Last edited: Apr 14, 2003
  4. Apr 14, 2003 #3
    From mechanistic materialism to dialectical-materialism [part 3]



    In his thesis on Feuerbeach Marx states the first premise of all human history to be the existence of living human individuals. From this premise the materialist conception unfolds accordingly: (a) as soon as men distinguish themselves from animals which they do as soon as they begin to produce their means of subsistence, they indirectly produce their material life. (b) Men produce their means of subsistence on the nature of the actual means of subsistence they find in existence, this leads to social production. (c) Producing their subsistence men indirectly produce their material Life. (d) Nature of individuals which makes its appearance with increase in population, depends on material conditions determining their production.

    Let us look closer at this historical philosophy of Karl Marx. Our anthropoid ancestors, like all other animals, were in complete subjection to nature. All their development was that completely unconscious development which was conditioned by adaption to their environment, by means of natural selection in the struggle for existence. This was the dark kingdom of physical necessity. At that time even the dawn of consciousness, and therefore of freedom, was not breaking. But physical necessity brought man to a stage of development at which he began, little by little, to separate himself from the remaining animal world. He became a tool-making animal. The tool is an organ with the help of which man acts on nature to achieve his ends. It is an organ which subjects necessity to the human consciousness, although at first only to a very weak degree, by fits and starts, if one can put it that way. The degree of development of the productive forces determines the measure of the authority of man over nature.

    Let us now look at Marx's point (d) Nature of individuals ... This concerns the economy of a given society. On what does this depend? Neither the utopian socialists, mechanical materialists, nor Hegel could satisfactorily reply to this. All of them, directly or indirectly, referred to human nature. The great scientific service rendered by Marx lies in this, that he approached the question from the diametrically opposite side; he regarded man's nature itself as the eternally changing result of historical progress, the cause of which lies outside of man. In order to exist, man must support his organism, borrowing the substance he requires from the external nature surrounding him. This borrowing presupposes a certain action of man on that external nature. But, "acting on the external world, he changes his own nature."

    Darwin contests the opinion that only man is capable of using tools and gives many examples to show that in an embryonic form their use is characteristic for many mammals. Naturally he is quite right from his point of view; that is, in the sense of notorious "human nature" there is not a single feature which is not to be found in some other variety of animal, and that therefore there is absolutely no foundation for considering man to be some special being and separating him off into a special "kingdom". But it must not be forgotten that quantitative changes pass into qualitative. What exists as an embryo in one species of animal can become the distinguishing feature of another species of animal. This particularly applies to the use of tools. An elephant breaks off branches and uses them to brush away flies. This is interesting and instructive. But in the history of the evolution of the species "elephant" the use of branches in the fight against flies probably played no essential part: elephants did not become elephants because their more or less elephant-like ancestors brushed off flies with branches. It is quite otherwise with man: as Engels notes in his work, "The Part Played By Labor In The Transition From Ape To Man"

    " It is just here that one sees how great is the distance between the undeveloped hand of even the most anthropoid of apes and the human hand that has been highly perfected by the labor of hundreds of thousand of years. The number and general arrangement of the bones and muscles are the same in both; but the hand of the lowest savage can perform hundreds of operations that no ape's hand can imitate. No simian hand has ever fashioned even the crudest of stone knives."
    The whole existence of the Australian aborigine depends on his boomerang, just as the whole existence of the modern world depends on its machines. Take away from the Australian his boomerang, make him a tiller of the soil, and he will of necessity change all his mode of life, all his habits, all his manner of thinking, all his "nature". From this example of agriculture it can be seen that the process of the productive action of man on nature presupposes not only the implements of labor, but more generally of the development of the means of production - the productive forces as Marx would emphasize.

    [to be continued]
    Last edited: Apr 14, 2003
  5. Apr 14, 2003 #4
    From mechanistic materialism to dialectical-materialism [part 4]



    Not until there is a surplus of means of subsistence is it possible to arrive at the division of labor. The pastoral form of life is characterized by great migrations of peoples. Great and prolonged journeys were undertaken by people accompanied by their herds, which provided them with the necessary food on the way.

    Furthermore, cattle breeding itself impelled this mode of life in search of new pastures. But with the settled mode d~ life and agriculture there immediately appears the striving to make use of the labor of slaves. Slavery leads sooner or later to tyranny, since he who has the largest number of slaves can with their help subject the weakest to his will. The division into free men and slaves is the beginning of the division of society into estates.

    In his chapter on 'The Force Theory" Engels says, "It is very easy to inveigh against slavery and give vent to high moral indignation against such infamies. But it does not tell us one word as to how these institutions arose, why they existed, and what role they have played in history. When we examine these questions we are compelled to say - however contradictory and heretical it may sound - that the introduction of slavery under the conditions of that time was a great step forward. For it is a fact that man sprang from the beasts, and had consequently to use barbaric and almost bestial moans to extricate himself from barbarism. The ancient communes, where they continued to exist, have for thousands of years formed the basis of the most barbarous form of state, oriental despotism, from India to Russia. It was only when these communities dissolved that the peoples made progress of themselves, and their first economic advance consisted in the increase and development of production by means of slave labor. It is clear that so long as human labor was still so little productive that it provided but a small surplus over and above the necessary means of subsistence, and increase in the productive forces, extension of trade, development of the state and of law, or beginning of art and science, was only possible by means of a greater division of labor. And the necessary basis for this was the great division of labor between the masses discharging simple manual labor and the few privileged persons directing labor, conducting trade and public affairs, and, at a later stage, occupying themselves with art and science. The simplest and most natural form of this division of labor was in fact slavery. In the historical conditions of the ancient world, and particularly of Greece, the advance to a society based on class antagonisms could only be accomplished in the form of slavery. This was an advance even for the slaves; the prisoners of war, from whom the mass of the slaves were recruited, now at least kept their lives, instead of being killed as they had been before, or even roasted, as at a still earlier period."

    This lengthy quotation from Engels should enable the student to grasp the fundamental point in the Marxian materialist interpretation of history as being based on the mode of production; the state of the productive forces. In this lies the explanation of the history of law as well as the whole organization of society.

    Says Marx:
    "In the social production of their life, men enter into definite relations that are indispensable of their will, relations of production which correspond to a definite stage of development of their material productive forces. The sum total of these relations of production constitute the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which rises a legal and political superstructure (Preface to a Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy).

    The French materialists came to the conclusion that man, with all his thoughts, feelings and aspirations is the product of his social environment. On what conditions the structure of social environment rested the French materialists were unable to reply. They were, as a consequence, forced to return to their idealist standpoint that environment was created by the "opinion" of men. Writing on this in his work: The Development of the Monist view, Plekhanov says: "Dissatisfied with this superficial reply, the French historians of the restoration set themselves the task of analyzing social environment. The result of their analysis was the: The Development of the Monist view, Plekhanov says: "Dissatisfied with this superficial reply, the French historians of the restoration set themselves the task of analyzing social environment. The result of their analysis was the conclusion, extremely important for science, that political constitutions are rooted in social relations, while social relations are determined by the state of property." Thus a new problem arose, writes Plekhanov: What then determines the state of property? The solution of this was beyond the powers of the French historians and they dismissed it with remarks on the qualities of human nature which explained absolutely nothing at all. Hegel viewed as most unsatisfactory the point of view of human nature. Humanity's advance must be sought outside human nature. But to be fruitful for science it was necessary to show where precisely the key should be sought. For Hegel it was sought in the qualities of the spirit, in the logical laws of development of the absolute idea. Marx corrected this radical error of the idealists which could only return them in a round about way to the point of view of human nature, since the absolute idea is nothing else but the personification of our logical process of thought. Said Marx, "The state of property and with it all the qualities of social environment are determined, not by the qualities of the absolute spirit and not by the character of human nature, but by those mutual relations into which men of necessity enter one with another 'in the social production of life' i.e. in their struggle for existence". (Plekhanov: The Development of the Monist View).

    Having regard to all that has been said on the materialist conception of History the full light of day is shed on the following words of Marx:

    "It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness."
    Last edited: Apr 14, 2003
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