Determining Your Philosophy Dialectically


Philosophy, as it exists officially (academic and institutional), has a professional relationship to the sciences: it defends them, elucidates them, and provides a framework through which we can think them, especially in their combination. It tries to tell us what they mean, in human terms: how should we live our lives, according to science? You might say this is the function or purpose of philosophy today, it is its job.

Philosophy as we know it comes in two main strands, materialism and idealism.

Materialism is opposed to Idealism in the "theory of knowledge" – in the theory of how knowledge is derived. In the jargon, the "theory of knowledge" is called epistemology. For a Materialist, being (existence) comes before thought: you must be, first, in order to think. Idealists hold the contrary view: ideas come before existence. Note that we must not confuse the strict philosophical meaning of materialism with the casual sense of love of money and the things it can buy.

Marxism is essentially a materialist theory, but added to its theory of knowledge is always the dialectic, which furnishes the conception of development and change. This idea of development is known in philosophy as ontology, the theory of being or existence. So we have epistemology and ontology: materialism + dialectics, or dialectical materialism.

The dialectic was initially taken over by Marx from Hegel, the great idealist philosopher, but in a transformed way. To put it very schematically, Marx brought this process down to earth so that, afterwards, material (economic) factors determined social change in history, and not the human spirit or ideas. The resultant philosophy is materially "determinist," in that material factors cause events.

Determinism is the philosophical principle that material events that take place (in time) are caused by material events that happened previously, hence the simple idea of cause and effect in history. These causes can be worked out empirically, studied, tested, and in some cases reproduced, and so can also be predicted. This is a fundamental procedure of science (e.g. it leads to advances in technological products).

Determinism is a component of classical Materialism. If we do not accept that things are determined, materialism loses its material content. A materialist theory of knowledge without material events has no cause and effect and is unable to explain the scientific process (for instance Newtonian theory).

Marxian determinism is not classical materialist determinism. It is dialectical determinism, or, as we have said, its ontology is dialectical. Although it includes cause and effect, it is not only mechanistic cause and effect that is meant by its dialectic. I will come back to this point in a moment.

Dialectical materialism puts forward the concept of materialist dialectics. If DiaMat is the name of the philosophy, materialist dialectics is its method. This method is as a tool of thought that enables understanding and clarification in the sciences and it competes with other philosophies to represent science in this way (though it has only a few footholds in the actual academic establishment, for the following reasons). The stake in this competition is a political one. Official philosophy stands in relation to the sciences in a way that is nothing if not political.

For example, Darwin’s evolutionary theory is accepted as a scientific paradigm for the sciences of natural history and biology, but there is a battle over the broader philosophical meaning and relevance of his theory. The same is of course true of Marx (indeed, even more so), and of Freud. Their sciences conflict with certain ideologies (treating the term ideology as a system of illusionary ideas) of the ruling class: for example, ideologies perhaps justifying exploitation by reference to racial or sexual innate inferiority of a certain category of human being, or ideologies of individual responsibility as "free subject."

This is the conflict between science and ideology. In the long run science (which is merely another way of saying the truth) stands opposed to ideology. But philosophy determines what will be generally accepted, in everyday terms, as genuine scientific knowledge. It represents essentially the class struggle in this field, and it means the consensus scientific knowledge is sometimes compromised.

Dialectical materialism is the philosophical method by which Marxism has traditionally distinguished between science and ideology. All Marxists know this.

However, there is some doubt expressed in Marxism over whether Marxists should call DiaMat, a philosophy as such. This is because, strictly speaking, Marxists can and often do understand all official, professional philosophy to be ideology (in the above sense, without necessarily being dismissive of the insights that may still be found therein). That is, while the official function of philosophy is to interpret science in a way that enables the defense and promotion of ruling-class values and attitudes (while at the same time using and exploiting its technological advances), DiaMat, in contrast, understands science according to a "straight" extrapolation of its truths and according to the logic inherent in all scientific phenomena: its material dialectics.

These material dialectics are in Marxism the "dialectics of contradiction."

Briefly, contradiction is a category used in dialectical logic to represent the hypothesis that opposing forces in contention are the essential feature of all processes of development. The resolution of the struggle between the contending forces generates a new synthesis, and further development, i.e. thesis/antithesis – synthesis. The place of this dialectic of contradiction in Marxist theory is and has always been fairly controversial.

In the more recent past the Marxist philosopher Louis Althusser tried to distinguish more fully the Marxian materialist dialectic from the old Hegelian idealist dialectic, chiefly in order to warn against the survival of Hegelianism in what he called Marxist-humanist ideology. The dialectics of contradiction that Althusser criticized was one that official (war, post war) Soviet ideology imagined as ingrained in the social movement, and was also promoted by the French Communist Party, of which he was a member.

One of the problems, in a nutshell, was how to deal with the process of trying to arrive at the truth if you have ditched philosophy as such (in the guise of bourgeois ideology) and think of your position as already the "scientific truth," as it were, by default, because socialism had won the day. It had to have a policy, thus official Soviet philosophy became a kind of anthropomorphism; it placed the descriptive and logical category of dialectic (Althusser said) at the heart of a conventional, humanly designed, social system. The Soviet State’s solution, according to Althusser, resulted (presumably because people acted out this ideology and, in a sense, refined it) in the Cult of Personality (CoP). The CoP was the ultimate destiny of this slippage into humanist idealism, where Hegelianism resurfaced, and was eventually embodied in the figure of a single authoritative individual, the leader, with a transcendent personality.

The features of this will be familiar: appeals to abstract human nature, notions (leaving aside ethno-cultural inheritances of Russian history) of essential national identity, "sacred rights," and the embalming of Lenin after his death as a kind of demigod.

Althusser understood the CoP as specifically a label that stood in for a proper, "rounded," Marxist theory of personality. But while his contemporary socialist humanist critics interpreted the past Soviet (and other’s) problems of this kind to be an inhuman response to a historically tragic situation (World War II), he thought that trying to remedy the inhuman by recourse to a notion of the human (i.e. as an essence) was to persist within the theoretical circumference of the problem itself.

I think he was right. He said (1976) that we could not comprehend, and therefore adequately critique, Stalinism and the CoP by simply branding it evil or a mistake, because this would be once more to slip into exactly the same philosophical ideology that we were attempting to get away from: humanism; at the same time this argument, of course, worked fine for all the bourgeois critiques of Stalinism that sought to pin all historical atrocities on struggles by the working class, and to avoid having to face the problem of the funding of fascism and all its horrors by capitalism.

To the unwary, this kind of anthropomorphic dialectic might have seemed to have been endorsed by Marx’s original concept of the contradiction between the forces and the relations of production (in capitalist society), which in turn is based upon the fact of the existence of the laboring worker that capital produces "as its own gravedigger." But it is important to note that Marx’s economic contradiction cannot be the same kind as that of the "dialectics of nature" as was expressed by Engels.

We must look at this more closely:

Engels clearly understood dialectics to be 1) a process of thought (representing the real) and 2) a process intrinsic to matter itself (as a physical or even meta-physical process). Can there be a third kind, where there is a dialectical economic antagonism? If so, it cannot be a dialectic of thought or of matter (physics).

If we take the dialectic to be a method or a system of thought that allows us to analyze and explain the antagonism in capitalism between the forces and relations of production, then we are obviously "thinking the problem through dialectically" rather than proposing that a dialectical contradiction is inherent to this actual economic situation. Although, certainly, we can see that the forces and relations of production in capitalist society do come into actual antagonism with each other, this cannot be the same kind of dialectical contradiction as Engels’ "matter in motion" type of contradiction, which is an actual part of the physical laws of nature. This is because the laws of nature are permanent, while the human rules and regulations governing the economy are temporary, so any dialectic of the same kind would also be temporary, an antagonism born of the clash of economic conventions. These conventions are relatively binding (by human law and by force in the last instance), certainly, but they are not physical laws of nature.

It has to be said, with all due respect, that in the past some important Marxist figures have sometimes mixed up the former with the latter kind of contradiction, or failed to make adequate distinctions. I believe this is true of Mao (leading to problems in the theory and practice of the Cultural Revolution) and of Trotsky sometimes, as well as being a feature, as Althusser explained, of Stalinist orthodoxy, though I can only comment on in passing that Stalin himself in his little book "On Linguistics" is not a "Stalinist" in this respect, in fact this book is against such a position, which is a peculiar conundrum.

Althusser makes a defense of Marx’s original materialist dialectic.

According to Althusser: "the [genuinely Marxist] contradiction" that leads to a revolution is never simple (e.g. mechanistic), but is constituted by many determinations and contradictions arising from different sources. Although these all derive from the relations of production, the contradictions are different and have their own consistency and effectivity. They merge into a real unity, he says, but are not in Hegelian fashion "dissipated" in this due to "cumulative internalization."

In his book For Marx, Althusser says: “…the simplicity of the Hegelian [Idealist] contradiction is made possible only by the simplicity of the internal principle that constitutes the essence of any historical period”; in this way he shows (as Marx did before him) that the Hegelian dialectic can never definitely be anything but the most abstract form of an epoch’s consciousness of itself: "its religious or philosophical consciousness, that is, its own ideology."

Against this, he explains that the materialist dialectic determines, but is also determined itself by the various levels and instances of the total social formation that it animates. He called this "overdetermination," a term he borrowed from Freudian psychoanalysis.

In fact, he sometimes also called this process "aleatory materialism," referring to the element of chance that is allowed, now, to be factored in. Chiefly this latter move was to avoid any too vulgar an idea of an "inevitable progress," seen as a mystical destiny or fate. He never actually abandons philosophical determinism with the introduction of overdetermination; it is important to note this because not a few later interpretations have emphasized the role of chance at the expense of determinism. For instance some non-determinist Marxism, known as postmodern materialism, refers to Althusser’s concept of overdetermination principally as anti-deterministic. This is wrong, for, according to Althusser, it is the principle of overdetermination, i.e. in the sense of more complex material determination, which distinguishes a truly Marxist concept of contradiction from a Hegelian one. It also distinguishes it from vulgar mechanism: Marxist determinism recognizes that mechanical cause and effect by itself enters into a metaphysics that cannot explain anything in the end except by some form of absolute first mover, and that the opposite ideology of total freedom from necessity ends up as chains that bind us to a universal "anything goes," which likewise ultimately explains nothing and allows reasonless discrimination. Dialectical materialism sees and articulates the paradox in this: for it, recognizing necessity brings freedom, because in this (Epicurean) way the human subject is able to enter into necessity as a determinant.

Althusser’s overdetermination is a recognition of the latter kind of determinism.

But, it seems to be the case, though, that in Althusser, although he critiques the Hegelian dialectic in its survival in certain Marxisms, he was unable to fully divest himself of an attachment to a unitary dialectic producing an effect that was somehow something different from the mundane material antagonism between forces and relations of production. This mundane effect is an effect which comes about only because an integral part of those relations and forces are material-creative human beings, self-aware subjects who become, so to speak, the nodal repositories of all the social stresses at large in society. These nodes feel antagonistic to their economic existence and not necessarily their ontological existence; though the two can be and are often confused, because of course they are always lived simultaneously.

All this is to be found in Marx’s 1844 Notebooks, but Althusser had, I think, misunderstood them; in these texts he only found Feuerbach’s language and problematic reflected, not finding what Feuerbach had donated, so to speak, to Marx. The Marx of 1844 was therefore only "an avant-garde Feuerbachian applying an ethical problematic to the understanding of human history." It is indeed difficult to assess the profound synthesis of both Hegel and Feuerbach at the same time that appears in early Marx (and "keeps going") without ejecting essential parts of the influence of either. In particular Feuerbach’s contribution is often, I suggest, underplayed and/or misunderstood. Insofar as I refer to Althusser’s error here, I think we find a misapplication of his own dialectical philosophy in the terms he uses, such as "epistemological break" and "rupture." It is as if he willfully seeks a total scission for Marx from Marx’s predecessors (a "true" Marx in an almost religious sense), rather than a development through thesis/antithesis and synthesis.

What we seem to have noticed here, then, is a fundamental antagonism between two different kinds of dialectical process: the economic-historical and the natural-historical, the latter being embodied in the physiology of the human body, the sense and feelings of our species. The economic contradiction only exists because it is, after all, people who live out the economy and for which it functions (though we might easily forget this in a world of credit default swaps and hedge funds). Thus, although the economy works in a postmodern sense as a process without a subject (i.e. it does not have a sense of itself or a "guiding spirit"), as Althusser admitted, and cannot be separated from the effects that this process has on subjectivity, the person is also a physical, feeling, passionate being, which cannot be reduced to this economic node as its "economic consciousness" alone. So, while the worker (like all subjects) may indeed only be a kind of point in a matrix, the class of workers is at the same time a network of physical-feeling and suffering beings.

It seems that we must think of each "node," each unit, as at the same time a part of a "wave," as with the dual particle/wave nature of matter in modern physics, so that we avoid economically "atomizing" away this level of human feeling (I have put forward the concept of the "aesthetic level" for this reason). Indeed, it is absolutely compulsory to the Marxist concept of class itself, which is nothing if not a group of people with commonality in feelings based in their relationship to their labor. This (rather descriptive, I must confess) way of understanding is of course a modification of Newtonian mechanics through an Einsteinian subtlety, without losing materialism or determination on the way.

Photo: courtesy Wikimedia Commons, cc by 3.0

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