An opening given by Peter Hendy to the New Worker Supporters Group meeting in Manchester on 6th March 2008.

Materialism versus idealism

The philosophy of Marxism is materialism, wrote Lenin. Philosophy itself fits into two great ideological camps: materialism and idealism. Before we proceed, even these terms need an explanation. To begin with, materialism and idealism have nothing whatsoever in common with their everyday usage, where materialism is associated with material greed and swindling (in short, the morality of present day capitalism) and idealism with high ideals and virtue. Far from it!

Philosophical materialism is the outlook which explains that there is only one material world. There is no heaven or hell. The universe, which is not the creation of a supernatural being, is in the process of constant flux. Human beings are part of nature and evolved from lower forms of life, whose origins sprung from a lifeless planet some 3.6 billion years ago.

With the evolution of life, at a certain stage, came the development of animals with a nervous system and eventually human beings with a large brain. With humans emerged human thought and consciousness. The human brain alone is capable of producing general ideas in other words thinking. Therefore matter, which existed eternally, existed and still exists independently of the mind and human beings. Things existed long before any awareness of them arose or could have arisen on the part of living organisms. For materialists there is no consciousness apart from the living brain, which is part of the material body. A mind without a body is an absurdity; matter is not a product of mind but mind itself is the highest product of matter. Ideas are simply a reflection of the independent material world that surrounds us. Things reflected in a mirror do not depend on this reflection for their existence. All ideas are taken from experience, are reflections true or distorted of reality, states Engels. Or, to use the words of Marx, life is not determined by consciousness, but consciousness by life.

Marxists do not deny that mind, consciousness, thought, will, feeling or sensation are real. What materialists deny is that the thing called the mind exists separately from the body. Mind is not distinct from the body. Thinking is the product of the brain, which is the organ of thought.

Yet this does not mean that our consciousness is a lifeless mirror of nature. Human beings relate to their surroundings; they are aware of their surroundings and react accordingly. While rooted in material conditions, human beings generalise and think creatively. They in turn change their material surroundings.

On the other hand, philosophical idealism states that the material world is not real but is simply the reflection of the world of ideas. There are different forms of idealism, but all essentially explain that ideas are primary and matter, if it exists at all, secondary. For the idealists, ideas are dissevered from matter, from nature. This is Hegels conception of the Absolute idea or what amounts to God. Philosophical idealism opens the road, in one way or another, to the defence or support for religion and superstition.

Not only is this outlook false, it is also profoundly conservative, leading to the pessimistic conclusion that we can never understand the mysterious ways of the world. Whereas materialism understands that human beings not only observe the real world, but can change it, and in doing so, change themselves.

The materialist outlook has a long history stretching back to the ancient Greeks of Anaxagoras (around 500-428 BC) and Democritus (around 460-370 BC). Only after the reawakening of thought following the demise of the Christian Middle Ages was there a revival of philosophy and natural science. From the 17th century the home of modern materialism was England. The real progenitor of English materialism was Bacon, wrote Marx.

The materialism of Francis Bacon (1561-1626) was then systematised and developed by Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679), whose ideas were in turn developed by John Locke (1632-1704). The latter already thought it possible that matter could possess the faculty of thinking. It is no accident that these advances in human thought coincided with the rise of the bourgeoisie and great advances in science, particularly mechanics, astronomy and medicine.

These great thinkers in turn provided the breakthrough for the brilliant school of French materialists of the 18th century. It was their materialism and rationalism that became the creed of the great French Revolution on 1789. These revolutionary thinkers recognised no external authority; everything from religion to natural science, from society to political institutions, was subjected to the jost searching criticism. Reason became the measure of everything.

This materialist philosophy, consistently championed by Holbach (1723-1789) and Helvetius, was a revolutionary philosophy. The universe is a vast unity of everything that is, everywhere it shows us only matter in movement, states Holbach. This is all that there is and it displays only an infinite and continuous chain of causes and actions; some of these causes we know, since they immediately strike our senses; others we do not know since they act on us only by means of consequences, quite remote from first causes.

This rational philosophy was an ideological reflection of the revolutionary bourgeoisies struggle against the church, the aristocracy and the absolute monarchy. It represented a fierce attack on the ideology of the Old Order. In the end the kingdom of Reason became nothing more than nothing more than the idealised kingdom of the bourgeoisie. Bourgeois property became one of the essential rights of man. The revolutionary materialists paved the way for the new bourgeois society and the domination of new private property forms.

The new materialism, although a revolutionary advance, tended to be very rigid and mechanical. These new philosophers attacked the church and denied the self-sufficiency of the soul and held that man was simply a material body as all other animals and inorganic bodies.

For the French materialists the origin of knowledge the discovery of objective truth lay through the action of nature on our senses. The planets and humanitys place within the solar system and nature itself was fixed. For them it was a clockwork world, where everything had its logical static place and where the impulse for movement came from outside.

The whole approach, while materialist, was mechanical and failed to grasp the living reality of the world. It could not grasp the universe as a process, as matter undergoing continuous change. This weakness led to the false dichotomy between the material world and the world of ideas. And this dualism opened the door to idealism.

Dialectics and metaphysics

The Marxist view of the world is not only materialist but also dialectical. The dialectical method is simply an attempt to understand more clearly our real independent world. Dialectics, says Engels in Anti-Dhrung, is nothing more that the science of the general laws of motion and development of nature, human society and thought. Put simply, it is the logic of motion.

It is obvious to jost people that we do not live in a static world. In fact everything in nature is in a state of constant change. Motion is the mode of existence of matter, states Engels. Never, anywhere, has there been matter without motion, nor can there be. The Earth revolves continuously around its axis and in turn itself revolves around the sun. This results in day and night and the different seasons that we experience throughout the year. We are born, grow up, grow old and eventually die. Everything is moving, changing, either rising and developing or declining and dying away. Any equilibrium is only relative and only has meaning in relation to other forms of motion.

When we consider and reflect upon 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 reactions, permutations and combinations, in which nothing remains what, where and as it was, but everything moves, changes comes into being and passes away, says Engels. We see, therefore, at first the picture as a whole, with it 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. This primitive, nave but intrinsically correct conception of the world is that of ancient Greek philosophy, and was first clearly formulated by Heraclites: everything is and is not, for everything is fluid, is constantly changing, constantly coming into being and passing away.

To the metaphysician things and their mental reflexes, ideas, are isolated, are to be considered one after the other and apart from each other, are objects of investigation fixed, rigid, given once and for all, states Engels.

Dialectics, on the other hand, comprehends things in their connection, development and motion. As far as Engels was concerned, Nature is the proof of dialectics.

Here is how Engels described the rich processes of change in his book The Dialectic of Nature: Matter moves in an eternal cycle, completing its trajectory in a period so vast that in comparison with it our earthly year is as nothing; in a cycle in which the period of highest development, namely the period of organic life with its crowning achievement self-consciousness is a space just as comparatively minute in the history of life and self-consciousness; in a cycle in which every particular form of the existence of matter be it the sun or a nebula, a particular animal or animal-species, a chemical combination or decomposition is equally in transition; in a cycle in which nothing is eternal, except eternally changing, eternally moving matter and the laws of movement and change.

Along with and following the French philosophy of the 18th century arose a new radical German philosophy. The culmination of this philosophy was epitomised by the system of George F Hegel, who had greatly admired the French Revolution. Hegel, although an idealist, was the jost encyclopaedic mind of his age. The great contribution of this genius was the rescuing of the dialectical mode of thought originally developed by the ancient Greek philosophers some 2,000 years before.

Hegel systematically outlined the important laws of change and developed the theory of dialectics as an overall philosophy. Marx and Engels regarded his work as the greatest achievement of classical German philosophy.

Marx and Engels deepened and developed philosophical materialism. They developed three broad interconnected laws of dialectics from Hegels work, each of which is continually at work. These give us the insight into how society develops and what theoretical and practical tasks confront us as revolutionaries seeking to build the forces to overthrow capitalism.

To be continued.