[OPE-L] Where "dialectical materialism" really comes from

From: Jurriaan Bendien (adsl675281@TISCALI.NL)
Date: Fri Nov 03 2006 - 16:26:13 EST

A few points which I researched in 1981. The truth is, Friedrich Engels
never once referred to "dialectical materialism" and published no systematic
doctrine about it, he referred only specifically to "the materialist

It was in particular George Plekhanov, the "father of Russian Marxism" who
first extrapolated the notion of "dialectical materialism" as a more general
metaphysic in "The Materialist Conception of History" (1891) and subsequent
writings. Various popular and educational tracts were being written by
socialists around that time about the new secular vision on history - one
has to bear in mind an historical context in which masses of ordinary people
did not have a scientific or advanced secular education, and the influence
of religion was still very strong.

Most of the manuscript of Engels's own speculations in "Dialectics of
Nature" was probably written between 1872 and 1882. Eduard Bernstein then
inherited this manuscript for the German Social Democrats in 1895, and in
1924 (i.e. some 30 years later!) submitted it to Albert Einstein, who didn't
think it made any real dent in modern physics, but replied politely it was
worth publishing anyway. David Riazanov of the Marx-Engels Institute in
Moscow first edited and published it in 1927.

So really "dialectical materialism" as a general philosophical doctrine or
cosmology had nothing much to do with Marx and Engels themselves, it was a
specifically "Marxist" innovation and interpretation, which already emerged
long before the "Dialectics of Nature" manuscript was in fact published.

Whether Marx and Engels would have endorsed a doctrine of dialectical
materialism they didn't invent is difficult to prove - but, usually, they
were very wary and critical of all "general philosophies" in their later
years, and demanded careful empirical and scientific inquiry as the correct
basis for generalisations. In this respect, their mutual correspondence
shows how much Engels tried to adjust his interpretations of scientific
findings to what his co-thinker Marx thought.

The articles collectively published as "Anti-Duhring" specifically aimed to
criticise the "world schematism" of academic systematisers and pedants, and
it could be argued that Marx & Engels by and large abandoned philosophy as
such, in favour of social scientific inquiry, after their criticism of the
Hegelians finished. If the question of philosophy arose again, it was that
many leftists in the 1880s and 1890s were philosophising about a new "world
view" which invited a critical response.

Likewise Marx warned Russian enthusiasts against extrapolating his theory
into a "philosophy about the general march of world history".

As against that, Marx also said that he wanted to publish a short text on
dialectical thinking was really about (like Engels, he never did), and he
remained influenced by Hegel's conceptualisations with which he "coquetted"
his exposition in Das Kapital Vol. 1.

The most explicit hard evidence of what Marx and Engels really thought,
appears in Engels's published retro articles on "Ludwig Feuerbach and the
End of Classical German Philosophy" (1886). The title is telling. Engels
wrote specifically that:

"today natural philosophy is finally disposed of. Every attempt at
resurrecting it would be not only superfluous but a step backwards. But what
is true of nature, which is hereby recognized also as a historical process
of development, is likewise true of the history of society in all its
branches and of the totality of all sciences which occupy themselves with
things human (and divine)."


"This [new] conception, however, puts an end to philosophy in the realm of
history, just as the dialectical conception of nature makes all natural
philosophy both unnecessary and impossible. It is no longer a question
anywhere of inventing interconnections from out of our brains, but of
discovering them in the facts. For philosophy, which has been expelled from
nature and history, there remains only the realm of pure thought, so far as
it is left: the theory of the laws of the thought process itself, logic and

That idea is I think probably the real theoretical reason why he did not
himself actually publish his personal speculations about the dialectical
character of the natural world that he had abandoned four years earlier, and
not simply the circumstance of Marx's death in 1883, as Z.A. Jordan argues.

Engels wasn't a natural scientist himself, and not really in any position to
pronounce credibly on the dialectical nature of everything, whatever his
great authority among socialists (although he apparently indicated to the
ailing Marx in 1882 that he intended to publish something on it). Had he
published this after 1886, in between other writing projects, he would
obviously have flatly contradicted his own published views in the "Ludwig
Feuerbach" pamphlet about the "end of philosophy". This point is largely
unnoticed in the scholarly literature on the topic.

An ambiguity however remains, which sharpens up the issue of this
intellectual legacy: how could you say that philosophy had more or less
"ended" in the field of history and the natural world, and yet propose a
"materialist world view" ? Why was that world view not "philosophical"?
There was a tension here between science and ideology.

The only way out for Marx & Engels, would be to argue that this world view
would consist exclusively of valid (perhaps "dialectical") generalisations
from the new scientific evidence. I think that is precisely what they
believed. But even then, why was there no room for ethical inquiry in
philosophy, given that human beings are inescapably moral beings? Why limit
philosophy to the "laws of the thought process"? Engels was a bit
hasty here in his dismissal I would think.

In any case, all this indicates that the extrapolation of dialectical
materialism as a grand metaphysical cosmology was a specifically "Marxist"
doctrinal development, arising quite independently from Marx and Engels, and
aiming to provide a complete alternative to (christian) religious views and
superstition, still very influential at the time.

In the 1920s, Joseph Stalin received private tuition from an academic
consultant in Hegelian dialectics, and most probably Stalin had this teacher
liquidated after the lessons finished (see e.g. Anton Antonov-Ovseyenko's
testimony in "The Time of Stalin"). By 1938, dialectical materialism had
become an official bureaucratic philosophy in the Soviet Union. I think
personally that Marx and Engels would have opposed all that utterly and
completely; it was the complete opposite of their intellectual and political

Still, old ideas linger on, long after the real historical context is
falsified or forgotten, as a sort of myth which is satisfying to some


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