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

From: Jurriaan Bendien (adsl675281@TISCALI.NL)
Date: Mon Jan 29 2007 - 12:39:06 EST

Briefly, Dietzgen, whom Marx referred to in a friendly way as "our
philosopher", is usually credited with originating the notion of dialectical
materialism, more or less independently from Marx & Engels, because he was
the first to publish explicitly about a "dialectical-materialist conception"
[dialektisch-materialistischen Auffassung] of man and world.

However two points can be noted - 1) Dietzgen did not, as far as I recall,
explicitly use the term "dialectical materialism" in describing his
philosophy, and 2) his idea of a materialist world view differed in some
respects from subsequent interpretations. Thus, for example, Anton Pannekoek
claimed that Lenin's philosophical materialism was really quite different
from that of Marx & Engels. It was to my knowledge Plekhanov who first
explicitly mentioned "dialectical materialism" as a philosophical world
view, though from the 1870s onwards, there were quite a few authors with
similar ideas. One of the main aims of this philosophical activity was to
dispell religious or superstitious views, and provide a coherent, secular
philosophical alternative in a popular way.

In the 1980s, I delved into the literature to understand better what all
this stuff was about, but I discovered that there was actually a very wide
range of different interpretations under the general heading of "dialectical
materialism". An eloquent modern defense of diamat in English is a book by
John Hoffman, "Marxism and the theory of praxis" (Lawrence & Wishart).

As I said before, I think Marx & Engels eventually ditched the
philosophical/metaphysical mode of inquiry in favour of
practical-experiential verification and scientific research, although they
continued to mention the "materialist viewpoint on historical processes".
This involved drawing a distinction between what people "imagined" or
"thought" about themselves and their activity, in a more or less ideological
way, and their real activity, the real relationships involved and the real
forces impelling
human behaviour, which could be empirically verified. People often acted
without being truly aware of what they were doing or why, or without knowing
the full implications of their actions. There were all sorts of gradations
of consciousness, and possibly what was really happening would be
established only later. Thus for example Marx mentions the example of
trade - people trade first, and only later do they develop theoretical
generalisations out of that experience, about what really regulates that

The "dialectical" aspect consisted in grasping the interaction between
practical-material reality and the ideas people developed about it - how for
instance ideas could become detached from the context in which they arose,
and how they reacted back on it. This did not mean at all a denial of the
force of ideas and the human spirit, it was only a question of appropriately
contextualising ideas and spiritual concerns, within the circumstances
within which they arose, the real background or setting of those ideas or
concerns. That was a specific question, not to be resolved through "general"
philosophical disquisitions about the "relationship between thought and
being" and suchlike.

In a way, this stance by Marx & Engels is similar to Richard Rorty's
rejection of the project of epistemology, i.e. the rejection of the idea of
philosophers setting up general standards for human knowledge through
philosophical inquiry.

Philosophy is often defined as "the study of the most general questions
concerning human beings and the universe", and to the extent that these
general questions are always being asked, the propensity to philosophize
could be considered part of the human condition. However I think Marx &
Engels' real concern was specifically with how generalisations were arrived
at - they developed a distaste for philosophers who more or less
speculatively built "theoretical systems" or acted as though they could
divine the truth independently of practical-experiential verification, and
independently of participation in the things they were philosophizing about.
The question was no longer one of whether it was possible to obtain
knowledge of something, but how to go about it, and the latter question
could not be resolved through philosophizing, because it was essentially a
practical-experiential question.

Nevertheless as I said, an ambiguity remained in Marx & Engels's rejection
of philosophical inquiry as being mainly "ideology", insofar as a
"materialist world view" (however defined) is itself also a philosophical
abstraction, to the extent that it is a generalisation which goes beyond
verifiable experience, and guides it. It left open the question of how
theory could or should guide practice. Moreover, no political party could
function effectively without a set of shared values and perspectives, nor
could e.g. legal systems function without some notion of jurisprudence.
Thus, Marx & Engels actually left the door wide open for a specifically
philosophical elaboration of their new perspective, up to the most rigid
"orthodox Marxist" doctrines, in spite of their documented rejection of the
philosophical mode of inquiry.


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