Communism and Philosophy:
Contemporary Dogmas and Revisions of Marxism

Maurice Cornforth


Part Two: The Theoretical Foundations of Marxism

Chapter 1: Roots of Dogmatic Marxism

1. Lenin  on “the teaching of Marx”

In an article called The Three Sources and Three Components of Marxism (1913) and again in an article on Karl Marx (1914) which he contributed to a Russian encyclopaedia, Lenin said that Marxism took shape by assimilating and criticising the results of previous philosophy, political economy and projects of social reform. He made particular reference to the “sources” of Marxism in German (Hegelian) philosophy, English political economy and French revolutionary socialist theory. And corresponding to the “three sources” he distinguished “the three component parts” of Marxist theory—philosophy, political economy and the doctrine of class struggle and the tactics of proletarian class struggle.

In this compartmentalismg of Marxist theory (or “teaching”, as Lenin called it) it is made to seem that in Marxism there is a structure of basic philosophical theory and its application—namely, dialectical and historical materialism as basic theory, then its application in political economy, and then application in the doctrine of class struggle. In this structural schematism, the whole theory of historical materialism gets included in “philosophy”, as basic theory. And it was this representation of Marxism as consisting of basic theory plus its applications which was later to be used for purposes of converting Marxism into a dogma.

“The teaching of Marx,” Lenin wrote in the Three Sources article, “. . . is complete and harmonious, providing men with a consistent view of the universe.” It came “as a direct and immediate continuation of the teaching of the greatest representatives of philosophy, political economy and socialism”, and was “the legitimate successor of the best that has been created by humanity in the nineteenth century—German philosophy, English political economy and French socialism.”

In line with all this, he stated in the article on Karl Marx: “Marxism is the system of the views and teachings of Marx. Marx was the genius who continued and completed the three chief ideological currents of the nineteenth century, represented respectively by the three most advanced countries of humanity: classical German philosophy, classical English political economy, and French socialism combined with French revolutionary doctrines.”

In the Three Sources article Lenin immediately concluded that, corresponding to the “three sources”, the “teaching of Marx” was divided into “three component parts”. So it was to be expounded as a “teaching” on philosophy, a “teaching” on political economy, and a “teaching” on class struggle and (as he expressed it in the article on Karl Marx) “the tactics of the class struggle of the proletariat”.

“The philosophy of Marxism,” the Three Sources article continued, “is materialism. . . enriched by . . . dialectics, i.e. the doctrine of development in its fuller, deeper form, free from one-sidedness—the doctrine also of the relativity of human knowledge which provides us with a reflection of eternally developing matter.” In the article on Karl Marx Lenin further explained that “according to Marx”—and then he quotes not Marx but Engels, in a passage taken from the latter’s booklet Ludwig Feuerbach—dialectics is “the science of the general laws of motion both of the external world and of human thought”.

Following on this, Lenin laid it down that “while deepening and developing philosophical materialism, Marx carried it to its conclusion; he extended its perception of nature to the perception of human society”. The latter “perception” was summed up in the “teachings” of historical materialism. “The historical materialism of Marx,” he added, “represented the greatest conquest of scientific thought . . . a strikingly consistent and harmonious scientific theory, which shows how out of one order of social life another and higher order develops. . . .”

Thus Lenin presented Marxist materialist philosophy, or “dialectical materialism”, as what he called a “perception of nature”—or, in other words, as a “philosophy of nature” which presents it as “eternally developing matter”.

He explained that “historical materialism” is arrived at by “extending” this philosophy of nature by concluding or completing it with a general theory about human society and its development. It is thus that Marxist philosophy finishes up, when its “perception” is “extended” to embrace not only nature but also human society, with “a complete and harmonious view of the universe”, or of the material universe as a whole with human society in it, all developing in accordance with “the general laws of motion” revealed by “dialectics”.

These “teachings” of “dialectical and historical materialism” make up, in this exposition by Lenin, the “philosophy” component of “the system of teachings about the development of “the economic order of society” which, according to historical materialism, must constitute the “basis” on which “political institutions are the superstructure”; and finally by conclusions drawn as to “class struggle” in general, as consequent on economic development, and the “tactics of the class struggle of the proletariat” in particular.

2. The negation of classical German philosophy

It is a fact that “three sources” for the development of Marxist theory are to be found in Marx’s critical study and assimilation of “German philosophy, English political economy and French socialism”. But because these were “three sources”, it does not follow that they have been each “continued and completed” in a three-part structure of “teachings” such as Lenin describes.

Did Marx really, one may ask, “continue and complete” the work begun by “classical German philosophy” by propounding a general account of the material universe as a whole as “eternally developing matter” and then “extending” this general philosophy of nature to embrace the development, within the material universe, of human society? Did he really then apply the basic philosophical “teachings” of dialectical and historical materialism, which “continued and completed” the effort of “classical German philosophy”, by providing a “doctrine” of political economy to complete the work of “classical English political economy”, and a “doctrine of class struggle” to complete the work of “French revolutionary socialism”? And did this really constitute a systematic three-part theoretical structure providing a “complete and consistent view of the universe”?

The key element in Lenin’s structuring of “the teachings of Marx” was the account rendered of “Marxist materialist philosophy”, that is, of “dialectical and historical materialism”. It was this which was used to convert Marxist theory into a dogma—the dogma of “the complete, harmonious, consistent system of the views and teachings of Marx”. For it “provided” the dogmatically stated “view of the universe” within which everything happens in accordance with “general laws of motion”.

Hegel, in what was called “classical German philosophy”, had appeared to provide just such a “view of the universe” when he “taught” that all development is determined by the “dialectic” of “the Idea” from which the universe allegedly springs. Marx himself, in his early writings where he first stated his opposition to Hegel, declared that this “philosophy” which sought speculatively and in terms of abstract concepts to determine the necessary nature of the universe, the “ultimate truth”, as Hegel called it, must be “negated” (see his Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Law). But if, as Lenin suggested, Marx had “negated” it only by substituting “matter” for “spirit” in the Hegelian system, he would not effectively have “negated” it at all. He would only have “continued and completed” the Hegelian system by supplying a variant inverted version of it, in which “matter” changed places with “spirit” and “materialism” was substituted for “idealism” as “the ultimate truth”.

Marx’s “negation” of “classical German philosophy” was in effect the “negation”, too, of the entire traditional conception of “philosophy” as the “ultimate truth” about the “universe” providing the “basis” for every theory about everything discoverable inside “the universe”. The “classical German philosophy” was Marx's “source”, or point of departure, in as much as he assimilated and studied it in order, as he himself said, to “negate” it. He did not “continue and complete” it by setting up a better version of universal philosophy by converting an “idealist” speculation about “the universe” into a “materialist” one.

Marx himself had much better grounds for the conclusions of historical materialism about “how out of one order of social life another and higher order develops” than that they followed by “extending” into considerations about society a general philosophical speculation about nature or “eternally developing matter”. He arrived at it by opposing to Hegel’s philosophical speculations, and to all other such speculations, the use of methods and concepts of science to reach conclusions about observable processes of nature and society and the practicalities of our actual social life. This was a totally different procedure from his alleged arrival at it by opposing to Hegel’s speculations about “the universe” a contrary set of philosophical speculations.

3. Lenin and Engels on philosophy

When Lenin laid it down that the whole of Marxist “teachings” should be expounded as theoretically based on the universal philosophy of “dialectical materialism”, it was notably to writings by Engels rather than by Marx that he appealed as the authority.

Both Marx and Engels had, from the beginning of their collaboration in 1844, described their common approach and way of understanding things as “materialist” and “dialectical”, and so spoken of “materialism” and “dialectics” as fundamental in their common “philosophy”. But it was Engels who, from the middle 1870s, began to expound “dialectical materialism” (though he did not yet use the term, which was invented by disciples) as a system of philosophy, superseding all the systems of the past, “Materialism” was distinguished as the doctrine that the universe consists of “matter in motion”, or “eternally developing matter”, with one “form of motion of matter” developing into another. And “dialectics” was defined as the special “science of the laws of motion, both of the external world and of human thought”.

Nevertheless, study of Engels’ “philosophical” writings makes it quite clear that Engels no more than Marx was proposing to set up “dialectical materialism” as a universal speculation similar to but opposed to Hegel’s.

Three works of his are relevant—his posthumously published notebooks on The Dialectics of Nature, which originated from his telling Marx in a letter dated May 30, 1873, that “in bed this morning the following dialectical ideas on the natural sciences came into my head”; the first part of Anti-Dühring, 1878; and the booklet Ludwig Feuerbach and the Outcome of Classical German Philosophy, 1888. And in these it is clear that what he was trying to do was to draw some general conclusions about the “material” nature of “being”, and “the relation of thinking and being”, from what had already in his day been established in the natural sciences as scientific theory about “nature”, derived from the investigation of natural processes, and about “society” in the studies of social processes initiated by Marx and himself.

Engels never suggested that a general philosophical system of “the universe” would provide the “theoretical basis” for scientifically comprehending everything inside “the universe”. On the contrary, he suggested that when scientific ways of investigating and comprehending our actual social life and environing nature were carried far enough, then this would provide a general scientifically-based view of “the universe”, which would then dispel all earlier philosophical speculations and stand opposed to every attempt to revive and continue them.

In the article Karl Marx Lenin quoted Engels (from the Introduction to Anti-Dühring) as saying that “dialectical materialism ‘no longer needs any philosophy standing above the other sciences’”. But he quoted this statement by Engels only incidentally, and scarcely considered its implications beyond rather cryptically remarking that “dialectics includes what is now called the theory of cognition, or gnoseology, a science . . . studying and generalising the origin and development of cognition . . .”. Marx, in an Afterword to the first volume of Capital, had written about how, with Hegel, “dialectic” was “standing on its head”. But it is to stand the whole of “cognition” on its head to say that a general “cognition” of the nature of the universe is the basis for “cognition” of actual processes of nature and society. And it is to stand Marx’ and Engels’ scientific “cognition” of human affairs on its head to represent it as arrived at by “extending” a very general “cognition” of the material nature of the universe into a more particularised “cognition” of mankind and human society.

Engels did make out—misleadingly, as I shall later argue—that universal conclusions about “matter in motion” and “laws of dialectics” could be arrived at by generalising, in a kind of philosophical induction, from the findings of the sciences in the “cognition” of both nature and society. But at the same time, and while doing this, he insisted that no system of universal philosophy was to be set up “standing above the other sciences”. It was left to Lenin to insist upon “dialectical materialism” as the philosophical premise for all the rest of Marxist “teachings”, so that a system of philosophy came to be instated (to quote a subsequent dictum from Stalin’s Dialectical and Historical Materialism) as “the world outlook of the Marxist-Leninist party”.

How and why did this come about? It was the product of Lenin’s opposition to the “revisionism” growing up in the Second International and of his efforts (which proved so successful) to consolidate the organisation of the Bolshevik Party in Russia.

The essential elements of what came to be called “revisionism” (so called when some of the leaders of the avowedly Marxist German Social-Democratic Party started up an inner-party campaign to “revise” Marxism) had been for long opposed by Marx and Engels themselves, and by Engels after Marx’s death. In effect, they amounted to the view that the working class would most effectively win benefits by policies of class-collaboration, and by the working-class party seeking by purely constitutional and legalistic means to take over the existing system of government so as to legislate measures of reform. Revisionism acquired, however, a philosophical dimension. Those who favoured such opportunist and reformist policies justified them by appeals to bourgeois doctrines of political economy and sociology as against the Marxist ideas of class struggle and social revolution. They began, accordingly, to oppose various ideas taken from post-Hegelian bourgeois philosophy, which were closely associated with corresponding bourgeois political and economic theory, against Marx’ and Engels’ ideas of “materialism” and “dialectics”—against the social theory of historical materialism and Engels’ formulations of “dialectical materialism”, which they then claimed had been superseded by the latest discoveries in the natural and social sciences, and in philosophy too.

It was this rather random philosophising of the “revisionists” that Lenin decided to counteract by positing “dialectical and historical materialism” as the basic “component part” in the “teachings” of a genuinely revolutionary working-class (or “proletarian”) party. If the “revisionists” dabbled in bourgeois philosophy as a by-product of their opportunism and reformism in political practice, Lenin decided that authoritative revolutionary “teachings” on philosophy must be propagated as the theoretical basis for genuinely revolutionary political organisation and antidote against opportunism and reformism in the working-class movement.

4. Marxist theory and the teaching of Marxist theory

Following this development, a major reason for setting up a structure of Marxist theory, such as Lenin outlined in his articles on Three Sources and on Karl Marx, lay in the need to expound and to teach an orthodox Marxism.

For didactic educational purposes there has to be a curriculum, a division of subject-matter, some sort of systematic compartmentalising for exposition and teaching. With Marxism, this structuring was imposed, first of all, to expound and teach the authentic doctrine to party members, and then to disseminate it more widely among the masses. And for this purpose it was represented as founded on a universal philosophy which was “applied” in teachings about society, the economic development of society, the class struggle and the tactics of the proletariat in its class struggle against the bourgeoisie. Eventually, after the Russian Revolution, the teaching of Marxism became a matter of state-controlled public education in schools and institutes of higher education—and then the structuring was made more rigid and more authoritative, with basic courses of “dialectical and historical materialism” or “Marxist‑Leninist philosophy”.

But the intellectual processes in which the theory was actually developed, and continues to be developed, in the work of original theorising, investigation and criticism, are one thing—and a structure of theory set up for purposes of expounding and teaching it quite another. The structure imposed upon the theory as taught and converted into a system of “teachings” can make it, and in fact has made it, into something different from the theory as actually developed and developing for use to inform social practice.

In Lenin’s books, pamphlets, articles and speeches (all of which may be consulted in his Collected Works) there is (broadly, though not of course without overlap) a tripartite division into those (the greater part) in which he was developing and defending party policy on various issues, those in which he was engaged in various researches and theoretical controversies, and those of a more didactic kind in which he was providing outlines for the teaching of Marxism.

The latter writings, his few purely didactic ones, are somewhat out of tune with the rest. The grandiloquent phraseology of “complete and harmonious teaching”, “consistent view of the universe”, “Marx was the genius”, “materialism enriched by dialectics”, “greatest conquest of scientific thought”, “strikingly consistent and harmonious theory”, and the like, is alien to the clear, modest and genuinely forceful language used in most of Lenin’s writings and speeches.

Furthermore, what he didactically laid down as the “complete and harmonious teaching” of materialist dialectics is not what is suggested by the deeply thought-out, original and much more convincing observations about dialectics made in his own Philosophical Notebooks (compiled very soon after he wrote the encyclopaedia article on Karl Marx), in speeches (notably Once more on the trade unions) made in the heat of internal party controversy after the Revolution, or, for that matter, in some passages in the section on “Dialectics” in the article on Karl Marx itself.

Since the Russian Revolution, Lenin’s few didactic writings have been enormously influential and authoritative. It is high time that the “Leninist” didactic structuring of “the system of teachings of Marx” was put in question.*

* While I have begun by attacking what I have called the “didactic” writings by Lenin, and stressed their negative role in “dogmatic” Marxism, I have not suggested in these books that Lenin’s contribution to Marxism was to make it into a “dogma”. Lenin’s contribution to Marxism, ignoring such unfortunate pronouncements as he was responsible for in such articles as The Three Sources and Three Principal Components is, indeed, treated of in a later chapter about “Ideological illusions of Marxism”. I have particularly stressed that Lenin was the major source of understanding of “dialectics”.

Marxist theory did not, of course, come into the world ready-made and complete. It was developed in various ways by Marx and Engels, and then awaited further development—which has not, incidentally, been to date altogether “consistent” or “harmonious”.

The structure of “the teachings” imposed in the authoritative Three Sources and Three Component Parts of Marxism may be supposed to provide a digest of Marxist theory in its completed and finally systematised state. But this it does not and could not do. For there are no completed “philosophy” teachings of Marxism which may be summed up as an account rendered of the complete universe within which economic developments and class struggles have been for some time occurring in our special corner.

Nor does it provide a genetic account of how Marxist theory was in fact worked out. For Marxism did not develop (and could not have done) by Marx and Engels first completing a dialectical materialist philosophy of nature, then extending it to complete the social-philosophical theory of historical materialism, then completing the theory of political economy, and finally completing the doctrine of class struggle and deducing the tactics of the class struggle of the proletariat.

The three-component structure of “teachings” based on philosophy does not stand up to criticism, either as an account of the genesis of Marxist theory or as a complete account of the universe and of the place and destiny of mankind inside it. To continue to impose it as teaching is both to distort Marxist theory and to call a halt to its further development.

5. The status of philosophy in Marxist theory

I have already referred to the delusory character of philosophical theories about “the universe”. But Marxist philosophy has often been expounded as just such a theory—a doctrine about “the nature of reality”. It has been said finally to have disclosed what is “really” real, the “ultimate nature” of reality—though just how it has managed to do so is not disclosed. Of course, the distinction between how something “really” is and how it only appears to be, or is thought to be, is a very familiar one. But how do we actually inform ourselves about “reality”?

In so far as we succeed in doing so, we do it only by well-conducted investigations. But these concern how “this” really is and “that” really is, not how “reality” really is. We can investigate “this” and “that”, but “reality” is not an object of investigation.

Lenin, as I have pointed out, called Marxist philosophy “dialectical materialism”, and expounded it as the Marxist “teaching” of the “real” nature of the universe or “world”. It is worth noting (since a return to “Leninism” has since been recommended as the antidote to aberrations for which Stalin has been held responsible) that this doctrinal version of Marxist materialism was summarised in the section on “Dialectical and Historical Materialism” in Chapter 4 of the History of the C.P.S.U.(B) which served as a textbook in the “Stalinist” period, and was then published as a separate booklet entitled Dialectical and Historical Materialism attributed to Stalin as its author.

“Contrary to idealism,” it proclaimed, “. . . Marxist philosophical materialism holds that the world is by its very nature material, that the multifold phenomena of the world constitute different forms of matter in motion . . . and that the world develops in accordance with the laws of movement of matter. . .”. Noteworthy is the use of the word “holds” in association with such phrases as “very nature”, “forms of matter in motion” and “laws of movement of matter”. A doctrine was laid down as the doctrine which Marxism “holds”. But as to why Marxism should “hold” it, even to ask such a question was thought to condemn the questioner as a vacillator if not an outright revisionist.

In the total philosophy of “dialectical materialism”, “dialectics” was said by Stalin to be the “method”, and “materialism” the “theory”. Thus “dialectics” was said to be Marxism’s unique “method” of "studying and apprehending" all the "phenomena of nature". The "dialectical method" was then expounded by laying down what Marxism "holds", or "regards", as universally true of all "phenomena of nature" (namely, universal interconnection, universal motion and change, universal transformation of quantitative into qualitative change, and universal contradiction between "that which is dying away and that which is being born").

Amid the simplifications of thus expounding Marxist philosophy as part "method" and part "theory", or as a doctrine of "dialectics" combined with a doctrine of "materialism", the confusion of so-called “method” and so-called "theory" was extreme. "Its method is dialectical . . . its conception, its theory, is materialistic." But the so-called "method" was expounded as what Marxism "holds" in a way exactly parallel to that in which the so-called "theory" was expounded. The method might just as well have been called a "theory" which Marxism "holds" as universally true of "all phenomena", and the theory a "method" which Marxism enforces, namely a "method" which "regards" all the "phenomena" as "different forms of matter in motion". It is only too obvious that the author or authors had never considered the distinction between "theory" as circulated statement and “method” as the way of arriving at it, critically testing it and, when necessary, revising it. And principles of "method" were laid down in the same way as those of "theory"—by decree, not considering that method is not something handed down ready-made for use but learned laboriously in the practice of seeking to inform ourselves.

The tenets of "dialectics" and of "materialism" were said to stand opposed respectively to those of "metaphysics" and of "idealism"—making use of Engels' use of the latter words. But the accounts rendered of the "contrary" tenets to be thus refuted were mere travesties of views actually worked out in the history of philosophy. Lenin (in his article on The Three Sources and Three Component Parts of Marxism) had said that Marxist philosophy followed "on the high road of development" upon the works of "the greatest representatives of philosophy". But what so-called "Leninists" passed off as "Marxist philosophy" is no more on that high "road of development" than is dogmatic theology.

Further, we find that in this simplistic, confused and dogmatic exposition of "dialectical materialism" as a composite doctrine of "dialectical method" and "materialistic theory", the "dialectical method" was explicitly defined as Marxism's "approach to the phenomena of nature", and "materialism" as its "conception of these phenomena". These references to "dialectics" and "materialism" as primarily doctrines about "nature" evidently make "dialectical materialist philosophy" into primarily a "philosophy of nature".

From this a conclusion was immediately drawn about the materialist conception of history, or "historical materialism": "Historical materialism is the extension of the principles of dialectical materialism to the study of social life, an application of the principles of dialectical materialism to the phenomena of the life of society, to the study of society and of its history."

And the first point made about historical materialism was that because there are "laws of the development of nature, it follows, too," that there are similar "laws of the development of society". According to the "dialectical materialist" philosophy of nature, everything in nature happens "according to regular laws". So by the "extension" of this doctrine about nature to a doctrine about society, "the phenomena of social life" are likewise governed "by regular laws".

So having supposedly got hold of a method of "studying and apprehending" the phenomena of "nature" (a "dialectical" method superior, presumably, to any used in the sciences before the advent of Marxist philosophy); and having concluded that all the phenomena of "nature" are "different forms of matter in motion", all governed "by regular laws"; Marxist philosophy is said to proceed by a simple "extension" and "application" to doctrines which Marxism "holds" about "the connection and interdependence of the phenomena of social life" and "the laws of development of society". Thus having been expounded as the composite doctrine of "dialectical method" and "materialist theory", Marxist philosophy was said to be more fully expounded as the composite doctrine of "dialectical and historical materialism". Marxist philosophy is said to consist of "dialectical materialism" as philosophy of "nature" together with its "extension to the study of social life". This, it was announced, provides "the theoretical basis of communism, the theoretical foundations of the Marxist party".

It is small wonder that, having been provided with such "theoretical foundations" in "dialectical materialism" as philosophy of "nature" and "historical materialism" as its "extension and application to the study of society", members of Communist parties should have become extremely confused as to the connections of "materialism" and "dialectics" in Marxist theory, of so-called "dialectics" in "nature" and so-called "dialectics" in thought-processes and in social development, and of Marxist "philosophy" and Marxist social theory—and, indeed, as to the subject-matter and status of Marxist philosophy.

6. Marx on the "abolition" of philosophy

But Marx did not establish "theoretical foundations of the Marxist party" by "teaching" any such rigmarole of a philosophy of nature with application to the study of society. Marx established, rather, the theoretical foundations for the social sciences. And to do so he did not have to "extend" or "apply" to "the study of society" a preconceived philosophy of nature—for which, indeed, he had little use.

Marx began his "study of society" with (as he said in the 1844 Manuscripts) "a wholly empirical analysis" for which "man" was "a living natural being endowed with natural powers". As he and Engels said a couple of years later (in Part I of The German Ideology) this study took as its premises, or data, "the real individuals, their activity and the material conditions under which they live"—premises which, as they insisted, were "verified in a purely empirical way" and were accordingly "real premises from which abstraction can be made only in imagination".

Marx accordingly insisted several times in his early works that "philosophy" was to be "abolished" and "superseded". What he had in mind was, primarily, the Hegelian philosophy. Deductions of empirically verifiable fact from general and abstract ideas were to be replaced by "a wholly empirical analysis", and philosophical “speculation” (Hegel's word) by empirical science. Equally, the "philosophy of nature" which was incorporated into the Hegelian system was to be replaced by natural science. But equally, too, any so-called "materialist" as opposed to "idealist" philosophy of nature was to be replaced. For science proceeds from investigations of real processes, not from speculative doctrine about the nature of the material or natural world as a whole to the application of pre-established general truths to particular cases. And similarly in the "study of society", science proceeds from "premises verified in a purely empirical way".

"The first premise of all human history," Marx and Engels further wrote in The German Ideology, "is, of course, the existence of living human individuals. Thus the first fact to be established is the physical organisation of these individuals and their consequent relation to the rest of nature". This "fact" is established, not by social studies, but by researches of the natural sciences which thus provide indispensable premises for social studies by discoveries about "the actual physical nature of man" and "the natural conditions in which man finds himself". So, Marx and Engels concluded, “the writing of history must always set out from these natural bases and their modification in the course of history through the action of man”.

So in place of "philosophy" as general theory of the universe and man's place in it, there is empirical science. And in place of "philosophy" as the pretended "theoretical foundation" for all human knowledge and well-informed practice, there are the fundamental hypotheses of the empirical sciences established in prolonged empirical investigations. Marxism has not established a philosophy of nature to be extended or applied to "the study of society", but established fundamental theory for the study of society by extending the application of well-tried scientific methods from the investigation of "the physical nature of man and the natural conditions in which man finds himself" to that of man's social activity and the social conditions he makes for himself.

Marx's extension of scientific theory by the establishment of theoretical foundations for the sciences of man and society opened up a potentially new stage in the development of science. In particular, science becomes equipped to inform us not only about "external" nature but about ourselves too; it becomes equipped to investigate science itself, scientific method, the unifying connections of the diverse sciences; and while philosophy as general theory about the nature of the universe is discredited, abolished and superseded, the basis is laid for scientific philosophy which, not independently of the sciences but on premises of information supplied by them, investigates questions of the operations of human thought in its functions of informing human social practice, including scientifically-based value judgments.

To say, as Marx did, that "philosophy" is "superseded" is not, then, equivalent to saying, as he also said in his early works, that it is "abolished". Philosophy is not to be abolished as an item in the curriculum of scientific studies undertaken to inform our social practice—but the old "philosophy" in that curriculum is to be replaced by the new. The old "philosophy", which set out to disclose the nature of the universe or of ultimate reality, is discredited when scientific studies come to embrace the subject-matter of not only "external nature" but also of mankind and human society. By what, then, is it to be replaced? It can be replaced only by inquiries into the operations of human thought. And these will constitute "philosophy" on a scientific basis provided by knowledge of nature and of mankind won by the conduct of empirical inquiries when the fundamental theories of the sciences of both nature and of society have been established.

It is, evidently, the establishment of fundamental scientific theory about mankind and human society, ensuing upon that of fundamental scientific theory about nature, which makes feasible scientifically-based philosophical inquiries concerned with questions about thought, to replace former philosophical theorising. For this we require to pose philosophical questions scientifically and with sufficient clarity as to what they are questions about. Only from premises of scientific theory about mankind can we make clear enough what we are inquiring into when we inquire about human thought. Only from such premises can we pose philosophical questions as questions about something real about real "concrete" human activity, rather than about figments of the imagination, such as "thought" conceived of in abstraction from people who think and the actual conditioning circumstances of our thinking.

One may speak here of "new" philosophy. But what is new about it is that it is being put on to a scientific basis, not that questions about thought are new in philosophy. On the contrary, such questions have long been posed in philosophical theorising. For of course, while philosophy was avowedly concerned with questions about the constitution of the universe, the philosophers—or at least those who are reputed worth remembering and studying in the history of philosophy—did not simply make up doctrines which (like the authors of the "philosophical" section of the History of the C.P.S.U.(B)) they announced as those which a particular school "holds" as universal truth. Philosophy—at least as taught by what Lenin called its "greatest representatives"—has always been critical and it has always sought to provide reasons. And this is what has come to involve philosophers in questions about the scope, power and validity of thinking, as well as in questions about "being"—and so in questions as to the relation of "thinking" and "being". These questions come to the fore and are posed in new formulations in a new context when the former philosophising is replaced by philosophical inquiry on a new scientific basis.

7. The exploration of social relationships

Lenin finished up The Three Sources and Three Component Parts of Marxism by saying: "Only the philosophical materialism of Marx showed the proletariat the way out of the spiritual slavery in which all oppressed classes have languished up to the present. Only the economic theory of Marx explained the real position of the proletariat in the general system of capitalism."

The "ultimate aim" of the economic theory was, as Marx put it in his Preface to the first German edition of Capital, "to lay bare the economic law of motion of modem society". In so far as that was achieved, it not only explained "the real position of the proletariat in the general system of capitalism" but also (as Lenin had pointed out in his own book What is to be done?) the position of all classes. By that explanation it demonstrated the practical possibilities of overcoming the contradictions of capitalism and, by that demonstration, set the aim of socialism and "the tactics of the class struggle of the proletariat" in pursuit of that aim.

But evidently, to "lay bare" the "law of motion" of "modern society" (or of anything else), scientific inquiry must, as Marx said in his Afterword to Capital, "appropriate the material in detail, analyse its different forms of development, trace out their inner connection". It was in so far as this was done that Marx not only "explained the real position" but "showed the way out of spiritual slavery"—and "showed" it, as industrial and monopoly capitalism have developed, not only to "the proletariat" but, in the time-honoured phrase, to "all workers by hand or brain".

And no more than the real social position was explained by the "extension" of a materialist philosophy of nature to the explanation of social affairs was "the way out of spiritual slavery" shown by counterposing a universal philosophy of "materialism" against other universal philosophies which had enslaved men's minds.

Rather, "spiritual slavery" is to be overcome by deciding, as Engels in Ludwig Fueurbach (chapter 4) said he and Marx had decided, "relentlessly to sacrifice every idealist fancy which could not be brought into harmony with the facts conceived in their own and not in a fantastic connection". As Engels said, "Materialism means nothing more than this." To get at "the facts in their own and not in a fantastic connection" does not require a directing universal philosophy "standing above the other sciences". It requires, rather, the "relentless" adoption of the well-tried methods of science. These are not laid down by "philosophy", but learned and tested in a long and arduous course of social practice.

Philosophers have put about the idea that we need some kind of universal philosophy partly to justify our accepting and partly to interpret whatever may be established scientifically about "the facts". On the contrary, it is in the actual practice of learning to conceive "the facts in their own and not in a fantastic connection" that we find the justification and clarification of this conception of them, and the "way out of the spiritual slavery" imposed by conceiving them "in a fantastic connection". It is achieved by the methods of empirical science.

At the start of the Three Sources article Lenin wrote that "there is nothing in Marxism resembling sectarianism . . .”. This remark is usefully supplemented by observations made earlier by Voltaire, in the article on "Sect" in his short Philosophical Dictionary. "Sect and error are synonymous. . . . There are no sects in mathematics, in experimental physics. A man who examines the relations between a cone and a sphere is not of the sect of Archimedes; he who sees that the square on the hypotenuse of a right-angled triangle is equal to the sum of the squares of the other two sides is not of the sect of Pythagoras. When you say that the blood circulates, that the air is heavy, that the sun's rays are pencils of seven refrangible rays, you are not of the sect of Harvey, or the sect of Torricelli, or the sect of Newton . . .". Following up Voltaire's remarks, it would be concluded that if, quoting from the Preface to Marx's Critique of Political Economy, you say "It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness", you are not "of the sect of Marx".

The very word "Marxism" can be used misleadingly in the matter of expounding and teaching Marxism. For what is to be expounded and taught is not "the system of the views and teachings of Marx", comparable with, say, "the system of the views and teachings of Thomas Aquinas"—a thinker whom his sectarian followers also claimed set forth a "complete and harmonious" system "providing men with a consistent view of the universe". Such a "system of views and teachings" is the system of "a sect". And the more authority they attribute to it, the more sectarian it is.

What Marx did was, however, to work out fundamental ideas for the scientific exploration of our actual relationships with one another and with environing nature—an exploration which, of course, he did not complete but left to be continued. What should be expounded and taught under the heading of "Marxism", if there is to be "nothing resembling sectarianism" in it, is not Marx's "system of views", but the procedures and findings of the scientific exploration which Marx pioneered.

Contrary to any didactic procedure of teaching Marxism as the extension of dialectical into historical materialism from whence follow "doctrines" of political economy, of class struggle and of "the tactics of the class struggle of the proletariat", there should be preferred a procedure of teaching it as an exploration of people's actual relationships with one another and with environing nature.

Teaching and exposition must, no doubt, be sufficiently authoritative and able to justify a claim to authority. But in the teaching of Marxism, the authority should be no different from that claimed in any teaching of science. It is contrary to the whole basis and aim of Marxism to claim for its teaching the extra authority of standard texts or of revealed certainties.

Instead of teaching a universal philosophical "doctrine" of "matter in motion" and of "the laws of motion, both of the external world and of human thought", what is to be taught is the procedure and ascertained results of a reflection upon our own social practice and upon how we are able most reliably to inform ourselves in practice and for practical purposes.


SOURCE: Cornforth, Maurice. Communism and Philosophy: Contemporary Dogmas and Revisions of Marxism (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1980), Part Two: The Theoretical Foundations of Marxism; Chapter 1: Roots of Dogmatic Marxism; pp. 65-82.


Communism and Philosophy: Contemporary Dogmas and Revisions of Marxism
(Table of Contents) by Maurice Cornforth

Logical Empiricism by Maurice Cornforth

Science versus Idealism by Maurice Cornforth

Maurice Cornforth on William Blake vs. the Fetishism of Language

Marxism and the Linguistic Philosophy by Maurice Cornforth

Science and Evaluation by Maurice Cornforth

Partisanship and Objectivity in Theoretical Work by Maurice Cornforth

Maurice Cornforth on Partisanship and Objectivity by Ralph Dumain

Marx and Marxism Web Guide

Salvaging Soviet Philosophy (1)

Vienna Circle, Karl Popper, Frankfurt School, Marxism, McCarthyism & American Philosophy: Selected Bibliography

Positivism vs Life Philosophy (Lebensphilosophie) Study Guide

Materialism and the Dialectical Method by Maurice Cornforth

Maurice Cornforth on YouTube

Offsite links:

Dialectical Materialism: An Introduction:

Volume 1: Materialism and the Dialectical Method

Volume 2: Historical Materialism

Volume 3: The Theory of Knowledge

Dialectical Materialism: READ THIS BOOK!!!! (YouTube video link)

Partisanship and Objectivity in Theoretical Work by Maurice Cornforth

"Maurice Cornforth's Contribution to Marxist Metaethics" by Renzo Llorente

On Reappraising Maurice Cornforth” by Edwin A. Roberts

Origins of the Private Language Argument by Jan Dejnozka

Maurice Cornforth - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia (minimal information)


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