Science versus Idealism
In Defence of Philosophy against Positivism and Pragmatism

by Maurice Cornforth


Dialectical Materialism


The Task of Philosophy

POSITIVISM rules out from philosophy all consideration of the nature of the objective world, and similarly of the thought processes through which we build our knowledge of the objective world. It succeeds only in reducing philosophy to a barren, abstract and formal analysis of language.

But philosophy is the attempt to understand the nature of the world and our place and destiny in it. The task of philosophers has always been to enrich this understanding and to generalise its conclusions. This is what the great systematic philosophers of the past essentially tried to do. And the measure of their greatness has always been the extent to which they succeeded in expressing in their philosophical generalisations the totality of social experience and scientific discovery available at their time. This explains, incidentally, why it is always impossible either to appreciate or criticise them except on the basis of a consideration of the historical circumstances which at once conditioned the way their problems were presented and the way they set about solving them.

The positivists, and particularly the latest "logical” positivists, explicitly reject the classical aim of philosophy to give an account of the world and of man. They reject philosophy because they separate it from science and from life. They begin by saying that whatever we can know about the world and about human society is expressed in the propositions of the natural and social sciences, and that philosophy has nothing to do with either—it is concerned with analysis of language, a particular, specialised study. Then from this [end of p. 219] analysis of language they go on to say that the sciences can reveal nothing about the objective world—about the objective laws of motion and interconnection in nature and society—but are concerned solely with the correlation of observational data. Thus their rejection of philosophy in the classical sense is at the same time a rejection of scientific knowledge. When they reject philosophy as an account of the nature of the world and of human society, they are at the same time rejecting science.

In opposition to positivism, it is necessary to reinstate the classical aim of philosophy. But not in the sense of inventing new philosophical systems. Their time is indeed past. There can no longer be room for any philosophy standing above the sciences and claiming to base a universal system of the world on principles different from those employed in empirical scientific investigation.

What is required of philosophy is rather that it should draw its principles and conclusions from the sciences themselves; that it should be a generalisation of the sciences, based on the sciences and continually enriched as the sciences advance; and that it should at the same time itself become a weapon of the sciences, a method penetrating the sciences and guiding the strategy of scientific research and the formulation of scientific theory.

And in contrast to the systems of the past, whose aim was confined to interpreting the world, such a philosophy has the aim of showing how men can effectively change the world.

In the course of its gigantic development in modern times, the scientific method of investigation has been extended to cover field after field, so that no part, no aspect of nature or of human society is closed to scientific investigation. There have been scored major achievements of scientific analysis—the analysis of complexes into their constituents, of macro‑processes into micro‑processes. And from this development of science in its entirety has emerged the conclusion that neither the world as a whole nor any of its parts can be regarded, as both scientists and philosophers tended to regard it in the 17th and 18th centuries, as something whose general nature was fixed and static—given once and for all; but that the world as a whole and everything in it is subject to the laws of change and takes part in a historical process of development. [220 / 221]

From the static conception of nature as the eternal repetition of the same kinds of processes, in which the same kinds of things keep on repeating the same kinds of movement, science has advanced to evolutionary conceptions. Evolutionary ideas have taken possession of one field after another—for instance, in the theories of the origin and development of the solar system, and likewise of the stars and of the galaxy; in geology, which traces the history of the evolution of the earth's crust; in another way in chemistry, with Mendeleyev's periodic scheme of the elements; in biology, with the theory of the evolution of organic species; and in the various conceptions of the stage‑by‑stage evolution of human society.

From all this, then, stands out a fundamental task of philosophy, which is to generalise from the sciences the conception of the laws of change and development manifested in nature and society; and in discovering these most general laws—the laws of dialectics—to provide the sciences with a theoretical instrument, a method, for the prosecution of their researches and for the theoretical formulation of the laws of motion operative in their particular spheres.

Again, the advance to evolutionary conceptions in science, which expressed the discovery of the real evolution in nature and society, coincided with the development of industrial capitalism in the late 18th century and in the 19th century. But this coincidence was no mere coincidence: it expressed a causal connection. The rise of industrial capitalism and of the industrial bourgeoisie, which supplanted the earlier manufacturing and mercantile phase, not only set science new problems to answer and directed inquiry into new fields, arising from the transformation taking place in all spheres of production; it bred the conception that in human society and throughout the whole of nature nothing was permanent and fixed, but everything was in process of change—that a continual forward movement was the law of the universe.

This meant that in every sphere science looked for, and found, not fixity but process.

"The bourgeoisie," wrote Marx and Engels, "cannot exist without constantly revolutionising the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society. Conservation of the old modes [221 / 222] of production in unaltered form was, on the contrary, the first condition of existence for all earlier industrial classes. Constant revolutionising of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation, distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. All fixed, fast frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new‑formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify." [a1]

These were the conditions which gave rise to the conception of a universal evolution in nature and society. And thus the task of philosophy, to generalise the laws of change and development, follows, not only from the discoveries of the sciences, but from the whole complex of the movement of modern society in its entirety. .

But more than that. This problem of philosophy is no mere academic problem of generalisation, but takes on a peculiar practical urgency.

The bourgeoisie has continually revolutionised the instruments of production, and enormous new powers of production are placed at the disposal of society. But capitalist society is rent with contradictions. While production has become socialised, it is still subjected to private, capitalist appropriation.

"In this contradiction, which gives the new mode of production its capitalist character, the whole conflict of today is already present in germ," wrote Engels. "The more the new mode of production gained the ascendency in all decisive fields of production and in all countries of decisive economic importance, pressing back individual production into insignificant areas, the more glaring necessarily became the incompatibility of social production and capitalist appropriation. . . . The contradiction between social production and capitalist appropriation became manifest as the antagonism between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie . . ." and again as "the antagonism between the organisation of production in the individual factory and the anarchy of production in society as a whole. The capitalist mode of production moves in these two forms of the contradiction immanent in it from its very nature." [a2] [222 / 223] It results that men in capitalist society face a contrast between the enormous new powers of production at their disposal and their apparent lack of ability to control and organise them. Instead of leading to universal plenty, the growth of the powers of production leads to recurrent economic crises, to unemployment, to poverty and to war.

This means that the philosophical problem of generalising the laws of change and development becomes the problem of so understanding the forces at work in the processes in which we ourselves are involved that we are able to master them. The problem of finding how to interpret the world becomes the problem of finding how to change it. Philosophy must cease to be only the intellectual exercise of men of learning and must become the possession of the masses, their theoretical weapon in their struggle to end the conditions which oppress them and to find the road to emancipation.

Marxism, the French Materialists and Hegel

Bourgeois philosophy succeeded in recognising the universality of change and development, but it could do no more than speculate about its laws.

In the chapter on "Dialectical Materialism" in his Ludwig Feuerbach and the Outcome of Classical German Philosophy, Engels wrote:

"The great basic thought that the world is not to be comprehended as a complex of ready made things, but as a complex of processes, in which the things apparently stable, no less than their mind‑images in our heads, the concepts, go through an uninterrupted change of coming into being and passing away in which, in spite of all seeming accidents and of all temporary retrogression, a progressive development asserts itself in the end—this great fundamental thought has, especially since the time of Hegel, so thoroughly permeated ordinary consciousness that in its generality it is scarcely ever contradicted." [b1]

This "great fundamental thought" of the universality of change and development, and of the progressive character of development, as development from lower to higher, is the highest point reached by bourgeois philosophy. It is the [223 / 224] starting point of the philosophy of dialectical materialism. So far as latter‑day positivism is concerned, on the other hand, it has beaten a wholesale retreat from such a standpoint.

The central achievement of Marx and Engels in philosophy, their discovery, was the discovery of the dialectical laws of the processes of change and development taking place in the real material world; and this was at the same time the discovery of the dialectical method of the scientific understanding of those processes.

The philosophy of Marx and Engels cannot be understood as merely a continuation, or synthesis, of the work of their predecessors. In posing, as they did, philosophy's problem of generalising the laws of change and development in nature and society, and in finding the way to solve this problem, they effected a veritable revolution in philosophy—they left the old philosophy behind them, and began a new, scientific philosophy.

But, of course, their discovery did not come out of the void. The way for it was prepared by the most progressive achievements of the previous bourgeois philosophy; and these were, on the one hand the mechanistic materialism of the great French philosophers of the 18th century, on the other hand the philosophy of Hegel.

The French mechanistic materialists sought to embrace everything, including man and all his spiritual activities, in a single mechanistic system of the universe. They started from the static view of nature typical of the mechanistic science of the 17th and 18th centuries; but this did not stop them from being pioneers in the conception of evolution.

Thus, for example, the mechanical materialist Condorcet advanced the conception of the progressive movement of human society through stages whose development followed definite laws, and he endeavoured to correlate these stages with corresponding advances of production technique. Diderot taught the inseparability of matter from motion. And the highest achievement of the French mechanistic materialism was the "zoological philosophy" of Lamarck, who based his theory of evolution on the conception that the nature of the living organism was determined by its environment.

Thus the philosophy of the French mechanistic materialists led to the conclusion that the world and everything in it was in continual process of change and development, and that this process proceeded by laws that could be discovered by science and formulated with strict scientific accuracy. Yet this conclusion was in contradiction to their conception of the universe as a mechanical system. They could recognise development, but the mechanistic categories which were their tools of thinking would not suffice to explain it.

Hegel, on the other hand, contributed to philosophy his conception of dialectics.

"Everything that surrounds us may be viewed as an instance of dialectic," he wrote. "We are aware that everything finite, instead of being stable and ultimate, is rather changeable and transient; and this is exactly what we mean by that dialectic of the finite, by which the finite, as implicitly other than what it is, is forced beyond its own immediate or natural being to turn suddenly into its opposite." [c1]

But when Hegel said that everything was "an instance of dialectic," he did not conceive of the laws of dialectics as being primarily the laws of change and development of the material world. He conceived of dialectical movement rather as the property of thinking; and thinking he made into an absolute—God—somehow existing apart from the material world, but creating the material world and realising itself in it. Thus if "everything finite" was, as he put it, "radically self‑contradictory," and was always "forced to turn suddenly into its opposite," this was because "its concept" was self‑contradictory: the thing which realised that concept could not, therefore, be stable, but must eventually turn into something else.

Thus in the last analysis, according to Hegel, to understand the laws of motion of the processes which occur in the world requires, not the investigation of those processes themselves, but, as he put it, the "speculative" working out of the concept of which they were the materialisation. Hegel announced that what he called "the speculative stage" of thinking was the highest stage of all, and that "speculative truth" was the highest truth. "Speculative truth," he added, "means very [225 / 226] much the same as what, in special connection with religious experience and doctrines, used to be called mysticism.” [d1]

Hegel's conception of dialectics was, then, a mystical one. For him the laws of dialectics expressed the self‑movement of the "Absolute Idea," which was universal thought, transcending every finite mind, creating the real world in space and time, manifesting various aspects of itself in the temporal process, and driving forward "world history."

"According to Hegel," Engels writes, "dialectics is the self‑development of the concept. The Absolute Idea does not only exist—where unknown—from eternity, it is also the actual living soul of the whole existing world. . . . According to Hegel, therefore, the dialectical development apparent in nature and history, i.e., the causal interconnection of the progressive movement from the lower to the higher, which asserts itself through all zig‑zag movements and temporary set‑backs, is only a miserable copy of the self‑movement of the Idea going on from eternity, no one knows where, but at all events independently of any thinking human brain.

"This ideological reversal," he continues, "had to be done away with. We [i.e., Marx and Engels] comprehended the concepts in our heads once more materialistically—as images of real things, instead of regarding the real things as images of this or that stage of development of the Absolute Idea. Thus dialectics reduced itself to the science of the general laws of motion, both of the external world and of human thought. . . . Thereby the dialectic of the concept itself became merely the conscious reflection of the dialectical motion of the real world and the dialectics of Hegel was placed on its head; or rather, turned off its head, on which it was standing before, and placed on its feet again." [d2]

Because of the upside down, idealist way in which Hegel conceived of dialectics, Engels pointed out, "in its Hegelian form this method was unusable." [d3]

Marx and Engels by no means practised the Hegelian method. What they did was precisely stated by Engels, as follows: [ 226 / 227]

“The revolutionary side of Hegelian philosophy was taken up and at the same time freed from the idealist trammels which in Hegel's hands had prevented its consistent execution." [e1]

For Marx and Engels, the laws of dialectics were not the laws of the self‑movement of the Absolute Idea but the laws of the self‑movement of material processes; and the dialectical method was not the method whereby the human mind could put itself in accord with "universal mind," but the method for the scientific understanding of the processes of the material world.

This development of the revolutionary side of Hegel's philosophy, and freeing of the dialectical method from its idealist trammels, was in philosophy a discovery of epoch‑making importance, namely, the discovery of how to comprehend the processes of the real material world in a consistently materialist way. And so, too, it marked the carrying to completion of what the earlier materialist philosophers had attempted, and had failed to do on account of the mechanistic limitations of their thinking.

The discovery of Marx and Engels showed how to understand real processes of development scientifically. This does not mean that it provided any set of formulae (three, four or any number of "laws") which represented the complete and final formulation of the dialectical conception of the world. For no genuine discovery is ever a final and absolute truth, but is rather the starting point for a new development of scientific understanding. The discovery of Marx and Engels provided, not the complete and final truth about the laws of motion of nature and history, but a basis for developing our scientific understanding of them.

In this way., too, it signified the decided rejection of the old aim of philosophy—which was the aim of the mechanistic materialists no less than of Hegel—to work out a universal system of the world.

"As soon as we have realised," Engels wrote, "that the task of philosophy thus stated means nothing but the task that a single philosopher should accomplish that which can only be accomplished by the entire human race in its progressive development—as soon as we realise that, there is an end of all [227 / 228] philosophy, in the hitherto accepted sense of the word. One leaves alone 'absolute truth,' which is unattainable along this path or by any single individual; instead, one pursues attainable, relative truths along the path of the positive sciences, and the summation of their results by means of dialectical thinking." [f1]

Materialism versus Idealism in the Conception of
Change and Development

The scientific value of the method of Marx and Engels can be appreciated, in a general way, by considering the conceptions of universal change and development advanced by various philosophers since Hegel and since Marx.

According to Hegel everything was in process of change and development, and this development happened "because the universal mind at work in the world (the ‘world spirit,' weltgeist) has had the patience to go through these forms in the long stretch of time's extent, and to take upon itself the prodigious labour of the world's history.” [f2]

According to Herbert Spencer there was a process of universal evolution, which he described as "a change from a less coherent form to a more coherent form, consequent on the dissipation of motion and integration of matter. This is the universal process through which sensible existences, individually and as a whole, pass during the ascending halves of their histories." He thought there might also be a "descending " half afterwards.

But why this process of the increasing "integration of matter"? Herbert Spencer could assign no characteristic of matter to account for it, and so concluded that: "We are obliged to regard every phenomenon as a manifestation of some Power by which we are acted upon," and which he described as "Incomprehensible" and "Omnipresent"—both with capital letters in deference to this remarkable Power, the consciousness of which was, he said, "that consciousness on which Religion dwells.” [f4]

Bergson was another philosopher who had a conception of [228 / 229] universal evolution. He also put it down to a mysterious force, immanent in the universe—the elan vital, or life force. Bernard Shaw also believed in this "life force," invoking it to account for everything, including the interesting behaviour of the heroines of his plays and the effect of this behaviour on his heroes. [g1]

Fairly recently a school of philosophy has emerged in England, calling itself "Emergent Evolution." According to Samuel Alexander and C. Lloyd Morgan, who were the leaders of this school, the universe exhibits a progressive process of the "emergence" of higher forms of organisation of matter from lower forms of organisation. From the physical level of organisation emerges the chemical level, then life, then human society. Each level presents new qualities and new laws of motion.

But for these philosophers the fact of emergence was always a mystery: they could assign no features of the lower levels of organisation which might lead to new qualities emerging. Thus Samuel Alexander said that emergence was always inexplicable, and had to be accepted, quoting a phrase of Wordsworth, "with natural piety." In line with this, he thought some new and inexplicable development would one day happen to mankind, and suggested that this might be the emergence of the quality of "deity" amongst men. Lloyd Morgan said we could only acknowledge the presence of some immanent force at work in the world, which he identified with God. [g2]

More recently still, A. N. Whitehead has worked out a philosophy of "process," in which he ends up by seeing all processes as exemplifying the "ingression of Eternal Objects into the world of space and time. [g3]

All these philosophies, which cover a period of over a century, have it in common that they invoke spiritual or incomprehensible principles of some sort—the World Spirit, an unknown [229 / 230] Power, the Life Force, God, Eternal Objects—to account for the processes of development which happen in the real world. Hegel, at the beginning of the list, Whitehead at the end, are distinguished by their saying that the nature of the transcendent reality which they invoke—the Absolute Idea and the realm of Eternal Objects respectively—can be grasped, at least in its essentials, by human reason. But although they say this, they are unable to make good what they say. The others are content, without a struggle, to let the incomprehensible remain so, merely affixing their various labels to it, much as if the distinguishing feature of the philosophy of each was that each wrote the letter "X" in a different coloured ink.

In all these philosophies some fantasy, some transcendental principle, is invoked to account for the development that happens in the world. This is as much as to say that they fail to grasp how this development can be understood scientifically, and what are the forces of development. Such is the essential feature of the idealism which characterises all these evolutionary philosophies.

In contrast to this, Engels states the aim of the materialist approach of himself and Marx. They adopted, he states, "the materialist standpoint. That means it was resolved to comprehend the real world—nature and history—just as it presents itself to everyone who approaches it free from preconceived idealist fancies. It was 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. And materialism means nothing more than this." [h1]

In the dialectical materialist method, the discovery of Marx and Engels, "the materialist world outlook was taken really seriously for the first time and was carried through consistently—at least in its basic features—in all domains of knowledge concerned.” [h2]

The discovery of the dialectical materialist method was the discovery of how, without idealist fancies, to understand scientifically the real processes of development of the material world in nature and society. [230 / 231]


What, then, is the essence of the dialectical materialist conceptions which Marx and Engels introduced in place of idealist fancies in the understanding of processes of development?

In the first place, universal features of real processes of development are presented—not as part of a speculative philosophical system but on the basis of generalising the scientific empirical study of real processes of development exhibited in the world.

In the second place, the dialectical method is then presented as the method of thinking which has to be adopted if we are to deal with processes of development as they actually happen.

Hence the principles of the dialectical method are necessarily two‑sided, on the one hand generalising the objective laws of development, on the other hand formulating a method of investigation.

Principal Features of the Marxist Dialectical Method

In the History of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, Stalin summed up "the principal features of the Marxist dialectical method" under four heads. [i1]

And characteristic of this, the clearest and most comprehensive presentation of the philosophic discoveries of Marx and Engels, is the fact that under each head there is presented, first the statement of some universal feature of material processes, and second the statement of a methodological conclusion about the way scientifically to investigate and understand material processes. For the dialectical method is a method of scientific investigation and understanding, based on the appreciation of universal features of the real material world. And the statement of these universal features is not presented as the statement of a speculative philosophical system, but as the basis of the dialectical method of understanding real processes of development scientifically.

(I shall summarise Stalin's summary only very briefly, since it is well known to all students of Marxism.

(1) Things and processes do not exist unconnected with and [231 / 232] independent of each other but "are organically connected with, dependent on, and determined by, each other."

Therefore "no phenomenon in nature can be understood if taken by itself," but only "if considered in its inseparable connection with surrounding phenomena, as conditioned by surrounding phenomena."

(2) Change is a universal feature of the world. There is always "renewal and development, where something is always arising and developing, and something always disintegrating and dying away."

Therefore phenomena must be considered "not only from the standpoint of their interconnection and interdependence, but also from the standpoint of their movement, their change, their development, their coming into being and going out of being."

(3) Development is "not a single process of growth," but quantitative changes pass into "open, fundamental qualitative changes," which are "a leap from one state to another." Such changes do not occur accidentally, "but as the natural result of an accumulation of imperceptible and gradual quantitative changes."

Therefore development is always to be understood "as a transition from an old qualitative state to a new qualitative state, as a development from the simple to the complex, from the lower to the higher."

(4) "Internal contradictions are inherent in all things and phenomena of nature." And "the internal content of the process of development, the internal content of the transformation of quantitative changes into qualitative changes" lies in "the struggle of opposite tendencies which operate on the basis of these contradictions."

Therefore development is only to be understood, not "as a harmonious unfolding of phenomena," but as arising out of the struggle of opposite tendencies which operate on the basis of the internal contradictions inherent in all phenomena of nature.

Stalin here quotes a statement of Lenin, taken from his Philosophical Notebooks: " In its proper meaning, dialectics is the study of the contradictions within the very essence of things."

In his notes On Dialectics, Lenin wrote that "the condition for understanding processes of development” was "the [232 / 233] recognition . . . of the contradictory, mutually exclusive, opposite tendencies in all phenomena and processes of nature, including mind and society. . . .

"Development is the struggle of opposites," he continued. And without this conception it was impossible to discover "the driving force" of development, which therefore remained obscure, or was put down to something external, such as God.

Lenin wrote that the conception of dialectical contradiction was the key conception of the dialectical method, for it "alone furnishes the key to the self‑movement of everything in existence; it alone furnishes the key to the leaps, to the breaks in continuity, to the transformation into the opposite, to the destruction of the old and the emergence of the new. The unity of opposites is conditional, temporary, transitory, relative. The struggle of mutually exclusive opposites is absolute, just as development and motion are absolute." [j1]

Summing up the entire significance of the materialist method of dialectics, Lenin stressed that the philosophical discoveries of Marx and Engels led to a richer and more comprehensive conception of processes of development.

"The revolutionary side of Hegel's philosophy was adopted and developed by Marx," he wrote . . . Nowadays the idea of development, of evolution, has penetrated the social consciousness almost in its entirety, but by different ways, not by the way of the Hegelian philosophy. But as formulated by Marx and Engels on the basis of Hegel, this idea is far more comprehensive, far richer in content than the current idea of evolution. A development that seemingly repeats the stages already passed, but repeats them otherwise, on a higher basis ('negation of negation');—a development, so to speak, in spirals, not in a straight line;—a development by leaps, catastrophes, revolutions;—'breaks in continuity ';—the transformation of quantity into quality;—the inner impulses to development, imparted by the contradictions and conflict of the various forces and tendencies acting on a given body, or within a given phenomena, or within a given society;—the interdependence and the closest, indissoluble connection of all sides of every phenomenon (while history constantly discloses ever new sides), a connection that provides a uniform, law‑ [233 / 234] governed, universal process of motion—such are some of the features of dialectics as a richer (than the ordinary) doctrine of development." [k1]

It is precisely this richer, more comprehensive conception of processes of development that contributes to their scientific understanding, and removes the need for inventing idealist fancies to account for processes of development.

Thus the conception of the contribution of all the past stages to every new phase of development—of the interconnection of all sides of every process, which combine to produce every new phenomenon—of the transformation of quantitative into qualitative changes, by a break in continuity—of the impulses to development imparted by the contradictions contained within every process of nature and history—these conceptions are the instruments, the method, for understanding the course of development in terms of scientifically assignable factors operating within the material world itself, without appeal to the unknowable or the supernatural.

There is then no need to put world history down to "the prodigious labour of the World Spirit." There is no need to appeal to any "incomprehensible and omnipresent Power." There is no need to postulate a "life force." There is no need to suppose that "Eternal Objects" ingress into the world. Nor is there need to accept the emergence of new qualities "with natural piety," since the causes of the emergence of the new can be assigned in the many‑sided development of the old—in the transformation of quantitative into qualitative changes, resulting from the operation of the internal contradictions within the pre‑existing system of changes.

This is not to say that dialectics gives some formula for working out from first principles the complete explanation of everything that has happened in the past and predicting everything that will happen in the future. Far from it. Nothing can be explained from first principles, but only from the empirical investigation of the facts; and prediction is necessarily limited, both in scope and accuracy, by the limitations of present knowledge. What dialectics does is to provide the method for seeking an explanation, and for so understanding the real factors operating in the real world as to be able, not [234 / 235] so much, or not only, to foretell the course of the future, but to shape and control it.

For example, according to the idealist notions of Samuel Alexander the past development of the world can never be explained. But dialectical materialism teaches that it can be explained—not by philosophic speculation, but by the methods of empirical investigation guided by the dialectical conception of the factors of development. According to the same idealist notions, the future is shrouded in darkness, but we are permitted a happy vision of the emergence of the quality of deity. But dialectical materialism teaches that when we understand the real forces of historical development we can shape and determine the future—not by waiting for men to turn into gods, but by creating the material conditions for human freedom.

Dialectics versus Mechanism

At the same time as the dialectical method cuts out idealist fancies from the conception of development, it overcomes the limitation and narrowness of the old type of mechanistic materialism.

The conceptions of dialectics are opposed to those of mechanism. But what is the essence of the mechanistic approach to phenomena? A good deal of confusion exists on this question among scientists and philosophers.

Typical is the definition of "mechanism" given in a recently published book on philosophy: " Mechanism is the theory that all phenomena can be reduced to the laws of matter in motion." [1] This definition confuses mechanism with materialism and materialism in general with mechanistic materialism. All materialists, including dialectical materialists, hold that everything that exists is an exemplification of the laws of motion of matter; but dialectical materialists are not mechanists. Mechanism is a particular, restrictive, metaphysical view about matter and its laws. The mechanist conceives the motion of matter exclusively as mechanical motion.

In its purest and simplest form, mechanism is a metaphysical speculation about the material world, which is conceived as [235 / 236] consisting of discrete particles, distributed through space and interacting in time. The mechanist assumption is that each particle has certain definite properties, such as its position, mass, velocity, and so on; that the particles interact according to certain definite and eternal laws; that the motion of a particle never changes except as a result of the action of some outside force; and that everything that happens can be reduced to this type of interaction, i.e., to the mechanical interaction, of particles. All the changing qualities which we recognise in matter are, then, nothing but the appearances of the basic mechanical motion of matter.

The essence of mechanism is not that it reduces all phenomena to the laws of matter in motion, but that it reduces all the motion of matter to mechanical motion, i.e., to the simple change in place of particles as a result of the action on them of external forces.

So mechanism seeks to reduce the whole range of motion of matter to one form of motion. It teaches that whatever new may arise in the process of development can be new only in appearance, in reality it is but a continuation of the old. Development is reduced to repetition—to decrease or increase of the same kind of motion. Lenin contrasted the dialectical to the mechanistic conception when he wrote: "The two basic conceptions of development are: development as decrease and increase, as repetition, and development as a unity of opposites." [m1]

(More generally, the mechanistic approach shows itself as a theoretical method which seeks to reduce all happenings to the results of external action. It seeks to analyse every process into the sum of the movements of separate parts, acting externally one on another. It sees all processes as consisting of the interactions of a number of distinct and separate factors strictly external one to another, and whatever develops out of such a process as the resultant of such interactions. This is the essence of the mechanistic approach in biology, for example, and in historical and sociological studies.

And it follows that mechanism, which has elaborated the concept of a strict determinism governing the outcome of every process of interaction, also gives rise to the concept of a pure [236 / 237] spontaneity or chance. In so far as it is difficult to assign an external cause for certain happenings, they are written off as uncaused or spontaneous. Thus physicists talk of the spontaneity or "free will" of the electron, while biologists talk of the random occurrence of "mutant genes." The concept of indeterminism is as much an integral part of the mechanistic approach as is the opposite concept of determinism. For mechanism, change is either externally determined, or else it is spontaneous and undetermined.

From the point of view of dialectical materialism it is necessary to correct, in the first place, the mechanist conception of matter as "inert"—the idea that every motion of matter is the response to some external force.

This step was already being taken by the great materialist philosopher Diderot when he wrote:

"A body, according to some philosophers, is, in itself, without action and without force. This is a terrible error, contrary to all sound physics and to all sound chemistry; a body in itself, by the nature of its essential qualities, is full of action and of energy, whether one considers it molecule by molecule or whether one considers it in the mass.

"In order to represent motion to yourself, they add, you must not only conceive of existing matter, but also of a force acting upon it. That is not the case: the molecule endowed with a quality proper to its nature is in itself an active force. . . .

"Again, some say, in order that matter should be moved an action, a force, is necessary. Yes, a force either exterior to the molecule, or else inherent, essential, intimately a part of the molecule, constituting its nature. . . . Force which acts on the molecule exhausts itself; force which is a part of the molecule does not exhaust itself. It is immutable, eternal." [n1]

In opposition to mechanism, which separates matter from motion, and regards matter as indifferent to motion and motion as something impressed on matter from outside, the dialectical method embraces the conception of the inseparability of matter and motion. It holds that motion is the mode of existence of matter, and refuses to separate matter from motion, or space and time from matter in motion. [237 / 238] mechanist conception of the world as a complex of "ready‑made things," each with its own fixed properties, and interacting with other things, the dialectical materialist method embraces the conception of the world as a complex of processes in which all things arise, have their existence, and pass away; it insists that everything must be studied in its movement and in its inseparable connection with other things.

And this involves, too, the conception of the inexhaustibility of the properties of matter. In Lenin's words: "The 'essence' of things, or 'substance' . . . expresses only the degree of profundity of man's knowledge of objects; and while yesterday the profundity of this knowledge did not go beyond the atom, and today does not go beyond the electron and the ether, dialectical materialism insists in the temporary, relative, approximate character of all these milestones in the knowledge of nature gained by the progressing science of man. The electron is as inexhaustible as the atom, nature is infinite. . . ." [o1]

In the third place, in opposition to the mechanist conception of the reduction of all forms of movement of matter to a single, ultimate mechanical form of movement, the dialectical method embraces the conception of the range of forms of movement of matter, from simple change of place to the movement of thinking, the transformation of one form of movement into another and the derivation of one form of movement from another, bringing with it the emergence of new qualities of matter in motion—not as new appearances of the same basic mechanical movement of matter, but as the expression of differences in the form of motion.

The discoveries of modern science in their entirety bear out and vindicate this dialectical materialist criticism of mechanism. At the same time, the crisis of ideas in all fields of science is the expression of the failure of bourgeois scientists to rid themselves of mechanist preconceptions and to advance to the conceptions of materialist dialectics. As Engels put it:

("Modern natural science . . . has proved that in the last analysis nature's process is dialectical and not metaphysical. But the scientists who have learned to think dialectically are still few and far between, and hence the conflict between the [238 / 239] discoveries made and the old traditional mode of thought is the explanation of the boundless confusion which now reigns in theoretical natural science and reduces both teachers and students, writers and readers to despair." [p1]

This confusion has become many times worse confounded since Engels wrote those words in 1878.


It is now possible to indicate in what way the discovery of the materialist dialectical method by Marx and Engels constituted a revolution in philosophy and opened up a new path of scientific development of philosophy.

The main thing is that the ideas of dialectical materialism constitute a revolution in philosophy because they introduce into philosophy the outlook of a new class, namely, the class outlook of the modern proletariat, in its struggle to do away with capitalism and build communist society; and because this class is unlike all other classes which historically have aspired to take the leadership of society, or have assumed that leadership, in that its aim is not to replace one form of class exploitation by another, but to abolish all exploitation of man by man, and to abolish the division of society into classes.

It is precisely because it is the militant philosophy of the working class struggle that dialectical materialism opens up the new path of scientific development of philosophy.

The Class Nature of Philosophy

Philosophy has always expressed and could not but express a class standpoint. Every philosophy has been a formulation of the world view of a class, a way in which a class has become conscious of its own position and of its historical aims. The philosophical schools have expressed the world view of the privileged class, or of a class which was striving to become the privileged class.

(This does not mean that philosophies have not expressed the striving for knowledge, for mastery over nature, and for man's conscious understanding and control of his own destiny. On the contrary, it is just this which the great philosophies have [239 / 240] expressed—otherwise we would not call them great. But they have expressed it in the way that it appears in the consciousness of some definite class.

Exploiting classes, even at times when they have been playing a progressive social role, from the very nature of their existence could never face up to the reality of their own system of exploitation, or of their true aims, or of the transitory character of the part they play in history. Instead, they have developed in their world outlook a "false consciousness"—a disguised reflection of their own social position and aims, and a philosophy which presents their own provisional and historically conditioned ways of looking at things as eternal truths. Such has been the character of the schools of philosophy of the past, even the most progressive.

But this conception of the class nature of all philosophy has been alien to the thought of the philosophers. They have thought of themselves as motivated simply by the desire to discover the truth, without realising the social and ultimately economic causes which motivate their version of that truth.

"Ideology is a process accomplished by the so‑called thinker consciously indeed but with a false consciousness," wrote Engels. "The real motives impelling him remain unknown to him, otherwise it would not be an ideological process. Hence he imagines false or apparent motives. Because it is a process of thought, he derives both its form and its content from pure thought, either his own or that of his predecessors. He works with mere thought material which he accepts without examination as the product of thought; he does not investigate further for a more remote process independent of thought; indeed, its origin seems obvious to him, because, as all action is produced through the medium of thought, it also appears to him to be ultimately based on thought." [q1]

What the philosophers have overlooked is the simple fact that men have always interpreted nature, and have always philosophised, on the basis of the actual conditions of their material life. To live men have to produce their means of life, and the social relations, the relations of production, into which they enter in getting their living have determined the way they think. The categories derived—not from pure thought, nor [240 / 241] yet directly from contemplation of the external world, but from the social relations of production, have been projected into nature and used to interpret the whole world.

(This is clearly exemplified, for instance, in the most primitive societies we know—in totemic tribes. Thus G. Thomson writes, in a recent study of totemism:

"In Australia the ideology of totemism has been expanded into a comprehensive theory of the natural world. just as the social organism consists of so many clans and groups of clans, each with its own totem species, so the world of nature—the sea, streams, hills, heavenly bodies, and all that dwell therein—are classified on the totemic model. The various kinds of trees are grouped with the kinds of birds that nest in them; water is assigned to the same group as waterfowl and fish. The world of nature is reduced to order by projecting on to it the organisation imposed by nature on society. The world order is a reflection of the social order—a reflection which, owing to man's weakness in the face of nature, is still simple and direct." [r1]

It is a very far cry from this ideology of totemism, which belonged to a pre‑class society which knew neither philosophy nor science, to the ideas of philosophers and scientists, and in particular to the ideology of modern bourgeois society. Here the reflection is neither direct nor simple. Nevertheless there is a process of continuous development—though not without its leaps and transformations—from the one to the other. The law that men's social existence determines their consciousness has continued to operate.

Of course, to demonstrate the operation of this law requires a complete, detailed historical study—a truly gigantic task, for which Marxism provides the intellectual tools, but which Marxists are yet far from having accomplished. Similarly, to demonstrate it in any particular case requires a complete historical study of that particular case. I could not begin such a demonstration here, even were I properly equipped to do so. I am compelled to confine myself to a few general observations, relevant to the understanding of the class nature of philosophy and of the character of the revolution in philosophy effected by Marxism.

Marx and Engels, who stressed again and again that the way [241 / 242] men think is dependent on their relations of production, the economic basis of their social life, also stressed again and again that the reflection of the economic organisation of society in the ideas of that society, and particularly in its abstract philosophy and science, was by no means a simple, direct or automatic process.

"Our conception of history is above all a guide to study, not a lever for construction. . . ." wrote Engels. "All history must be studied afresh, the conditions of existence of the different formations of society must be individually examined before the attempt is made to deduce from them the political, civil‑legal, aesthetic, philosophic, religious, etc., notions corresponding to them." [s1]

Again: "The further the particular sphere which we are investigating is removed from the economic sphere and approaches that of pure abstract ideology, the more shall we find it exhibiting accidents in its development, the more will its curve run into a zig‑zag. But if you plot the average axis of the curve, you will find that the axis of this curve will approach more and more nearly parallel to the axis of the curve of economic development the longer the period considered and the wider the field dealt with.” [s2]

If, then, one considers the ideas of the philosophers, and in particular, the ideas of the bourgeois philosophers, from this point of view, it is necessary to stress, in the first place, that the reflection of the economic basis in the philosophical ideology cannot be simple or direct; but to stress, in the second place, that this ideology does in the last analysis reflect the economic basis.

Philosophers as the Products of their Times

Philosophy, of course, is an instance of the social division of labour. Out of the general division of intellectual and manual labour emerge various divisions of specialised thinkers, amongst them the individuals with an urge to philosophy. Thus the production of philosophy is a very different process from the production of myths and primitive ways of thinking, mentioned above in the case of the general ideology of totemism. [242] / 243]

Philosophy is the work of individual philosophers—highly specialised people, highly gifted people and intensely individual people. And the reflection of the economic basis takes place through the medium of their individual, personal thought.

It will be found, however, that in every epoch the ways of thinking characteristic of the philosophers do reflect the character of the economic development and production relations of that epoch. With all their intellectual labour after truth the philosophers cannot free themselves from the actual material circumstances under which they live.

For example, Marx and Engels wrote that "the bourgeoisie, wherever it has got the upper hand, has put an end to all feudal, patriarchal, idyllic relations. It has pitilessly torn asunder the motley feudal ties that bound man to his 'natural superiors,' and has left no other nexus between man and man than naked self‑interest, than callous 'cash payment.'” [t1]

It is impossible not to recognise the reflection of this state of affairs in bourgeois philosophy from its very inception—and not merely the acceptance of this state of affairs and the assertion of ideas corresponding to it in opposition to feudal ideas, but also the recognition of the problems that arise from it and the attempt to grapple with and solve those problems.

And this reflection is to be found not only in the realm of social philosophy. For example, it was typical of the natural philosophy or physics of the feudal period that insistence was continually laid on final causes. Everything was regarded as having its proper place in the universe and its end which it subserved. Thus bodies were said to fall because that was their proper motion. The earth was in the centre, and the proper place of earthy bodies was in the centre, towards which they naturally tended. The natural motion of fire, on the other hand, was upwards. And just as the bourgeoisie in its economic activity set about destroying the feudal relations which were reflected in these feudal ideas (and that reflection, too, by the way, was complicated and indirect: the feudal ideologists proceeded by adapting much earlier Greek ideas, and in particular the philosophy of Aristotle, for their own purposes); so the bourgeois philosophers and scientists proceeded by destroying—and they did so quite consciously—these feudal ideas. [243 / 244]

By doing so they made a mighty advance in science and philosophy, a truly revolutionary advance, just as capitalism was a revolutionary advance on feudalism. But their own outlook was by no means a product of pure thought or of pure intellectual criticism, but was itself determined, formed and bounded by the new social relations within which the philosophers were confined.

The Movement of Ideas

Here, however, it is again necessary to stress the indirectness of the reflection of social relations in philosophical ideas, in as much as those ideas always take shape out of a process of the criticism and assimilation by the individual philosophers of already existing ideas.

The philosophers must always take as their starting point the ideas which they receive from their predecessors. Partly they develop their ideas in struggle against the past ideas: their own ideas are formed in contradiction to those of their predecessors. Partly they take over past ideas and work them up in their own ways. But in any case, what they have to say is always conditioned by what others have said before them. In other words, no idea is ever simply a direct response to the needs of the present, but meets the needs of the present only with the help of the heritage of the past.

In the 17th century, for example, men of letters engaged in a conscious struggle against various dogmas of the past. At the same time, past ideas were revived and given new life by them. For instance, they contradicted the version of Aristotle's philosophy taught by the scholastics and at the same time there was a revival of the ancient atomistic system of Democritus and Epicurus, whose concepts were borrowed and transformed. And even when they contradicted the scholastic philosophy; in many respects they still continued it. Thus the leading ideas of science and philosophy in the 17th century were no direct reflection of new social conditions; the ideas which reflected these social conditions took their shape partly in struggle against and partly by revival, assimilation and transformation of the ideas of the past.

Engels writes of ideologists in general: [244 /245]

(“In so far as they form an independent group within the social division of labour, in so far do their productions, including their errors, react back as an influence upon the whole development of society, even on its economic development. But all the same, they themselves remain under the dominating influence of economic development. . . . I consider the ultimate supremacy of economic development established . . . but it comes to pass within conditions imposed by the particular sphere itself: in philosophy, for instance, through the operation of economic influences (which again generally only act under political etc. disguises) upon the existing philosophic material handed down by predecessors. Here economy creates nothing absolutely new, but it determines the way in which the existing material of thought is altered and further developed, and that, too, for the most part indirectly, for it is the political, legal and moral reflexes which exercise the greatest direct influence upon philosophy." [u1]

Here Engels makes a further point of great importance, namely, that the economic development determines philosophical ideas mainly via the political, legal and moral development which takes place on the basis of the economic development.

Science, Technology and Philosophy

Another point to note is the influence of technical inventions and scientific discoveries in the working out of philosophical ideas.

Here again, as Engels stated, "the ultimate supremacy of economic development" is manifest. The level of technique on which the economy is based largely determines the corresponding level of natural science. At the same time, it sets problems for science, and the success with which science tackles these problems becomes a lever for further technical development. There is a reciprocal influence of science and technology. Technological problems stimulate scientific discovery, which in turn leads to fresh technological development, which again provides the stimulus and means to fresh scientific discovery.

In this process, inventions and discoveries are themselves a [245 / 246] material, revolutionary force operating to change society. And they serve as a lever for the overthrow of past, illusory conceptions of nature and their replacement by fresh, more true, more adequate ideas. Thus Engels wrote that "the history of science is the history of the gradual clearing away of . . . nonsense." But he immediately added: "or of its replacement by fresh but already less absurd nonsense." [v1]

Technological developments and the scientific discoveries associated with them have a necessary influence on the course of philosophical theory. In working out their systems, philosophers have had to take current techniques and discoveries into account. No philosophy can be acceptable unless its ideas are developed in relation to current techniques and discoveries, and so philosophical ideas are always influenced by these techniques and discoveries, draw conclusions from them and seek to give some interpretation of them.

For example, as Benjamin Farrington has observed in his study of Greek science, [v2] the speculations of the earliest Greek natural philosophers were closely associated with the techniques of the age. Their ideas of the transformations which a single substance could undergo, of the elements and of the diverse results which could accrue from the mixing and interaction of the elements, and so on, were evidently influenced by current techniques, such as metal working and pottery, and by the scientific knowledge associated with such techniques. Again, the speculations of the Pythagorean school made wide use of images drawn from the techniques of the manufacture and use of musical instruments.

In modern philosophy, the influence of the development of machine technique is manifest in the mechanistic conceptions of, nature which were held by all philosophers of all schools right up to towards the close of the 17th century. A machine is an arrangement of independent and movable parts, which can be, set in motion by an external motive force and then goes on working according to its own laws. And this provided the model for the entire conception of nature. The older conceptions of mechanism began to be modified and to break up [246 / 247] with the newer techniques of the industrial revolution—the internal combustion engine, chemical techniques and then electronics.

At the same time, while the development of technology and of science is reflected in the development of philosophy, it would be entirely wrong to conclude that this constitutes the basis on which philosophical ideas develop. Techniques are invented and scientific discoveries made by men organised in a definite system of production relations in which certain classes play the leading role. And the way in which techniques and science are reflected in philosophical theory is determined accordingly by the nature of the economic structure of society in the given period.

Philosophy constitutes part of the ideological superstructure of society which develops on the basis of the given economic structure. And as Stalin observed, "The superstructure is not directly connected with production, with man's productive activity. It is connected with production only indirectly, through the economy, through the basis. The superstructure therefore reflects changes in the level of the development of the productive forces not immediately and not directly, but only after changes in the basis, through the prism of the changes wrought in the basis by the changes in production." [w1]

In so far as techniques and discoveries are reflected in philosophy, they are reflected through this "prism." It is the economic structure which is the true basis of philosophical ideas, which thus provide a commentary on or interpretation of technology and science corresponding to the nature of the existing economic structure of society and the requirements and interests of the corresponding classes. Consequently the inventions and discoveries which advance and enlarge men's mastery over and knowledge of nature are interpreted in terms A philosophical theories which, in the last analysis, are based on the economic structure of society in the given period and serve the aims of definite classes.

Originally there was little or no distinction between natural science and philosophy. A feature of the development of  especially in the bourgeois epoch, has been that the various sciences have separated themselves from philosophy and [247 / 248] carried on with their own experimental methods of investigation. Thus the field of independent philosophical investigation has continually narrowed.

This has meant, however, that the influence of the sciences in the development of philosophy has simultaneously become more pronounced. But at the same time the very scientists who think that they have emancipated themselves from the swaddling clothes of philosophy are still thoroughly enmeshed in the principles and systems which have been formulated for them by the philosophers.

The philosophers have had the task—and some of them, indeed, have been largely conscious that this was their task—of so interpreting technical progress and scientific discovery as to bring it into harmony with the moral and political ideas and social aspirations which were being developed out of the economic movement of their time.

And in fulfilling this task, philosophers have claimed not only to interpret scientific discovery but to go far beyond the natural sciences. They have claimed to reveal the ultimate nature of the reality which science deals with, and to reveal the nature of spiritual reality inaccessible to the methods of science—the nature of God and of the human soul, and the moral springs of individual action and social development.

The National Development of Science and Philosophy

A last point to note—and it is one of considerable importance—is that, so far as the bourgeois epoch is concerned, the development of both science and philosophy is essentially national.

The growth of the bourgeois mode of production and exchange gave rise to the modern European nations. Capitalism develops through a process of uneven national development. And the scientific and philosophical conceptions also manifest a national development.

Hence it must always be a false abstraction and oversimplification to seek to deduce the development of bourgeois philosophy from the development of capitalism in general.

Its development follows a national path. And the national development of philosophy reflects the entire complex of the [248 / 249] economic development, together with its political, legal and moral superstructure, and with the traditions and national‑cultural characteristics of the given nation. Thus philosophy has developed differently in Britain from in France, and differently again in Germany. British empiricism, French rationalism and mechanical materialism, German idealism, were all national developments whose peculiarities can only be understood, not by considering the development of bourgeois society in general, but by taking into consideration its national development in those particular countries.

The streams of national development of philosophy are not, of course, independent, any more than the history of one nation is independent of the history of another. They are continually meeting and exchanging influences. The reciprocal interaction of English, French and German philosophy, mentioned above, in fact follows fairly closely the course of historical development of the bourgeois revolution in those countries. In the 19th century the creation of the world market and the birth of imperialism in the 20th century have had further profound influences on the national course of bourgeois philosophy, tending to de‑nationalise it and give it a cosmopolitan character. This tendency corresponds, as a matter of fact, to the period of the decline and disintegration of bourgeois philosophy. Me general thesis that bourgeois philosophy in its development follows a national course remains valid. An elementary exemplification of the national character of bourgeois philosophy is the fact that the philosophers wrote in a number of different languages, whereas in the Middle Ages they all wrote in Latin.

A rash conclusion which might be drawn from these considerations is that the philosophy of the economically most advanced country ought to be the most advanced philosophy. This is very far from being the case—and the inference that it might to be the case follows only from a very simple‑minded idea of the way philosophy reflects economic development. The philosophers of economically backward France in the 18th century were able to draw on both the rich heritage of Cartesianism and of British empiricism, and elaborate it in their own way in the conditions of the maturing French Revolution. Then the German philosophers had all this to draw on in the conditions of the late development of the [249 / 250] national bourgeoisie in Germany. The result was that the spearhead of advance of bourgeois philosophy in the late 18th and early 19th centuries was located in economically backward France and Germany. Thus Engels wrote:

"The philosophy of every epoch . . . has as its presupposition certain definite intellectual material handed down to it by its predecessors, from which it takes its start. And that is why economically backward countries can still play first fiddle in philosophy: France in the 18th century compared with England, on whose philosophy the French based themselves, and later Germany in comparison with both. But the philosophy both of France and Germany and the general blossoming of literature at that time were also the result of a rising economic development." [x1]

In general, then, it may be stated that philosophical conceptions have always in the last analysis reflected the economic development of society and therefore the standpoint of definite classes which have been the principal protagonists in that economic development; but this reflection is a complicated and indirect process—mediated by the personalities of the philosophers; by the pre‑existing ideas which they have received from their predecessors; by the entire complex of the political, legal and moral development of society; by the progress of technical invention and scientific discovery; and, in the bourgeois epoch, by the peculiarities of national development in the various countries.

Marxism as the Revolutionary Philosophy
of the Working Class

The revolution in philosophy which was effected in the mid‑19th century by Marx and Engels—which constituted the emergence of a new type of philosophy, radically different from everything that had preceded it, and from the entire contemporary bourgeois philosophy. and the entire bourgeois philosophy which continued after it—had its basis in definite economic facts.

It had its basis in the fact that the development of capitalism generates the working class movement and, with it, the struggle [250 / 251] of the working class against capitalism, which can end only with the expropriation of the capitalists.

Marx and Engels gave the nascent working class revolutionary movement its theory. This theory was not simply an economic theory, nor yet a political theory, but a revolutionary philosophy, which for the first time consciously based itself on revolutionary practice. It took as its premisses the highest achievements of the preceding bourgeois thought, and at the same time it developed by the revolutionary criticism of bourgeois ideology in all its aspects.

The great philosophical discovery of Marx and Engels, by virtue of which they were able not only to continue but to transform the best ideas of previous philosophy, and which was at once their weapon of criticism and their method of investigation, was the materialist dialectical method.

The discovery of this method, prepared by the entire preceding course of philosophy, was made possible precisely by the circumstance that at that time the working class revolutionary movement was arising, generating a consciousness of a social aim corresponding to a real aim—namely, to change society, not in the interests of some new exploiting class, but in the interests of the masses of the people; to conquer political power for the people and build socialist society. It was precisely because of this movement and of this aim that it became possible for the first time to generalise in a rational, scientific form the basic laws of change and development of the objective world of nature and society. And by their philosophical discovery, and their entire doctrine, Marx and Engels were able to arm the working class movement with the revolutionary theory which the achievement of its historical aim required.

The point is that the modern working class, unlike other classes which have played a leading historical role, does not aim at establishing its own system of class exploitation, but at abolishing all exploitation of man by man. Its aim is not to subjugate the rest of society, but to liberate the whole of society—for this is the aim that corresponds to its class interests.

This means that the standpoint of the working class, which receives its philosophical expression in Marxism, has no need for any ideological disguise of social aims, of human relationships and of the relationship of man and nature. On the [251 / 252] contrary, it demands the effort to study and understand the processes of nature and history as they are, without weaving any fantasy around them, in order as effectively as possible to guide the struggle for the liberation of mankind from oppression and the building of a classless society, and for the extension of man's dominion over nature.

This is why it was only in our times that it became possible to begin to establish a truly scientific philosophy; for the material basis for the development of a new scientific standpoint of philosophy had come into being with the birth of the modern working class movement. This, too, is why such a philosophy was not, and could not be, developed as the narrow, academic philosophy of a school, but was first conceived and has since been developed as the militant philosophy of the working class struggle.

This is also why dialectical materialism, as the class philosophy of the proletariat, provides the essential basis for the future development of philosophy in the classless communist society which it is the aim of the revolutionary working class struggle to establish.


Dialectical materialism is the philosophy which expresses the standpoint and meets the needs of the working class. But the reason for asserting that dialectical materialism is true is not that it suits the working class to have it so. It expresses the standpoint and meets the needs of the working class by investigating the real laws of motion of nature and of society in the light of the facts themselves, without pre‑conceived fantasies in order to show how the world can be changed. It is true because it passes the test of practice and experience. It is precisely the standpoint of the working class which for the first time provides the basis for such a philosophy.

It is a standpoint which requires no kind of ideological, disguise or deception, either concerning nature or concerning, human relationships. If such ideas arise, based on any particular phase of the social movement, then this standpoint demands that they shall be criticised and corrected.

This point is most vividly expressed by the fact that [252 / 253] working class is the one class which is able to recognise the necessity of its own disappearance as a class. Indeed, it not only recognises the necessity of its own disappearance as a class, but strives to hasten that disappearance. Its class aim is to establish communist society, in which classes cease to exist. When the working class has gained power, its aim is to build communist society, in which not only will its own existence as a class come to an end, but also its party and its state come to an end.

"When a man becomes old, he dies. The same thing happens to parties. When classes disappear, the instrument of class struggles—political parties and the state apparatus—will, as a result, lose their functions, cease to be necessary, gradually disappear and, having completed their historical mission, give way to a higher stage of human society. . . . Young comrades who have not yet studied the foundations of Marxism‑Leninism probably do not understand this truth. But they must understand it if they are to develop a truly world outlook." [y1]

The working class standpoint, therefore, requires absolutely no sort of philosophical system, no sort of philosophical principles, which justify things as they are. It requires ideas which faithfully reflect the real motion and change—the coming into being, development and ceasing to be—of everything in the world. And it has generated the principles and methods for the elaboration of such ideas.

All this makes dialectical materialism scientific philosophy. What, then, are its specific features in relation to the natural and social sciences?

The Scientific Basis of Dialectical Materialism

(1) In the first place, the ideas of materialist dialectics—the dialectical conception of the processes which make up the material world and its history—are not any system of abstract first principles, are no speculative philosophical deduction. It. is the discoveries of science, the whole experience of the “scientific investigation of the processes of the world, that has it furnished the materials from which the conceptions of dialectics are generalised. Nature is the test of dialectics, which is firmly [253 / 254] based in the discoveries of the sciences and is continually confirmed and enriched by those discoveries. Dialectical materialism is a method and a conception of the world which finds its test and confirmation in the achievements of the sciences, which bases itself on those achievements and generalises them, which develops the conception of their full significance for humanity, and which at the same time shows how to carry those achievements forward and to rid science of pre‑conceived ideas which impede its progress.

Hence in dialectical materialism there begins an entirely new stage of the development of philosophy as a science. Philosophy no longer seeks to invent a universal system of the world, or to interpret the discoveries of science in the light of first principles which are arrived at independently of scientific investigation. The task of philosophy is, basing itself on the achievements of science, to show how "the facts are to be conceived in their own and not in a fantastic connection." And this means that there opens up the path of development of an absolutely consistent philosophical materialism.

Philosophy has always advanced through the struggle of materialist with idealist trends. But hitherto even the most consistently materialist philosophy had borne a metaphysical character, and had never been free from the elements of idealism. The materialists sought to comprehend everything in terms of rigid, mechanistic ideas, which were, however, quite inadequate for the comprehension of real processes of development, and, in particular, of the development of human consciousness and of history. The discovery of Marx and Engels meant the overcoming of the limitations of previous materialist thought and, with it, the removal of all need for appeal to idealist fancies.

Dialectics as an Instrument for the Advance of Science

(2) In the second place, the ideas of materialist dialectics are an instrument for the further advance of science.

Natural science has emancipated itself from the systems of philosophy in as much as it has embarked upon its own experimental investigation irrespective of the demands of this or that system. At the same time, scientific thought has always been penetrated with philosophical preconceptions, which [254 / 255] continually find expression in the theories with which scientists endeavour to summarise and interpret their results. These preconceptions have been not the less but rather the more influential when they have been latent and unconscious. As Engels pointed out, the materials of the sciences prove the truth of dialectics; but scientists have seldom been able to think dialectically.

(The dialectical materialist method is a weapon of criticism of idealist and metaphysical ideas which penetrate the sciences, ridding the sciences of the incubus of such ways of thinking. It is a weapon of criticism of limiting and formalistic theories in the sciences, which seek merely to formulate sets of laws accounting for the observed correlations amongst given experimental data, but which do not analyse the dialectic of the real material processes expressed in those data, and so raise a barrier to the more profound investigation of those processes.

In opposition to metaphysical and idealist attitudes in the sciences, the typical products of bourgeois science, dialectical materialism shows how to investigate, comprehend and explain real processes by the method of studying things in their dialectical interconnection and in their movement, by seeking out the laws of transformation of quantitative into qualitative change through the struggle of opposed tendencies operating on the basis of the internal contradictions inherent in every process. The goal of science becomes, not the disclosure of the ultimate elements of nature, but deeper penetration into her laws so as to advance man's mastery over nature.

This makes of the dialectical materialist method, on the one hand a weapon of criticism, on the other hand an instrument for advancing and unifying scientific theory and developing the strategy of the further progress of scientific knowledge.

Particularly important was the contribution which dialectical materialist philosophy made, in the hands of Marx and Engels themselves, to the scientific understanding of society and of history.

Hegel first began to formulate the principles of dialectical thinking; but his approach was idealist. For him dialectics was not the method to be adopted by scientific thought in order to comprehend the laws of motion of the real world, but it was [255 / 256] a procedure inherent in thought itself—and he elevated thought into an absolute, the first cause of everything in the world.

The dialectic was, according to Hegel, manifested in the process of human history, every stage of which he imagined as embodying some "moment" of the dialectical movement of Spirit. History was Spirit realising itself in the world. But as for the material world, the arena in which history took place, it was simply the "other" of Spirit. Dialectical development, according to Hegel, did not belong to nature, and nature had no history.

In this respect Hegel's philosophy remained fixed in the same dualism which is inherent in all idealist philosophy—the invention of a rigid, absolute distinction between matter and spirit, nature and history.

Thus, for example, Hegel wrote: "The changes that take place in nature, how infinitely manifold soever they may be—exhibit only a perpetually repeating cycle; in nature there happens 'nothing new under the sun' . . . only in those changes which take place in the region of Spirit does anything new arise. This peculiarity in the world of mind has indicated in the case of man an altogether different destiny from that of merely natural objects—in which we find always one and the same stable character, to which all change reverts; namely, a real capacity for change, and that for the better—an impulse, of perfectibility." [z1]

Marx and Engels, rejecting Hegelian idealism, were able to apply the discoveries of dialectical materialism in founding the science of society and history, historical materialism. Life is to be regarded as the mode of existence of matter at a certain stage of its development; society and history begin when the new species of animal, man, with his unique development of hands and brain, begins to use tools to produce his own means of subsistence; men thus create their own forces of social production, whose development is the primary determining factor of the movement of society and history.

Dialectical materialism sees the whole world as one historical process, in which men and human society come into existence at a definite stage of development. The same universal laws of dialectical development are at work in nature and in society. [256 / 257] It thus shows the way to discover the particular character of the laws of development of human society and of each particular stage of the development of human society, which Marx traced from their origin in the mode of social production.

Recognising the dialectical character of the development of the world, Marx did not try to explain human society in terms of physical or biological laws; nor did he treat it as something divorced from the natural world, not amenable to methods of scientific investigation; but he understood human society as a new development in the history of the world and applied the method of dialectics to the study of its specific laws of motion.

This demonstration of the continuity of nature and society, which manifests itself in the discontinuity of the dialectical leap from one qualitative state to another, was a contribution of revolutionary significance to the unity of science, to the scientific understanding of the material world and of man and his place in it.

The Development of Materialist Dialectics

(3) In the third place, the ideas of materialist dialectics, which are generalised from the experience of scientific investigation, and which serve as an instrument for the further advance of science, are themselves to be developed in the light of the fresh discoveries achieved by science and in application to the new problems presented by the movement of society.

Thus A. A. Zhdanov wrote: "Marxist philosophy, as distinguished from preceding philosophical systems, is riot a science dominating the other sciences; rather it is an instrument of scientific investigation, a method, penetrating all natural and social sciences, and enriching itself with their attainments in the course of their development." [aa1]

(Dialectical materialism, as cannot be too often emphasised, is not a finished philosophical system, a set of ideas complete and rounded off. Nature is the test of dialectics. The methods of dialectics are applied in the scientific investigation of nature and the materials of science continually furnish fresh proof that nature's process is dialectical. But the discoveries of science do not merely exemplify the laws of dialectics. For the new exemplifications of the laws of dialectics continually add to our [257 / 258] understanding of the modes of operation of those laws, and so need to be made the basis for fresh philosophical generalisation, enriching and extending the content of the conceptions of materialist dialectics.

In his writings on materialist dialectics, Mao Tse‑tung emphasised that the central conception of dialectics was that of contradiction. And he distinguished between "the universality of contradiction" and "the particularity of contradiction." [bb1] Whatever aspect or process of nature or society we may be considering, it contains within itself contradictory features, contradictory movements, the contradiction of one side against another side; and such contradictions are the basis and driving force of all change and motion. This is the universality of contradiction. But each process in nature or society is a particular process, with its own particular characteristics which differ from those of other processes. Hence the contradictions within each process take particular forms and operate in a particular way. This is the particularity of contradiction.

Merely to speak about "contradiction" contributes, therefore, very little towards the understanding of the laws of any particular process. For that it is necessary to study concretely the particular process. Each kind of process has its own dialectic, which can be grasped only by the detailed study of the particular process. The dialectic of the subatomic world is not the same as that of the bodies directly perceptible to our senses; the dialectic of living processes is not the same as that of the processes of inorganic matter; the dialectic of human society is again a new law of motion, and each phase of human society brings with it its own particular dialectic.

It is evident, therefore, that every time something new comes into being or something new is discovered, there comes into being or is discovered something new in the laws of dialectics.

(For example, in human society there is always a contradiction between the new and the old. This is the universal form of contradiction in all human society. In each phase of society hitherto this has taken the particular form of a particular [258 / 259] contradiction between the forces of production and the relations of production—in capitalist society, the particular contradiction between the social character of production and private appropriation. In societies based on exploitation and divided into antagonistic classes, the particular contradiction has worked itself out and been resolved through particular forms of class struggle, that is to say, in antagonistic and more or less violent ways. But what happens in socialist society? In socialist society the contradiction takes new forms and, in the absence of exploitation and antagonistic classes, is worked out in an entirely new way. "In our Soviet society, where antagonistic classes have been liquidated, the struggle between the old and the new, and consequently the form of development from lower to higher, proceeds not in the form of struggle between antagonistic classes and of cataclysms, as is the case under capitalism, but in the form of criticism and self‑criticism, which is the real motive force of our development. This is, without a doubt, a new form of movement, a new type of development, a new dialectical law." [cc1] This, then, is one example of how the conception of the laws of dialectics is extended and enriched by application to new problems.


Very important is the application of the dialectical materialist method in the theory of knowledge, and in the criticism of the various conceptions of bourgeois philosophy concerning the foundations of knowledge and its scope and limits.

The Theory of Knowledge of Bourgeois Philosophy

Two contrasted types of view concerning the foundations of knowledge are to be found in bourgeois philosophy. On the one hand are views which stress the importance of "innate ideas," intuitions of " eternal truths," self‑evident "synthetic propositions," a‑priori "first principles," as the basis of knowledge. On the other hand are the various empiricist views, which say that all knowledge is founded on individual sense‑perceptions. Many and prolonged have been the polemics between upholders of various forms of these contrasted views [259 / 260] on knowledge, which constitute two opposed sides or facets of the theory of knowledge of bourgeois philosophy.

Both have it in common that they treat knowledge abstractly, apart from the actual process of the evolution of knowledge in human society. They do not investigate how knowledge has actually been won by socially organised mankind. Instead, they try to consider how a system of knowledge can ideally be founded on some set of indubitable premisses, whether these be innate general ideas or particular sense presentations. In either case they regard knowledge as arising from some kind of individual contemplation, not from social activity.

And both have it in common that their theory of knowledge is fundamentally idealist. By idealism is meant that approach in philosophy which treats spirit as prior to nature. In what ways, then, are these contrasted theories of knowledge idealist?

They are idealist, in the first place, in their treatment of the foundations of knowledge. For both see the foundation and starting point of knowledge in something arising within the mind, whether this be individual sensations or general ideas or both.

They agree in this idealist approach, even though the empiricists say that sensations come first and that general ideas are only in some way "copies" of sensations, whereas the others say that sensations are merely the "raw material" of knowledge, which is "worked up" by the mind with the help of its own innate apparatus of a‑priori categories.

True, many materialists have explained that the sensations, which they recognise as the starting point of cognition, are produced in the mind by the action of external material objects on the sense‑organs. Nevertheless, they still considered that the whole edifice of knowledge must be somehow deduced from the data of sensation, since they still failed to recognise the dependence of all knowledge on social practice.

In this respect even materialists, notably some of the great French materialists of the 18th century, adopted an idealist standpoint in the theory of knowledge. Their remarks about the action of the material world in producing sensations in the human mind were introduced only as a kind of preface to their theory of knowledge, not as an integral part of it; and afterwards they had to try to deduce the existence of the material [260 / 261] world from the data of sense‑perception. Helvetius, for example, who in one place says that all our cognitions are produced by the action of material objects on our sense‑organs, in another place says that the external material world is merely a hypothesis which we make to account for our sensations, and that perhaps no such world exists.

In the second place, both contrasted theories of knowledge lead to idealist conclusions about the known world.

Those who postulate innate ideas and intuitions come to the conclusion that the world is revealed to true knowledge as in essence spiritual, and that spiritual causes underly all material phenomena.

Many empiricists, on the other hand, who deride all this as misty speculation, reach a conclusion which is equally idealist, namely, that nothing is indubitably known to exist except the sensations in our own minds. Such subjective idealists variously regard the material world either as itself consisting of complexes of sensations, or as a shadowy realm of things‑in‑themselves, or as a convenient but rather dubious hypothesis, or else as a complete delusion and a product of metaphysical speculation.

The Theory of Knowledge of Dialectical Materialism

Whereas both contrasted types of the bourgeois theory of knowledge see the starting point of knowledge in sensations or ideas, abstracting these aspects of individual experience from the real material process of human activity in which they arise, dialectical materialism studies knowledge as it actually arises and develops on the basis of men's material social existence, of their interaction with one another and with nature.

The dialectical materialist theory of knowledge breaks with the abstract treatment of knowledge characteristic of bourgeois philosophy, and with its idealist methods, assumptions and conclusions. As Lenin said, it "regards its subject matter historically, studying and generalising the origin and development of knowledge, the transition from non‑knowledge to knowledge." [dd1]

The last phrase is of importance here—the transition from non‑knowledge, or ignorance, to knowledge. [261 / 262]

That the winning of knowledge is a transition from ignorance to knowledge, may seem a mere truism. But if so, it is one which has never been recognised in bourgeois philosophy. For the theory of knowledge of bourgeois philosophy has been unable to understand precisely this transition.

It has always assumed that knowledge comes only from previous knowledge: hence the real origin of knowledge has been a mystery to it. It has assumed, namely, that knowledge must be founded, either on knowledge (immediate acquaintance in sense‑presentation) of sense qualities, or on knowledge (innate ideas) of general principles, or perhaps on both. In any case, knowledge always comes from previous knowledge and not from previous ignorance. The bourgeois philosophers have all sought to show how the whole of knowledge is founded on some special sort of immediate or intuitive knowledge, not how knowledge itself arises and develops.

But on the contrary, it is out of the transformation of a previous state of non‑knowledge that there comes the winning of knowledge.

(How is this transformation effected? It is effected by human social activity.

Dialectical materialism grasps the scientific truth that knowledge arises, develops and is tested in social practice. That was its key discovery in the sphere of the theory of knowledge.

In the light of this discovery, dialectical materialism is able to answer questions about knowledge which have been argued back and forth by bourgeois philosophy for a very long time, and to embark upon important generalisations concerning the nature and scope of our knowledge.

Generalising from the actual historical development of knowledge, dialectical materialism teaches that, at every stage and in all circumstances, knowledge is incomplete and provisional, conditioned and limited by the historical circumstances under which it was built up, including the means and methods employed for gaining knowledge and the historically conditioned assumptions and categories employed in the formulation of ideas and conclusions.

But this development of knowledge, every stage of which has such a conditional character, is a development of knowledge [262 / 263] of the real material world, of the discovery of the interconnections and laws of motion of real material processes, including the development of human society and human consciousness. It is a progressive development, in which the bounds of knowledge are stage by stage enlarged, in which the agreement of ideas and theories with objective reality is stage by stage increased, and in which stage by stage what was provisional and hypothetical gives place to what is assured and verified.

In this development, it is always the case that the known is bounded by the unknown. The progress of discovery always comes up against barriers which arise from the limitations of existing knowledge and of existing methods. Dialectical materialism teaches that there are, however, no absolute bounds or limits to knowledge. While the progress of knowledge always faces barriers to further advance, knowledge progresses precisely by finding out how to get over them. There are no absolute limits to knowledge, no unknowable things‑in‑themselves, no mystery or secret of the universe, nothing which cannot in principle be known and explained.

Such is the extremely bold and optimistic credo of the dialectical materialist theory of knowledge. And such a theory of knowledge corresponds to the requirements of science.

In the first place, it is based on no idealist assumptions or abstract speculations, but is a generalisation from the actual development of science, from the history of the origin and development of human knowledge.

In the second place, it supplies the sciences with conceptions of the nature of knowledge and of its development which, being rooted in the actual practice of science, serve as a guide and instrument in the development of science.

The dialectical materialist theory of knowledge is for the sciences a means for the examination and criticism of their own assumptions and procedures.

And this is something essential for the formulation and solution of the problems and tasks of science.


a1  Marx and Engels: Manifesto of the Communist Party, ch. 1.

a2  Engels: Socialism, Utopian and Scientific, ch. 3.

b1  Engels: Ludwig Feuerbach, ch. 4.

c1  Hegel: Encyclopaedia of the Philosophical Sciences: Logic, ch. VI, 81. Translated by William Wallace.

d1  Hegel: Encyclopaedia of the Philosophical Sciences; Logic, ch. VI, 82. Translated by William Wallace.

d2  Engels: Ludwig Feuerbach, ch. 4.

d3  Ibid.

e1  Engels: Ludwig Feuerbach, ch. 4.

f1  Engels: Ludwig Feuerbach, ch. 4.

f2  Hegel: Phenomenology of Mind, translated by J. B. Baillie, p. 90.

f3  H. Spencer, First Principles, Part II, ch. 14, section 115.

f4  Ibid., Part I, ch. 5, section 27.

g1  See Man and Superman, Act IV:

ANNA: . . . You do not love me.

TANNER: (seizing her in his arms) No, it is false. I love you. The life force enchants me.

g2  See S. Alexander, Space, Time and Deity; C. Lloyd Morgan, Emergent Evolution.

g3  See Whitehead: Process and Reality.

h1  Engels: Ludwig Feuerbach, ch. 4.

h2  Ibid.

i1  See Stalin, Dialectical and Historical Materialism.

j1  Lenin: On Dialectics.

k1  Lenin. Karl Marx.

l1  Hector Hawton: Philosophy for Pleasure, p. 204.

m1  Lenin: On Dialectics.

n1  In the second place, in opposition to the metaphysical, Diderot, Philosophic Principles on Matter and Motion (1770).

o1  Lenin: Materialism and Empirio‑Criticism, ch. 5, section 2.

p1  Engels: Anti‑Duhring, Introduction.

q1  Engels: Letter to F. Mehring, July 14, 1893.

r1  George Thomson: Studies in Ancient Greek Society, Vol. 1, p. 40.

s1  Engels: Letter to G. Schmidt, Aug. 5, 1890.

s2  EngeIs: Letter to H. Starkenberg, Jan. 25, 1894.

t1  Marx and Engels: Manifesto of the Communist Party, ch. 1.

u1  Engels: Letter to C. Schmidt, Oct. 27, 1890.

v1  Engels: Letter to C. Schmidt, Oct. 27, 1890.

v2  Benjamin Farrington: Greek Science, Thales to Aristotle.

w1  Stalin: Concerning Marxism in Linguistics.

x1  Engels: Letter to C. Schmidt, Oct. 27, 1890.

y1  Mao Tse‑tung: People's Democratic Dictatorship.

z1  Hegel: Philosophy of History, translated by J. Sibree, p. 54.

aa1  A. A. Zhdanov: On the History of Philosophy.

bb1  Mao Tse‑tung: On Contradiction.

cc1  A. A. Zhdanov: On the History of Philosophy.

dd1  Lenin: Karl Marx.

SOURCE: Cornforth, Maurice [Campbell]. Science versus Idealism: In Defence of Philosophy against Positivism and Pragmatism. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, Publishers, 1975. Reprint of the 1962 ed. published by International Publishers, New York. 463 pp. Original edition 1955. Based on Science versus Idealism (1946) and In Defence of Philosophy (1950). Chapter 13: Dialectical Materialism, pp. 219-263. Footnotes have been converted into endnotes and renumbered for ease of reference.

Science versus Idealism: Contents, Introduction, Foreword by Maurice Cornforth

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