Marcus Hitch


THE attempt to present a view of Joseph Dietzgen’s philosophy within the limits of a magazine article is almost hopeless. His own writings are clearer and simpler than any digest of them can be made. But they are too little known. No one who has read the two volumes of his works published in English translation by Charles H. Kerr & Co. can fail to wish that others too could feel the elevating power of his grand conceptions.

The scattering passages on philosophy and religion which are to be found in the workshop of Marx and Engels are too meager to carry the average reader over into monism, particularly if he is suffering under the disability of a good training in bourgeois schools and churches. In fact these fragments are more apt to work antagonism than conviction. But with Dietzgen it is different. He presents his views with such good humor, such perfect mastery of the subject, such frequent repetitions in different forms, adapted to different habits of thought, such knowledge of his predecessors and cheerful recognition of their services, that you not only learn to love the man, but find in his comprehensive system ample room for both the idealist and the materialist, provided they are willing to be a part of nature only and not the whole thing. His philosophy might be well characterized as the philosophy of the Whole and of the Parts.

It is for this reason that the former religionist finds perfect satisfaction in the monism of Dietzgen when properly understood. The great trouble is the quarrel over the name. It is commonly called by Socialists materialistic monism. Dietzgen himself refuses to suggest any name, wisely recognizing that our present language has no accurate name for an idea heretofore unknown. We will call it Dietzgenism, and try to explain one or two points of it, chiefly for the purpose of getting others interested. But it must be borne in mind that any attempt to condense Dietzgenism into a few paragraphs leaves broad openings for attacks and misunderstandings which can only be removed by going to the lucid writings of the master himself.

Dietzgen recognizes that matter is prior in time to mind; but when mind has once made its appearance in human life it takes its place as a factor of the Universe coordinate with matter. In fact its reaction on matter is constantly increasing. Ponderable and tangible matter is not matter par excellence. Sounds, colors and smells are also material. Forces are not mere



appendices or predicates of matter, and tangible matter is not “the thing” which dominates over all properties. Our conception of matter and force is, so to speak, democratic. One is of the same value as the other; everything individual is but the property, appendix, predicate or attribute of the entire nature as a whole. The brain is not the matador, and the mental functions are not the subordinate servants. The function is as much and as little an independent thing as the tangible brain mass. (Dietzgen, Essays, p. 301.)

The Universe embraces everything conceivable both in mind and matter, and thought itself becomes cosmic substance,—subject matter for investigation and consideration. The phenomena of mind must be studied objectively with the same methods as those used for physical science, not by boring into the brain as an anatomist, but by an examination and comparison of intellectual products as a historian and philosopher. Mind must be studied inductively, as matter itself can only be studied with induction. Though matter and mind both belong to the Universe they can not be reduced to one common, homogeneous element, except perhaps to the extent of saying that tangible matter contains the germs out of which the brain and the mind are subsequently developed. But properly speaking mind and matter find their unity in nothing short of the infinite and eternal Universe, which is the only genus high enough to include them both.

This Universe is not the physical Universe of astronomy, but the Universe of both mind and matter, comprising things which are not seen and houses not made with hands. It is not created but is self-existent. To demands a creation is to assume that the natural state of things is nothingness, which is absurd. The natural state of affairs is positive, not negative, a something, not nothing. Nothing is only a relative term. There is no absolute nothingness.

The law of cause and effect which applies to the different parts of the Universe as among themselves has no application when applied to the totality of all things, or the Universe itself. To assume a cause for this is to deny its infinity. All thoughts, philosophies, religions, deities etc., are only parts of the Universe, fractions of a Unit. There cannot be two infinities; they would coincide with each other and be one. To speak of an infinite god is wrong. Anything less than the whole cannot be infinite. The totality of all things both mental and physical is the only infinity. All gods are idols in that they are only fractions of a whole and the whole is greater than any of its parts.

This gives the bourgeois ample scope for idealism, spirituality etc., because these are not excluded from Dietzgenism as they were from the old materialism; but they must come in as


parts of the Universe, like everything else and not as superior to it. Inclusiveness, not exclusiveness, is the characteristic of this philosophy.

The Universe is not only self-existent, it is self-everything, automatic in every respect. It is even self-understanding, for it is conceived and understood only by the mind itself, which is one of its own parts. What is meant by the word “dialectic,” which occurs so often in Dietzgen? Those who have had a smattering of Greek have an advantage here; they know what is meant by the “middle voice” in Greek grammar. Something analogous to it, the reflexive verb, is very common in German, far less so in English. The Germans are everlastingly saying that some thing “does itself.” English speaking people are so accustomed to “doing” others that it strikes them as funny that a person or a thing should do itself, and hence it is difficult for them to grasp this idea. In the middle voice the subject acts on itself, the subject and the object are one and the same thing. I move myself, a thing moves itself, the Universe moves itself or a part of itself and thus changes itself. It acts in the middle voice, its parts interact on each other dialectically; in other words, it is self-acting, automatic. It is analogous to a democratic common wealth which has no government except a self-government. So the Universe is self-governing.

Dialectics is the science of the general self-movement and self-development of nature, of human society and of thought; the science of the eternally changeable diffusion of things, of the constant interaction and interrelation of all things in the Universe. For, as a person has two relatives, the individual and the social, so in the Universe all things have two aspects,—first their relations with each other in which some are subordinate to others; second, their relations to the Universe itself in which all things are coordinate and of equal importance; for the real tangible things to which others are subordinate are themselves only fleeting and evanescent attributes of the one unvanishing Universe.

This enables us to explain the difficulty raised by Kant, when he says, “Where there is an appearance there must be something which appears,” (appearance here meaning a physical object. We reply no, not in the middle voice; not where the appearance and the appearing are one and the same thing; it is then a self-appearance, a self-manifestation, and there is nothing behind the appearance except the Universe itself of which the appearance is only one form of manifestation. There is nothing behind phenomena except the Universe and the Universe itself is a phenomenon,—a self-phenomenon. There is no “thing-in-itself” when applied to a fraction of the whole. There is only


one “thing in itself” and that is the Universe, the totality of all things conceived as a Unit.

Dietzgen has much to say about cognition. What is it to know a thing? To know a thing is to perceive it with the senses. And if there is only one specimen of the thing in existence, unrelated to anything else, our knowledge is practically nothing. Where there are a number of similar things which can be put into one or more classes or species and compared and related with each other, our knowledge amounts to a power to classify, to unite and then also to separate, to distinguish. It is common to speak of a discriminating mind. It would be just as proper to speak of a unifying mind. Dietzgen had a wonderfully unifying mind, as well as a discriminating mind.

Our knowledge of things, though entirely superficial and empirical and confined to phenomena only, is sufficient to enable us to subject them to our use and to calculate in advance what effect certain actions will have on certain things. Of course the deep metaphysical philosopher will tell us that this classifying knowledge is no knowledge at all. But we go right on just the same, regulating our lives, marrying and giving in marriage, rearing our children, accumulating and spending our wealth, burying our dead, in fact basing our whole existence on this self-same superficial knowledge. It is sufficient for these purposes. It is as real as our life and as real as our death. We ourselves are nothing but a phenomenon.

Readers who approach Dietzgen from different directions differ in about the same way as do Socialists, some of whom reached socialism by the way of political democracy or religious conviction, others by the way of economic development or evolution. One is the ideological route, the other the materialistic. They reach a common point in socialism and Dietzgenism. The old style materialist is pleased to find in Dietzgen so much that conforms to his previous views; another wfjo has a sentimental nature and has gone through a religious experience finds in Dietzgen a satisfying enlightenment which surpasses anything that he has had from supposed revelation. He finds all of his delicate feelings recognized at their full value as component parts of the all-parent Universe, related to matter, it is true, yet not in a degrading or humiliating way, but as fellow citizens of the cosmic commonwealth. Dietzgenism in solving the problems of the present life where religion is a self-confessed failure, merits greater confidence than religion in questions of the future life of which religion makes a specialty.

“If he is an, atheist who denies that perfection can be found in any individual, then I am an atheist. And if he is a believer in God who has the faith in the “most perfect being” with which


not alone the theologists, but also Cartesius and Spinoza have occupied themselves so much, then I am one, of the true children of God.” (Dietzgen, Positive Outcome of Philosophy, p. 244). The difference between this method of putting it and that of some others, say Bebel’s for instance, or Blatchford’s, or Plechanoff’s is very marked, though it is a difference in form rather than substance.

What Dietzgen is NOT may be well shown by the following quotation:—“An exposition of the structure, the physical forces and the intellectual operations of man must be founded on anatomy. . . Believing that in the present state of science doctrines in psychology, unless they are sustained by evidence derived from anatomy and physiology are not to be relied on, I have not thought it necessary to devote much space to their introduction. They have not taken a part in the recent advances of humanity. They belong to an earlier social period and are an anachronism in ours. . . The time has now come when no one is entitled to express an opinion in philosophy unless he has first studied physiology. It has hitherto been to the detriment of truth that these processes of positive investigation have been repudiated. If from the construction of the human brain we may demonstrate the existence of the soul, is not that a gain? Why should we cast aside the solid facts presented to us by material objects? In his communications throughout the universe, God ever materializes. I am persuaded that the only possible route to truth in mental philosophy is through a study of the nervous mechanism. The experience of 2500 years and the writings of the great metaphysicians attest the vanity of all other means. How many of these made themselves acquainted with the structure of the human brain? Doubtless some had been so unfortunate as never to see one. Yet that wonderful organ was the basis of all their speculations.”

Draper: Intellectual Development of Europe. Vol. II, p. 343.

This is certainly a very bad case of materialism on the brain.

As we are writing for English speaking readers we must of course refer to Spencer or we shall be counted out. If Spencer and his followers are correctly called agnostics, then we should call Dietzgen a pangnostic. He knows it all. This may seem to invite ridicule, but we may just as well have it out first as last. This is only taking the same position in philosophy that the socialists take in politics, and unless we do get to the point where we know it all (in Dietzgen’ sense only) our philosophy would not fundamentally differ from those of the past. As the working class in achieving its supremacy abolishes all classes including itself, so Dietzgenism abolishes all philosophies including itself, so far as the same can be called a special system.


In chapters II and III of Spencer’s First Principles, entitled “Ultimate Religious and Scientific Ideas” will be found Spencer’s objections to a philosophy which explains everything. His objection is that the human mind cannot conceive of infinity, of an infinite Universe, self-existing during a period of infinite past time; hence in spite of the utmost progress of science there remains something mystical, divine, unknown and unknowable, which is the legitimate domain of the supernatural, in short of religion.

Students of mathematics seem to have no difficulty in dealing with infinities. However, we cannot go into this matter here, but merely wish to stimulate the reader to compare those chapters of Spencer with Dietzgen’s works and see how small the “Perplexed Philosopher” looks by the side of the mind-taming tanner.

Comrade, get a volume of Dietzgen and give your mind a thorough shaking up. You will feel a new life in you.


SOURCE: Hitch, Marcus. “Dietzgenism,” The International Socialist Review, vol. 8, no. 5, November 1907, pp. 295-300.

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