Political Education

Based largely on A Text-book of Dialectical Materialism by David GuestPart 1 deals with the overview, and then with dialectical materialism.  Part 2 deals with historical materialism.

These are essentially tutor's notes, with emphases in italics and class questions/desired responses in bold italics.  Chapter headings from Guest's book, and a few other comments, are in bold font.

At the start of the class a sheet of paper is distributed listing the following key words:


At the end of the class students are provided with a second sheet of paper, listing Lenin's 16 points of dialectics from his study of Hegel's Logic (without the italic explanatory notes).  Students are encouraged to reflect on these in preparation for Class 2.


Why philosophy?  What is the use of it to practical workers, trades unionists etc?

Gramsci pointed out that “all men are ‘philosophers’”, possessing a “spontaneous philosophy” contained in language, “common sense” and “good sense” and in “popular religion and therefore also the entire system of beliefs, superstitions, opinions, ways of seeing things and acting.”

‘Being philosophical about it’ – what do we understand by that?

Gramsci: that “is not to be entirely rejected as a phrase.”  Yes, an element of resignation, but more importantly an invitation to reflect “that whatever happens is basically rational and must be confronted as such” – don’t get carried away “by instinctive and violent impulses.”

Whatever the field of activity, practical workers are forced day-to-day to ask “What do we do next?”

Answer always involves another question: “What result are trying to achieve?”

So, eg, strike action.  How to win support?
Have to make an appeal on general grounds (general end desired and general experience of strike tactics).

General statements of this kind make up what we call theory.  If they are checked by experience they are called a scientific theory.

The theory at the basis of all conscious communist activity is modern scientific socialism (Marxism). It

*  comprises the strategy and tactics of class struggle
*  requires knowledge of the historical economic roots of class divisions in society
*  requires knowledge of the laws of development of capitalism.

But we also need to see our problems in perspective:

  • *  capitalism has not existed for the whole of human history
  • *  life on Earth has existed for much longer than humans have been around
  • *  the Earth itself is much younger than the universe.

The physical universe, life and human society are all connected.  We need a general world outlook rooted in the facts of all the sciences.

The dominant world outlook under capitalism is that of the bourgeois (capitalist) class).  How can we describe it?  It is

conservative – hence hostile to the scientific study of human society
*  most commonly, religious – regarding the existing order as in some way divinely sanctioned
*  even when not openly religious, retaining certain anti-scientific features – exalting ‘mind’ or ‘spirit’ above ‘mere matter’

Any other features?

Workers need a different philosophy – one that is revolutionary and militant.  Marx, 11th Thesis on Feuerbach: “The philosophers [hitherto] have interpreted the world in various ways.  The point is to change it.”

That philosophy must be materialistic.  Meaning? – based on a scientific study of the material world as the basic reality.
It must also be dialectical – seeing the world in a process of constant revolutionary change.

Hence dialectical materialism
*  It may seem most theoretical of subjects but arises in response to practical needs
*  It is a powerful and indispensable weapon on all fronts of the class struggle
*  It embodies the unity of theory and practice.

In all sciences, progress occurs out of knowledge gained in social practice, which leads to theory which then leads to further practice.  Theory and practice form a unity of oppositesthe keystone of dialectical materialism.

Why do so many practical workers ignore the need for theory?
•    partly due to class-divided society and the division between ‘manual’ and ‘intellectual’ workers – leads to theory being developed independently of practice.  This split is intensified by the conservative limitations of bourgeois thinking but the mental attitude is quite common, eg “It may be true in theory but it doesn’t work out in practice”
•    also partly due to the specific national circumstances of the British labour movement – preference for rule-of-thumb, empirical methods shared by British workers with other classes, due to the early development (and success) of British capitalism.

Ch 1: Two World Outlooks

Engels: “The great basic question of all philosophy … is that concerning the relation of thinking and being”

Two great camps in philosophy –

    those who assert primacy of mind, ideas, spirit over nature: IDEALISTS
    those who see Nature as primary: MATERIALISTS

NB philosophical use of these terms is different from general use, eg ‘having political ideals’, ‘being a gross materialist’.

Rob Griffiths (Introducing Marxism): idealism as the view that there is a force more powerful than human thought and action – a god, karma, ‘fate’, ‘human nature’ as unchanging, unchangeable and almost entirely negative (prejudiced, selfish, greedy).

NB Cameron (22.06.15): “the causes of stalled social mobility and a lack of economic opportunity are … family breakdown, debt, addiction, poor schools, a lack of skills, unemployment” – ie problems within the individuals rather than with the structure of society.

Idealist philosophy may have originated in a theological conception of the world but now its advocates attempt to show that the very nature of human knowledge leads to idealist conclusions.

It starts off by creating a certain atmosphere of doubt – ‘all we know for certain about the world are our sensations’.  Full-blown idealist philosophy (Berkeley 1685-1753, Hume 1711-76) regards material objects as thoughts in the mind of the Creator.  Ultimately leads to solipsism – the view that nothing exists except ‘my’ sensations (including other people!).  But the idea of the external world as an illusion can also be found in interpretations of modern physics – ‘time is a persistent illusion’, ‘matter has disappeared’.

Can you think of any other idealist notions or ideas which limit the struggle for progressive change today?
‘The end of history’ (Fukuyama)

To avoid such self-destructive conclusions we must reject the innocent-sounding philosophical doubt, which pretends to start with the minimum of assumptions but really denies the existing world in order to replace it by arbitrary fantasies of the philosopher.  We must adopt in our reasoning that same materialist standpoint which we adopt in practice in our daily lives, and on which natural science has worked from the earliest times.

Marx and Engels: “The premises from which we begin … are real premises from which abstraction can only be made in the imagination.”

To those idealists who would ask us, how can you prove the existence of a material world, we would reply, how can you doubt it?

The struggle between idealism and materialism is essentially a reflection of the contradictions and conflicts in modern class-divided society.

Idealist philosophy leads to
*  a sceptical attitude towards science
*  ‘masked’ theological conceptions (if not open supernaturalism)
*  obscurantist misdescription of existing human relationships.
It thus becomes a useful buttress of the capitalist order.  It is forced to deny the possibility of a science of human society.

Materialist philosophy is challenging, critical, revolutionary.  Lenin (after Marx and Engels) said: “If materialism in general explains consciousness as the outcome of existence … then materialism as applied to the social life of mankind must explain social consciousness as the outcome of social existence.”

Ch 2: Materialism – Mechanical and Dialectical

Both idealism and materialism were reflected in ancient Greek philosophy.  Anaximander, Democritus and Aristotle were all basically materialist.  Plato was an idealist.  Materialism was favoured where commerce afforded opportunity for individual activity.  When the Greek world decayed and political reaction triumphed, materialist philosophy disappeared.

In general, materialism has been the banner of progressive classes throughout history.  With the growth of commodity production in Europe, the bourgeoisie needed scientific, materialist thinking for two reasons – what might they be?
•    its industrial applications required the development of natural sciences, particularly mechanics
•    to break the feudal order it was necessary to challenge the intellectual stranglehold of the Papal church and its royalist-absolute offshoots.

Great Britain produced an outstanding crop of materialist philosophers (Bacon, Locke and Hobbes) in the 17th century.  The materialism which grew up in this period was profoundly affected by the development of science, particularly mechanics, which dominated science at the time (Newton).  This materialism may be termed mechanical materialism.  It regards the world as some very complicated machine, running according to fixed, unalterable laws for all eternity – no room for evolution or any sort of real change.

What sort of example of such a machine can you think of?

This mode of thinking has been called metaphysical.  The term goes back to Aristotle and actually has nothing to do with physics – it was intended as the “study of true principles and causes”.  In the sense used by Hegel and later by Marxists, metaphysics sees everything in terms of hard and fast absolutes, polar opposites which mutually exclude each other, and rigid distinctions of formal logic as the final law.

Mechanical materialists could reject despotism and religion as ‘bad’ but were powerless to explain the historical events they condemned – their philosophy failed to understand development.  As the bourgeoisie shrank back from a truly revolutionary role there was an increasing idealist reaction.  

The main leaders of this idealist reaction were Kant and Hegel.  Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason attacked metaphysics as purporting to provide necessary truths which cannot be based on empirical evidence.  For him, human knowledge is limited to ‘appearences’ or ‘phenomena’, whereas ‘things-in-themselves’ are thinkable but not actually knowable – transcendental idealism.

Hegel attacked Kant for his rigidity and proposed instead the self-development of the concept.  This dialectical approach was important in science once the narrow boundaries of mechanics were crossed but was most of all important for an understanding of history and social development.  Rather than see history as a series of accidents, where everything is determined by the arbitrary caprices of ‘great men’

– a view then dominant and often found among bourgeois historians today –

Hegel considered that the Absolute Spirit (God) externalised himself into nature and history (the self-movement of the concept).  By what Hegel called the “cunning of reason”, people who are moved irrationally by their passions and interests, along with individuals like Caesar and Napoleon, cause terrific bloodshed in contributing to bringing about the end of history – a state of universal freedom.

cf Fukuyama – ‘The End of History’

Hegel’s is an arbitrary, a priori, idealist approach.  But the idea of history as a process of development was a big step forward.  Marx and Engels took Hegel’s dialectics and turned it from its head onto its feet, applying the dialectics materialistically.  Dialectics now “reduced itself to the science of the general laws of motion both of the external world and of human thought.”

Dialectical materialism, like Greek materialism, sees the world as a single interconnected whole in endless motion.  This point of view was lost when the development of special sciences broke up the single picture of the world.  But this return to the old is a return on a higher level – on the foundation of 2000 years progress in science and philosophy.  It is an example of a particular type of dialectical development known as the negation of the negation.

Ch 3: The General Nature of Dialectics

Engels: “Dialectics as the science of connections, to be developed in contrast to Metaphysics”

The primary urge to the dialectical revolution in philosophy came from the need to understand human history.  But in the nineteenth century big advances were made in natural science, proving dialectical interconnection and development there as well.  Engels mentions 3 major discoveries:
*  the transformation of energy from one form to another (heat, mechanical force, light etc) – the unity of all motion in nature
*  the discovery of the organic cell as a unit out of which all but the simplets organisms arise and develop
*  the theory of evolution, first presented in connected form and substantiated by Darwin.

These discoveries introduced dialectics into science, doing away with absolute boundaries and different ‘forces’ of nature and showing transformation to be a fundamental aspect of nature.  But it did not follow that scientists thereby became conscious or consistent dialecticians.

Engels (Anti-Dühring, Dialectics of Nature) became convinced that “in nature the same dialectical laws of motion are in operation” as those in social history and the history of development of human thought.  These laws are simply the most general features of process, change, development.  The different fields, while distinguishable, are at the same time part of one single world process, so common features should be expected.

Hegel, despite his idealistic approach, gave many striking illustrations of dialectics.  He was the first to give the ‘classical’ formulation of the laws as:

(1)    The law of the transformation of quantity into quality, and vice versa
(2)    The law of the unity (interpenetration, identity) of opposites
(3)    The law of the negation of the negation.

Let’s look at each in turn, as applied in science:

(1) The law of the transformation of quantity into quality, and vice versa
This law is essential for an understanding of the rise on new qualities, and also for understanding the quantitative effects which may follow.

Change of state, eg liquid -> gas
Chemistry as the science of qualitative changes resulting from changed quantitative composition
‘Critical mass’ for uncontrolled nuclear chain reactions
Marx’s Capital – different stages in the development of modern large-scale industry – hence as a result quantitative changes in many fields (education, mass political activity etc)
Growth and development of a revolutionary party
Emergence (in consciousness of individuals or of society) of a new idea or theory.

(2) The law of the unity of opposites
This law asserts the essentially contradictory character of reality, and that these ‘opposites’ do not remain in opposition but exist in unity.  Hegel:

“Positive and negative … are at bottom the same; the name of either might be transformed to the other.  …  What is negative to the debtor is positive to the creditor.  The way to the East is also a way to the West.  The North Pole of the magnet cannot be without the South Pole and vice versa.  …  In opposition the difference is not confronted by any other, but by its other.”

Other examples?
Hot and cold – energy flows from one to the other
Male and female
Evolution through the survival of the fittest

Bernal: in physics “a set of irreducible dialectical opposites such as wave and particle, matter and energy, statistical and determinate …”

Lenin called contradiction “the salt of dialectics”.  It gives the clue to the inner process of development of things, which takes place through the conflict of these opposites.

The word dialectics comes from the same root as dialogue – the conflict of opposites is essentially similar to that clash of opinions, which through dialogue leads to the emergence of some new point of view.

NB Beware of letting the unity swallow up the fundamental opposition.  The unity exists only from a relative, restricted standpoint.

(3) The law of the negation of the negation
This law states that development takes place in a kind of spiral, one change negating a given state of affairs, and a succeeding change re-establishing, in a more developed form or ‘on a higher plane’, some essential feature of the original state of affairs.

Eg development of modern dialectical materialism by negating idealism which in turn had negated mechanical materialism.

The law, like the others, cannot be arbitrarily foisted upon nature or history – it cannot be used instead of empirical facts.

Seed negates flower.  When propagated, the new flower negates the seed but at a higher level through the mixing of genes.
Nuclear fusion in stars.  Conversion of hydrogen nuclei into helium.  Radiation pressure conteracts tendency of star to collapse under its own gravity (negation of the negating force of gravity).  At a certain stage, the radiation pressure is insufficient, and the star may collapse then explode as a supernova.  New elements are formed.  Even black holes are ultimately negated by Hawking radiation.
Marx in Capital: “capitalist private property is the first negation of individual private property ….  But capitalist production begets with the inexorability of a law of Nature, its own negation.  It is the negation of the negation.”
– not re-establishing individual private property, but establishing individual property based on the acquisitions of the capitalist era.

Lenin’s study of dialectics from Hegel’s Science of Logic:
Some 16 points providing explanation and development:

1.    “Objectivity of observation (not examples, not unrepresentative forms, but the thing itself)”
All thinking has to start by abstracting or ‘isolating’ things.
2.    We must consider “the totality of the manifold relations of each thing to others.
An isolated thing is nothing by itself.  We have to see it in its interconnections and movement.
3.    We must consider “the development of the thing or phenomenon, its own movement, its own life.”
The nature of the thing cannot be understood apart from the form of change it undergoes.
4.    We must search for “the inner contradictory tendencies (and sides) in the thing”
5.    We must see “the thing (appearance etc) as the sum and unity of opposites
6.    We must examine “the struggle or unfolding of these opposites, that which conflicts with these strivings etc.”
Points 4-6 are about the causes of development – always the result of internal conflict as well as external relations.
Points 7-12 are about understanding the complexities of every “thing” by the combined process of splitting up into parts and seeing them in their inter-relation.
7.    Union of analysis and synthesis, the splitting into the separate parts and the totality, summation of these parts together.
8.    The relations of each thing (or appearance etc) not only manifold, but general, universal.  Each thing (or appearance, process etc) is connected with every other.
9.    Not only unity of opposites, but transitions of each determination, each quality, each feature, each side, each property in every other (into its opposite?)
10.    An infinite process of revealing new sides, relations etc.
11.    An infinite process of deepening the knowledge of the thing, appearance, process etc, by man, from appearance to essence, and from less deep to deeper essence.
12.    From coexistence to causality, and from one form of connection and reciprocal dependence to another deeper and more general.
The struggle of opposites which causes development leads at a certain point to a revolutionary break, to the emergence of a new thing (or quality).  The main features of this revolutionary jump from one stage to another are described in points 13-16.
13.    The repetition of certain features, properties etc of the lower stage in the higher and …
14.    apparent return of the old (negation of the negation).
15.    The struggle of content with form and vice versa.
16.    Passing of quantity into quality and vie versa.
Points 15 and 16 are examples of 9.
These 16 points are seen in their real living inter-relationship, they are grasped dialectically.