O. Yakhot: What is Dialectical Materialism?

First Talk:

The Subject Matter of Marxist Philosophy

Date: 1965
Source: What is Dialectical Materialism?, pp. 5-19
Translated (from Russian) by: Clemens Dutt
Published: Progress Publishers, Moscow
Transciption/HTML Markup/Proofreading: The Rust Belt School, June 2014
Public Domain: Marxists Internet Archive (2014). You may freely copy, distribute, display and perform this work; as well as make derivative and commercial works. Please credit “Marxists Internet Archive” as your source.

What is philosophy?

book cover People have the most varied opinions about it. "It is a most interesting, live and profound science," many will say. But others will retort: "I can get along without it." They believe they have no need of it. This view has not arisen by accident. For many centuries it was thought that philosophy was only for the elite, for slave-owners and the bourgeoisie. Thus the opinion arose that philosophy was something remote from ordinary life, difficult to understand and quite unnecessary. But let us think for a moment whether we can actually do without it.

Some of you will be very surprised, perhaps, if I say that throughout your conscious life you are guided by and adhere to a definite philosophy. But this is actually so. A person who lives in a particular society comes across hundreds and thousands of phenomena. He thinks about what is happening in his country and in others a long way off. He cannot help thinking about natural phenomena too, wanting to penetrate the "secrets" of the universe. When he reflects on such questions as where did the planets and stars come from, and the Earth and all that exists on it; what happens to people after death; what is happiness and what is the meaning of life, he is reflecting on philosophical questions, regardless of whether he is aware of doing so. And it is not a matter of idle curiosity. He comes up against such questions all the time and everywhere. Whatever answer he gives it will always have a definite philosophical meaning.

Here is an example. In the past, when peasants prayed for rain during a drought, it implied that they had a definite "idea" about such phenomena.

There is no need for me to show that that view was deeply mistaken. But when, in order to prevent the disastrous effects of drought, people construct irrigation works or till the soil in such a way as to preserve moisture, is it not obvious that they have their view about the rain and the world and what takes place in it? They realise that the phenomena of nature arise in a natural way without any need of divine aid. That is a true view of the world.

The phenomena of social and political life, too, can be looked at in different ways.

We are bound to draw the conclusion, therefore, that we can only understand what takes place around us if we are guided by a definite world outlook being the sum-total of views about life, the world as a whole, and individual phenomena and events.

We need to have a general idea about the world, not in order to be passively acquainted with the events taking place in it, but in order to be able to influence them. Only the unity of knowledge and deep ideological conviction leads to the formation of an integral world outlook. The latter then plays a very important part in our lives.

Let us imagine that two persons have been invited to join a religious sect. One agrees but the other refuses. One is taken in by the false arguments of the preachers, but the other realises that it is all deception. They behave differently because they differ in their understanding of reality or, as it is called, in their conception of the world. One of them has come to realise that man is the maker of his own happiness. The other, however, has no such firm conviction and so he looks for aid to some super power. They look on life differently. One does so correctly, the other incorrectly, because the latter has not got a true view of the world or a correct world outlook.

It turns out that we have recourse to philosophy more often than is sometimes thought. It could not be otherwise. Lenin wrote: " A socialist requires a well-thought-out and firmly held world outlook, so that he may control the events and not the events him,"1

In this connection, it may be asked: by studying physics, chemistry, biology, astronomy and history do we not obtain a scientific idea of the world i.e., a true world outlook? Why must we study philosophy as well? It is true, of course, that we obtain definite knowledge by studying these sciences. But they do not give us an integral world outlook, that is, one with an inner unity.

A correct understanding of the world is necessary in everyday life and this is given us by the Marxist-Leninist world outlook, the theoretical basis of which is Marxist philosophy. What then is philosophy?

The word "philosophy" is derived from two Greek words: "phileein"—to love, and "phia"—wisdom, knowledge. You will, of course, say that every science knowledge and in this sense is wisdom. In that case it might be said that every science is philosophy. But is this so?

It is true that every science gives knowledge but the nature of this knowledge differs. Each science gives us knowledge only of a particular sphere of reality: astronomy—of celestial bodies; biology—of plants, animals and man; history—of events in society. These sciences cannot give us knowledge of a whole nature, of the world as a whole. Yet such knowledge is vitally necessary.

For instance, we often encounter general questions about the world. Was it "created", or has it existed eternally? Can nature develop naturally, i.e., without any intervention of mysterious, supernatural forces? The physicist knows, of course, that there is nothing supernatural in the field of his investigations. But this knowledge applies primarily to his own sphere of research. What is required, however, is knowledge that covers all natural phenomena without exception, and this the so-called definite sciences cannot give us. Such knowledge is given by philosophy. It alone poses the most genera questions of the development of nature and society and attempts to solve them. That defines the subject matter of philosophy, i.e., the range of questions that it studies.

The subject matter of philosophy differs therefore from that of the definite sciences which deal with particular spheres of reality. What is this difference?

Physics, mathematics, biology and other sciences study definite laws, those governing the development of part of the phenomena of nature. Philosophy, however, studies the most general laws, those which govern not some part, but all the phenomena of nature, society and thought. Hence philosophy can be defined as the science of the most general laws of development of nature, society and thought. Because of this it gives people a definite world outlook, an idea about the world around them. But why does this differ so much among different people?

The partisanship of philosophy

Children in some West German schools were asked to write an essay on the subject: "What I would do if I could do whatever I liked?" What were their answers? One wrote: "I would blow up schools all over the world."

Another wrote: "I would drop bombs everywhere…I would set fire to the house and I would jump into the river." And this is what children in Soviet schools wrote on the same subject: "I would free Negroes enslaved by the capitalists and factory owners," wrote one. "The first thing I would do would be to ban atom and hydrogen bombs," wrote another.

Why are the children's answers so different? In the first case they come from children brought up in a spirit of contempt for people and imbued with a bourgeois world outlook. In the second case they come from children taught by schools to love their country, and to uphold peace throughout the world. Soviet schools bring up children in the spirit of the communist world outlook.

Such questions as what is the meaning of life and what is happiness receive different answers in socialist and in bourgeois society. In the latter, where everything is bought and sold for money, happiness is primarily wealth. Many regard that as the meaning of life. Therein lie the roots of the philistine philosophy of the petty-minded individual. People in socialist society, however, reject this philistine philosophy. Their happiness lies in being respected by the people with whom they work, in being respected by the society for the sake of which they live. Their greatest happiness to feel necessary to the collective, to their country, to the people who are working to build a new, happy life. In one of his early works, Marx wrote: "Experience exalts as the most happy he who has brought happiness to the greatest number of people."

Thus we see once again two approaches to the question, two world outlooks–the bourgeois and the proletarian.

If society is divided into hostile classes there cannot be any common, single world outlook. One class has one philosophy, in the other class another. This is quite understandable. The life and status of the proletariat and working people differ from those of the bourgeoisie and exploiters. They react differently to events taking place in the world, each has its own understanding of them. Hence they differ in their world outlook or philosophy. That of the proletariat is different from that of the bourgeoisie. There is no neutral philosophy, i.e., one which does not serve a particular class.

Philosophy, as Lenin teaches, is always of a partisan nature. That is to say, it defends partisan, class interests. Hence contending parties in philosophy are to be found in each historical period. Materialism and idealism are such parties in philosophy.

Materialism and idealism

What is the meaning of these two concepts? Take a look at things and phenomena in the world. Some of them, such as a stone, a tree, a living organism, water, etc., we can touch with our hands, see with our eyes, weigh and measure, and so on. They exist outside and independently of man's consciousness. We perceive them by means of our sense organs—those of sight, hearing, touch, smell and taste. But there are also phenomena of a different kind, for example, our thoughts and wishes, which we cannot measure, weigh, see or hear. They exist in man's consciousness.

Material objects and phenomena are those which exist not in our consciousness but outside it. They do not depend on human beings, they exist objectively, i.e., in reality. If man did not exist, these things would still exist. The other group of phenomena belong to consciousness. They are ideal phenomenon. They include thoughts feelings desires, will.

They do not exist outside and apart from man. As you see, one group of phenomena in its totality constitutes nature, matter, while the other constitutes consciousness, or mind.

Nature, matter, is also called being. What connection is there between material and mental phenomena? This is a question that faces us continually. In regard to all the phenomena in the world, we can put it in this way: which is primary, that is to say, which comes first, nature, matter or thought, reason, consciousness? Sometimes this question is put somewhat differently: does mind, consciousness, give rise to nature, matter, or does nature, matter, being, give rise to mind, consciousness. This question is known as the fundamental question of philosophy. Different philosophers answer it indifferent ways.

Some of them say that matter is primary, initial, that it gives rise to mind, consciousness. Such philosophers are called materialists, since their starting point is that matter denies all that exists. Others say that consciousness, mind, primary and that matter, nature, is secondary, derivative. According to them, consciousness precedes matter, and nature arose from some sort of spiritual basis. Such philosophers are called idealists; they hold that underlying all that exists is idea, i.e., thought, spirit. These are the two camps into which philosophers are divided, that of the materialists and of the idealists. They have opposed each other throughout history of philosophy.

Hence, depending on how to tackle the fundamental question, the philosophers split into two groups. But the study and understanding of the world depends also on the method used by a particular philosopher to gain knowledge.

What is the method of studying reality?

The method by which the phenomena of reality are studied plays a very important part. This is in fact indicated by the word "method", which is derived from the Greek "methodos"—a road, direction. If we are on the right road we can reach our goal. If not, we shall go astray and not arrive where we should.

Chemistry, physics, astronomy and other sciences have cir methods of investigation. It is essential to know, however, what should be the proper approach not to the individual phenomena of a particular branch of knowledge, to nature as a whole, to all phenomena of the world around us. Here it is a question of world outlook. Imagine someone saying: "Why look for new crop rotation systems? Let us do just what our forefathers did." People would certainly reply that this is a wrong approach, that the soil and its structure have changed since those days. All sorts of machines for tilling the soil have been devised, so that a crop rotation system that was introduced, say, in the Middle Ages cannot satisfy us nowadays. We must, therefore, continually look for new ways of increasing the productivity of our fields. Underlying every idea of the world is its method, its approach to the phenomena of nature. The first way of looking at the world is regarded as something immutable, ossified. This is called the "metaphysical method".2 The second method regards objects and phenomenon is developing and changing. This is the dialectical method.3

Which of these two methods is scientific? The metaphysical method assumes that the sun, mountains, rivers and seas at the present time are exactly as they were millions of years ago. It looks on phenomena in isolation, as unconnected with one another. This is the essence of the metaphysical method. Materialism in the past, which adhered to this method, came to be known as "metaphysical materialism". The development of science in the nineteenth century increasingly contradicted this idea of the world. The first breach was due to the cosmological hypothesis of the German philosopher Kant and the French astronomer Laplace They showed that the Earth and the solar system resulted from a long process of development of matter. Subsequently, geology, too, confirmed the idea of the evolution of the Earth. The view of the world as a connected whole that had arisen as the result of historical development was particularly brought into prominence by three great discoveries. The great English naturalist Charles Darwin showed that the species of animals and plants existing in the world today had not always looked as they do now. They came into being as the result of a long process of evolution. Secondly, scientists discovered that all animal and plant organisms are made up of the smallest units—cells—in which the complicated vital processes take place. In this way the basis was laid for a correct understanding of the evolution of organisms. Thirdly, scientists discovered the law of the conservation and transformation of energy. It was established that motion cannot arise out of nothing, just as it cannot disappear into nothing. The forms of motion pass into one another. Thus it was shown that matter in motion is eternal and indestructible. This was a great triumph for the theory of development.

Thus the development of science provided the prerequisites in the field of natural science that were necessary for the triumph of the new dialectical materialist view of the world elaborated by Karl Marx (1818-1883) and Frederick Engels (1820-1895).

The dialectical view of the world scored a succession of triumphs. It became increasingly difficult for metaphysics to deny the principle of development, an outward "recognition" of which became a characteristic feature of metaphysics in the nineteenth century. Basically, however, metaphysics always denies the principle of development, for it understands development as a process of simple repetition, without the emergence of anything new. It denies the internal source of development or sees it somewhere outside the developing things or phenomena—in a god, spirit, or idea. Dialectics and metaphysics are therefore incompatible.

Dialectics regards development as a process that results in real changes, where the old dies out and the new comes into being, where the course of events is not cyclical, but where new qualities of phenomena arise.

Metaphysics regards the world as an accumulation of accidental things and processes. Dialectics, on the other hand, regards the world as a single connected whole, and it studies these connections, separating those that are essential from those that are inessential, those that are fundamental from those that are accidental.

This will be dealt with in detail in the talks devoted to the laws and categories of materialist dialectics. You will see there that phenomena never exist in isolation but are always interconnected and interacting. The world cannot be understood if, like the metaphysicians, we regard phenomena as cut off from one another.

From what has been said it follows that dialectics is the science of the most general laws of motion and development of nature, human society and thought, the, science of the universal connection of all phenomena in the world. For this reason it is the opposite of metaphysics.

Why the conflict between materialism and idealism is inevitable

The conflict between materialism and idealism is evident in the approach to all root problems. What is their attitude towards religion? Engels said that the fundamental question of philosophy could be stated as follows: did God create the world or has it existed eternally? To this question materialists and idealists give diametrically opposite answers.

The idealists say that the world came into being when it was created by the idea, by thought. That the world did not exist until it was created by God is the view of religion. Obviously these two views are basically the same. Idealism has merely substituted the word "idea" for the word "God". Of course, idealism and religion are not identical; there is a certain difference between them. What they have in common is that both of them introduce an ideal, spiritual principle as the basis of everything that exists. Hence they are closely related. "Idealism is clericalism" Lenin wrote. It arises and exists as a basis for and justification of religion.

Materialism, on the other hand, teaches that matter, nature, has existed eternally. It has not had a creator. Such a conception of the world's development has no room for a supreme heavenly power, for God. There is no need for God; the development of the world has proceeded without his intervention. Thus materialism involves denial of any God and is inevitably bound up with atheism. A materialist is necessarily an atheist. Religious prejudices hinder people from reaching a correct materialist world outlook.

Materialism and idealism approach all other major problems, too, in opposite ways. We know that a society based on exploitation consists of hostile classes. What is the attitude to this, adopted by materialists and idealists? Superficially, it might seem that idealists write philosophical works that are remote from "worldly vanity", from the struggle of parties and classes. But in reality that is far from being the case. Consider, for example, the modern American philosopher William Vogt. He says that there are at present hundreds of millions of "redundant" people in the world. Hence, an atomic war is required to dispose of them. He lines up with those who want to unleash a sanguinary war.

Other idealist philosophers call for a crusade against Communists In this way they help the capitalists to oppose the progressive forces of society. There are philosophers who tell the working people not to take part in political activities. They claim that their theories are non-political, and say: "We have nothing to do with politics." At first glance, it might seem that these idealist philosophers stand aside from the struggle of classes and parties. But it is easy to see that this is only a cover for their real intentions. In reality, when these idealists talk of "impartiality" and of being "above parties", they are in effect saying to the working people: "Keep away from the struggle against capitalism, against poverty." And whom does that benefit if not the capitalists and exploiters? It turns out that idealism supports everything that is reactionary and obsolete, beginning with exploitation and ending with religion, clericalism.

In contrast to idealism, materialism expresses the interests of the revolutionary, progressive classes and opposes the reactionary obsolete classes. If idealism is the banner of the reactionary classes, materialism is the banner of the progressive, advanced classes. It should be borne in mind, however, that this proposition must not be oversimplified so as to imply that under all conditions idealists defend everything reactionary and obsolete, while materialists always express the interests of the progressive classes. Heraclitus, for instance, a materialist philosopher of the ancient world, defended the interests of the slave-owners, opposed Athenian democracy, and was even in favour of war. On the other hand, the contemporary English philosopher Bertrand Russell, despite the idealist nature of his philosophy, is an active peace supporter.

When we say that idealism expresses the interests of the obsolete, reactionary classes, whereas materialism expresses those of the progressive classes, we are referring to the basic historical tendency in the development of philosophy. In this respect it is actually found that when materialists take reality, real life, as the basis of their theories, they serve the advanced, progressive classes. On the other hand, when idealism in its theories distorts the truth, then, irrespective of the wishes of individual exponents of idealism, it serves the interests of the obsolete, reactionary classes. In this sense the conflict between materialism and idealism is an expression of the class struggle.

In this struggle it is impossible for philosophers to be neutral, to support neither of the contending sides or parties. Lenin exposed those who asserted: "We are neither materialists nor idealists, we stand 'above' these parties." He called these philosophers "the despicable party of the middle", and he refuted their attempts to make out that the conflict between materialism and idealism was out-of-date and that therefore philosophers could no longer be divided into materialists and Idealists. The modern revisionists4 are particularly zealous supporters of this idea. They furiously attack the Marxist principle of the partisanship of philosophy, its thesis of an irreconcilable struggle between materialism and idealism, asserting that the differences between materialism and idealism are disappearing. The fallacy of such assertions is easily seen if it is borne in mind that bourgeois society consists of hostile classes engaged in a bitter struggle against each other. This struggle cannot cease. Nor can the struggle between materialism and idealism cease; it is derived from the class struggle.

Every philosophy, therefore, expresses definite class interests. How does this apply to Marxism?

What is Marxism and whose interests does it express?

The most outstanding event of the period when Marxism arose (in the forties of the nineteenth century) was that a new revolutionary class—the proletariat—made its appearance. The birth of the proletariat, of course, goes further back, but by the forties it had begun to act as a powerful revolutionary force. It was already loudly demanding its rights, as can be judged from the actions it undertook at the time. The first such large-scale actions of the proletariat were: in Britain the Chartist movements,5 and in France the revolt of the Lyons weavers in the thirties. There was also a series of actions by the proletariat in Germany.

These actions were evidence of the immense power of the new rising class, the proletariat. The giant had awakened, but this was not yet enough for victory. This gigantic force had to be applied in the right way. The proletariat had to take the correct path. But what was the correct path?

One path that the proletariat could take was that of minor tussles with capitalism, unorganised spontaneous action, without a clear goal and leadership.

What did the proletariat lack that could give its struggle an organised character and enable it to obtain a clear view of the prospects ahead? A revolutionary theory-that is what the proletariat lacked at that time! Let us recall Lenin's words: "Without a revolutionary theory there can be no revolutionary movement." The proletariat wants to throw off the yoke of capitalist slavery. It aspires to create a new, socialist society, free from all exploitation. But the path to the accomplishment of that goal had to be found. Socialist theory had to be created. Marxism gave this theory to the proletariat and the working people.

Creating socialist theory as the world outlook of the proletariat meant creating a new theory, an organic unity of philosophy, political economy and scientific communism. There were, of course, various philosophical, economic and socialist theories in existence prior to Marxism. But, firstly, they never constituted an organic whole and, secondly, they did not express the interests of the proletariat and could not serve as a theoretical basis for its struggle for emancipation.

This must not be taken to imply that there were no progressive philosophical and economic systems or socialist theories before Marxism had appeared. In fact, as Lenin pointed out, the three component parts of Marxism have three corresponding sources: German classical philosophy, English classical political economy and French utopian socialism. The views of the creators of these theories were not truly scientific. Take, for instance, the theory of the French utopian socialists. A utopia is an imaginary paradise, an unrealisable fantasy. Such was the nature of their theory. They tried, for example, to persuade some factory owners to give their factories to the workers. No good came of this scheme. Their socialist theory, therefore, remained unrealisable.

A truly scientific theory was created for the proletariat by its great teachers, Marx and Engels, and is known as Marxism. Marxism expresses the interests of the proletariat and is the hitter's theoretical weapon. It is an integral and harmonious system of philosophical, economic and socio-political views. Lenin pointed out that Marxism consists of three parts: philosophy, political economy and scientific communism.

Since we have already made clear the class basis of Marxism it is easy to realise that its basis can only be materialist philosophy.

The philosophy of Marxism is dialectical materialism

You have already seen that the idealist explanation of the world is wholly illusory, that it distorts what takes place in the world. The proletariat cannot have anything to do with such a philosophy. It wants to build a better life for all working people. It needs to study the world as it really is, without fantasies or distortions. Idealism cannot show the correct way here. But materialism studies the world as it really is. Marxism, too, proceeds from actual life, without any spurious addition. Therefore its theoretical foundation can only be materialist philosophy.

Materialism existed before Marxism appeared. This, however, was metaphysical materialism. Marx and Engels created a new theory-dialectical materialism Marxism cannot accept the metaphysical method of approaching the world as something eternal and unchanging. Reality is eternally developing and changing. In its theories and practical activities Marxism reflects the changing character of life itself. By its very nature Marxism is a revolutionary theory. But bourgeois philosophers today cling to metaphysics, for they want to halt historical development and perpetuate the capitalist order of things. This is why it is materialist dialectics, i.e., the science of development, that is the Marxist method of studying and transforming reality.

Thus, materialism and dialectics in their unity and inseparable connection constitute the theory and method of Marxism. That is why the philosophy of Marxism is called dialectical materialism. It is a philosophical world outlook and at the same time a method. It serves as a compass and guiding star in the practical activities of the party of the proletariat.

Why Marxism is the compass and guiding star of the working people

At one time sailors fixed their course by the stars. Hence the expression "guiding star". When the compass was invented it was used to show the direction to be taken. Marxist philosophy can be compared to a compass or a guiding star, for it shows the proletariat, the Communist Party and all working people the way to be taken in their practical activities. But a compass must be a good one or it may lead us astray. It is even more important to have an accurate compass for a guide in the affairs of society. The famous Negro singer Paul Robeson relates that he once belonged to a students' society which had as its motto: "Philosophy is a guide to life." "But", says Robeson, "the philosophy taught in the university proved an unsuitable compass in life… I searched for a way out of this blind alley but could not find it. Only when I became acquainted with the teachings of Marx and Lenin did I find the 'philosophical key' which has really guided my life."

Marxist philosophy can be said to be a compass, a guiding star, in the sense that in its practical activities the Communist Party is always guided by its revolutionary theory. For the Communist Party, Marxist philosophy is, in the full sense of the word, a guide to action. Here is an example. The first socialist revolution in history took place in Russia in 1917. it was at once faced with the important and difficult question of how to begin the building of socialism. In answering this question the Party was guided by one of the major points of Marxist theory, viz., that the decisive factor for a country's development is its economy. Socialism cannot be built if the country is inadequately provided with factories and if small-scale peasant farming prevails in the countryside. Guided by this, the correct way was found. Industrialisation, collectivisation of agriculture and abolition of the exploiting classes—such was the Soviet people's road to socialism. This road of socialist construction was laid down in the second Programme adopted by the Eighth Congress of the Communist Party in 1919.

The same thing applies to the present period, that of building communism. To the Soviet people fell the historic role at being the pioneers of communist construction, of blazing a new path of social development. Here, too, Marxist theory is the guide.

The seventeenth century English materialist Francis Bacon aptly compared correct theory to a lantern that lights up a dark road for a traveller. He likened a scientist unequipped with a correct theory to a traveller groping his way in the dark.

The Communist Party leads the Soviet people to communism by the sole correct road. The proof of this is seen in the, historic decisions of the 22nd Congress of the C.P.S.U. To build communism, the material and technical basis for it has first to be created. This implies the development of the country's economy, its industry and agriculture, ensuring the Soviet people with everything necessary for implementing the principle of communism: "From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs." This simple yet profound thesis underlies all the main sections of the new Programme adopted by the C.P.S.U. at its 22nd Congress in 1961. It is based wholly and completely on Marxist theory, which in this case is not so much a lantern as a powerful searchlight, beacon and compass.

What has been said above unmasks the revisionists who slanderously assert that Marxism is "out-of-date". Marxism is the powerful weapon of the Communist Party of the proletariat and all working people in the struggle for communism. Its appearance marked a true revolution in science.

1. Lenin, Collected Works, Vol. 8, p. 316.

2. Metaphysics—from the Greek "meta ta physika"—after physics. This was the title Aristotle gave to the section of his work on philosophy devoted to speculative thought, following the section called "physics". Later the term metaphysics was applied to a method at cognition opposed to dialectics.

3. Dialectics from the Greek "dialego" to converse, dispute. In antiquity it meant the art of arriving at the truth by discovering contradictions in the arguments of an opponent and overcoming them. Later it came to he applied to a method of apprehending reality.

4. Revisionism is a distortion of Marxism by revising its principal tenets so as to comply with the interests of the bourgeoisie.

5. Chartism—British workers' movement of 1836-48 aimed at securing political rights and improving the economic conditions of the working class.