Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Why a Philosophy of the Natural Sciences is Needed

By Erwin Marquit

My answer to the question “Why is a philosophy of the natural sciences needed?” will take the form of several distinct components. Before enumerating them, I should point out that no separate Marxist philosophy of the natural sciences exists distinct from dialectical and historical materialism. Marxist philosophy of the natural sciences is the methodological application of dialectical and historical materialism to investigations in the various natural sciences.

1. The logic of the Marxist analysis of social development is based on the philosophical system of dialectical and historical materialism. Dialectical and historical materialism together constitute a unitary philosophical system. Comprehensive philosophical systems, or worldviews, are always universal in character, embracing the spheres of nature, society, and thought. In asserting the validity of their philosophical system, Marx and Engels felt it necessary to demonstrate that dialectical and historical materialism provide the universal logical basis for understanding processes of change in the spheres of nature and society as well as in the thought processes by which this understanding comes about. Engels stressed this in his work on the dialectics of nature when he wrote: “The fact that our subjective thought and the objective world are subject to the same laws, and, hence, too, that in the final analysis they cannot contradict each other in their results, but must coincide, governs absolutely our whole theoretical thought. It is the unconscious and unconditional premise for theoretical thought” (Engels 1987, 544).

2. By the 1870s, Marx and Engels had essentially established the law-governed revolutionary transformative character of the process leading from capitalism to socialism. They had laid the theoretical basis for a revolutionary political movement that would be needed in this process and participated actively in its formation. Already in 1844, Marx put forth the view: “The weapon of criticism cannot, of course, replace criticism by weapons, material force must be overthrown by material force; but theory also becomes a material force as soon as it has gripped the masses” (1975, 182). An ideologically strong revolutionary political movement is needed to bring this material force into being. The material character of this movement was further elaborated by Lenin in outlining the organizational character of the party of a new type in What is to be Done? The reformist undermining of the thesis that a revolutionary movement is necessary was based on the mechanistic projection that the operation of dialectics of nature would inevitably bring about the self-destruction of capitalism, making unnecessary a class struggle oriented toward socialism. Therefore, according to Bernstein, and later Kautsky and Hilferding, the task of socialists was to work for reforms within the capitalist system (Azad 2005, 504). By ignoring the necessity of ideological struggle for the cause of socialism, they effectively discarded historical and dialectical materialism and turned dialectics of nature into a mechanistic determinism. But the transition from capitalism to socialism differs from previous societal transformations in that the process can only be brought about with conscious understanding of its nature and necessity. Life under the material conditions of existence under capitalism serves as the source for acquisition of this consciousness among the masses, but this acquisition cannot occur spontaneously through economic struggles. The consciousness must be imparted to them by the party that is guided by historical and dialectical materialism.

3. The Hegelian Marxists, such as Lukács, Korsch, and Gramsci, argued that dialectics is not applicable to nature and that in fact its application to nature is the source of the mechanistic determinism that led to reformism (Azad 2005, 307, drawing on Callinicos 1976, 70). In making this argument, they also rejected the Leninist reflection theory of knowledge as the basis for the Marxist-Leninist concept of the relationship between the two fundamental philosophical categories, matter and ideas. The understanding of this relationship lies at the heart of the Marxist concept of the scientific method. The idealist character of this view led to giving overriding priority to the development of a socialist consciousness while paying inadequate attention to strengthening the material organizational basis of the class struggle. Despite the common idealist character of their philosophies, Lukács, Korsch, and Gramsci differed considerably in their political orientation. Although Gramsci’s philosophical inclinations leaned toward idealism, he was in fact a Leninist in politics (Gedő 1993, 15, citing Argeri 1976, 141).

In the latter half of the twentieth century, the effectively reformist attempt to deny the applicability of dialectics to nature took the additional form of separating Marx from both Engels and Lenin. Marx was characterized affectionately as a humanist, while Engels and Lenin were characterized as crass materialists. Supporters of this view (for example, the well-known Israeli political scientist Shlomo Avineri) assert unabashedly that Marx never accepted the applicability of dialectics to nature, and that we have only Engels’s word for his doing so. Such assertions are made in spite of the fact that Avineri and others of that school were well aware of Marx’s letter to Kugelman in which he wrote that “the dialectical method” is “the method of dealing with matter” (27 June 1870, 528). Actually it was not necessary, of course, for Marx to state explicitly (although clearly he did) that dialectics applies to the sphere of nature. Hegel had already spelled this out in his works, as did Marx himself in Capital and elsewhere. Underlying the attempt to deny the applicability of dialectics to nature is a strong anti-Communism that dissociates itself from any political, organizational forms of class struggle. Reassertion of the integrity of historical and dialectical materialism and its applicability to nature, society, and thought strengthens the theoretical basis for engaging in day-to-day organized political struggle essential for opening up space for the development of a socialist consciousness.
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