|The Early Days of a Better Nation|
Monday, July 18, 2011
In other words, everything has a history, and everything has a context. For practical reasons we may have to think about things as if they weren't changing, and as if they were separate things, just there by themselves. But when we're trying to really understand how the world works, we have to remember that our ideas about things may have been formed by leaving aside the changes going on in them, and the connections between them. And we have to bring history and context back into our thinking about the things, and that may mean changing our ideas about them.
And that's dialectical materialism. No scientist would disagree with it, though scientists (like other people) often forget it. I get outraged by the way some Marxists think they can pronounce, on the basis of their supposed all-embracing philosophy, on particular questions of science. They're behaving exactly like clerics of a church that thinks its theology is the queen of the sciences.
When did Marxists start behaving like that? Marx and Engels themselves certainly didn't. One Marxist who was also a scientist, the Dutch astronomer Anton Pannekoek, argued that the rot started with Lenin's Materialism and Empirio-Criticism. Reading a piece by Adam Buick about Dietzgen and Pannekoek many years ago got me on to reading Dietzgen, and introduced me to a very different take on dialectical materialism than the one you find in the standard manuals, and one that I found actually useful in thinking about scientific questions, and indeed in thinking in general. Both Marx and Engels, though they had some criticisms of Dietzgen, agreed that he - a tanner by trade, entirely self-taught - had figured it all out, more or less independently of themselves.
Earlier this year, after I'd written a post about how some Marxists have misunderstood the notion of 'the selfish gene', I decided to read or re-read half a dozen popular introductions to dialectical materialism. I could have saved myself the trouble. When you've read one, you've read them all. It didn't make any difference if the writers were Trotskyists or orthodox Communists. They all use the same arguments and the same illustrations. They're hard to tell apart, and it's hard to take from them anything that makes you think - hey, that's useful, I could use that! They don't provide any intellectual tools, of the kind you can find in any introductory philosophical textbook - Simon Blackburn's Think, for instance - or in Dietzgen's recently reprinted The Nature of Human Brain-Work.
Not that I didn't learn anything:
'All man-made cosmic bodies are the products of scientific thought. And as thought need not necessarily be unique to earth-dwellers and there may be other beings in the universe who may well be our intellectual superiors, it is natural to suppose that other cosmic bodies whose origin is so far not clear to us may also be the products of thought. Then why not suppose that the Earth with everything there is on it is also a product of thought?'That intriguing passage is from the second page of the first chapter of ABC of Dialectical and Historical Materialism, Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1975 (English translation, 1978). It is, of course, the opening gambit in an argument that the Earth is not, in fact, the product of thought. The argument wends on and on, through the whole history of philosophy, to culminate in a quotation from Leonid Brezhnev about the freedom, social equality and justice of Soviet life. This compact hardback of 510 small pages has outlasted the state in which it was printed. The paper and binding are good enough to outlast quite a few more. But I can already see the faint traces of brown at the edges. Like all paper, it's burning, very slowly. Some day it'll crumble.