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On Marxist Philosophy

The following is an excerpt from a draft document in progress compiled by Neftali, the author of “Notes on Mass Line, Communist Organization, and Revolution” here on Maosoleum. Views here are thus those of Neftali, and do not necessarily represent the views of Maosoleum. Please address Neftali in the comments.

Philosophy in action

Philosophy in action


by Neftali, Guest post

Marxists regard man’s activity in production as the most fundamental practical activity, the determinant of all his other activities. Man’s knowledge depends mainly on his activity in material production, through which he comes gradually to understand the phenomena, the properties and the laws of nature, and the relations between himself and nature; and through his activity in production he also gradually comes to understand, in varying degrees, certain relations that exist between man and man. None of this knowledge can be acquired apart from activity in production…Man’s social practice is not confined to activity in production, but takes many other forms–class struggle, political life, scientific and artistic pursuits; in short, as a social being, man participates in all spheres of the practical life of society. Thus man, in varying degrees, comes to know the different relations between man and man, not only through his material life but also through his political and cultural life (both of which are intimately bound up with material life). Of these other types of social practice, class struggle in particular, in all its various forms, exerts a profound influence on the development of man’s knowledge. In class society everyone lives as a member of a particular class, and every kind of thinking, without exception, is stamped with the brand of a class.”

Mao Zedong; On Practice

“The foundation is class struggle. The study of philosophy can only come afterwards. Whose philosophy? Bourgeois philosophy, or proletarian philosophy? Proletarian philosophy is Marxist philosophy. There is also proletarian economics, which has transformed classical economics. Those who engage in philosophy believe that philosophy comes first. The oppressors oppress the oppressed, while the oppressed need to fight back and seek a way out before they start looking for philosophy. It is only when people took this as their starting-point that there was Marxism-Leninism, and that they discovered philosophy”

Mao Zedong; Talks on Questions on Philosophy

We begin with these excerpts from Mao to begin with an initial discussion on the relationship between theory and practice, particularly theory in relationship to the social practice of class struggle. Mao’s essential points can be understood as:

  1. Knowledge is fundamentally rooted in production, the development of production, and its corresponding social activity.
  2. Knowledge is composed in such a way that it depends upon production and its social relationships, as mere abstraction it takes the form of the metaphysical and illusory absolute. Knowledge has a historicity and therefore can’t be abstracted from the struggle for production (within class societies, class struggle) – in fact such abstraction is in the end metaphysics..
  3. Philosophy in particular has a class character. A proletarian philosophy is derived from the experiences of class struggle, whereas bourgeois philosophy (or the philosophy of the ruling class) makes philosophy into metaphysics.

Philosophy “has no history.” Philosophy is merely a lagging ideological component which follows the break of science, it is the battlefield of class ideas for hegemony in relationship to the sciences. Such a battlefield was marked with repetition and recurrence of certain ideological trends. Philosophy at its best, dialectical materialism (the philosophy of our class), can only provide an understanding of the conditions of a truth procedure.

The practice of communists in relationship to philosophy has been to enter philosophy not as its champions but as proletarian partisans who champion the dialectical materialist standpoint; a standpoint which upholds science and a scientific basis for acquiring knowledge. This partisanship is in fact a class partisanship, a partisanship of one class – the proletariat. It is only the proletariat that can be the most staunch defenders of the materialist orientation to knowledge and truth. For as a whole class, the proletariat does not oppose the progress of scientific development or the advancement of productive forces. In its advancement we can find a deeper basis for our own freedom, only reactionary classes which become outmoded by development of productive forces (from the standpoint of the totality of social relationships) have a stagnant position in keeping themselves, their hegemony, and their ideological mysticism together (even through the discourse of science itself).

Young Engels

In this lens we can understand the valuable theoretical-polemic of Engels who followed the (in)famous Herr Durhing through his “vast territory” that encompassed the whole breadth of the sciences and philosophy and which presented a real danger of perverting through metaphysics the workers’ movement and its intellectual core in Germany and Russia. Lenin in Materialism and Empirico-criticism  – a book stretching the range of philosophy from Diderot and Berkley, to Kant and Hegel – took to address the ideological consequences of the new developments of physics at that moment which some, following the great Austrian physicist Ernst Mach, declared matter to have disappeared.

Lenin wrote “Materialism and Empiro-criticism” partly as a reponse to Bogdanov, and not much afterwards Bogdanov won this match.

Each intervention into philosophy was an intervention on behalf of science and the materialist dialectical orientation that held, in the last instance, an objectivity independent of subjectivity. Each intervention was a partisan act of a class to defend science and the scientific method from the attacks of the graduated flunkeys, the academic priests of the bourgeoisie. Why was an intervention so important? Because the materialist dialectical philosophy is an orientation and basis which gives us theoretically (and therefore abstractly) the basis to provide scientific analysis of a continent of study opened up by Marx himself – history, i.e. historical materialism. To defend for ourselves the basis and ability to look at the development of class society, to look at trends concerning capitalist accumulation, to grasp the material basis for the overturning of such a system, and to understand how we as a class can make the necessary interventions to make revolution, to provide as a leading class for liberation a program and platform to emancipate humanity from what Zhang Chunqiao termed the Four Alls

  1. the abolition of class distinctions generally
  2. the abolition of all the relations of production on which they rest
  3. the abolition of all the social relations that correspond to these relations of production
  4. revolutionizing of all the ideas that result from these social relations.

Jiang Qing and Zhang Chunqiao

The world is everything that is the case. The materialist viewpoint in philosophy takes to itself the position of orientation that there is an objectivity independent of any subjectivity be that of each solipsist or that of the eternal mind of God. That objectivity gives rise to subjective phenomenon. All things, or to utilize another concept, existents have emerged into a plane of the real (space, time, theoretical “hyperspace”.)  which has movement that fundamentally obeys definite laws as objects in relationship to other objects within the plane of that very plane of the real. Each thing is not solely a static whole, but is the manifold process constituted mainly by a unity of opposites,[1] in which contradictory forces give the temporal being of each thing. The synthesis of this viewpoint of the world is what we call dialectical materialism. Materialism for the determination of the order of things based upon the objects, as processes, existing on the plain of the real; dialectical for the quality of this determination being one of relationships of things to each other to constitute the order of this world, relationships of things which, rather than simply haphazard and random, obey general tendencies and movements grounded in the essential quality and nature of the things themselves.

There are contesting visions to dialectical materialism, contesting world views which are articulated by various classes and social forces in class society in legitimation of their systems, they articulate the very consciousness of each epoch for itself. The dialectical materialist viewpoint therefore stands within a historical sweep of development for which the struggle in philosophy represents the ideological struggle of these classes and social forces in their own narration. It is contrasted first of all with idealism in so much as idealism posits the organization of the world as one of mind or Spirit.

The subject as self-consciousness that is the point of original departure for much of idealist philosophy is from the standpoint of the most thoroughgoing materialism the production of  language which enables the subject to articulate its own being in relation to a sensuous world of existents, it is a construct of a thing which is a contingent and autonomous being. The subject as self-consciousness is itself an image the subject gives to itself in order to organize all experiences for itself. The production of subject as self-consciousness allows for a self-certain subject vital to the basic activity of the human organism. These subjects are material subjects with a finite and limited consciousness of even their own presence, i.e. no subjectivity takes on such a position as to have to itself a world of its own. The very unity that is the image of self-consciousness is dependent on the tangible grey matter we know in its totality as the brain. A chemically organic distinguishable thing in relation to other similarly organic things which constitutes the body. Mind becomes a product of matter, consciousness has arisen from the brain – all that is known demonstrates the causal relationship of the brain to the mind, that in the final analysis the “mind” is mere production of matter and we know of no other thing which constitutes a mind.

Despite the truth of the brain being the producer of that which is called mind, this fact only came more and more clear as scientific investigation grounded our phenomenological experience more concretely in the explanation of the natural world, the dark place of its mind, the subject took refuge to find its own certainty. It gave to itself the rational basis for putting itself in production. Cogito ergo sum. The I or ego fathomed itself an existent, a being, on the phenomenal basis of its mind-stream, it’s own experience of self-consciousness. It posit itself the maker of its world through sensual activity, as a lawgiver to the neumonal order, as an organizer of these things-in-themselves. It is sensible that a certain stage in the development of science these arguments had their appeal. They gave to the bourgeoisie, in the wake of scientific revolution, the ideological weapon in authority of argument against those defenders of feudalism for which everything in the world was merely dependent on God’s grace.

René Descartes

As soon those very rationalists gave a basis for science and opened up the world for the bourgeois they were done in by science. The fetish of mind was taken from the ectoplasm into the real and one substance of this world. The rationalist set forward the ideological basis for the movement of science to appear alongside them, appealing to the example of machinery, they set forward an ideological basis that would serve till today the spontaneous philosophy of many scientists in their work. This spontaneous philosophy is what we call mechanical materialism in Marxist circles and it can be observed today even among the most prolific of scientists including evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, physicist Lawrence Krauss, and others of the new atheist vogue. While Marxists are materialists we are opposed to mechanical materialism for its ideological character and wrongful understanding of nature as a static body of substance with variation moving incrementally, with matter acting upon itself as a sort of simple combination of random particles in collection nearly indifferent to its form and structure. In many ways such ideological notions rooted at the heart of much of these scientists work can distort their presentation in such a manner as to render them nothing more than bourgeois weapons against the people (such bourgeois pseudoscience is quite prevalent in the fields of evolutionary psychology or the now disgraced field of eugenics).

Distinguishing mechanical materialism from dialectical materialism is necessary to break away from the ideological paralysis of bourgeois rationalism, sterilizing matter as merely an eternal recurrence of the same. Where the mechanical materialist admits of movement it’s simply one of the variations in composition of the infinitesimal, that is mere quantitative sums of the same basic matter. Dialectical materialism in contrast rejects this metaphysics of the essence of matter into one simple truth as contrary to a clear materialist picture of matter and its movement. Dialectical materialists see that matter is arranged in qualitatively distinct ways, that its movement become qualitatively distinct as well. Those who practice a materialist dialectics therefore tend to look at matter in its development, in its transformations and distinctions between other forms. What is good for the quantum is not as good for the organic life form. Typically the bourgeois rationalists in science only hope to remain myopically concerned with their disciplines, and therefore their spontaneous ideological disposition to their scientific practice distorts how the thing is perceived.

The eventual crisis of the rationalist mechanical materialist position became quite clear as the sciences themselves peered deeper into the phenomena of nature. It became much more well understood that the eternal placement of things and that the reproduction of the whole was not simply the reproduction of like to like. The development of our instruments and the deepening of scientific practice gave the opportunity to do away with such metaphysical static atomism and mechanical sense of motion for one which understood the development of things.[footnote] With each successive breakthrough in science, it demonstrated that development from the simple to the complex of nature and that each stage of development had rather different principles of movement. Moreover such new laws of movement were constitutive at these distinct stages, but yet still obedient to other general laws.

The bourgeois rationalist, in light of crisis of its thought – in light of the glaring evidence that movement was, itself, fundamental proper to matter, in light that matter at each level is a unity of opposites, a manifold of force – abandoned materialism in its philosophical terrain. While a “naive realism” was allowed to persist at the level of the spontaneous ideological orientation of the sciences themselves, what was erected around them academically was a host of philosophical priests of a relativist variety, who in the terms of their debate hoped to keep the theoretical basis of science itself shrouded in a mystical and skeptical relativism. Bourgeois philosophy was forced to slide to an agnosticism to shroud science, to undermine the theoretical basis of class struggle. It was first Marx, Engels, and the often uncredited Dietzgen [2] which began in their own ideological vantage point arising from academic and state sponsored German Idealism, as theoreticians of the proletarian class struggle, to begin articulating the real implications that the scientific revolution began illuminating upon the real practice of the class struggle. It was later this very illumination that from all sides of the bourgeoisie, from all standpoints which were attacked.

It was argued now that truth no longer had a causal relation with the object, but was mediated in such a way by language and sensations that we can only have to ourselves a knowledge of things not in of themselves but as they appear to us and are a product of our mediation with the object. This is more or less a reappearance of agnosticism in regards to materialism, but a bit different. Now emphasis was no longer on the first position of the subject but the way matter is comprehended. The lengths of this argument went so far as to assert that there is no actual matter, or that it can’t be known in and of itself, but there are just bundles of sensations which are available to us in a phenomenological way . Other positions argued that knowledge can only be ascertained in the logical deconstruction of our statements, that any and all appearances of matter and its transformation is a mere question of language. Others proposed even a deeper deconstruction of the basis of any possibility and condition to have any genuine knowledge as impossible given ideological foundation for language production. All such positions are forms of agnosticism or a deep skepticism which in fact only represent the inability of the bourgeoisie to synthesize the complex manifold that is matter that is reflected in our brains. They all stop at one point within the movement of knowledge of matter.

The dialectical materialist theory of knowledge sees the movement from matter to knowledge as one of movement at different stages, it is based in the understanding of the ability of the brain to reflect upon matter, to synthesize the sensations that we derive from the object to produce a concept of the object. This concept is a reflection of the object, it is in the end not the object itself. The thing-in-itself and its reflection in our mind are both abstractions, they are fundamentally empty without a relationship of mediation that is our activity in production. The thing-in-itself becomes a thing-for-us not in the concept we derive of it, but in the realization of this abstraction in relation to the thing in practice. But the initial point is a theory of reflection, that the reflections are not the thing but mere qualities of thing for us, qualities which can only be shown to correspond to the thing not by mere abstract reflection but in our practice. The criterion of truth is therefore practice, human activity.

[1] The conception of unity of opposites in the materialist dialectical discourse has a radically different conception to its meaning than those of world outlooks which originate in metaphysics.

[2] Joseph Dietzgen was a German socialist and philosopher who was the first to synthesize the theory of dialectical materialism. What is of interest to us that Marx makes such a claim long after his early Hegelian period and only brings attention to Dietzgen’s own work in the second edition of Capital. Dietzgen himself was very influenced by Feuerbach’s materialism and Hegel’s dialectic, in the same sense as Marx but independently developed his own synthesis within the general context of the Communist movement of that time.


2 thoughts on “On Marxist Philosophy

  1. Pingback: The Materialist Conception of History « Neftali | maosoleum

  2. Pingback: Marxism-Leninism-Maoism is Our Shining Path for World Revolution | maosoleum

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