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Home > 2021 > Whatever Happened To Dialectical Materialism? | Murzban Jal

Mainstream, VOL LIX No 16, New Delhi, April 3, 2021

Whatever Happened To Dialectical Materialism? | Murzban Jal

Friday 2 April 2021

by Murzban Jal

Not only in its answers, in its questions there was a mystification. —Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, The German Ideology.

Abraham Josef’s article ‘Dialectical Materialism: The People’s Philosophy’ [1] that recalls philosophy, not merely any philosophy, but Marxist philosophy is indeed refreshing for not only the votary of Marxism, but to any sensible fighter for democracy and seeker of knowledge. It is refreshing because for decades we were bombarded with concepts like “communalism”, “secularism”, “human rights”, “welfare state”, neoliberalism”, “globalization”, etc, but where the central ideas of revolutionary Marxism namely class struggle, capitalism, imperialism and world wars, not to forget the idea of the dictatorship of the proletariat were not merely kept at the backburner of mainstream left politics, but literally banished and forgotten.

It is in this perspective that the raising of the question of dialectical materialism must be celebrated, for in the last resort this question also brings in the ideas of class struggle, revolution and the triumph of the world proletariat. For too long the established left was reactive, reactive to the capitalist and imperialist onslaughts, and was not able to raise its fundamental question: “What is Marxist philosophy and what right does it have to exist?” the fundamental theoretical question that Louis Althusser had raised decades back in his celebrated classic For Marx. [2] In order to deal with politics, the politics of capitalism, imperialism and fascism, one has to “return to first principles”. [3] One cannot merely utter angry statements where anger is made to replace philosophical reasoning. Instead one has to talk of philosophy as philosophy. It is thus that we talk of dialectical materialism.

One begins with the questions: “Why talk of dialectical materialism when neither Marx nor Engels ever mention this term even once? Why make a term that emerges with Georgoi Plekhanov and Josef Dietzgen the centerpiece of revolutionary communism?” Now we know that it was Plekhanov in 1891 who talked of “modern dialectical materialism” [4] and that it was only in 1891 that this term was first used. We also know that the very same Plekhanov once philosophical master, who wrote tomes and tomes on philosophy, not only succumbed to revisionism and nationalism in the First Imperialist World War, but also was against the Bolshevik insurrection in 1917.

So where does that take us with the relation to “dialectical materialism”? Would this indeed be revolutionary, or would it be an ideology where fear, fear of the revolution is essentially inscribed within its philosophical cranium? Are then those who fear the revolution then talk of “dialectical materialism”? Or is “dialectical materialism” necessary in the world revolution?

Let us begin with Abraham Josef’s outlining of this theme. He begins with stating that dialectical materialism is a “scientific truth rooted in objective reality” like “Newton’s law of gravity”. Dialectical materialism, we are told, is the “law of social development”, development which goes through the logic of contradictions. He further recalls Marx’s celebrated eleventh thesis from the Theses on Feuerbach where Marx’s chides the entire discourse of philosophy as mere interpretation where revolutionary praxis is necessarily repressed. For Marx, all hitherto philosophers have necessarily resided in the unhappy home of repressed praxis. What the world needs to be educated about is the philosophy of praxis. For our author, Abraham Josef, dialectical materialism “must guide this function” of praxis. One “must be made to grasp the true meaning and nature of dialectical materialism”. Without this worldview, the working class will only be confused and be misled.

What then is this worldview of dialectical materialism? The worldview is that there are “objective laws that govern social reality”. We are all led by these “objective laws”, whether the laws of nature or laws of society. What the does this mean? It means that these so-called “laws governing reality” are the master-texts that subsume all reality. To borrow the terminology of the young Marx who was penning his Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of the State in 1843, these “laws” are the subject while humanity has become the predicate and object of these alienated laws. But then for Marx this is what he calls a “mystification”. If fact this inversion of subject and predicate is not merely a mystification, it is a “logical, pantheistic mysticism”. [5] That there is a serious error in our author’s penning his idea of Marxist philosophy must be pointed out. For one thing, it has absolutely nothing to do with Marx. In fact whatever Marx said is turned on its head.

One of the great problems for philosophizing for the generation of Marxist thinkers and revolutionaries like Plekhanov, Lenin, Trotsky, Luxemburg, Kautsky and Liebknecht was that Marx’s Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of the State and Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 were not available to them as they were found only in the 1920s by the great Marxologist David Ryazanov and published only in 1927 and 1932 respectively. What happened that two of the main philosophical texts in Marx’s repertoire were not available to them. This gap was filled by Engels’ intervention especially in Socialism: Utopian and Scientific and Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classical German Philosophy, which later Plekhanov theorized on.

Our author wants to talk of materialism not knowing that there are many, many types of materialisms. He forgets that in the Theses on Feuerbach talks of “old materialism” which is the standpoint of the bourgeoisie. [6] Marx argues for a “human society” which is “socialized humanity” which creates a new materialism. [7] He says that the standpoint of “all hitherto materialism” was that reality is conceived in the “form of object”. [8] One must point out to the author that Marx in the very first page of Capital, Vol. I talks of this form of object appearing as a thing (Ding,Sache,Gegenstand) and that this thing is the commodity. [9] Marx opposes humanity to the thing saying that this opposition is that of the fundamental nature of capitalism. He says that this condition is not an essential metaphysical one but one rooted in history and society. Marx wants to create what he calls a “true materialism” and “real science” by “making the social relationship of “human to human” the basic principle of theory”. [10]

It is in this perspective that one argues that for Marx’s materialism humanity is absolutely central to his entire discourse. He argues with Feuerbach that sensuousness is the starting of philosophy [11] and with Hegel that the “dialectic of negativity” as the “moving and generating principle”. [12] It is with this sensuous labour of the dialectic that Marx begins philosophizing on his New Materialism which is consequently defined as humanity’s being and becoming-in-the-world defined by labour. This New Materialism thus talks of labour as the “essence of humanity” (Wesen des Menschen). [13]

And it is with this labour of the negativity that Marx is able to rewrite the entire history of philosophy and the sciences. Instead of talking of the primacy of matter vs. consciousness he talks of humanity’s becoming-in-the-word defined by labour. Marx in both the Theses on Feuerbach and the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 talks of the one-sidedness of both idealism and materialism. He talks of the need to develop a system which literally sublates (aufheben) both these systems.

For Marx, the subject of philosophy is humanity; for our author it is the “laws governing all reality”. Marx is interested in humanity and how free humanity is possible; our author is interested in finding the laws of governance and how humanity is to be governed by laws of nature and society. Marx was not interested in governance; our author says that the “laws” of good governance have been found out. Marx says that with the terms “humanism” and “naturalism” synthesized now as “communism”, that idealism and materialism lose their one-sidedness. [14]

Our author does not even in the most remote sense even refer to this idea of humanity and how humanity is alienated to posit the estranged mind of the alienated philosopher. He says (contra Marx) that reality is divided into the two realms of “matter” and “ideas”. He says that materialism is the “worldview that puts “matter” before “ideas”” while idealism puts ““ideas before “matter””. He also does not want a “rift between man and nature” which is the “hallmark of all idealistic philosophies”.

 But he forgets that Marx had superseded these ideas of “matter” and “ideas” and also supersedes the question s to which came first and which came second. For him, such questions were “wrongly put”. [15] Our author is completely oblivious to what Marx had said. In fact he goes almost stubbornly into a pre-Marxist paradigm. He goes into Cartesian dualism (thought he does not want a “rift” between nature and society) by posing the question of materialism as the philosophy that studies the primacy of “matter” and the non-primacy of “ideas”. He wants to repress ideas. But then this is also wants the bourgeoisie want.

For Marx this idea of primacy and non-primacy was a question posed by the alienated mind, the mind that is split from reality. It is thus a schizophrenic question. The “materialism” thus posited is schizophrenic materialism. Our materialist negates humanity from the scene of history in his study of “matter” that is devoid of consciousness and thus devoid of people. Marx sas to this materialist:

...if you want to hold on to your abstraction, then be consistent, and if you thinking of humanity and nature as non-existent, then think of yourself as non-existent, for you too are nature and human. [16]

It is this which our “materialist” has not understood. He has not understood that the primacy over humanity question is a question of mystification and that this mystification is nothing but an inversion of subject (humanity) and object (commodity, money, state, God, matter, etc). In the first part of Theories of Surplus Value Marx christens this inversion as reification which is the depersonification of humanity and the consequent personification of the thing [17]. It is commodity production that involves this inversion and reification. To this social and historical inversion the “materialist” adds one more inversion and reification—the reification of humanity into “matter’ that is governed by “laws”. At best our author wants to recall Nicolai Bukharin’s interpretation of dialectical materialism. [18] But then he also forgets Lenin’s remarks of Bukharin namely that he (Bukharin) “never made a study of dialectics, and, I think never fully understood it.” [19] For Lenin though Bukharin was “not only a most valuable and major theorist of the party; he is also rightly considered the favorite of the whole party, but his theoretical views can be considered fully Marxist only with great reserve” [20]. Our author also forgets Gramsci’s critique of Bukharin when he calls Bukharin’s standpoint the “most crudely positive viewpoint.” [21]

Our author has created a magnificent system, but a system that totally neglects humanity. He is interested in studying “laws” and nothing but “laws”. He has created an anti-humanistic system. Armed with this anti-humanism he then recalls Marx’s The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte:

Men make their own history but they do not make it as they please; they do not do under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly encountered, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living. [22]

While Marx is talking of counterrevolution in France where he outlines the tragicomic character of counterrevolutions which begin “conjuring up of the dead of world history” speaking with “borrowed language” and “borrowed speech” such that one talks of “making its ghost walk back again” [23], our author says that at no time can people choose to make their own history. The chooser is the Good Governor—the “laws of nature and society”—the Governor who transmits everything from the past.

For our dialectical materialist author, humans are not “in a position to transform the capitalist system of their own”. What he thus means that neither capitalism nor imperialism governed by fascism can be transformed by people. Instead one must wait for the “natural process”. Yes one must wait for the “natural process” just as the Mensheviks waited for the “natural process”. One must not be foolish like Lenin for whom the revolutionary breaking of the weakest link in the chain of global capitalist accumulation was of utmost importance. Instead one must oppose all revolutionary outbreaks just as the Mensheviks opposed the 1917 October revolution. Our dialectical materialist seeks “laws”, just as the prophets of ancient times sought these “laws”. He forgets, just as the prophets forgot, that history does nothing, but it is humanity that does everything. [24] He forgets that “humanity is recognized as the essence of the basis of all human activity and situations....” [25] Instead of bad old Marx who instigated us to revolt and misbehave and not obey objective laws of nature and society, our materialist “blends” dialectics and materialist by getting the “notion of truth”. He abandons Marx after being seduced by the “laws” and finds that:

Things could not have been produced by God in any other way or order than in which they were produced. All things have followed by necessity from the given nature of God, and they are determined for existence and action in a certain way by the necessity of the divine nature. [26]

So our prophetic materialist has outlined the “notion of truth” and created a “blend” of dialectics and materialism by suggesting that the most terrible form of determinism is a necessary part of Marxism. Marxism in the form of dialectical materialism as suggested by our author is nothing but the extension of Spinoza’s metaphysics. The only thing is that Spinoza’s “God” becomes the “matter” of dialectical materialism.

After transforming Monsieur God into Monsieur Matter, our author then says that “one will have to accept that dialectical materialism is people’s ideology”. The problem is that the author has removed the “people” after making them slaves of the Good Governor, Monsieur Matter also known as Monsieur Laws of Nature and Society. The tragedy is that he wants a “people’s philosophy” devoid of people. And this is because he wants Marxism devoid of Marx!

[1Abraham Josef, ‘Dialectical Materialism: The People’s Philosophy’, in Mainstream, Vol. LIX No 11, February 27, 2021.

[2Louis Althusser, For Marx, trans. Ben Brewster (London: Allen Lane, 1969), p. 31.

[3Ibid., p. 22.

[4Georgoi Plekhanov, ‘For the Sixtieth Anniversary of Hegel’s Death’, in Georgoi Plekhanov. Selected Works (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1977), p. 428.

[5Karl Marx, ‘Critique of Hegel’s Doctrine of the State’, in Karl Marx. Early Writings, trans. Rodney Livingstone (New York: Vintage Books, 1975), p. 61.

[6Karl Marx, ‘Theses on Feuerbach’, in Marx. Engels. Selected Works (Moscow Progress Publishers, 1975), p. 30.


[8Ibid., p. 28.

[9Karl Marx, Das Kapital, Erster Band (Berlin: Dietz Verlag, 1993), p. 49.

[10Karl Marx, Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1982), p. 127.


[12Ibid., p. 132.


[14Ibid., p. 90.

[15Ibid., p. 100.


[17Karl Marx, Theories of Surplus Value, Part I (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1975), p. 390.

[18See his Historical Materialism. A System of Sociology (New York: Russell & Russell, 1965

[19See V.I. Lenin, ‘Letter to the Congress’, December 25, 1922, in Lenin. Selected works (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1977), p. 676.


[21Antonio Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks, trans. Quintin Hoare and Geoffrey Nowell Smith (New York: International Publishers, 1987), p. 244.

[22Karl Marx, ‘The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte’, in Marx. Engels. Selected Works (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1975), p. 96.

[23Ibid., pp. 86-7.

[24Karl Marx, The Holy Family (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1980), p. 116.


[26Baruch Spinoza, Ethics, trans. Andrew Boyle (London: Everyman, 1993), p. 27.

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