Elementary principles of philosophy, by Georges Politzer

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Elementary principles of philosophy
First published February 1946 in France
Type Book

This book features control questions available here.

Preface by Maurice Le Goas

This elementary textbook reproduces the notes taken by one of the students of Georges Politzer, during the classes taught by him at the Workers' University (l'Université Ouvrière) in the school year 1935-1936. In order to understand its character and scope, it is first necessary to specify the aim and method of our teacher.

We know that the Workers' University was founded in 1932 by a small group of professors to teach marxist science to manual workers and to give them a method of reasoning that would allow them to understand our times and to guide their actions, as much in their technique as in the political and social fields.

From the very beginning, Georges Politzer took on the task of teaching marxist philosophy, dialectical materialism, at the Workers' University: a task all the more necessary as official teaching continued to ignore or distort this philosophy.

None of those who had the privilege of attending these courses – he spoke each year before a large audience of people of all ages and professions, but dominated by young workers – will forget the deep impression that everyone felt before this big redheaded young man, so enthusiastic and learned, so conscientious and fraternal, so attentive to bringing an arid and ungrateful subject to an inexperienced audience.

His authority imposed on his class a pleasant discipline, which knew how to be severe, but always remained just, and there was emanating from his person such a power of life, such a radiance that he was admired and loved by all his pupils.

In order to make himself understood, Politzer first removed from his vocabulary all philosophical slang, all the technical terms that only the initiated could hear. He wanted to use only simple words known to all. When he was forced to use a particular term, he did not fail to explain it at length using familiar examples. If, in discussions, one of his students used learned words, he would take it back and mock it with the biting irony that was familiar to all who approached him.

He wanted to be simple and clear and always appealed to common sense, without ever sacrificing the accuracy and truthfulness of the ideas and theories he put forward. He knew how to make his lessons extremely lively by involving the audience in discussions before and after the lesson. At the end of each lesson, he would give what he called one or two control questions, which were designed to summarize the lesson or apply the content to a particular topic. Students were not required to cover the topic, but many did and brought a written assignment with them at the beginning of the next lesson. He would then ask who had completed the assignment, raise his hand, and select a few of us to read our text and complete it with oral explanations if necessary. Politzer would criticize or praise and provoke a brief discussion among the students, and then he would conclude by learning from the discussion. This lasted about half an hour and allowed those who had missed the previous class to fill in the gap and relate it to what they had learned before; it also allowed the teacher to see how well it had been understood; he insisted on delicate or obscure points if necessary.

He would then begin the day's lesson, which lasted about an hour; then the students would ask questions about what had just been said. These questions were generally interesting and insightful, and Politzer would take the opportunity to clarify and rephrase the essence of the lesson from a different perspective.

Georges Politzer, who had a thorough knowledge of his subject and an intelligence of admirable flexibility, was concerned above all with the reactions of his audience: he took the general "temperature" each time and constantly checked the degree of assimilation of his students. He was also followed by them with passionate interest. He helped to train thousands of activists, many of whom are now in "responsible" positions.

We, who understood the value of this teaching and who thought of all those who could not hear it, and especially our provincial comrades, wanted the publication of his lectures. He promised to think about it, but, in the midst of his immense work, he never found the time to carry out this project.

Then, during my second year of philosophy at the Workers' University, where they had created a higher course, I had the opportunity to ask Politzer to correct some homework for me, and I gave him, at his request, my course notebooks. He found them well done, and I suggested that he write the lessons of the elementary course according to my notes. He encouraged me to do so, promising to review and correct them. Unfortunately, he could not find the time. His occupations being more and more heavy, he left the upper course of philosophy to our friend René Maublanc. I informed him of our plans and asked him to review the first lessons I had written. He eagerly accepted and encouraged me to finish this work which we were then to present to Georges Politzer. But the war came: Politzer was to die a heroic death in the struggle against the Hitlerian occupier.

Although our professor was no longer there to finalize a work he had approved and encouraged, we thought it would be useful to publish it according to my lecture notes.

Georges Politzer, who began his philosophy course at the Workers' University each year by establishing the true meaning of the word materialism and protesting against the slanderous deformations that some people subjected him to, energetically recalled that the materialist philosopher is not lacking in ideals and that he is ready to fight to make this ideal triumph. Since then he has been able to prove it by his sacrifice, and his heroic death illustrates this initial course, in which he affirmed the union, in marxism, of theory and practice. It is not useless to insist on this devotion to an ideal, this abnegation and this high moral value at a time when, once again, one dares to present marxism as "a doctrine which transforms man into a machine or an animal barely superior to the gorilla or the chimpanzee" (Lenten Sermon at Notre-Dame de Paris, pronounced, on February 18, 1945, by the R. P. Panici.).

We can never protest enough against such outrages to the memory of our comrades. Let us only remind those who have the audacity to pronounce them the example of Georges Politzer, Gabriel Péri, Jacques Solomon, Jacques Decour, who were marxists and who professed at the Université Ouvrière de Paris: all good comrades, simple, generous; fraternal, who did not hesitate to devote a good part of their time to come to a lost neighborhood to teach the workers philosophy, political economy, history or science.

The Workers' University was dissolved in 1939. It reappeared, after the Liberation, under the name New University. A new team of dedicated professors, taking over from those who had been shot, came to resume the interrupted work.

Nothing can encourage us more in this essential task than to pay tribute to one of the founders and animators of the Workers' University, and no tribute seems to us more just and useful than to publish Georges Politzer's Elementary principles of philosophy.

Maurice Le Goas.

The philosophical problems


Why should we study philosophy?

In the course of this work, we propose to present and explain the elementary principles of materialist philosophy.

Why is this? Because marxism is intimately linked to a philosophy and a method: those of dialectical materialism. It is therefore indispensable to study this philosophy and this method in order to understand marxism and to refute the arguments of bourgeois theories as much as to undertake an effective political struggle.

Indeed, Lenin said: "Without revolutionary theory there can be no revolutionary movement. "(Lenin: What is to be done?) This means, first of all: it is necessary to link theory with practice.

What is practice? It is the act of realizing. For example, industry, agriculture realize (i.e., put into reality) certain theories (chemical, physical or biological theories).

What is theory? It is the knowledge of the things we want to achieve.

We can be practical only — but then we realize by routine. We can be theoretical only — but then what we conceive is often impossible to achieve. So there has to be a connection between theory and practice. The whole question is to know what this theory should be and how it should relate to practice.

We think that the worker activist needs a method of analysis and reasoning that is just in order to be able to carry out a just revolutionary action. That he needs a method that is not a dogma giving him ready-made solutions, but a method that takes into account facts and circumstances that are never the same, a method that never separates theory from practice, reasoning from life. Now this method is contained in the philosophy of dialectical materialism, the basis of marxism, which we propose to explain.

Is the study of philosophy a difficult thing?

It is generally thought that the study of philosophy is for workers a difficult thing, requiring special knowledge. It must be admitted that the way in which bourgeois textbooks are written is well done to confirm these ideas and can only repel them.

We do not intend to deny the difficulties involved in the study in general, and in the study of philosophy in particular; but these difficulties are perfectly surmountable, and they come above all from the fact that they are new things for many of our readers.

From the outset, we will, moreover, by making things clearer, call upon them to review certain definitions of words that are distorted in everyday language.

What is philosophy?

Vulgarly, we understand by, philosopher: either the one who lives in the clouds, or the one who takes things in their good side, the one who does not "worry". But, on the contrary, the philosopher is the one who wants to give precise answers to certain questions, and, if we consider that philosophy wants to give an explanation to the problems of the universe (where does the world come from? where are we going? etc.), we see, therefore, that the philosopher is concerned with many things, and, contrary to what is said, "cares a lot".

We will therefore say, in order to define philosophy, that it wants to explain the universe, nature, that it is the study of the most general problems. Less general problems are studied by the sciences. Philosophy is therefore an extension of the sciences in the sense that it is based on the sciences and depends on them.

We immediately add that marxist philosophy provides a method for solving all problems and that this method comes under what is called: materialism.

What is the materialist philosophy?

Here again, there is a confusion that we must immediately denounce; vulgarly speaking, the materialist is the one who only thinks of enjoying material pleasures. By playing on the word materialism — which contains the word matter — we have thus come to give it a completely false meaning.

By studying materialism - in the scientific sense of the word - we are going to give it back its true meaning; being materialist does not prevent us, as we shall see, from having an ideal and from fighting to make it triumph.

We have said that philosophy wants to give an explanation to the most general problems of the world. But, in the history of humanity, this explanation has not always been the same.

The first men did try to explain nature, the world, but they did not succeed. What makes it possible to explain the world and the phenomena that surround us are the sciences, and the discoveries that have allowed the sciences to progress are very recent.

The ignorance of the first men was therefore an obstacle to their research. This is why, in the course of history, because of this ignorance, we see religions arise, which also want to explain the world, but by supernatural forces. This is an anti-scientific explanation. But as, little by little, over the centuries, science will develop, men will try to explain the world by material facts based on scientific experiments, and it is from there, from this desire to explain things by science, that materialist philosophy is born.

In the following pages, we are going to study what materialism is, but, from now on, we must remember that materialism is nothing other than the scientific explanation of the universe.

By studying the history of materialist philosophy, we will see how bitter and difficult the struggle against ignorance has been. It must be noted that this struggle is not yet over, since materialism and ignorance continue to exist side by side, side by side.

It is at the heart of this struggle that Marx and Engels intervened. Understanding the importance of the great discoveries of the nineteenth century, they enabled materialist philosophy to make enormous progress in the scientific explanation of the universe. This is how dialectical materialism was born. They were the first to understand that the laws that govern the world can also explain the workings of societies; they formulated the famous theory of historical materialism.

In this book, we propose to study first materialism, then dialectical materialism and finally historical materialism. But, above all, we want to establish the relations between materialism and marxism.

What is the relationship between materialism and marxism?

We can summarize them as follows:

  1. The philosophy of materialism constitutes the basis of marxism.
  2. This materialist philosophy which wants to bring a scientific explanation to the problems of the world progresses, in the course of history, at the same time as the sciences. Consequently, marxism stems from the sciences, rests on them and evolves with them.
  3. Before Marx and Engels, there were, on several occasions and in different forms, materialistic philosophies. But in the nineteenth century, with the sciences taking a great step forward, Marx and Engels renewed this ancient materialism from the modern sciences and gave us the modern materialism, which is called dialectical materialism, and which forms the basis of marxism.

We see from these few explanations that the philosophy of materialism, contrary to what is said, has a history. This history is intimately linked to the history of science. Marxism, based on materialism, did not come out of one man's brain. It is the culmination, the continuation of ancient materialism, which was already very advanced in Diderot. Marxism is the flowering of materialism developed by the Encyclopedists of the 18th century, enriched by the great discoveries of the 19th century. Marxism is a living theory, and to show right away how it sees problems, we will take an example that everyone knows: the problem of class struggle.

What do people think about this issue? Some think that the defense of bread dispenses with political struggle. Others think that it is enough to punch in the street, denying the need for organization. Still others claim that only political struggle will bring a solution to this issue.

For the marxist, class struggle includes:

  1. An economic struggle.
  2. A political struggle.
  3. An ideological struggle.

The problem must therefore be posed simultaneously on these three terrains:

  1. One cannot fight for bread without fighting for peace, without defending freedom and without defending all the ideas that serve the struggle for these objectives.
  2. The same is true in the political struggle, which since Marx has become a true science: one is obliged to take into account both the economic situation and ideological currents in order to wage such a struggle.
  3. As for the ideological struggle, which manifests itself through propaganda, in order for it to be effective, one must take into account the economic and political situation.

We see, therefore, that all these problems are intimately linked and, therefore, that no decision can be taken in front of any aspect of this great problem of class struggle - in a strike, for example. - without taking into consideration every aspect of the problem and the whole problem itself.

It is therefore the one who is capable of fighting on all terrains that will give the movement the best direction.

This is how a marxist understands this problem of class struggle. Now, in the ideological struggle that we have to wage every day, we are faced with problems that are difficult to solve: immortality of the soul, existence of God, origins of the world, etc. It is the dialectical materialism that will give us a method of reasoning, that will allow us to solve all these problems and, as well, to unveil all the campaigns of falsification of marxism, which pretend to complete and renew it.

Bourgeois campaigns against marxism

These attempts at falsification are based on a wide variety of bases. One seeks to set against marxism the socialist authors of the pre-marxist period (before Marx). This is how we very often see the "utopians" used against Marx. Others use Proudhon; others draw on the revisionists of before 1914 (though masterfully refuted by Lenin). But what must be emphasized above all is the campaign of silence that the bourgeoisie is waging against marxism. It has done everything in particular to prevent materialist philosophy from being known in its marxist form. Particularly striking in this respect is the whole of philosophical teaching as it is given in France.

Philosophy is taught in secondary schools. But one can follow all this teaching without ever learning that there is a materialist philosophy elaborated by Marx and Engels. When, in philosophy textbooks, we talk about materialism (because we have to talk about it), we always talk about marxism and materialism separately. Marxism, in general, is presented only as a political doctrine, and when historical materialism is spoken of, the philosophy of materialism is not mentioned; in short, all of dialectical materialism is ignored.

This situation does not only exist in schools and high schools: it is exactly the same in Universities. The most characteristic fact is that one can be a "specialist" in philosophy in France, with the highest diplomas awarded by French universities, without knowing that marxism has a philosophy, which is materialism, and without knowing that traditional materialism has a modern form, which is marxism, or dialectical materialism.

We want to demonstrate that marxism has a general conception not only of society, but also of the universe itself. It is therefore useless, contrary to what some people claim, to regret that the great defect of marxism is its lack of philosophy, and to want, like some theorists of the workers' movement, to go in search of this philosophy that marxism lacks. For marxism has a philosophy, which is dialectical materialism.

The fact remains, moreover, that despite this campaign of silence, despite all the falsifications and precautions taken by the ruling classes, marxism and its philosophy are beginning to become more and more known.

The fundamental problem of philosophy

How should we begin the study of philosophy?

In our introduction, we said several times that the philosophy of dialectical materialism was the basis of marxism.

Our goal is the study of this philosophy; but to reach this goal we must advance in stages.

When we speak of dialectical materialism, we have before us two words: materialism and dialectical, which means that materialism is dialectical. We know that before Marx and Engels materialism already existed, but that it was they, with the help of the discoveries of the nineteenth century, who transformed this materialism and created "dialectical" materialism.

Later we will examine the meaning of the word "dialectical," which refers to the modern form of materialism.

But since, before Marx and Engels, there were materialist philosophers (for example, Diderot in the 18th century), and since there are points in common to all materialists, we need to study the history of materialism before discussing dialectical materialism. We also need to know the conceptions that are opposed to materialism.

Two ways of explaining the world

We have seen that philosophy is the "study of the most general problems" and that it has to to explain the world, nature, man.

If we open a textbook of bourgeois philosophy, we are astonished by the multitude of different philosophies that can be found in it. They are designated by multiple more or less complicated words ending in "ism": criticalism, evolutionism, intellectualism, etc., and this multitude creates confusion. The bourgeoisie, moreover, has done nothing to clarify the situation, quite the contrary. But we can already sort out all these systems and distinguish two great currents, two clearly opposed conceptions:

  1. The scientific conception.
  2. The non-scientific conception of the world.

Matter and spirit

When philosophers set out to explain the world, nature, mankind, everything that we Finally, they were called upon to make distinctions. We see for ourselves that there are things, objects that are material, that we see and touch. Then, other realities that we do not see and that we cannot touch or measure, like our ideas.

So we classify things in this way: on the one hand, those that are material; on the other hand, those that are not material. are not material and are in the realm of mind, thought, ideas.

This is how philosophers found themselves in the presence of matter and spirit.

What is matter? What is the spirit?

We have just seen in a general way how we have been led to classify things according to whether they are matter or spirit.

But we must specify that this distinction is made in different forms and with different words.

Thus, instead of talking about spirit we talk about thought, our ideas, our consciousness, the soul, just as when we talk about nature, the world, the earth, being, it is matter that we are talking about.

So again, when Engels, in his book Ludwig Feuerbach and the end of classical German philosophy, talks about being and thinking, being is matter; thinking is spirit.

To define what is thought or spirit, and what is being or matter, we will say:

Thought is the idea that we have of things; some of these ideas usually come to us from our sensations and correspond to material objects; other ideas, such as those of God, philosophy, infinity, thought itself, do not correspond to material objects. The essential thing we must remember here is that we have ideas, thoughts, feelings, because we see and feel.

Matter or being is what our sensations and perceptions show and present to us, it is, in a general way, everything that surrounds us, what we call the "external world". Example: My sheet of paper is white. Knowing that it is white is an idea, and it is my senses that give me this idea. But the matter is the sheet itself.

That is why, when philosophers talk about the relationship between being and thinking, or between mind and matter, or between consciousness and the brain, etc., it all concerns the same question and means: what is, of matter or mind, of being or thinking, the most important term? Which is the one that precedes the other? This is the fundamental question of philosophy.

The fundamental question or problem of philosophy

Each of us has asked ourselves what we become after death, where the world came from, how the earth was formed. And it is difficult for us to admit that there has always been something. We tend to think that at some point there was nothing. That's why it's easier to believe what religion teaches: “The spirit hovered above the darkness... then came the matter.” In the same way, we wonder where our thoughts are, and so the problem arises for us of the relationship between mind and matter, between brain and thought. There are many other ways of asking the question. For example, what is the relationship between will and power? Will is, here, mind, thought; and power is what is possible, it is being, matter. We also often encounter the question of the relationship between "social consciousness" and "social existence".

The fundamental question of philosophy thus presents itself under different aspects and we can see how important it is to always recognize the way in which this problem of the relationship between matter and spirit arises, because we know that there can only be two answers to this question:

  1. a scientific answer.
  2. a non-scientific answer.

Idealism and materialism

This is how philosophers have been led to take a stand on this important issue. The first men, completely ignorant, having no knowledge of the world and of themselves, and having only weak technical means to act on the world, attributed to supernatural beings the responsibility for everything that astonished them. In their imaginations, excited by the dreams in which they saw themselves and their fellow creatures living, they came to this conception that each of us had a double existence. Troubled by the idea of this “double”, they came to believe that their thoughts and feelings were produced not by their

their bodies, but of a distinct soul which inhabits the body and leaves it at death. [note 1]

This idea of the immortality of the soul and of a possible life of the spirit outside of matter was born later on.

Likewise their weakness, their anxiety before the forces of nature, before all those phenomena which they did not understand and which the state of the art did not allow them to control (germination, storms, floods, etc.) led them to suppose that, behind these forces, there were all-powerful beings, "spirits" or "gods", beneficent or evil, but, in any case, capricious.

In the same way, they believed in gods, in beings more powerful than men, but they imagined them in the form of men or animals, as material bodies. It was only later that souls and gods (and then the One God who replaced the gods) were conceived as pure spirits.

This led to the idea that in reality there are spirits that have a very specific life, completely independent of that of bodies, and that do not need bodies to exist.

Subsequently, this question was posed in a more precise way according to religion, in this form:

Did God create the world or has the world been in existence eternally?

The answers which the philosophers gave to this question split them into two great camps. [note 1]

Those who, adopting the non-scientific explanation, admitted the creation of the world by God, i.e. affirmed that spirit had created matter, these were the camp of idealism.

The others, those who tried to give a scientific explanation of the world and thought that nature, matter was the main element, belonged to the different schools of materialism.

Originally, these two expressions, idealism and materialism, did not mean anything other than that.

Idealism and materialism are therefore two opposite and contradictory answers to the fundamental problem of philosophy.

Idealism is the non-scientific conception. Materialism is the scientific conception of the world.

We will see later the proof of this affirmation, but we can say, from now on, that if we observe well in experience that there are bodies without thought, like stones, metals, earth, we never observe, on the other hand, the existence of mind without body.

To end this chapter with an unequivocal conclusion, we see that to answer this question: how is it that man thinks? There can only be two completely different and totally opposite answers:

  1. Man thinks because he has a soul.
  2. Man thinks because he has a brain.

Depending on which answer we give, we will be trained to give different solutions to the problems that arise from this question.

Depending on our answer, we will be either idealistic or materialistic.


Moral idealism and philosophical idealism

We denounced the confusion created by everyday language with regard to materialism. The same confusion is found with regard to idealism.

We must not in fact confuse moral idealism with philosophical idealism.

Moral idealism consists in devoting oneself to a cause, to an ideal. The history of the international labor movement teaches us that an incalculable number of revolutionaries, of Marxists, devoted themselves even to the sacrifice of their lives for a moral ideal, and yet they were the adversaries of this other idealism which one calls idealism. philosophical.

Philosophical idealism is a doctrine based on the explanation of the world by the mind.

It is the doctrine which answers the fundamental question of philosophy by saying: “it is the thought which is the principal element, the most important, the first”. And idealism, by affirming the primary importance of thought, affirms that it is this which produces being or, in other words, that “it is the spirit which produces matter”.

This is the first form of idealism; it found its full development in religions by affirming that God, “pure spirit”, was the creator of matter.

The religion which has claimed and still claims to be outside philosophical discussions is, in reality, on the contrary, the direct and logical representation of idealistic philosophy.

However, science intervening over the centuries, it soon became necessary to explain matter, the world, things other than by God alone. For, from the 16th century, science began to explain the phenomena of nature without taking God into account and by dispensing with the creation hypothesis.

To better combat these scientific, materialist and atheistic explanations, it was therefore necessary to push idealism further and deny the very existence of matter.

This is what an English bishop, Berkeley, who has been called the father of idealism at the beginning of the 18th century.

Why should we study Berkeley's idealism?

The goal of his philosophical system will therefore be to destroy materialism, to try to show us that material substance does not exist. He writes in the preface of his book Three dialogues of Hylas and Philonoüs:

If these principles are accepted and regarded as true, it follows that atheism and skepticism are, by the same token, completely shot down, obscure questions cleared up, almost insoluble difficulties solved, and men who enjoyed paradoxes brought back to common sense.

Thus, for Berkeley, what is true is that matter does not exist and that it is paradoxical to claim the contrary.

We will see how he goes about demonstrating this to us. But I think it's not useless to insist that those who want to study philosophy should take Berkeley's theory very seriously.

I know that Berkeley's theses will make some people smile, but we must not forget that we live in the 20th century and that we benefit from all the studies of the past. And we will see, moreover, when we study materialism and its history, that the materialist philosophers of the past also sometimes make people smile.

It should be known, however, that Diderot, who was, before Marx and Engels, the greatest of materialist thinkers, attached some importance to the Berkeley system, since he described it as an

extravagant system which, to the shame of the human mind and philosophy, is the most difficult to refute, despite being the most absurd of all [note 2]

Lenin himself devoted many pages to the philosophy of Berkeley and wrote:

For the present we shall confine ourselves to one conclusion: the “recent Machians” have not adduced a single argument against the materialists that had not been adduced by Bishop Berkeley. [note 3]

Finally, here is the assessment of Berkeley's immaterialism given in a textbook on the history of philosophy, used in high schools:

A theory which is still imperfect, no doubt, but admirable, and which must destroy forever, in philosophical minds, the belief in the existence of a material substance.

That is to say the importance for everyone - although for different reasons, as these quotations have shown you - of this philosophical reasoning.

Berkeley's idealism

The purpose of this system is therefore to demonstrate that matter does not exist.

Berkeley said:

Matter is not what we think it is by thinking that it exists outside our mind. We think that things exist because we see them, because we touch them; it is because they give us these sensations that we believe they exist. But our sensations are only ideas that we have in our mind. So the objects that we perceive through our senses are nothing but ideas, and ideas cannot exist outside our mind.

For Berkeley, things exist; he does not deny their nature and existence, but he asserts that they exist only in the form of the sensations that make them known to us, and concludes that our sensations and objects are one and the same thing.

Things exist, that's for sure, but in us, he says, in our mind, and they have no reality outside the mind.

We conceive things with the help of sight; we perceive them with the help of touch; smell tells us about smell; taste tells us about taste; hearing tells us about sound. These different sensations give us ideas, which, combined with each other, make us give them a common name and consider them as objects.

“Thus, for example, a certain color, taste, smell, figure and consistence having been observed to go together, are accounted one distinct thing, signified by the name apple; other collections of ideas constitute a stone, a tree, a book, and the like sensible things.”[note 4]

So we are victims of illusions when we think, when we know the world and things as external, since all that exists only in our mind. In his book Three dialogues between Hylas and Philonous, Berkeley demonstrates this thesis in the following way:

Isn't it absurd to believe that the same thing at the same time can be different? For example, hot and cold at the same moment? So imagine that one of your hands is hot and the other is cold, and that both of them are immersed at the same time in a vase full of water at an intermediate temperature: won't the water appear hot to one hand and cold to the other?

Since it is absurd to believe that a thing at the same time can be, in itself, different, we must conclude that this thing exists only in our mind.

So what does Berkeley do in its method of reasoning and discussion? He strips objects, things, of all their properties.

“You say that objects exist because they have a color, a smell, a flavor, because they are big or small, light or heavy? I will show you that this does not exist in objects, but in our spirits.

“Here's a coupon of cloth: you tell me it's red. Is that right? You think the red is in the fabric itself. Is that certain? You know that there are animals with eyes different from ours that will not see this red cloth; likewise a man with jaundice will see it yellow! Then what color is it? It depends, you say? So the red is not in the cloth, but in the eye, in us.

“You say that this cloth is light? If you drop it on an ant, she will certainly find it heavy. Who is right? Do you think it's warm? If you had a fever, you'd think it was cold! So is it hot or cold?

“In a word, if the same things can be red, heavy, hot at the same time for some, and for others exactly the opposite, it is because we are victims of illusions and things only exist in our minds”

By removing all their properties from objects, we come to say that they only exist in our thinking, that is to say that matter is an idea.

Already, before Berkeley, the Greek philosophers said, and this was right, that certain qualities such as flavor, sound were not in the things themselves, but in us.

But what is new in Berkeley's theory is precisely that he extends this remark to all the qualities of objects.

The Greek philosophers had, in fact, established the following distinction between the qualities of things:

On the one hand, the primary qualities, i.e., those that are in objects, such as weight, size, resistance, etc., are the qualities that are in objects.

On the other hand, the secondary qualities, that is, those that are in us, such as smell, taste, warmth, etc., and that are in objects, such as weight, size, resistance, etc.

Berkeley applies to first qualities the same thesis as to second qualities, namely that all qualities, all properties are not in objects, but in us.

If we look at the sun, we see it round, flat, red. Science teaches us that we are wrong, that the sun is not flat, is not red. We will therefore abstract, with the help of science, certain false properties that we give to the sun, but without concluding that it does not exist! It is however to such a conclusion that Berkeley reaches.

Berkeley was certainly not wrong in showing that the distinction of the ancients did not stand up to scientific analysis, but he commits a fault of reasoning, a sophism, in drawing from these remarks consequences that they do not entail. He shows, in fact, that the qualities of things are not such as our senses show us, that is to say that our senses deceive us and distort material reality, and he concludes immediately that material reality does not exist.

Consequences of idealist reasoning

The thesis being: "Everything exists only in our mind", we must conclude that the outside world does not exist.

Pushing this reasoning to its logical conclusion, we would come to say: "I am the only one who exists, since I only know other men through my ideas, that other men are for me, like material objects, only collections of ideas". This is what in philosophy is called solipsism (which means me only).

Berkeley, Lenin tells us in his already quoted book, instinctively defends himself against the accusation of supporting such a theory. We even note that solipsism, an extreme form of idealism, has not been supported by any philosopher.

This is why we must try, when discussing with idealists, to emphasize that the reasonings that effectively deny the matter, in order to be logical and consequent, must come to this absurd extremity that is solipsism.

The idealist arguments

We have endeavored to summarize Berkeley's theory as simply as possible, because it was he who, most frankly, set out what philosophical idealism is.

But it is certain that, in order to fully understand this reasoning, which is new to us, it is now indispensable to take it very seriously and to make an intellectual effort. Why? Because we will see later on that, if idealism presents itself in a more hidden way and under the cover of new words and expressions, all idealistic philosophies only take up the arguments of "old Berkeley". (Lenin).

Because we will also see how much, the idealistic philosophy that has dominated and still dominates the official history of philosophy, bringing with it a method of thought that we are impregnated with, has been able to penetrate in us despite an entirely secular education.

The basis of the arguments of all idealistic philosophies being found in the reasoning of Bishop Berkeley, we will therefore, to summarize this chapter, try to identify what are these main arguments and what they try to demonstrate to us.

The spirit creates matter

This, as we know, is the idealistic answer to the fundamental question of philosophy; it is the first form of idealism that is reflected in the different religions, where it is asserted that the spirit created the world.

This assertion can have two meanings:

Either God created the world, and the world really exists outside of us. This is the ordinary idealism of theologies.[note 5]

Or God created the illusion of the world by giving us ideas that do not correspond to any material reality. This is Berkeley's "immaterialist idealism" which wants to prove to us that spirit is the only reality, matter being a product made by our spirit.

This is why the idealists assert that:

The world does not exist outside of our thinking

This is what Berkeley wants to demonstrate to us by saying that we are making a mistake by attributing to things properties and qualities that would be their own, whereas these only exist in our mind.

For the idealists, benches and tables do exist, but only in our thinking, and not outside of us, because

It's our ideas that create things

In other words, things are a reflection of our thinking. Indeed, since it is the mind that creates the illusion of matter, since it is the mind that gives our thought the idea of matter, since the sensations we feel in front of things do not come from things themselves, but only from our thought, the source of the reality of the world and of things is our thought and, therefore, everything that surrounds us does not exist outside our mind and can only be the reflection of our thought.

But since, in the case of Berkeley, our mind would be incapable of creating these ideas by itself, and since, moreover, it does not do what it wants with them (as would happen if it created them on its own), we must admit that it is another, more powerful mind that is the creator. It is therefore God who creates our spirit and imposes on us all the ideas of the world we encounter in it.

These are the main theses on which the idealistic doctrines rest and the answers they bring to the fundamental question of philosophy. It is now time to see what is the response of materialist philosophy to this question and to the problems raised by these theses.

Further reading

Berkeley: Three dialogues between Hylas and Philonous
Lenin: Materialism and empiriocriticism


Why should we study materialism?

We have seen that, for the question “What are the relations between being and thought?” there can only be two opposed and contradictory answers. In the preceding chapter we have studied the idealist answer and the arguments presented to defend idealist philosophy.

We now have to examine the second answer to this fundamental problem (a problem, let us repeat, which is at the basis of all philosophy) and see what arguments materialism brings to the defense. All the more so because materialism is for us a very important philosophy, since it is that of marxism.

It is, therefore, indispensable to know materialism well. Indispensable especially because the conceptions of this philosophy are very badly known and have been falsified. Indispensable also because, by our education, by the instruction we have received — whether primary or more developed —, by our habits of living and reasoning, we are all, more or less, without realizing it, impregnated with idealistic conceptions. (We will see, moreover, in other chapters, several examples of this affirmation and why it is so).

It is therefore an absolute necessity for those who want to study marxism to know its basis: materialism.

Where does materialism come from?

We have broadly defined philosophy as an effort to explain the world, the universe. But we know that, according to the state of human knowledge, its explanations have changed and that two attitudes have been adopted throughout the history of humanity to explain the world: one, anti-scientific, calling upon one or more superior minds, upon supernatural forces; the other, scientific, based on facts and experiences.

One of these conceptions is defended by idealistic philosophers; the other by materialists.

This is why, from the very beginning of this book, we have said that the first idea we should have of materialism is that this philosophy represents the "scientific explanation of the universe".

If idealism was born out of human ignorance — and we will see how ignorance was maintained, nurtured in the history of societies by cultural and political forces that shared idealistic conceptions — materialism was born out of the struggle of science against ignorance or obscurantism.

This is why this philosophy was so much fought against and why, in its modern form (dialectical materialism), it is little known, if not ignored or misunderstood by the official academic world.

How and why materialism has evolved

Contrary to the claims of those who fight this philosophy and who say that this doctrine has not evolved for twenty centuries, the history of materialism shows us in this philosophy something alive and always in motion.

Over the centuries, man's scientific knowledge has progressed. At the beginning of the history of thought, in Greek antiquity, scientific knowledge was almost nil, and the first scholars were, at the same time, philosophers, because, at that time, philosophy and the nascent sciences formed a whole, one being the extension of the others.

Later on, as the sciences brought precisions in the explanation of the phenomena of the world, precisions that hindered and even contradicted the dogmas of idealistic philosophies, a conflict was born between philosophy and the sciences.

The sciences being in contradiction with the official philosophy of that time, it had become necessary for them to separate from it. Also,

they were in no more hurry than to free themselves from the philosophical hodgepodge and leave the philosophers the vast hypotheses to make contact with restricted problems, those which are ripe for a solution in the near future. So this distinction is made between science... and philosophy. [note 6]

But materialism, born with the sciences, linked to them and dependent on them, has progressed, evolved with them, to arrive, with modern materialism, that of Marx and Engels, at reuniting, once again, science and philosophy in dialectical materialism.

We will study this history and this evolution, which are linked to the progress of civilization, but we already see, and this is what is very important to remember, that materialism and science are linked to each other and that materialism is absolutely dependent on science.

It remains for us to establish and define the bases of materialism, bases that are common to all philosophies which, under different aspects, claim to be materialistic.

What are the arguments and principles of materialism?

To answer, we must return to the fundamental question of philosophy, that of the relationship between being and thinking: which of one or the other is the main one?

The materialists affirm first of all that there is a determined relationship between being and thinking, between matter and spirit. For them, it is the being, the matter, which is the first reality, the first thing, and the spirit which is the second, posterior reality, dependent on the matter.

Therefore, for materialists, it is not spirit or God who created the world and matter, but it is the world, matter, nature that created spirit:

mind itself is merely the highest product of matter [note 1]

This is why, if we take up the question we asked in the second chapter: "Where does man think?" the materialists answer that man thinks because he has a brain and that thought is the product of the brain. For them, there can be no thought without matter, without a body.

our consciousness and thinking, however supra-sensuous they may seem, are the product of a material, bodily organ, the brain. [note 1]

Therefore, for materialists, matter, being are something real, existing outside of our thought, and do not need thought or mind to exist. Likewise, since spirit cannot exist without matter, there is no immortal soul independent of the body.

Contrary to what the idealists say, the things around us exist independently of us: they are what give us our thoughts; and our ideas are only the reflection of things in our brain.

This is why, in front of the second aspect of the question of the relationship between being and thinking: —

in what relation do our thoughts about the world surrounding us stand to this world itself? Is our thinking capable of the cognition of the real world? Are we able in our ideas and notions of the real world to produce a correct reflection of reality? In philosophical language this question is called the question of identity of thinking and being [note 1]

— materialists declare: Yes, we can know the world, and the ideas which we entertain about this world are more and more correct, since we can study it with the help of the sciences, and since the latter are continually proving to us through experience that the things which surround us have indeed a reality which is their own, independent of us, and that man can already in part reproduce these things by creating them artificially.

To sum up, we will say that the materialists, faced with the fundamental problem of philosophy, assert:

It is matter that creates the spirit

It is matter that produces spirit and, scientifically, we have never seen spirit without matter.

Matter exists outside any spirit

Matter exists outside of all mind and it does not need mind to exist, having an existence that is particular to it, and, therefore, contrary to what idealists say, it is not our ideas that create things, but, on the contrary, it is things that give us our ideas.

Science and experience allow us to know things

We are capable of knowing the world, the ideas we have of matter and of the world are becoming more and more accurate, since, with the help of science, we can clarify what we already know and discover what we do not know.

Further reading

Plekhanov: Fundamental problems of marxism

Which is right, idealism or materialism?

How we should pose the problem

Now that we know the theses of the idealists and the materialists, we will try to find out who is right.

Let us recall that we must first of all note, on the one hand, that these theses are absolutely opposed and contradictory; on the other hand, that as soon as one defends one or the other theory, it leads us to conclusions which, by their consequences, are very important.

To know who is right, we must refer to the three points by which we have summarized each argument.

The idealists say:

  1. That it is spirit that creates matter;
  2. That matter does not exist outside our thinking, that it is therefore for us only an illusion;
  3. That it is our ideas that create things. Materialists, on the other hand, affirm exactly the opposite.

To facilitate our work, we must first study what is common sense and what surprises us most.

  1. Is it true that the world exists only in our thinking?
  2. Is it true that it is our ideas that create things?

These are two arguments defended by Berkeley's "immaterialist" idealism, whose conclusions lead, as in all theologies, to our third question:

  1. Is it true that spirit creates matter?

These are very important questions since they relate to the fundamental problem of philosophy. It is, therefore, by discussing them that we will know who is right, and they are particularly interesting for materialists, in that materialist answers to these questions are common to all materialist philosophies - and, therefore, to dialectical materialism.

Is it true that the world only exists in our thinking?

Before studying this question, we need to situate two philosophical terms that we are called upon to use and that we will often encounter in our readings.

Subjective reality (which means: reality that exists only in our thinking). Objective reality (reality that exists outside of our thinking).

Idealists say that the world is not an objective reality, but a subjective one.

Materialists say that the world is an objective reality.

To show us that the world and things exist only in our thinking, Bishop Berkeley breaks them down into their properties (color, size, density, etc.). He shows us that these properties, which vary according to individuals, are not in the things themselves, but in the minds of each of us. He deduces that matter is a set of non-objective, but subjective properties and that, consequently, it does not exist.

If we take again the example of the sun, Berkeley asks us if we believe in the objective reality of the red disc, and he shows us with his method of discussing properties, that the sun is not red and is not a disc. Therefore, the sun is not an objective reality, because it does not exist by itself, but it is a simple subjective reality, since it exists only in our thinking.

Materialists say that the sun exists anyway, not because we see it as a flat, red disc, because that is naive realism, that of the children and the first men who had only their senses to control reality, but they say that the sun exists by invoking science. Science allows us, in fact, to rectify the errors that our senses make us commit.

But we must, in this example of the sun, clearly pose the problem.

With Berkeley, we will say that the sun is not a disk and that it is not red, but we do not accept its conclusions: the negation of the sun as an objective reality.

We are not discussing the properties of things, but their existence.

We do not discuss whether our senses deceive us and distort material reality, but whether this reality exists outside our senses.

Well! The materialists assert the existence of this reality outside us and they provide arguments that are science itself.

What do idealists do to show us that they are right? They argue about words, make great speeches, write many pages.

Let us suppose for a moment that they are right. If the world exists only in our thinking, then the world did not exist before mankind? We know that this is true, since science shows us that man appeared very late on earth. Some idealists will then tell us that before man there were animals and that thought could inhabit them. But we know that before the animals there was an uninhabitable earth on which no organic life was possible. Still others will tell us that even if only the solar system existed and man did not exist, thought and spirit existed in God. This is how we arrive at the supreme form of idealism. We have to choose between God and science. Idealism cannot sustain itself without God, and God cannot exist without idealism.

So this is exactly how the problem of idealism and materialism arises: Who is right? God or science?

God is a pure spirit creator of matter, an affirmation without proof.

Science is going to show us by practice and experience that the world is an objective reality and will allow us to answer the question:

Is it true that it is our ideas that create things?

Take, for example, a bus that passes as we cross the street in the company of an idealist with whom we discuss whether things have an objective or subjective reality and whether it is true that it is our ideas that create things. Of course, if we don't want to be crushed, we will be very careful. Therefore, in practice, the idealist is obliged to recognize the existence of the bus. For him, practically speaking, there is no difference between an objective bus and a subjective bus, and this is so right that practice provides the proof that idealists, in life, are materialists.

We can, on this subject, cite many examples where we would see that the idealistic philosophers and those who support this philosophy do not disdain certain 'objective' baseness to obtain what, for them, is only subjective reality!

This is why we no longer see anyone asserting, like Berkeley, that the world does not exist. The arguments are much more subtle and hidden[note 7].

It is therefore, according to Lenin's words, "the criterion of practice" that will allow us to confuse the idealists.

The latter, moreover, will not fail to say that theory and practice are not the same, and that they are two quite different things. This is not true. If a conception is right or wrong, it is practice alone which, through experience, will demonstrate it to us.

The example of the bus shows that the world therefore has an objective reality and is not an illusion created by our mind.

It remains to be seen now, since Berkeley's theory of immaterialism cannot stand up to the sciences nor can it withstand the criterion of practice, if, as all the conclusions of idealistic philosophies, religions and theologies affirm, the mind creates matter.

Is it true that spirit creates matter?

As we have seen above, the spirit, for idealists, has its supreme form in God. It is the final answer, the conclusion of their theory, and that is why the mind-matter problem arises in the last analysis, of who, the idealist or the materialist, is right, in the form of the problem: 'God or science'.

Idealists assert that God has existed from all eternity, and that, having undergone no change, he is always the same. He is the pure spirit, for whom time and space do not exist. He is the creator of matter.

To support their affirmation of God, here again the idealists do not present any arguments.

To defend the creator of matter, they resort to a lot of mysteries, which a scientific mind cannot accept.

When we go back to the origins of science and we see that it was in the heart and because of their great ignorance that primitive men forged in their minds the idea of God, we see that the idealists of the 20th century continue, like the first men, to ignore everything that patient and persevering work has made it possible to know. For, in the end, God, for the idealists, cannot be explained, and there remains for them a belief without any proof. When the idealists want to "prove" to us the necessity of the creation of the world by saying that matter could not always have existed, that it had to have a birth, they resort to a God who never had a beginning. In what way is this explanation clearer?

To support their arguments, the materialists, on the contrary, will use the science that men have developed as they pushed back the "limits of their ignorance".

But does science allow us to think that the spirit created matter? No.

The idea of creation by a pure spirit is incomprehensible because we know nothing of the sort in experience. For this to be possible, it would have been necessary, as idealists say, that spirit existed alone before matter, whereas science shows us that this is not possible and that there is no spirit without matter. On the contrary, mind is always linked to matter, and we see in particular that the mind of man is linked to the brain, which is the source of our ideas and thought. Science does not allow us to conceive that ideas exist in a vacuum...

It would therefore be necessary for the mind of God, in order for it to exist, to have a brain. This is why we can say that it is not God who created matter, therefore man, but that it is matter, in the form of the human brain, that created the God-mind.

We will see further on whether science gives us the possibility to believe in a God, or in something over which time would have no effect and for which space, movement and change would not exist.

Already now we can conclude. In their answer to the fundamental problem of philosophy:

The materialists are right and science proves their assertions

Materialists are right to assert:

  1. Against Berkeley's idealism and against the philosophers who hide behind his immaterialism: that the world and things, on the one hand, exist well outside our thought and that they do not need our thought to exist; on the other hand, that it is not our ideas that create things, but that, on the contrary, it is the things that give us our ideas.
  2. Against all idealistic philosophies, because their conclusions end in affirming the creation of matter by spirit, that is to say, in the last instance, in affirming the existence of God and in supporting theologies, materialists, relying on science, assert and prove that it is matter which creates spirit and that they do not need the “God hypothesis” to explain the creation of matter.

Note — We have to be careful how idealists pose problems. They claim that God created man when we saw that it was man who created God. They also assert, on the other hand, that it is spirit that created matter when we see that it is, in truth, exactly the opposite. This is a way of reversing the perspectives that we had to point out.

Further reading

Lenin: Materialism and empiriocriticism: Did nature exist prior to man?

Engels: Ludwig Feuerbach

Is there a third philosophy? Agnosticism

Why a third philosophy?

It may seem to us, after these first chapters, that, after all, it must be quite easy to recognize ourselves in the midst of all philosophical reasoning, since only two great currents share all the theories: idealism and materialism. And that, moreover, the arguments that militate in favor of materialism carry the conviction in a definitive way.

It thus appears that, after some examination, we have found our way back to the philosophy of reason: materialism.

But things are not so simple. As we have already pointed out, modern idealists do not have Bishop Berkeley's frankness. They present their ideas

“in a much more artful form, and confused by the use of a ‘new’ terminology, so that these thoughts may be taken by naive people for ‘recent’ philosophy!” [note 8]

We have seen that to the fundamental question of philosophy two answers can be given, which are totally opposed, contradictory and irreconcilable. These two answers are very clear and do not allow for any confusion.

And, in fact, until about 1710, the problem was posed as follows: on the one hand, those who asserted the existence of matter outside our thinking - these were the materialists; - on the other hand, those who, with Berkeley, denied the existence of matter and claimed that it exists only in us, in our minds - these were the idealists.

But, at that time, as the sciences progressed, other philosophers intervened, who tried to separate the idealists from the materialists, creating a philosophical current that created confusion between these two theories, and this confusion has its source in the search for a third philosophy.

Argumentation of this third philosophy

The basis of this philosophy, which was developed after Berkeley, is that it is useless to try to know the real nature of things and that we will only ever know appearances.

This is why this philosophy is called agnosticism (from the Greek a, negation, and gnosticos, capable of knowing; therefore “incapable of knowing”).

According to the agnostics, one cannot know whether the world is, at its core, spirit or nature. It is possible for us to know the appearance of things, but we cannot know their reality.

Let us take the example of the sun. We have seen that it is not, as the first men thought, a flat, red disc. This disc was therefore only an illusion, an appearance (appearance is the superficial idea that we have of things; it is not their reality).

This is why, considering that idealists and materialists argue about whether things are matter or spirit, whether or not these things exist outside our thinking, whether or not it is possible for us to know them, agnostics say that we can know appearance well, but never reality.

Our senses, they say, allow us to see and feel things, to know their external aspects, their appearances; these appearances therefore exist for us; they constitute what is called, in philosophical language, the "thing for us". But we cannot know the thing independent of us, with its own reality, what is called the "thing in itself".

Idealists and materialists, who continually discuss these subjects, are comparable to two men who would have one of the blue glasses, the other of the pink glasses, walking in the snow and arguing over what is the true color of the snow. Suppose they would never be able to take off - their glasses. Will they ever be able to know the true color of the snow?.... No. Well! idealists and materialists arguing over who is right and who is wrong wear blue and pink glasses. They will never know reality. They will have a knowledge of snow "for them"; everyone will see it in their own way, but they will never know snow "in itself". This is the reasoning of agnostics.

Where does this philosophy come from?

The founders of this philosophy were Hume (1711-1776), who was Scottish, and Kant (1724-1804), a German. Both tried to reconcile idealism and materialism.

Here is a passage from Hume's reasoning quoted by Lenin in his book Materialism and empiriocriticism:

“It seems evident, that men are carried, by a natural instinct or prepossession, to repose faith in their senses; and that, without any reasoning, or even almost before the use of reason, we always suppose an external universe, which depends not on our perception, but would exist though we and every sensible creature were absent or annihilated. Even the animal creations are governed by a like opinion, and preserve this belief of external objects, in all their thoughts, designs, and actions....

But this universal and primary opinion of all men is soon destroyed by the slightest philosophy, which teaches us, that nothing can ever be present to the mind but an image or perception, and that the senses are only the inlets, through which these images are conveyed, without being able to produce any immediate intercourse between the mind and the object. The table, which we see, seems to diminish, as we remove farther from it: But the real table, which exists independent of us, suffers no alteration: It was therefore, nothing but its image, which was present to the mind. These are the obvious dictates of reason…

But this primordial and universal opinion is promptly shaken by the most superficial philosophy, which teaches us that nothing but images or perception will ever be accessible to our mind and that sensations are only channels followed by these images and are not in a position to establish themselves a direct relationship, whatever it may be, between the mind and the object. The table we see seems smaller when we move away from it, but the real table, which exists independently of us, does not change; our mind has therefore perceived nothing but the image of the table. These are the obvious indications of reason.” [note 9]

We see that Hume first of all admits what falls under the common sense: "existence of an external universe" which does not depend on us. But he immediately refuses to admit this existence as an objective reality. For him, this existence is nothing more than an image, and our senses which observe this existence, this image, are incapable of establishing any relation whatsoever between spirit and object.

In a word, we live in the midst of things as in the cinema, where we observe on the screen the image of objects, their existence, but where, behind the images themselves, that is, behind the screen, there is nothing.

Now, if we want to know how our minds know objects, can this not be due to

the energy of the mind itself, or from the suggestion of some invisible and unknown spirit, or from some other cause still more unknown to us? [note 9]

Its consequences

Here is an attractive theory which, moreover, is very widespread. We find it in different aspects, throughout history, among philosophical theories and, nowadays, among all those who claim to "remain neutral and maintain themselves in a scientific reserve".

We therefore need to examine whether this reasoning is correct and what consequences flow from it.

If it is really impossible for us, as agnostics assert, to know the true nature of things and if our knowledge is limited to their appearances, then we cannot affirm the existence of objective reality, and we cannot know whether things exist by themselves. For us, for example, the bus is an objective reality; the agnostic tells us that it is not certain, that we cannot know if the bus is a thought or a reality. He therefore forbids us to maintain that our thinking is a reflection of things. We see that we are there in the middle of idealistic reasoning, because, between affirming that things do not exist or simply that we cannot know if they exist, the difference is not great!

We have seen that the agnostic distinguishes between "things for us" and "things in themselves". The study of things for us is therefore possible: this is science: but the study of things in themselves is impossible, because we cannot know what exists outside of us.

The result of this reasoning is the following: the agnostic accepts science; and, since science can only be made on the condition of expelling all supernatural forces from nature, before science it is materialistic.

But he hastens to add that, since science only gives us appearances, nothing proves, moreover, that there is not in reality anything other than matter, or even that there is matter or that God does not exist. Human reason cannot know anything about it and therefore has no business interfering in it. If there are other ways of knowing "things in themselves," such as religious faith, the agnostic does not want to know it either and does not recognize the right to discuss it.

As soon, however, as our agnostic has made these formal mental reservations, he talks and acts as the rank materialist he at bottom is. He may say that, as far as we know, matter and motion, or as it is now called, energy, can neither be created nor destroyed, but that we have no proof of their not having been created at some time or other. But if you try to use this admission against him in any particular case, he will quickly put you out of court. If he admits the possibility of spiritualism in abstracto, he will have none of it in concreto. As far as we know and can know, he will tell you there is no creator and no Ruler of the universe; as far as we are concerned, matter and energy can neither be created nor annihilated; for us, mind is a mode of energy, a function of the brain; all we know is that the material world is governed by immutable laws, and so forth. Thus, as far as he is a scientific man, as far as he knows anything, he is a materialist; outside his science, in spheres about which he knows nothing, he translates his ignorance into Greek and calls it agnosticism. [note 10]

The consequence is that by doubting the profound value of science, by seeing in it only appearances, this third philosophy proposes that we attribute no truth to science and consider it perfectly useless to seek to know something, to try to contribute to progress.

Agnostics say: In the past, men saw the sun as a flat disk and believed that this was the reality; they were wrong. Today, science tells us that the sun is not as we see it, and claims to explain everything. We know, however, that it is often wrong, one day destroying what it built the day before. Error yesterday, truth today, but error tomorrow. Thus, argue the agnostics, we cannot know; reason brings us no certainty. And if means other than reason, such as religious faith, claim to give us absolute certainties, it is not even science that can prevent us from believing it. By diminishing confidence in science, agnosticism thus prepares the way for the return of religions.

How can we refute this "third" philosophy?

We have seen that, to prove their claims, materialists use not only science, but also experience, which allows them to control science. Thanks to the "criterium of practice" one can know, one can know things.

Agnostics tell us that it is impossible to assert that the outside world exists or does not exist.

However, through practice, we know that the world and things exist. We know that the ideas we have about things are well-founded, that the relationships we have established between things and ourselves are real.

From the moment we turn to our own use these objects, according to the qualities we perceive in them, we put to an infallible test the correctness or otherwise of our sense perceptions. If these perceptions have been wrong, then our estimate of the use to which an object can be turned must also be wrong, and our attempt must fail. But if we succeed in accomplishing our aim, if we find that the object does agree with our idea of it, and does answer the purpose we intended it for, then that is positive proof that our perceptions of it and of its qualities, so far, agree with reality outside ourselves. And whenever we find ourselves face to face with a failure, then we generally are not long in making out the cause that made us fail; we find that the perception upon which we acted was either incomplete and superficial, or combined with the result of other perceptions in a way warranted by them—what we call defective reasoning. So long as we take care to train and to use our senses properly, and to keep our action within the limits prescribed by perceptions properly made and properly used, so long we shall find that the result of our action proves the conformity of our perceptions with the objective nature of the things perceived. Not in one single instance, so far, have we been led to the conclusion that our sense perceptions, scientifically controlled, induce in our minds ideas respecting the outer world that are, by their very nature, at variance with reality, or that there is an inherent incompatibility between the outer world and our sense perceptions of it. [note 10]

Taking up Engels' phrase, we will say "the proof of the pudding is that you eat it" (English proverb). If it did not exist, or if it was only an idea, after eating it, our hunger would not be alleviated at all. Thus it is perfectly possible for us to know things, to see if our ideas correspond to reality. It is possible for us to control the data of science through experience and industry that translate the theoretical results of science into practical applications. The reason we can make synthetic rubber is that science knows the "thing itself" that is rubber.

So we see that it is not useless to try to find out who is right, because through the theoretical errors that science can make, experience always gives us proof that science is right.


Since the 18th century, among the various thinkers who have borrowed to a greater or lesser extent from agnosticism, we see that this philosophy is sometimes torn by idealism and sometimes by materialism. Under cover of new words, as Lenin says, even pretending to use science to support their reasoning, they only create confusion between the two theories, allowing some to have a convenient philosophy, which gives them the possibility to declare that they are not idealists because they use science, but that they are not materialists either, because they don't dare to go to the end of their arguments, because they are not consequent.

What, indeed, is agnosticism, says Engels, if not shameful materialism? The agnostic's conception of nature is entirely materialistic. The entire natural world is governed by laws and does not admit the intervention of external action; but he adds, as a precaution: “We do not possess the means to affirm or deny the existence of any supreme being beyond the known universe.” [note 10]

Hence, this philosophy is playing into the hands of idealism and, all told, because they are inconsistent in their reasonings, agnostics lead right back to idealism. “Scratch an agnostic,” says Lenin, “and you will find an idealist.”

We have seen that one can know who is right about materialism or idealism.

We now see that the theories that claim to reconcile these two philosophies can, in fact, only support idealism, that they do not provide a third answer to the fundamental question of philosophy and that, consequently, there is no third philosophy.

Further reading

Lenin: Materialism and empiriocriticism

Engels: Ludwig Feuerbach

Engels: Socialism: utopian and scientific: General introduction and the history of materialism

See: Control questions

The philosophical materialism

The material and the materialists

After defining:

First, the ideas common to all materialists, second, the arguments of all materialists against idealistic philosophies, and finally, demonstrating the error of agnosticism, we will draw conclusions from this teaching and strengthen our materialist arguments by providing our answers to the following two questions:

  1. What is matter?
  2. What does it mean to be materialist?

What is matter?

Importance of the issue. Whenever we have a problem to solve, we need to ask the questions clearly. In fact, here it is not so easy to give a satisfactory answer. To do so, we must make a theory of matter.

In general, people think that matter is what can be touched, what is strong and hard. In ancient Greece, this is how matter was defined.

We know today, thanks to science, that this is not true.

Successive theories of matter

(Our goal is to review the various theories relating to matter as simply as possible, without going into scientific explanations.)

In Greece, it was believed that matter was a full and impenetrable reality that could not be divided into infinity. A moment arrives, it was said, when the pieces are no longer divisible; and we called these particles atoms (atom = indivisible). A table is then an agglomerate of atoms. It was also believed that these atoms were different from each other: there were smooth and round atoms like those of oil, others rough and hooked, like those of vinegar.

It was Democritus, a materialist of antiquity, who established this theory; he was the first to try to give a materialistic explanation of the world. He thought, for example, that the human body was made up of coarse atoms, that the soul was an agglomeration of finer atoms and, as he admitted the existence of gods and yet wanted to explain everything as a materialist , he claimed that the gods themselves were made up of super-fine atoms.

In the 19th century this theory changed profoundly.

It was always thought that matter divided into atoms, that the latter were very hard particles attracting each other. The theory of the Greeks had been abandoned, and these atoms were no longer hooked or smooth, but it was still argued that they were impenetrable, indivisible and undergoing a movement of attraction towards each other.

Today, it is demonstrated that the atom is not an impenetrable and indivisible grain of matter (that is to say indivisible), but that it is itself composed of particles called electrons rotating at very high speed. around a nucleus where almost all of the atom's mass is condensed. If the atom is neutral, electrons and nucleus have an electric charge, but the positive charge of the nucleus is equal to the sum of the negative charges carried by the electrons. Matter is an agglomeration of these atoms, and if it opposes a resistance to penetration, it is because of the very movement of the particles that compose it.

The discovery of these electrical properties of matter, and in particular the discovery of electrons, provoked at the beginning of the twentieth century an assault by idealists against the very existence of matter. “The electron has nothing material,” they claimed. “It is nothing more than an electric charge in motion. If there is no matter in the negative charge, why would there be any in the positive nucleus? So matter has vanished. There is only energy!”

Lenin, in Materialism and empiriocriticism (chapter V), put things right by showing that energy and matter are inseparable. Energy is material, and movement is only the mode of existence of matter. In short, the idealists interpreted the discoveries of science backwards. At the time when this one highlighted aspects of the matter ignored until then, they concluded that the matter does not exist, under the pretext that it does not conform to the idea that one had of it. long ago, when we believed that matter and motion were two distinct realities.

What is matter for materialists

On this subject, it is essential to make a distinction: it is a question of seeing first:

  1. What is matter?


  1. What is matter like?

The materialists' answer to the first question is that matter is an external reality, independent of spirit, and does not need spirit to exist. Lenin says on this subject:

Matter is that which, acting upon our sense-organs, produces sensation; matter is the objective reality given to us in sensation.[note 11]

Now, to the second question: "What is matter like? "the materialists say: "It is not for us to answer, it is for science. »

The first answer is invariable from antiquity to the present day.

The second answer has varied and must vary because it depends on the sciences, on the state of human knowledge. It is not a definitive answer.

We see that it is absolutely indispensable to pose the problem well and not to let the idealists mix up the two questions. It is necessary to separate them well, to show that it is the first which is the main one, and that our answer to it has always been invariable.

For the sole “property” of matter with whose recognition philosophical materialism is bound up is the property of being an objective reality, of existing outside our mind. [note 12]

Space, time, movement and matter

If we affirm, because we see it, that matter exists outside of us, we also specify:

  1. That matter exists in time and space.
  2. That matter is in motion.

Idealists, on the other hand, think that space and time are ideas of our mind (Kant was the first to support this). For them, space is a form that we give to things, space is born from the mind of man. The same goes for time.

The materialists affirm, on the contrary, that space is not in us, but that it is we who are in space. They also affirm that time is an indispensable condition for the unfolding of our life; and that, consequently, time and space are inseparable from what exists outside of us, that is, from matter.

... The basic forms of all being are space and time, and being out of time is just as gross an absurdity as being out of space. [note 13]

We therefore believe that there is a reality independent of consciousness. We all believe that the world has existed before us and will continue to exist after us. We believe that the world, in order to exist, does not need us. We believe that Paris existed before we were born and that unless it is definitively razed it will exist after our death. We are certain that Paris exists, even when we don't think about it, just as there are tens of thousands of cities that we have never visited, whose names we don't even know, and which nevertheless exist. This is the general conviction of humanity. Science has given this argument a precision and solidity that nullifies all idealistic finery.

The natural sciences affirm positively that the earth existed in such states that neither man nor any living being inhabited it and could not inhabit it. Organic matter is a late phenomenon, the product of a very long evolution. [note 14]

If the sciences thus provide us with proof that matter exists in time and space, they teach us, at the same time, that matter is in motion. This last precision, which is provided to us by modern science, is very important because it destroys the old theory that matter is incapable of motion, inert.

Motion is the mode of existence of matter... Matter without motion is as inconceivable as motion without matter. [note 13]

We know that the world in its present state is the result, in all fields, of a long evolution and, consequently, the result of a slow but continuous movement. We thus specify, after having demonstrated the existence of matter, that

the universe is only moving matter, and this moving matter can only move in space and time. [note 14]


It follows from these observations that the idea of God, the idea of a "pure spirit" creator of the universe, is meaningless, because a God outside of space and time is something that cannot exist.

It is necessary to share the idealistic mysticism, consequently not to admit any scientific control, to believe in a God existing outside time, that is to say not existing at any time, and existing outside space, that is to say not existing anywhere.

Materialists, strengthened by the conclusions of science, affirm that matter exists in space and at a certain moment (in time). Therefore, the universe could not have been created, because it would have taken God to create the world at a moment that was at no time (since time for God does not exist) and it would also have taken the world out of nothing.

In order to admit creation, one must therefore first admit that there was a moment when the universe did not exist, and then that out of nothing something came out, which science cannot admit.

We see that the idealistic arguments, confronted with science, cannot be supported, while those of the materialist philosophers cannot be separated from the sciences themselves. We thus underline, once again, the intimate relationship between materialism and science.

Further reading

Engels: Anti-Dühring Lenin: Materialism and empiriocriticism

What does it mean to be a materialist?

Union of theory and practice

The purpose of our study is to make known what marxism is, to see how the philosophy of materialism, by becoming dialectical, identifies itself with marxism. We already know that one of the foundations of this philosophy is the close connection between theory and practice.

This is why, after having seen what matter is for materialists, and then how matter is, it is indispensable to say, after these two theoretical questions, what it means to be materialist, that is to say how the materialist acts. This is the practical side of these problems.

The basis of materialism is the recognition of being as the source of thought. But is it enough to keep repeating this? To be a true partisan of consequent materialism, one must be: 1. in the field of thought; 2. in the field of action.

What does it mean to be a supporter of materialism in the field of thought?

To be a partisan of materialism in the field of thought is, knowing the fundamental formula of materialism: being produces thought, knowing how this formula can be applied.

When we say: being produces thought, we have here an abstract formula, because the words: being and thought are abstract words. Being" is being in general; "thought" is thought in general that we want to talk about. Being, as well as thought in general, is a subjective reality (see part one, chapter IV, the explanation of "subjective reality" and "objective reality"); it does not exist: it is what is called an abstraction. To say: "being produces thought" is thus an abstract formula, because it is composed of abstractions.

So, for example: we know a lot about horses, but if we talk about the horse, it is the horse in general that we want to talk about; well! the horse in general is an abstraction.

If we put in the place of the horse, man or being in general, they are still abstractions.

But if the horse in general doesn't exist, what does exist? It's the horses in particular. The veterinarian who would say: "I treat the horse in general, but not the horse in particular" would be laughed at, as would the doctor who would say the same thing about men.

So there is no such thing as being in general, but there are special beings with special qualities. It is the same with thinking.

We will therefore say that being in general is something abstract, and that particular being is something concrete; thus of thought in general and of particular thought.

The materialist is the one who knows how to recognize in all situations, who knows how to concretize where is the being and where is the thought.

Example: The brain and our ideas.

We must know how to transform the abstract general formula into a concrete formula. The materialist will thus identify the brain as being and our ideas as being the thought. He will reason while saying: it is the brain (the being) which produces our ideas (the thought). This is a simple example, but let's take the more complex example of human society and see how a materialist will reason.

The life of society is composed (roughly) of an economic life and a political life. What is the relationship between economic life and political life?... What is the primary factor in this abstract formula that we want to make a concrete formula?

For the materialist, the first factor, that is to say, the being, the one that gives life to society, is economic life. The second factor, the thought that is created by the being, which can only live through it, is political life.

The materialist will therefore say that economic life explains political life, since political life is a product of economic life.

This statement, made here summarily, is at the root of what is called historical materialism and was first made by Marx and Engels.

Here is another more delicate example: the poet. Certainly, there are many elements involved in explaining "the poet," but here we want to show one aspect of this question.

We will generally say that the poet writes because he is driven by inspiration. Is that enough to explain that the poet writes this rather than that? No. The poet may have thoughts in his head, but he is also a being who lives in society. We will see that the first factor, the one that gives the poet his own life, is society, since the second factor is the ideas that the poet has in his brain. Therefore, one of the elements, the fundamental element, that "explains" the poet will be society, that is, the environment in which he lives in that society. (We will find the "poet" again when we study the dialectic, because then we will have all the elements to study this problem properly).

We can see from these examples that the materialist is the one who knows how to apply the formula of materialism everywhere and always, at every moment, and in every case.

How is materialism in practice?

First aspect of the question

We have seen that there is no third philosophy and that if one is not consistent in the application of materialism, one is either idealistic or one obtains a mixture of idealism and materialism.

The bourgeois scholar, in his studies and in his experiences, is always materialist. This is normal, because, in order to advance science, it is necessary to work on matter, and if the scientist really believed that matter exists only in his mind, he would find it useless to make experiments.

So there are several varieties of scientists:

  1. Scientists who are conscious and consequent materialists.
  2. Scientists who are materialists without knowing it: i.e. almost all of them, because it is impossible to do science without positing the existence of matter. But, among the latter, one must distinguish:
    1. Those who begin to follow materialism, but who stop, because they don't dare to call themselves such: these are the agnostics, those whom Engels calls the "shameful materialists".
    2. Then there are the scholars, unknowingly materialistic and inconsequential. They are materialists in the laboratory, then, when they come out of their work, they are idealists, believers, religious.

In fact, the latter did not know or did not want to put their ideas in order. They are in perpetual contradiction with themselves. They separate their work, necessarily materialistic, from their philosophical conceptions. They are "scientists", and yet, if they do not expressly deny the existence of matter, they think, which is unscientific, that it is useless to know the real nature of things. They are "scientists" and yet they believe without any proof in impossible things. (See the case of Pasteur, Branly and others who were believers, whereas the scientist, if he is consistent, must abandon his religious belief). Science and belief are absolutely opposed.

Second aspect of the question

Materialism and action: If it is true that the true materialist is the one who applies the formula that is at the basis of this philosophy everywhere and in all cases, he must be careful to apply it well.

As we have just seen, one must be consequent, and to be a consequent materialist, one must transpose materialism into action.

To be a materialist in practice is to act in accordance with philosophy, taking reality as the first and most important factor, and thought as the second factor.

We are going to see what attitudes are taken by those who, without realizing it, take thought as the first factor and are therefore at this moment idealistic without knowing it.

  1. What do we call the one who lives as if he were alone in the world? The individualist. He lives closed in on himself; the outside world exists only for him alone. For him, the important thing is him, it is his thought. He is a pure idealist, or what is called a solipsist. [note 15]

The individualist is selfish, and being selfish is not a materialist attitude. The egoist limits the universe to his own person.

  1. He who learns for the sake of learning, as a dilettante, for himself, assimilates well, has no difficulties, but keeps it to himself. He attaches primary importance to himself, to his thought.

The idealist is closed to the outside world, to reality. The materialist is always open to reality; that is why those who take Marxist courses and who learn easily must try to transmit what they have learned.

  1. He who reasons about all things in relation to himself undergoes an idealist deformation.

He will say, for example, of a meeting where things were said that were unpleasant to him: "This is a bad meeting. This is not the way to analyze things; one must judge the meeting in relation to the organization, to its purpose, and not in relation to oneself.

  1. Sectarianism is not a materialistic attitude either. Because the sectarian has understood the problems, because he agrees with himself, he claims that others should be like him. It is still giving primary importance to oneself or to a sect.
  2. The doctrinaire who has studied the texts, has drawn definitions from them, is still an idealist when he is content to quote materialist texts, when he lives only with his texts, because then the real world disappears. He repeats these formulas without applying them in reality. He gives primary importance to the texts, to the ideas. Life unfolds in his consciousness in the form of texts, and, in general, we see that the doctrinaire is also sectarian.

To believe that the revolution is a question of education, to say that in explaining "once and for all" to the workers the necessity of the revolution they must understand and that if they do not want to understand, it is not worth trying to make the revolution, that is sectarianism and not a materialist attitude.

We have to note the cases where people do not understand; we have to look for reasons why this is so, note the repression, the propaganda of the bourgeois newspapers, radio, cinema, etc., and look for all possible means to make people understand what we want, through leaflets, brochures, newspapers, schools, etc.

To have no sense of reality, to live in the moon and, practically, to make projects without taking into account the situations, the realities, is an idealistic attitude that gives primary importance to beautiful projects without seeing if they are feasible or not. Those who continually criticize, but do nothing to make things better, proposing no remedies, those who lack critical sense themselves, all of them are inconsistent materialists.


By these examples, we see that the faults, which we can see more or less in each of us, are idealistic faults. We have it because we separate practice from theory and the bourgeoisie, which has influenced us, likes us not to attach importance to reality. For her, who supports idealism, theory and practice are two completely different and unrelated things. These flaws are therefore harmful, and we must fight them, because they ultimately benefit the bourgeoisie. In short, we must note that these defects, engendered in us by society, by the theoretical bases of our education, of our culture, rooted in our childhood, are the work of the bourgeoisie - and get rid of them.

History of materialism

So far we have studied what materialism is in general and what ideas are common to all materialists. We will now see how it has evolved from antiquity to modern materialism. In short, we will quickly follow the history of materialism.

We don't pretend to explain in so few pages the 2,000 years of the history of materialism; we simply want to give some general indications that will guide the readings.

In order to study this history properly, even summarily, it is indispensable to see at every moment why things have unfolded in this way. It would be better not to quote certain historical names than not to apply this method. But, while we do not want to clutter up our readers' brains, we think it is necessary to name in historical order the main materialist philosophers more or less known to them.

This is why, in order to simplify the work, we will devote these first pages to the purely historical side, and then, in the second part of this chapter, we will see why the evolution of materialism has had to undergo the form of development it has undergone.

The need to study this history

The bourgeoisie does not like the history of materialism, and that is why this history, taught in bourgeois books, is completely incomplete and always false. Various falsification processes are used:

  1. Since we cannot ignore the great materialist thinkers, we name them by talking about everything they have written except their materialist studies, and we forget to say that they are materialist philosophers.

There are many such cases of oblivion in the history of philosophy as it is taught in high schools and universities, and we shall cite as an example Diderot, who was the greatest materialist thinker before Marx and Engels.

  1. There have been many thinkers throughout history who were unknowingly materialistic or inconsequential. That is to say, in some of their writings they were materialists, but in others they were idealists: Descartes, for example.

Now the history written by the bourgeoisie leaves in the shade all that, in these thinkers, not only influenced materialism, but gave birth to a whole current of this philosophy.

  1. Then, if these two falsification processes do not succeed in camouflaging certain authors, they are simply concealed.

This is how the history of literature and philosophy of the eighteenth century is taught by "ignoring" Holbach and Helvetius, who were great thinkers of that time.

Why is this so? Because the history of materialism is particularly instructive for knowing and understanding the problems of the world; and also because the development of materialism is harmful to the ideologies that support the privileges of the ruling classes.

These are the reasons why the bourgeoisie presents materialism as a doctrine that has not changed, frozen for twenty centuries, while on the contrary materialism was something alive and always in motion.

But just as idealism underwent a series of stages of development, so also did materialism. With each epoch-making discovery even in the sphere of natural science, it has to change its form [note 1]

We now have a better understanding of the need to study, even summarily, this history of materialism. To do so, we must distinguish two periods: i° from the origin (Greek antiquity) to Marx and Engels; 2° from the materialism of Marx and Engels to the present day. (We will study this second part with dialectical materialism).

We call the first period "pre-marxist materialism", and the second "marxist materialism" or "dialectical materialism".

Pre-marxist materialism

Ancient Greece

Let us recall that materialism is a doctrine that has always been linked to the sciences, that has evolved and progressed with the sciences. When, in Greek antiquity, in the sixth and fifth centuries B.C.E., the sciences began to manifest themselves with the "physicists", a materialist current was formed which attracted the best thinkers and philosophers of that time (Thales, Anaximene, Heraclitus). These first philosophers will be, as Engels says, "naturally dialecticians". They are struck by the fact that movement and change are everywhere and that things are not isolated, but intimately linked to each other...

Heraclitus, who is called the "father of dialectic", said:

Nothing is still; everything flows; you never bathe twice in the same river, because it is never, in two successive moments, the same: from one moment to the next, it has changed; it has become different.

Heraclitus, the first, seeks to explain the movement, the change, and sees in the contradiction the reasons for the evolution of things.

The conceptions of these first philosophers were right, and yet they were abandoned because they were wrong to be formulated a priori, that is, the state of science at that time did not allow us to prove what they were advancing. On the other hand, the social conditions necessary for the dialectic to flourish (we shall see what they are later on) were not yet realized.

It is only much later, in the 19th century, that the conditions (social and intellectual) allowing the sciences to prove the correctness of the dialectic will be realized.

Other Greek thinkers had materialistic conceptions: Leucippe (5th century B.C.E.), who was the master of Democritus, had already discussed this problem of atoms, whose theory we have seen established by the latter.

Epicurus (341-270 B.C.E.), a disciple of Democritus, is a very great thinker whose philosophy was completely falsified by the Church in the Middle Ages. Out of hatred of philosophical materialism, the Church presented Epicurean doctrine as profoundly immoral, as an apology for the lowest passions. In reality, Epicurus was an ascetic and his philosophy aimed at giving a scientific (and therefore anti-religious) foundation to human life.

All these philosophers were aware that philosophy was linked to the fate of humanity, and we can already see there, on their part, an opposition to official theory, an opposition to materialism.

But one great thinker dominates ancient Greece: it was Aristotle, who was rather idealistic. His influence was considerable. And that's why we must cite him in particular. He drew up an inventory of human knowledge of that time, filling in the gaps created by the new sciences. A universal mind, he wrote many books on all subjects. Through the universality of his knowledge, of which only idealistic tendencies were retained, neglecting its materialistic and scientific aspects, he had a considerable influence on philosophical conceptions until the end of the Middle Ages, that is, for twenty centuries.

During all this period, therefore, the ancient tradition was followed, and only Aristotle was thought of. A savage repression raged against those who thought otherwise. Nevertheless, towards the end of the Middle Ages, a struggle broke out between idealists who denied matter and those who thought there was a material reality.

In the 11th and 12th centuries, this dispute continued in France and especially in England.

In the beginning, it was mainly in the latter country that materialism developed. Marx said:

Materialism is the true son of Great Britain.[note 16]

A little later, it was in France that materialism flourished. In any case, in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries we see two currents manifest themselves: one, English materialism, and the other, French materialism, whose coming together will contribute to the prodigious blossoming of materialism in the eighteenth century.

English materialism

The authentic father of English materialism and of all modern experimental science is Bacon. The science of nature is for him the true science, and physics, based on sensible experience, is the noblest fundamental part of it. [note 17]

Bacon is famous as the founder of the experimental method in the study of science. For him, the important thing is to study science in the "great book of nature", and this is particularly interesting at a time when science is studied in the books that Aristotle had left a few centuries earlier.

To study physics, for example, this is how you would do it: on a certain subject, oh take the passages written by Aristotle; then take the books of St. Thomas Aquinas, who was a great theologian, and read what he had written about Aristotle's passage. The professor did not make any personal comment, let alone say what he thought, but referred to a third book that repeated Aristotle and St. Thomas. This was the science of the Middle Ages, which was called scholasticism: it was a bookish science, because it was studied only in books.

It is against this scholasticism, this fixed teaching, that Bacon reacted by calling for study in the "great book of nature.

At that time, a question arose:

Where do our ideas come from? Where does our knowledge come from? Each of us has ideas, the idea of a house, for example. This idea comes to us because there are houses, the materialists say. Idealists think that it is God who gives us the idea of a house. Bacon, for his part, said that the idea only existed because we saw or touched things, but he could not yet demonstrate this.

It was Locke (1632-1704) who set out to demonstrate how ideas come from experience. He showed that all ideas come from experience and that only experience gives us ideas. The idea of the first table came to man before it existed, because, through experience, he was already using a tree trunk or a stone as a table.

With Locke's ideas, English materialism passed to France in the first half of the 18th century, because, while this philosophy was developing in a particular way in England, a materialist current had formed in our country.

Materialism in France

One can situate from Descartes (1596-1650) the birth in France of a clearly materialistic current. Descartes had a great influence on this philosophy, but, in general, one does not speak about it!

At this time when the feudal ideology was very alive, even in the sciences, where one studied in the scholastic way that we saw, Descartes enters in fight against this state of affairs.

The feudal ideology is impregnated with religious mentality. It therefore considers that the Church, representing God on earth, has the monopoly of truth. It follows that no man can claim the truth if he does not subordinate his thought to the teachings of the Church. Descartes defeats this conception. He certainly does not attack the Church as such, but he boldly professes that every man, believer or not, can reach the truth through the exercise of his reason ("natural light").

Descartes declares from the beginning of his Discourse of the method: "Common sense is the thing of the world best shared". Consequently, everyone in front of science has the same rights. And if he makes, for example, a good criticism of the medicine of his time (the Imaginary Sick, of Molière, is an echo of the criticisms of Descartes), it is because he wants to make a science which is a true science, based on the study of nature and rejecting that taught until him, where Aristotle and saint Thomas were the only "arguments".

Descartes lived at the beginning of the seventeenth century; in the following century, the Revolution was going to break out, and that is why we can say of him that he comes out of a world that is going to disappear to enter a new world, in the one that is going to be born. This position makes Descartes a conciliator; he wants to create a materialistic science and, at the same time, he is idealistic, because he wants to save religion.

When, in his time, people used to ask: Why are there animals that live? They answered according to the ready-made answers of theology: because there is a principle that makes them live. Descartes, on the contrary, maintained that the laws of animal life are simply matter. He believed, moreover, and affirmed that animals are nothing other than machines of flesh and muscles, just as other machines are of iron and wood. He even thought that they both had no sensations and when, at the Abbey of Port-Royal, during the weeks of study, men who claimed to follow his philosophy would bite dogs, they would say: "As nature is well done, it looks like they are suffering! »

For Descartes, the materialist, the animals were thus machines. But the man, him, is different, because he has a soul, says Descartes the idealist

Ideas developed and defended by Descartes will be born, on the one hand, a clearly materialist philosophical current and, on the other hand, an idealist current.

Among those who continue the materialist Cartesian branch, we will retain La Mettrie (1709- 1751). Taking up this thesis of the animal-machine, he extends it to man. Why shouldn't man be a machine?.... The human soul itself, he sees it as a mechanics where ideas would be mechanical movements.

It was at this time that English materialism penetrated France with Locke's ideas. From the junction of these two currents was born a more evolved materialism. It will be:

The materialism of the 18th century

This materialism was defended by philosophers who also knew how to be admirable fighters and writers; continually criticizing social institutions and religion, applying theory to practice and always fighting against power, they were sometimes locked up in the Bastille or in Vincennes.

It was they who gathered their works in the great Encyclopedia, where they set the new direction of materialism. They had, moreover, a great influence, since this philosophy was, as Engels says, "the conviction of all cultivated youth".

It was even the only time in the history of philosophy in France when a philosophy with a French character became truly popular.

Diderot, born in Langres in 1713, died in Paris in 1784, dominated the whole movement. What must be said above all, and what bourgeois history does not say, is that he was, before Marx and Engels, the greatest materialist thinker. Diderot, Lenin said, almost arrives at the conclusions of contemporary (dialectical) materialism.

He was a true militant; always in battle against the Church, against the social state, he knew the dungeons. The history written by the contemporary bourgeoisie has largely escaped him. But one must read the Interviews of Diderot and d'Alembert, Rameau's Nephew, Jacques the Fatalist to understand the enormous influence of Diderot on materialism.

In the first half of the 19th century, because of historical events, we see a retreat of materialism. The bourgeoisie of all countries makes a great propaganda in favor of idealism and religion, because not only does it no longer want progressive (materialist) ideas to spread, but it also needs to put thinkers and the masses to sleep in order to stay in power.

It is then that we see Feuerbach in Germany asserting, in the midst of all the idealistic philosophers, his materialist convictions,

by putting materialism squarely back on the throne. [note 18]

Essentially developing a critique of religion, he takes up in a healthy and contemporary way the bases of materialism that had been forgotten and thus influences the philosophers of his time.

We arrive at this period of the nineteenth century when we see an enormous progress in the sciences, due in particular to these three great discoveries: the living cell, the transformation of energy, and evolution (from Darwin), which will allow Marx and Engels, influenced by Feuerbach, to make materialism evolve to give us modern, or dialectical, materialism.

We have just seen, in a very brief way, the history of materialism before Marx and Engels. We know that the latter, while agreeing with the materialists who preceded them on many points in common, also judged that the latter's work, on the other hand, had many flaws and shortcomings.

In order to understand the transformations they brought to pre-Marxist materialism, it is therefore absolutely necessary to investigate what these defects and shortcomings were, and why they were so.

In other words, our study of the history of materialism would be incomplete if, after listing the various thinkers who contributed to the progress of materialism, we did not try to find out how and in what direction this progress was made and why it underwent this or that form of evolution.

We are particularly interested in the materialism of the 18th century, because it was the culmination of the different currents of this philosophy.

We are going to study what were the errors of this materialism, what were its shortcomings, but, as we must never see things in a unilateral way, but on the contrary as a whole, we will also underline what were its merits.

Materialism, which was dialectical in its beginnings, has not been able to continue to develop on this basis. Dialectical reasoning, because of the insufficiency of scientific knowledge, had to be abandoned. It was first necessary to create and develop the sciences.

One had first to know what a particular thing was before one could observe the changes it was undergoing. [note 19]

It is thus the very intimate union of materialism and science that will allow this philosophy to become once again, on a more solid and scientific basis, the dialectical materialism of Marx and Engels.

We will thus find the birth certificate of materialism next to that of science. But, if we always find where materialism comes from, we must also establish where idealism comes from.

Where does idealism come from?

If, in the course of history, idealism has been able to exist alongside religion, tolerated and approved by it, it is in truth that it was born and comes from religion.

Lenin wrote a formula on this subject that we must study. "Idealism is nothing but a refined and refined form of religion. "What does it mean? It means that idealism is able to present its conceptions much more flexibly than religion. Pretending that the universe was created by a spirit floating above the darkness, that God is immaterial, and then suddenly, as religion does, declaring that he speaks (through the Word) and that he has a son (Jesus), is a series of brutally presented ideas. Idealism, by asserting that the world exists only in our thinking, in our mind, presents itself in a more hidden way. In fact, as we know, it is the same in substance, but the form is less brutal, more elegant. That is why idealism is a refined form of religion.

It is also refined because idealistic philosophers know, in discussions, how to anticipate questions, how to lay traps, like Philonous to poor Hylas in the Berkeley dialogues.

But to say that idealism stems from religion is simply to put the problem off, and we must ask ourselves this immediately:

Where does religion come from?

Engels gave us a very clear answer on this subject: "Religion is born from the bounded conceptions of man." (Bounded is taken here in the sense of limited.)

For the first men, this ignorance was twofold: ignorance of nature and ignorance of themselves. One must constantly think of this double ignorance when studying the history of primitive men.

In Greek antiquity, which we already consider an advanced civilization, this ignorance seems childish, for example when we see that Aristotle thought that the earth was immobile, that it was the center of the world and that planets revolved around the earth. (The latter, of which he saw 46, were fixed like nails on a ceiling, and the whole thing revolved around the earth...)

The Greeks also believed that there were four elements: water, earth, air and fire, and that it was not possible to decompose them. We know that this is not true, since we are now decomposing water, earth and air and we do not consider fire as a body of the same order.

About human beings themselves, the Greeks were also very ignorant, since they did not know the function of our organs and they considered, for example, the heart as the seat of courage!

If the ignorance of the Greek scholars was so great, they whom we already consider to be very advanced, then what must have been the ignorance of the men who lived thousands of years before them? The conceptions that primitive men had of nature and of themselves were limited by ignorance. But these men still tried to explain things. All the documents we have about primitive men tell us that these men were very preoccupied with dreams. We have seen, from the first chapter, how they solved this question of dreams by believing in the existence of a "double" of man. At the beginning, they attributed to this double a kind of transparent and light body, still having a material consistency. It is only much later that this conception is born in their minds that man has in him an immaterial principle that survives after death, a spiritual principle (the word comes from spirit, which in Latin means breath, the breath that goes away with the last breath, at the moment when one gives up the soul and the "double" alone remains). It is then the soul that explains the thought, the dream.

In the Middle Ages, there were strange conceptions about the soul. It was thought that in a fat body one had a thin soul and in a thin body a great soul; that is why, at that time, ascetics used to make long and numerous fasts to have a great soul, to make a great dwelling for the soul.

Having admitted in the form of the double transparent, then in the form of the soul, a spiritual principle, the survival of man after death, primitive men created the gods.

Believing at first in beings more powerful than men existing in a still material form, they imperceptibly came to this belief in gods existing in the form of a soul superior to ours. And so, after having created a multitude of gods, each with its defined function, as in ancient Greece, they came to this conception of one God. Then the monotheistic religion of today was created. We can see that the origin of religion, even in its present form, was ignorance.

Idealism is thus born from the limited conceptions of man, from his ignorance; while materialism, on the contrary, is born from the retreat of these limits.

In the course of the history of philosophy, we are going to witness this continuous struggle between idealism and materialism. The latter wants to push back the limits of ignorance, and this will be one of its glories and one of its merits. Idealism, on the contrary, and the religion that feeds it make every effort to maintain ignorance and to take advantage of this ignorance of the masses to make them admit oppression, economic and social exploitation.

The merits of pre-marxist materialism

We have seen materialism born among the Greeks as soon as there is an embryo of science. Following this principle that: when science develops, materialism develops, we see in the course of history:

  1. In the Middle Ages, a weak development of science, a halt to materialism.
  2. In the 17th and 18th centuries, a great development of science corresponds to a great development of materialism. The French materialism of the 18th century is the direct consequence of the development of the sciences.
  3. In the nineteenth century, we witness many great discoveries, and materialism undergoes a very great transformation with Marx and Engels.
  4. Today, science is progressing enormously and, at the same time, materialism is progressing enormously. We see the best scholars applying dialectical materialism in their work.

Idealism and materialism therefore have completely opposite origins; and we see, over the centuries, a struggle between these two philosophies, a struggle that still lasts today, and which was not only academic.

This struggle that crosses the history of humanity is the struggle between science and ignorance, it is the struggle between two currents. One is pulling humanity towards ignorance and keeping it in this ignorance, the other, on the contrary, tends towards the emancipation of men by replacing ignorance with science.

This struggle has sometimes taken serious forms, as in the time of the Inquisition, where we can take, among others, the example of Galileo. The latter asserts that the earth turns. This is a new knowledge, which is in contradiction with the Bible and also with Aristotle: if the earth rotates, it is not the center of the world, but simply a point in the world, and then we must widen the limits of our thoughts. What do we do then in the face of this discovery of Galileo?

In order to keep humanity in ignorance, a religious court is instituted, and Galileo is condemned to make amends. This is an example of the struggle between ignorance and science.

We must therefore judge the philosophers and scientists of that time by placing them in this struggle of ignorance against science, and we will see that by defending science they were defending materialism without knowing it themselves. Thus Descartes, by his reasoning, provided ideas that could advance materialism.

We must also see that this struggle in the course of history is not simply a theoretical struggle, but a social and political struggle. The dominant classes in this battle are always on the side of ignorance. Science is revolutionary and contributes to the emancipation of humanity.

The case of the bourgeoisie is typical. In the 18th century, the bourgeoisie was dominated by the feudal class; at that time, it was in favor of science; it led the fight against ignorance and gave us the Encyclopedia. In the twentieth century, the bourgeoisie is the ruling class, and in this struggle against ignorance and science, it is for ignorance with much greater savagery than before (see Hitlerism).

So we see that pre-marxist materialism has played a considerable role and has had a very great historical importance. During this struggle between ignorance and science it was able to develop a general conception of the world that could be opposed to religion, and therefore to ignorance. It is also thanks to the evolution of materialism, to this succession of his works, that the indispensable conditions for the blossoming of dialectical materialism were realized.

The defects of pre-marxist materialism

To understand the evolution of materialism, to see its flaws and shortcomings, we must never forget that science and materialism are linked.

In the beginning, materialism was ahead of science, and that is why this philosophy could not assert itself from the outset. Science had to be created and developed to prove that dialectical materialism was right, but this took more than twenty centuries. During this long period, materialism was influenced by the sciences and particularly by the spirit of the sciences, as well as by the most developed particular sciences.

That is why

The materialism of the last century [that is, of the 18th century] was predominantly mechanical, because at that time, of all natural sciences, only mechanics, and indeed only the mechanics of solid bodies — celestial and terrestrial — in short, the mechanics of gravity, had come to any definite close. Chemistry at that time existed only in its infantile, phlogistic form. Biology still lay in swaddling clothes; vegetable and animal organisms had been only roughly examined and were explained by purely mechanical causes. What the animal was to Descartes, man was to the materialists of the 18th century — a machine. [note 1]

This, then, is what materialism was, the result of a long and slow evolution of science after the "winter period of the Christian Middle Ages".

The great mistake was in this period to consider the world as a great mechanics, to judge everything according to the laws of this science called mechanics. Considering motion as a simple mechanical movement, it was believed that the same events had to happen over and over again. We saw the machine side of things, but we did not see the living side of things. This materialism is therefore called mechanics (or mechanistic).

Let's see an example: How did these materialists explain thinking? In this way: "the brain secretes thought as the liver secretes bile"! That's a bit simplistic! Marx's materialism, on the contrary, gives a series of clarifications. Our thoughts do not come only from the brain. We have to see why we have certain thoughts, certain ideas, rather than others, and then we realize that society, the atmosphere, etc., select our ideas. Mechanical materialism considers thought as a simple mechanical phenomenon. But it is much more than that!

This exclusive application of mechanics to phenomena of a chemical and organic nature, in which mechanical laws certainly also acted, but were rejected in the background by laws of a higher order, constitutes a specific, but inevitable narrowness at that time of classical French materialism. [note 1]

This is the first major fault of eighteenth-century materialism. The consequences of this error were that it ignored history in general, that is, the point of view of historical development, of process: this materialism considered that the world did not evolve and that it returned at regular intervals to similar states, nor did it conceive of an evolution of man and animals.

This materialism ... in its inability to consider the world as a process, as matter engaged in historical development ... corresponded to the level reached at the time by the natural sciences and the metaphysical way [note 20], i.e. antidialectical, of philosophizing that resulted from it. It was known that nature was engaged in a perpetual movement. But this movement, according to the conception of the time, also described a perpetual circle and, therefore, never moved a single place; it always produced the same results. [note 1]

This is the second flaw of this materialism.

Its third mistake was that it was too contemplative; it did not see enough of the role of human action in the world and in society. Marx's materialism teaches that we must not only explain the world, but transform it. Man is an active element in history that can bring change to the world.

The action of the Russian communists is a living example of an action capable not only of preparing, making and succeeding in the revolution, but, since 1918, of establishing socialism in the midst of enormous difficulties.

Pre-marxist materialism was unaware of this conception of human action. At that time, it was thought that man is a product of the environment (obviously the social environment), whereas Marx teaches us that the environment is a product of man and that man is therefore a product of his own activity under certain conditions given at the outset. If man undergoes the influence of the environment, he can transform the environment, society; he can, therefore, transform himself.

The materialism of the 18th century was therefore too contemplative, because it ignored the historical development of everything, and this was inevitable then, since scientific knowledge was not advanced enough to conceive the world and things differently than through the old method of thinking: "metaphysics".

Further reading

Marx and Engels: The holy family

Marx: Theses on Feuerbach

Plekhanov: Essays on the history of materialism

See: Control questions

Study of metaphysics

What is the "metaphysical method"?

We know that the defects of the materialists of the 18th century come from their form of reasoning, from their particular method of research which we have called "metaphysical method". The metaphysical method thus translates a particular conception of the world, and we must notice that, if to pre-Marxist materialism we oppose Marxist materialism, in the same way to metaphysical materialism we oppose dialectical materialism.

The characteristics of this method

What we are going to study here is this

old method of investigation and thought which Hegel calls “metaphysical” [note 19]

Let's start immediately with a simple remark. Which seems more natural to most people: movement or stillness? What is the normal state of affairs for them: rest or mobility?

In general, it is thought that rest existed before movement and that something, in order for it to be able to move, was first in a state of rest.

The Bible also tells us that before the universe, which was created by God, there was immobile eternity, i.e. rest.

Here are words we will often use: rest, stillness, and also movement and change. But these last two words are not synonymous.

Movement, in the strict sense of the word, is displacement. Example: a falling stone, a moving train are in motion.

Change, in the strict sense of the word, is the passage from one form to another. Example: A tree that loses its leaves has changed shape. But it is also the passage from one state to another. Example: The air has become unbreathable: it is a change.

So movement means change of place, and change means change of shape or state. We will try to respect this distinction, in order to avoid confusion (when we study the dialectic, we will be called upon to review the meaning of these words).

We have just seen that, generally speaking, we think that movement and change are less normal than rest, and it is certain that we have a kind of preference to consider things at rest and without change.

Example: We bought a pair of yellow shoes and after some time, after multiple repairs (replacement of soles and heels, gluing of many parts), we still say: "I'm going to put on my yellow shoes", without realizing that they are not the same anymore. For us, it is always the yellow shoes that we bought on such and such an occasion and that we paid such and such a price. We will not consider the change that has occurred to our shoes, they are always the same, they are identical. We neglect the change to see only the identity as if nothing important had happened. This is the

The principle of identity

It consists in preferring immobility to movement and identity to change in the face of events.

From this preference, which constitutes the first character of this method, a whole conception of the world is derived. We consider the universe as if it were frozen," Engels says. The same will be true for nature, society and mankind. Thus it is often claimed: "There is nothing new under the sun", which means that there has always been no change, since the universe has remained motionless and identical. It is also often understood to mean a periodic return to the same events. God created the world by producing fish, birds, mammals, etc., and since then nothing has changed, the world has not moved. It is also said: "Men are always the same", as if men have always been the same.

These common expressions reflect this conception which is deeply rooted in us, in our minds, and the bourgeoisie exploits this error to the full.

When one criticizes socialism, one of the arguments most readily given is that man is selfish and that it is necessary for some force to intervene to constrain him, otherwise disorder would reign. This is the result of this metaphysical conception that man has forever a fixed nature that cannot change.

It is quite certain that if we suddenly had the possibility of living in a communist regime, that is to say, if we could distribute the products immediately to each one according to his needs and not according to his work, it would be a rush to satisfy whims, and such a society would not be able to hold out. And yet this is communist society and this is what is rational. But it is because we have a metaphysical conception rooted in us that we picture the future man who will live in a relatively distant future as similar to the man of today.

Therefore, when we affirm that a socialist or communist society is not viable because man is selfish, we forget that if society changes, man will also change.

Every day we hear criticisms of the Soviet Union that reveal to us the difficulties of understanding of those who formulate them. This is because they have a metaphysical conception of the world and of things.

Among the many examples we could cite, let us take just this one. We are told: "A worker in the Soviet Union receives a salary that does not correspond to the total value of what he produces, so there is a surplus value, that is to say, a deduction from his salary. So it is stolen. In France, it is the same, workers are exploited; there is therefore no difference between a Soviet worker and a French worker. »

Where is the metaphysical conception in this example? It consists in not considering that there are two types of societies here and in not taking into account the differences between these two societies. To believe that as long as there is added value here and there, it is the same thing, without considering the changes that have taken place in the Soviet Union, where man and machine no longer have the same economic and social meaning as in France. Now, in our country, the machine exists to produce (at the service of the boss) and man to be exploited. In the U.S.S.R., the machine exists to produce (at the service of man) and man to enjoy the fruit of his labor. The surplus value in France goes to the boss; in the USSR to the socialist state, that is to say, to the community without exploiters. Things have changed.

We see, therefore, from this example, that the defects of judgment come, in those who are sincere, from a metaphysical method of thinking, and, particularly, from the application of the first character of this method, a fundamental character, which consists in underestimating change and in preferring to consider immobility, or, in a word, which, under change, tends to perpetuate identity.

But what is this identity? We saw a house being built that was completed on January 1, 1935, for example. On January 1, 1936, as well as all the years that followed, we will say that it is identical, because it still has two floors, twenty windows, two doors on the façade, etc., because it always remains itself, does not change, is not different. So to be identical is to remain the same, not to become different. And yet this house has changed! It is only at first glance, superficially, that it has remained the same. The architect or the mason, who see the thing more closely, know that the house is already not the same one week after its construction: here, a small crack occurred, there a stone played, there the color is gone, etc.... So it is only when you look at things "roughly" that they look the same. In analysis, in detail, they change constantly.

But what are the practical consequences of the first character of the metaphysical method?

Since we prefer to see identity in things, that is, to see them remaining themselves, we say, for example: "Life is life, and death is death. "We affirm that life remains life, that death remains itself, death, and that's all.

As we become accustomed to seeing things in their identity, we separate them from each other. To say "a chair is a chair" is a natural statement, but it is to emphasize identity and at the same time it means: what is not a chair is something else.

It is so natural to say this that emphasizing it seems childish. In the same vein, we will say: "The horse is the horse, and what is not the horse is something else. "So we separate the chair on one side and the horse on the other, and we do that for each thing. So we make distinctions, strictly separating things from each other, and that's how we are led to turn the world into a collection of separate things, and that's what the second characteristic of the metaphysical method:

Isolation of things

What we have just said seems so natural that one may ask: why say that? We will see that, in spite of everything, it was necessary, because this system of reasoning leads us to see things from a certain angle.

It is still in the practical consequences that we are going to judge the second character of this method.

In everyday life, if we consider animals and if we reason about them by separating beings, we do not see what is common between those of different genera and species. A horse is a horse and a cow is a cow. There is no connection between them.

This is the point of view of ancient zoology, which classifies animals by clearly separating them from each other and sees no connection between them.

This is one of the results of the application of the metaphysical method.

As another example, we can cite the fact that the bourgeoisie wants science to be science; that philosophy remains itself; the same goes for politics; and, of course, there is nothing in common, absolutely no connection between the three.

The practical conclusions of such a reasoning is that a scientist must remain a scientist and does not have to mix his science with philosophy and politics. It will be the same for the philosopher and the man of a political party.

When a man of good faith reasons in this way, we can say that he reasons as a metaphysician. The English writer Wells went to the Soviet Union a few years ago and visited the great writer, now deceased, Maxim Gorky. He proposed to him to create a literary club where politics would not be made, because, in his mind, literature is literature, and politics is politics. Gorky and his friends apparently started laughing and Wells was offended. Wells saw and conceived of the writer as living outside of society, while Gorky and his friends knew that this is not the case in life, where, in truth, all things are connected - whether we like it or not.

In everyday practice, we try to classify, isolate things, see them, study them only for themselves. Those who are not Marxists see the state in general by isolating it from society, as independent of the form of society. To reason in this way, to isolate the state from society is to isolate it from its relationship with reality.

The same mistake is made when we speak of man by isolating him from other men, from his environment, from society. If we also consider the machine for itself by isolating it from the society in which it produces, we make the mistake of thinking: "Machine in Paris, machine in Moscow; added value here and there, there's no difference, it's absolutely the same thing. »

Yet this is a reasoning that can be read continuously and those who read it accept it, because the general and usual point of view is to isolate, to divide things. This is a habit characteristic of the metaphysical method.

Eternal and impassable divisions

After having given our preference to consider things as immobile and unchanging, we have classified and catalogued them, creating divisions among them that make us forget the relationships they may have with each other.

This way of seeing and judging leads us to believe that these divisions exist once and for all (a horse is a horse) and that they are absolute, impassable and eternal. This is the third character of the metaphysical method.

But we have to be careful when we talk about this method; because, when we Marxists say that in capitalist society there are two classes, the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, we also make divisions that may seem to be metaphysical. However, it is not simply by introducing divisions that one is metaphysician, it is by the way, the way in which one establishes the differences, the relations that exist between these divisions.

The bourgeoisie, for example, when we say that there are two classes in society, immediately thinks that there are rich and poor. And, of course, it will tell us: "There have always been rich and poor.

"There has always been" and "there always will be" is a metaphysical way of reasoning. Things are forever classified independently of each other, and partitions, insurmountable walls are established between them.

Society is divided into rich and poor, instead of acknowledging the existence of the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, and even if we admit this last division, we consider them outside their mutual relations, that is, outside the class struggle. What are the practical consequences of this third character, which establishes definitive barriers between things? It is that between a horse and a cow there can be no kinship. It will be the same for all sciences and for everything that surrounds us. We will see further on if this is right, but we still have to examine what are the consequences of these three different characters we have just described and it will be the fourth characteristic of the metaphysical method:

Opposition of opposites

It follows from all that we have just seen that when we say, "Life is life, and death is death," we are affirming that there is nothing in common between life and death. We set them apart from each other by seeing life and death each for itself, without seeing the relationships that can exist between them. Under these conditions, a man who has just lost his life must be considered dead, because it is impossible for him to be both alive and dead at the same time, since life and death are mutually exclusive.

By considering things as isolated, definitely different from each other, we manage to set them against each other.

This is the fourth character of the metaphysical method, which opposes opposites to one another and affirms that two opposites cannot exist at the same time.

Indeed, in this example of life and death, there can be no third possibility. It is absolutely necessary for us to choose one or the other of the possibilities that we have distinguished. We consider that a third possibility would be a contradiction, that this contradiction is an absurdity and, therefore, an impossibility.

The fourth character of metaphysical method 1 is therefore the horror of contradiction.

The practical consequences of this reasoning is that, when we talk about democracy and dictatorship, for example, well! the metaphysical point of view demands that a society choose between the two: because democracy is democracy, and dictatorship is dictatorship. Democracy is not dictatorship; and dictatorship is not democracy. We have to choose, otherwise we are faced with a contradiction, an absurdity, an impossibility.

The Marxist attitude is quite different.

We think, on the contrary, that the dictatorship of the proletariat, for example, is at the same time the dictatorship of the mass and democracy for the mass of the exploited.

We think that life, the life of living beings, is only possible because there is a perpetual struggle between cells and that, continually, some die to be replaced by others. Thus, life contains within it death. We think that death is not as total and separate from life as metaphysics thinks, because on a corpse all life has not completely disappeared, since certain cells continue to live for a certain time and from this corpse other lives will be born.


So we see that the different characteristics of the metaphysical method force us to look at things from a certain angle and lead us to reason in a certain way. We see that this way of analyzing has a certain "logic" that we will study later, and we also see that it corresponds very much to the way of seeing, thinking, studying, analyzing that we encounter in general.

We begin - and this enumeration will allow us to summarize - with

  1. Seeing things in their immobility, in their identity.
  2. Separating things from one another, detaching them from their mutual relationships.
  3. Establishing eternal divisions between things, impassable walls.
  4. Opposing opposites, affirming that two opposites cannot exist at the same time.

We have seen, when we have examined the practical consequences of each character, that none of this corresponds to reality.

Does the world conform to this conception? Are things immobile and without change in nature? No. We see that everything changes and we see movement. So this conception is not in agreement with the things themselves. It is obviously nature that is right, and it is this conception that is wrong.

We have defined, from the beginning, philosophy as wanting to explain the universe, man, nature, and so on. Since the sciences study particular problems, philosophy is, as we have said, the study of the most general problems that join and extend the sciences.

However, the old "metaphysical" way of thinking which applies to all problems is also a philosophical conception which considers the universe, man and nature in a very particular way.

To the metaphysician, things and their mental reflexes, ideas, are isolated, are to be considered one after the other and apart from each other, are objects of investigation fixed, rigid, given once for all. He thinks in absolutely irreconcilable antitheses. "His communication is 'yea, yea; nay, nay'; for whatsoever is more than these cometh of evil." For him a thing either exists or does not exist; a thing cannot at the same time be itself and something else. Positive and negative absolutely exclude one another, cause and effect stand in a rigid antithesis one to the other. [note 21]

The metaphysical conception thus considers "the universe as a set of fixed things". In order to grasp this way of thinking, we will study how it conceives of nature, society and thought.

The metaphysical conception of


Metaphysics considers nature as a set of things definitively fixed.

But there are two ways of looking at it this way.

The first way considers that the world is absolutely motionless, movement being only an illusion of our senses. If we remove this appearance of motion, nature does not move.

This theory was defended by a school of Greek philosophers called the Eleates. This simplistic conception is so in violent contradiction with reality that it is no longer supported today.

The second way of considering nature as a set of fixed things is much more subtle. We don't say that nature is immobile, we want it to move, but we affirm that it is animated by a mechanical movement. Here, the first way disappears; movement is no longer denied, and this does not seem to be a metaphysical conception. This conception is called "mechanistic" (or the "mechanism").

It constitutes an error that is very often committed and that we find among the materialists of the 17th and 18th centuries. We have seen that they do not consider nature as motionless, but in movement, only, for them, this movement is simply a mechanical change, a displacement.

They admit the whole solar system (the earth revolves around the sun), but they think that this movement is purely mechanical, that is to say a pure change of place, and they consider this movement only in this aspect.

But things are not so simple. The fact that the earth rotates is certainly a mechanical movement, but it can, while it is rotating, be subject to influences, such as cooling down, for example. So there is not only a displacement, there are also other changes that take place.

What characterizes this conception, called "mechanistic", is that we consider only the mechanical movement.

If the earth keeps turning and nothing more happens to it, the earth changes its place, but the earth itself does not change; it remains identical to itself. It only continues, before us as well as after us, to turn again and again. Thus everything happens as if nothing had happened. So we see that to admit movement, but to make of it a pure mechanical movement, is a metaphysical conception, because this movement is without history.

A watch with perfect organs, built with indestructible materials, would work forever without changing in any way, and the watch would have no history. It is such a conception of the universe that we constantly find in Descartes. He seeks to reduce to mechanics all the physical and physiological laws. He has no idea of chemistry (see his explanation of the circulation of blood), and his mechanical conception of things will still be that of the materialists of the 18th century.

(We will make an exception for Diderot, who is less purely mechanistic, and who, in some writings, glimpses the dialectical conception).

What characterizes the materialists of the eighteenth century is that they make nature a clockwork mechanism.

If this were really so, things would continually return to the same point without leaving a trace, nature would remain identical to itself, which is indeed the first character of the metaphysical method.


The metaphysical conception is that nothing changes in society. But, in general, this is not presented as such. It is recognized that changes occur, for example, in production, where raw materials are used to produce finished objects; in politics, where governments succeed one another. People recognize all this, but they consider the capitalist regime to be definitive, eternal, and sometimes even compare it to a machine.

That's how we talk about the economic machine that sometimes breaks down, but we want to repair it in order to preserve it. We want this economic machine to be able to continue to distribute, like an automatic machine, dividends to some and misery to others.

We also talk about the political machine, which is the bourgeois parliamentary regime, and we ask only one thing of it: it is, sometimes on the left, sometimes on the right, to function in order to preserve the privileges of capitalism.

This is a mechanistic, metaphysical conception of society.

If it were possible for this society, in which all these cogs work, to continue its march continuously, it would leave no trace and, consequently, no continuation in history.

There is also a very important mechanistic conception that is valid for the whole universe, but especially for society, which consists in spreading the idea of a regular march and a periodic return of the same events, under the formula: "history is a perpetual beginning again".

It should be noted that these conceptions are very widespread. They do not really deny the movement and change that exist and that we see in society, but they falsify the movement itself by transforming it into a simple mechanism.


What is, around us, our conception of thought?

We believe that human thought is and was eternal. We believe that if things have changed, our way of reasoning is the same as that of the man who lived a century ago. Our feelings, we consider them to be the same as the Greeks, goodness and love as having always existed; this is how one speaks of "eternal love". It is very common to believe that human feelings have not changed.

This is what makes people say and write, for example, that a society cannot exist without having another basis than individual and selfish enrichment. This is why we often hear that the "desires of the men are always the same".

We often think that way. Far too often. In the movement of thought as in all the others, we let the metaphysical conception penetrate. This is because, at the basis of our education, is this method,

this way of thinking which seems to us at first sight extremely plausible, because it is that of what is called common sense. [note 21]

The result is that this way of seeing, this metaphysical way of thinking is not only an conception of the world, but also a way of thinking.

While it is relatively easy to reject metaphysical reasoning, it is, on the other hand, more difficult to get rid of the metaphysical way of thinking. On this subject, we must make a clarification. We call the way in which we see the universe: a conception; and the way in which we seek explanations: a method.

For example:

  1. The changes we see in society are only apparent, they renew what has already been - that is a conception".
  2. When we look at the history of society to see what has already taken place and conclude that "there is nothing new under the sun", this is what "method" is.

And we find that design inspires and determines the method. Of course, once inspired by the design, the method in turn reacts to it, directing it, guiding it.

We have seen what metaphysical conception is; we are going to see what is its method of research. It is called logic.

What is logic?

It is said of "logic" that it is the art of thinking well. To think according to the truth is to think according to the rules of logic. What are these rules? There are three main rules:

1. The principle of identity: it is, as we have already seen, the rule that a thing is identical to itself, does not change (the horse is the horse).

2. The principle of non-contradiction: a thing cannot be at the same time itself and its opposite. It is necessary to choose (life cannot be life and death).

3. The principle of the excluded third party - or exclusion of the third case, which means: between two contradictory possibilities, there is no room for a third. One must choose between life and death, there is no third possibility.

Therefore, to be logical is to think well. To think well means not forgetting to apply these three rules.

We recognize here principles that we have studied and that come from the metaphysical conception.

Logic and metaphysics are, therefore, intimately linked; logic is an instrument, a method of reasoning that proceeds by classifying each thing in a well determined way, that obliges us, therefore, to see things as identical to themselves, that then obliges us to choose, to say yes or no, and, in conclusion, that excludes between two cases, life and death for example, a third possibility.

When we say: "All men are mortal; this comrade is a man; therefore this comrade is mortal", we have what is called a syllogism (this is the typical form of logical reasoning). By reasoning in this way, we have determined the place of the comrade, we have made a classification.

Our tendency of mind, when we meet a man or a thing, is to say to ourselves: Where should we classify it? This is the only problem we have in our mind. We see things as circles or boxes of different sizes, and our concern is to fit those circles or boxes into each other, and into a certain order.

In our example, we first determine a large circle that contains all mortals; then a smaller circle that contains all men; and only then that fellow.

If we want to classify them, we will then, according to a certain "logic", fit the circles into each other.

The metaphysical conception is therefore constructed with logic and syllogism. A syllogism is a group of three propositions; the first two are called premises, which means "sent before"; and the third is the conclusion. Another example: "In the Soviet Union, before the last constitution, there was the dictatorship of the proletariat. Dictatorship is dictatorship. In the USSR it is dictatorship. So there was no difference between the USSR, Italy and Germany, countries of dictatorship."

We are not looking here for whom and on whom the dictatorship is exercised, just as when we praise bourgeois democracy, we are not saying for whose benefit it is exercised.

This is how one manages to pose problems, to see things and the social world as part of separate circles and to bring the circles into each other.

These are certainly theoretical questions, but they lead to a way of acting in practice. Thus we can cite the unfortunate example of Germany in 1919, where social democracy, in order to maintain democracy, killed the dictatorship of the proletariat without seeing that by doing so it was allowing capitalism to continue and giving Nazism a grip.

Seeing and studying things separately is what zoology and biology did, until it was seen and understood that there was an evolution of animals and plants. Before that, all beings were classified by thinking that things had always been what they were.

And in fact, while natural science up to the end of the last century was predominantly a collecting science, a science of finished things, in our century it is essentially a systematizing science, a science of the processes, of the origin and development of these things and of the interconnection which binds all these natural processes into one great whole. [note 19]

But to conclude, we must give:

The explanation of the word: "metaphysics"

There is an important part of philosophy called metaphysics. But it has such importance only in bourgeois philosophy, since it deals with God and the soul. Everything there is eternal. God is eternal, unchanging, remaining identical to himself; the soul too. It is the same with good, evil, etc., all being clearly defined, definitive and eternal. In this part of philosophy called metaphysics, we therefore see things as a fixed whole and we proceed in reasoning by opposition: we oppose spirit to matter, good to evil, etc., that is to say we reason by opposition of the opposites between them.

We call this way of reasoning, of thinking, this conception: "metaphysical", because it deals with things and ideas that are outside of the physical, such as God, goodness, the soul, evil, etc., and it is a way of reasoning that is called "metaphysical". Metaphysics comes from the Greek meta, which means "beyond", and from physics, the science of the phenomena of the world. Therefore, metaphysics is what deals with things beyond the world.

It is also because of a historical accident that we call this philosophical conception "metaphysics". Aristotle, who wrote the first treatise on logic (the one we still use today), wrote a lot. After his death, his disciples classified his writings; they made a catalog and, after a writing entitled Physics, they found an untitled writing, which dealt with things of the mind. They classified it by calling it After Physics, in Greek: Metaphysics.

Let us insist, in conclusion, on the link that exists between the three terms we have studied:

Metaphysics, mechanism, logic. These three disciplines are always presented together and are called each other. They form a system and can only be understood by each other.

See: Control questions

Study of dialectics

Introduction to the study of dialectics

Preliminary precautions

When we talk about dialectics, it is sometimes with mystery and by presenting it as something complicated. Not knowing what it is, we also talk about it wrongly. All this is regrettable and leads to mistakes that must be avoided.

Taken in its etymological sense, the term dialectic simply means Wax to discuss, and this is how we often hear it said of a man who discusses at length, and even by extension of one who speaks well: he is a dialectician!

It is not in this sense that we are going to study dialectics. From a philosophical point of view, it has taken on a special meaning.

Dialectic, in its philosophical sense, contrary to what one thinks, is within everyone's reach, because it is something very clear and without mystery.

But if dialectic can be understood by everyone, it still has its difficulties, and this is how we must understand them.

Among the manual works, some are simple, others are more complicated. Making packing cases, for example, is a simple job. Assembling an S.T.F. machine, on the other hand, is a job that requires a lot of skill, precision, and flexibility of the fingers.

Hands and fingers are for us working instruments. But the thought is also a working instrument. And if our fingers don't always do precise work, so does our brain.

In the history of human work, man, in the beginning, could only do rough work. Progress in science has made more precise work possible.

It is exactly the same for the history of thought. Metaphysics is that method of thinking which is only capable, like our fingers, of crude movements (such as nailing up boxes or pulling out the drawers of metaphysics).

Dialectics differs from this method because it allows for greater precision. It is nothing more than a method of thinking with great precision.

The evolution of thinking has been the same as that of manual work. It is the same story, and there is no mystery, everything is clear in this evolution.

The difficulties we encounter come from the fact that, until the age of twenty-five, we nail crates and suddenly we are placed in front of T.S.F. machines to assemble them. It is certain that we will have big difficulties, that our hands will be heavy, our fingers unwieldy. It is only little by little that we will manage to soften ourselves and to carry out this work. What was very difficult at the beginning will then seem simpler to us.

For the dialectic, it's the same thing. We are embarrassed, heavy with the old method of metaphysical thinking, and we have to acquire the flexibility, the precision of the dialectical method. But we see that, here again, there is nothing mysterious or very complicated.

Where did the dialectic method originate?

We know that metaphysics considers the world to be a complex of fixed things and that, if we look at nature, we see that, on the contrary, everything moves and changes. We find that the same holds true for thought. The result of these findings is a disagreement between metaphysics and reality. In order to give a simple definition of the main idea conveyed by these words, we might say that “metaphysics” implies “immobility” and that “dialectics” implies “motion.”

Motion and change, which exist in everything which surrounds us, form the basis of dialectics.

When we reflect on Nature, or the history of mankind, or our own intellectual activity, the first picture presented to us is of an endless maze of relations and interactions, in which nothing remains what, where and as it was, but everything moves, changes, comes into being and passes out of existence. [note 21]

According to this very text by Engels, we see that, from the dialectical point of view, everything changes, nothing remains where it is, nothing stays what it is and that, consequently, this point of view is in perfect agreement with reality. Nothing remains in the place which it occupies since even that which seems immobile to us moves; it moves with the revolution of the earth around the sun and the rotation of the earth on its axis. In metaphysics, the principle of identity maintains that a thing must remain itself. We see that, on the contrary, nothing remains what it is.

We have the impression that we always remain the same, and yet Engels tells us that “the same are different.” We think that we are identical but we have already changed. From the child which we were, we have become an adult and this adult, physically, never remains the same: but gets older every day.

Hence, the misleading appearance is not motion, as the Eleatic philosophers claimed, but immobility, since, in fact, everything moves and changes.

History also proves to us that things do not remain as they are. At no moment is society immobile. There was first, in antiquity, a slave society; this was then succeeded by a feudal society and then capitalist society. The study of these societies shows us that the factors permitting the birth of a new society continually and imperceptibly developed within them. In this way, capitalist society changes every day and has ceased to exist in the U.S.S.R. Because no society remains immobile, the socialist society erected in the Soviet Union is also destined to disappear. It is already visibly transforming, and this is why metaphysicians do not understand what is taking place there. They continue to judge a completely transformed society with the feelings of a man who is still under capitalist oppression.

Our feelings themselves change, which we hardly notice. We see what was only an attraction turn into love, then sometimes degenerate into hatred.

What we see everywhere, in nature, history and thought, is change and motion. It is with this observation that dialectics begins.

The Greeks were startled by the fact that change and motion are encountered everywhere. We have seen that Heraclitus, who is called the “father of dialectics,” was the first to give us a dialectical concept of the world, i.e., he described the world in motion and not fixed. Heraclitus’ way of seeing can become a method.

But this dialectical method was able to assert its authority only a long time after that, and we must see why dialectics was dominated by the metaphysical concept for such a long time.

Why has dialectics long been dominated by metaphysical conception?

We have seen that the dialectical point of view was born very early in history, but that man’s insufficient knowledge enabled the metaphysical concept to develop and take precedence over dialectics.

We can draw a parallel here between idealism, which arose from the great ignorance of men, and the metaphysical concept, which derived from the insufficient knowledge of dialectics.

How and why was this possible?

Men began the study of nature in a state of complete ignorance. In order to study the phenomena which they found, they began by classifying them. But a mental habit resulted from this way of classifying. By making categories and separating them from each other, our minds get used to making such separations and we find in this the first characteristic of the metaphysical method. Hence, it was really from the insufficient development of science that metaphysics emerged. Only 150 years ago, people studied the sciences by separating them from each other. For example, chemistry, physics, and biology were studied separately and no relation was seen between them. This method was further applied within the sciences: physics was concerned with sound, heat, magnetism, electricity, etc., but it was thought that these different phenomena were totally unrelated; each was studied in separate chapters.

We easily recognize in this practice the second characteristic of metaphysics which requires that one disregard the relations between things and that there be nothing in common between them.

Likewise, it is easier to conceive of things in a state of rest than in motion. Let us take photography as an example. We see that, firstly, pictures are taken of things in their immobility (this is photography), then, only later, in motion (this is cinematics). So, this example of the development of photography and cinematics mirrors that of the sciences and the human mind. We study things at rest before studying them in motion.

Why is this so? Because people were ignorant. In order to learn, people took the easiest point of view. Now, immobile things are easier to grasp and study. Certainly the study of things at rest is a necessary stage of dialectical thought—but only an insufficient, fragmentary stage, which must be integrated into the study of things which are becoming.

We run across this state of mind in biology, for example, in the study of zoology and botany. Because they were not well known, animals were first classified into breeds and species, since it was thought that there was nothing in common between them and that it had always been this way (third characteristic of metaphysics). From this was derived the theory called “fixism” (which maintains, contrary to “evolutionism,” that animal species have always been what they are, that they have never evolved), which is, consequently, a metaphysical theory which stems from man’s ignorance.

Why was eighteenth-century materialism metaphysical?

We know that mechanics played a large role in the materialism of the 18th century and that this materialism is often called “mechanistic materialism.” Why was this so? Because the materialist concept is linked to the development of all the sciences and among these it was mechanics which developed first. In common speech, mechanics is the study of machines; in scientific language, it is the study of motion as displacement. Mechanics was the science which developed first because mechanical motion is the simplest kind of motion. It is much easier to study the motion of an apple on a tree which is blowing in the wind than to study the change produced in a ripening apple. The effect of the wind on the apple can be more easily studied than the ripening of the apple. But the former study is “partial” and thus opens the door to metaphysics.

Although they do indeed notice that everything is in motion, the ancient Greeks cannot make use of this observation, for their knowledge is insufficient. So, things and phenomena are observed and classified, and people are satisfied with studying their displacement, from which mechanics is derived; and the inadequacy of scientific knowledge gives rise to the metaphysical concept.

We know that materialism is always based on science and that in the 18th century science was dominated by the metaphysical spirit. Of all the sciences, the most developed during this period was mechanics. “This is why it was inevitable,” says Engels, “that the materialism of the 18th century be a metaphysical and mechanistic materialism, because the sciences were like that.”

We shall say, then, that this mechanistic and metaphysical materialism was materialist because it answered the fundamental question of philosophy by saying that the primary factor is matter; but it was metaphysical because it considered the universe to be a complex of fixed and mechanical things and because it studied and saw everything from the point of view of mechanics.

There comes a day when, through the accumulation of research, one finds that the sciences are not immobile; one notices that they have been transformed. After having separated chemistry from biology and physics, one comes to the realization that it has become impossible to deal with one of the sciences without having recourse to the others. For example, the study of digestion, which belongs to the domain of biology, becomes impossible without chemistry. Towards the 19th century, the interconnection of the sciences is clearly seen and a retreat of the metaphysical spirit in the sciences ensues, due to a more profound knowledge of nature. Up to then, the phenomena of physics had been studied separately; now, no one could deny that all these phenomena were of the same nature. This is how electricity and magnetism, which used to be studied separately, have come to be united in a single science: electromagnetism.

Likewise, by studying the phenomena of sound and heat, scientists have realized that both derive from phenomena of a similar nature.

By banging with a hammer, one obtains a sound and produces heat. It is motion which produces heat. And we know that sound consists of vibrations in the air; vibrations are also motion. Hence, these two phenomena are similar in nature.

in biology, by classifying more and more minutely, scientists have succeeded in discovering species which are incapable of being classified as either plant or animal. Hence, there was no abrupt separation of plants and animals. After further study, they arrived at the conclusion that animals have not always been what they are. The facts condemned fixism and the metaphysical spirit.

It was during the 19th century that the transformation we have just seen and which enabled materialism to become dialectical occurred. Dialectics is the spirit of science, which, in the course of its development, abandoned the metaphysical concept. Materialism was able to be transformed because the sciences changed. Metaphysical sciences were in harmony with metaphysical materialism just as the new sciences are in harmony with a new materialism, i.e., dialectical materialism.

How dialectical materialism was born: Hegel and Marx

If we ask how this transformation of metaphysical materialism into dialectical materialism was brought about, the answer we generally get is:

  1. There was the metaphysical materialism of the 18th century;
  2. The sciences changed;
  3. Marx and Engels stepped in; they cut metaphysical materialism in two; abandoning the metaphysics, they kept the materialism and added dialectics to it.

If we have a tendency to present things in this way, it is due to the metaphysical method, which demands that we simplify things in order to make a schema. We must, however, always keep in mind that the facts of reality should never be schematized. Facts are more complicated than they seem or than we think. It follows that there was not such a simple transformation of metaphysical materialism into dialectical materialism.

Dialectics was, in fact, developed by a German idealist philosopher, Hegel (1770-1831), who was able to understand the change which had taken place in the sciences. Reverting to the old idea of Heraclitus, he found, with the help of scientific progress, that everything in the universe is motion and change, that nothing is isolated, but rather everything is dependent on everything else, and this is how he created dialectics. It is due to Hegel that we speak today of the dialectical motion of the world. What Hegel first grasped was the motion of thought, and he called it naturally dialectics.

But Hegel is an idealist, i.e., he gives primary importance to spirit and, consequently, he entertains a particular idea about motion and change. He thinks that it is spiritual changes which provoke changes in matter. For Hegel, the universe is idea become matter and, before the universe, there was first spirit which discovered the universe. In short, he finds that both spirit and the universe are in perpetual change, but concludes that changes in spirit determine changes in matter.

Example: The inventor has an idea; he realized this idea, and it is this materialized idea which creates changes in matter.

Hence, Hegel is certainly a dialectician, but he subordinates dialectics to idealism.

It is then that Marx (1818-1883) and Engels (1820-1895), followers of Hegel, but materialist followers and therefore giving primary importance to matter, think that his dialectics makes assertions which are correct but upside down. Engels says in this regard that with Hegel dialectics was standing on its head and it had to be put back on its feet. Hence, Marx and Engels transfer the initial cause of this motion of thought defined by Hegel to material reality and call it naturally dialectics, borrowing the same term from him.

They think that Hegel is right to say that thought and the universe are perpetually changing, but that he is mistaken to declare that it is changes in ideas which determine changes in things. It is, rather, things which give us ideas, and ideas have been altered because things have been altered.

Therefore, we ought to avoid saying, “Marx and Engels possess, on the one hand, materialism, inherited from the French materialism of the 18th century, and, on the other hand, Hegel’s dialectics; consequently, it remained for them only to join the two together.”

This is a simplistic, schematic concept, which forgets that phenomena are more complicated; it is a metaphysical concept.

Marx and Engels will certainly take dialectics from Hegel, but they will transform it. They will do the same with materialism in order to give us dialectical materialism.

The laws of dialectics

The dialectical change

What is meant by the dialectical movement

The first law of dialectics begins by remarking that “nothing stays where it is; nothing remains what it is.” Dialectics implies motion and change. Consequently, when one speaks of seeing things from a dialectical viewpoint, this means seeing them from the point of view of motion and change. When we want to study things according to dialectics, we shall study them in their motion and in their change.

Here is an apple. We have two ways of studying this apple: either from the metaphysical or from the dialectical point of view.

In the first case, we shall give a description of this fruit, its shape and color. We shall list its properties; we shall speak of its taste, etc. Then we can compare the apple with the pear, see their similarities and differences and finally conclude that an apple is an apple and a pear is a pear. This is how things were formerly studied, as numerous books will attest.

If we want to study the apple from the dialectical point of view, we shall place ourselves within the framework of motion; not the motion of the apple when it rolls and moves from place to place, but rather the motion of its evolution. Then we shall find that the ripe apple has not always been what it is. Before that it was a green apple; before being a flower, it was a bud. In this way, we shall go back to the condition of the apple tree in spring. The apple has not always been an apple: it has a history. Likewise, it will not remain what it is. If it falls, it will rot, decompose and scatter its seeds, which will, if all goes well, produce a shoot and then a tree. Hence, neither has the apple always been what it is nor will it remain what it is.

This is what is called studying things from the point of view of motion. It is study from the point of view of the past and the future. By studying in this way, the present apple is seen only as a transitionbetween what it was, the past, and what it will be, the future.

In order to clearly explain this way of seeing things, we are going to take two more examples: the earth and society.

From a metaphysical point of view, we shall describe the shape of the earth in all its details. We shall find that on its surface there are seas, land and mountains; we shall study the nature of the soil. Then we can compare the earth to other planets or to the moon, and we shall finally conclude that the earth is the earth.

Whereas by studying the history of the earth from the dialectical point of view, we shall see that it has undergone transformations and that, consequently, the earth will undergo in the future even more transformations. We must then take into account today that the present state of the earth is but a transition between past changes and changes to come. This transition is such that the changes which take place are imperceptible, although they are on a much larger scale than those which occur during the ripening of an apple.

Let us now look at the example of society, which is of particular interest to Marxists.

Let us still apply our two methods. From the metaphysical point of view, we will be told that there have always been rich and poor. We shall find that there are large banks and enormous factories. We will be given a detailed description of capitalist society, which will be compared with past societies (feudal, slave-owning) by looking for similarities and differences, and we will be told that capitalist society is what it is.

From the dialectical point of view, we shall learn that capitalist society has not always been what it is. When we find that in the past other societies lived for a while, we shall deduce from this that capitalist society, like all societies, is not permanent and has no intangible basis, but rather it is only a provisional reality for us, a transition between the past and the future.

From these few examples, we see that to consider things from the dialectical point of view means to consider them to be provisional, having a history in the past and about to have a history in the future; having a beginning and going to have an end.

For dialectics, there is nothing definitive, absolute, sacred

For it [dialectical philosophy], nothing is final, absolute, sacred. It reveals the transitory character of everything and in everything; nothing can endure before it except the uninterrupted process of becoming and of passing away [note 18]

Here is a definition which underlines what we have just seen and what we are going to study:

“For dialectics, there is nothing final.” This means that, for dialectics, everything has a past and will have a future; consequently, it is not here once and for all and what it is today is not final. (Examples of the apple, earth, society.)

For dialectics, there is no power in the world, nor beyond the world, which can hold things in a permanent state, hence there is "nothing absolute." (Absolute means not subject to any condition, hence, universal, eternal, perfect.)

"Nothing sacred," this does not mean that dialectics despises everything. No! A sacred thing is a thing which is regarded as immutable, which must neither be touched nor be discussed but only venerated. Capitalist society, for example, is "sacred". Well, dialectics tells us that nothing can escape from motion, change or the transformations of history.

"Transitory" comes from "transire" which means to pass; a transitory thing is one which grows old and must disappear. Dialectics shows us that anything which is transitory eventually has no longer any reason for being, that everything is destined to disappear. What is young grows old; what is living today dies tomorrow, and nothing exists, for dialectics, "except the uninterrupted process of becoming and of passing away."

Hence, to assume the dialectical point of view means to consider nothing to be eternal, except change. It means understanding that no particular thing can be eternal except "becoming."

But what is this "becoming" which Engels speaks of in his definition?

We have seen that the apple has a history. Let us now take the example of a pencil which has its own history, too.

This pencil, which is worn down today, was once new. The wood from which it is made came from a board, and this board came from a tree. We see then that the apple and the pencil both have a history and that neither one has always been what it is. But is there a difference between these two histories? Certainly!

The green apple became ripe. When it was green, could it, if all went well, not become ripe? No, it hadto ripen, just as, if it falls to the ground, it has to rot, decompose, and scatter its seeds.

Whereas the tree from which the pencil comes may not become a board, and this board may not become a pencil. The pencil itself can always remain whole and not be sharpened.

Hence, we notice a difference between these two histories. In the case of the apple, if nothing abnormal occurs, the flower becomes an apple and the green apple becomes ripe. Thus, given one stage, the other stage necessarily and inevitably follows (if nothing stops the evolution).

In the history of the pencil, on the other hand, the tree may not become a board, the board may not become a pencil, and the pencil may not be sharpened. Hence, given one stage, the second stage may not follow. If the history of the pencil proceeds through all its stages, it is due to foreign intervention—that of man.

In the history of the apple, we find stages which succeed one another, the second stage deriving from the first, etc. This history follows the “becoming” which Engels speaks of. In the history of the pencil, the stages are placed side by side, without deriving from each other. This is because the apple is following a natural process.

The process

(Word coming from Latin and meaning: forward motion, or the act of advancing, of progressing.)

Why does the green apple become ripe? Because of what it contains. It is due to internal sequences which stimulate the apple to ripen; it is because it was an apple even before it was ripe; it is because it could not help but ripen.

When one examines the flower which will become an apple, then the green apple which will ripen, one finds that these internal sequences, stimulating the apple in its evolution, act under the pressure of internal forces. This latter is called autodynamism, which means a force which comes from the being itself.

When the pencil was still a board, the intervention of man was necessary in order to make it become a pencil, for never would a board transform itself into a pencil. There were not internal forces at work, thus no autodynamism and no process. Hence, dialectics implies not only motion but also autodynamism.

We see then that dialectical motion contains within itself processes or autodynamism, which is its essential feature. For not every motion or change is dialectical. If we approach the study of a flea from the dialectical viewpoint, we shall say that it has not always been what it is and that it will not always be what it is. If we crush it, this certainly represents a change for it, but will this change be dialectical? No. Without us, it would not have been crushed. Hence, this change is not dialectical, but mechanical.

Therefore, we must be careful when we speak of dialectical change. We think that if the earth continues to exist, capitalist society will be replaced by a socialist and then a Communist society. This will be a dialectical change. But, if the earth explodes, capitalist society will disappear not through an autodynamic change, but through a mechanical change.

In another context, we say that there is a mechanical discipline when this discipline is not natural. But it is autodynamic when it is freely consented to, i.e., when it comes from its natural milieu. A mechanical discipline is imposed from the outside; it is a discipline coming from leaders who are different from those they command. (We understand then to what extent non-mechanical discipline, autodynamic discipline, is not within the reach of every organization!)

Therefore, we must avoid using dialectics in a mechanical fashion. This is a tendency which we derive from our metaphysical habits of thinking. We mustn’t repeat like a parrot that things have not always been what they are. When a dialectician says that, he must look for how things were before. For saying that is not the end of an argument, but the beginning of scrupulous research into what things were like before.

Marx, Engels and Lenin studied at length and in detail what capitalist society was like before them. They observed the smallest details in order to take note of dialectical changes. Lenin, in order to describe and criticize the changes in capitalist society, and to study the imperialist period, made very detailed studies and consulted numerous statistics.

When we speak of autodynamism, we should never turn it into a literary phrase either; we should only use this word knowingly and for those who understand it totally.

Finally, when studying something, after having seen what its autodynamic changes are and stated what change one has found, one must look for the reason why this change is autodynamic.

This is why dialectics, research and science are closely linked.

Dialectics is not a way of explaining and knowing things without having studied them, but rather a way of studying well and making good observations, by looking for the beginning and the end of things, where they come from and where they are going.

Reciprocal action

Sequencing of processes

We have just seen, in connection with the history of the apple, what a process is. Let’s have another look at this example. We have looked for where the apple came from and we were obliged to push our research as far back as the tree. But this problem of research also arises in regard to the tree. The study of the apple leads us to the study of the origins and destiny of the tree. Where does the tree come from? From an apple. It comes from an apple which has fallen and rotted in the earth, giving birth to a shoot. This leads us to study the ground, the conditions in which the seeds of the apple were able to sprout, the influences of the air, sun, etc. In this way, starting with the study of the apple, we are led to study the soil, proceeding from the process of the apple to that of the tree. The latter process has its sequence in turn in that of the soil. We have here what is called a “sequence of processes.” This will enable us to express and study the second law of dialectics: the law of reciprocal action. Let us take another example of the sequence of processes, that of the Workers’ University in Paris.

If we study this school from the dialectical point of view, we shall look for where it came from, and find at first this answer: in the autumn of 1932, some comrades meeting together decided to found a Workers’ University in Paris in order to study marxism.

But where did this committee get this idea of teaching marxism? Obviously because marxism exists. But then, where does marxism come from?

We see that research into the sequence of processes involves us in detailed and complete studies. Much more: by looking for the source of marxism, we shall find that this doctrine is the very conscience of the proletariat. We see (whether we are for or against marxism) that the proletariat then does exist; and so again we ask the question: where does the proletariat come from?

We know that it derives from an economic system, viz., capitalism. We know that the division of society into classes, that class struggle, was not caused, as our adversaries claim, by marxism. On the contrary, we know that marxism observes the existence of this class struggle and draws its force from the already existing proletariat.

Hence, from process to process, we arrive at the examination of the conditions of existence of capitalism. We have in this way a sequence of processes which shows us that everything influences everything else. This is the law of reciprocal action.

As a conclusion to these two examples of the apple and of the Workers’ University in Paris, let us see how a metaphysician would have proceeded.

In the example of the apple, he could only have thought, ’’Where does the apple come from?" And he would have been satisfied with the answer, “The apple comes from the tree.” He would not have looked any further.

For the Workers’ University he would have been satisfied with saying, about its origin, that it was founded by a group of men who wished “to corrupt the French people” or some such nonsense.

But the dialectician sees the entire sequence of processes which end, on the one hand, with the apple, and, on the other, with the Workers’ University. The dialectician connects the particular fact, the detail, to the whole.

He connects the apple to the tree, and he goes back further, all the way to nature in its entirety. The apple is not only the fruit of the apple tree, but also that of all of nature.

The Workers’ University is not only the “fruit” of the proletariat, but also the “fruit” of capitalist society.

Hence, we see that, contrary to the metaphysician who conceives of the world as a complex of fixed things, the dialectician will see the world as a complex of processes. And, if the dialectical point of view is true for nature and for the sciences, if is also true for society.

“The old method of investigation and thought which Hegel calls “metaphysical”, which preferred to investigate things as given, as fixed and stable, a method the relics of which still strongly haunt people’s minds, had a great deal of historical justification in its day.” [note 19]

Consequently, things and society were studied during this period as a complex of “ready-made, fixed objects,” which not only do not change, but, particularly in the case of society, are not destined to disappear. Engels points out the great importance of dialectics, this:

“... great basic thought that the world is not to be comprehended as a complex of readymade things, but as a complex of processes, in which the things apparently stable no less than their mind images in our heads, the concepts, go through an uninterrupted change of coming into being and passing away, in which, in spite of all seeming accidentally and of all temporary retrogression, a progressive development asserts itself in the end...” [note 19]

Hence, neither should capitalist society be regarded as a “complex of ready-made things”; rather, it should be studied as a complex of processes.

Metaphysicians realize that capitalist society has not always existed, and they say that it has a history; but they think that, with its appearance, society has stopped evolving and will remain “fixed” from now on. They regard all things as finished and not as the beginning of a new process. The story of the creation of the world by God is an explanation of the world as a complex of completed things. God accomplished a completed task each day. He made plants and animals and man once and for all; whence the theory of fixism.

Dialectics judges things in a different way. It does not regard things as “fixed” objects, but rather as objects “in motion.” Nothing is complete; it is always the end of one process and the beginning of another process, always changing and developing. This is why we are so sure of the transformation of capitalist society into a socialist society. Since nothing is permanently finished, capitalist society is the end of a process to which socialist society and then Communist society and so forth will succeed. There is and there will continually be a development.

But we must be careful here not to look upon dialectics as something inevitable, from which one might conclude, “Since you are so sure of the change which you desire, why do you struggle?” For, as Marx says, “in order to deliver socialist society, a midwife is necessary;” whence the necessity of revolution, of action.

The fact is, things are not so simple. One mustn’t forget the role of men who may advance or slow down this transformation (we shall take up this question again in chapter 5 of this part, when we speak of historical materialism).

For the moment, all we wish to point out is the existence of a sequence of processes in everything which is produced through the internal force of things (autodynamism). We repeat, for dialectics, nothing is complete. We must understand the development of things as having no final act. At the end of one theatrical production of the world the first act of another play begins. More precisely, this first act had already begun in the last act of the preceding play.

The great discoveries of the 19th century

What determined the abandonment of the metaphysical spirit and obliged first scientists, then Marx and Engels, to consider things in their dialectical movement, is, as we know, the discoveries made in the 19th century. As Engels points out in Ludwig Feuerbach, there were three especially great discoveries of this period which caused dialectics to advance.

The discovery of the living cell and its development

Before this discovery, “fixism” had been adopted as the basis of all reasoning. Species were considered to be foreign to each other. Moreover, two kingdoms were categorically differentiated: the animal kingdom and the plant kingdom.

Then this discovery takes place, enabling the idea of “evolution,” which thinkers and scientists of the 18th century had already started to spread, to become more precise. This discovery leads to the understanding that life is made up of a succession of births and deaths and that every living being is an association of cells. This finding then leaves no boundary remaining between animals and plants and thus dispels the metaphysical concept.

The discovery of energy transformation

Formerly, science believed that sound, heat and light, for example, were completely alien to each other. Yet now it is discovered that all these phenomena can be transformed into each other, that there are sequences of processes in inert matter as well as in living nature. This revelation brings still another blow to metaphysical thinking.

The discovery of evolution in humans and animals

Darwin, says Engels, reveals that all the products of nature are the result of a long process of development of originally single-celled microorganisms: everything is the product of a long process having the cell for its origin.

Engels concludes that, thanks to these three great discoveries, we can follow the sequence of all these natural phenomena not only within the different domains, but also between the different domains.

It is, therefore, the sciences which made the elaboration of the second law of reciprocal action possible.

Between the plant, animal and mineral kingdoms there is no sharp break, but rather only processes; everything is connected. And this is true for society as well. The different societies which have spanned the history of mankind should be regarded as a series of sequences of processes in which one society has necessarily come from the one which preceded it.

Hence, we should remember that science, nature and society must be seen as a sequence of processes, and that the motor working to develop this sequence is autodynamism.

Historical development or spiral development

If we examine the process which we are beginning to know a little more closely, we see that the apple is the result of a sequence of processes. Where does the apple come from? The apple comes from the tree. Where does the tree come from? From the apple. We may then think that we have here a vicious circle in which we always return to the same point. Tree, apple. Apple, tree. Likewise, if we take the example of the egg and the hen. Where does the egg come from? From the hen. Where does the hen come from? From the egg.

If we regarded things in this way, this would not be a process, but a circle. This appearance, moreover, has created the idea of the “eternal return.” That is to say, we always come back to the same point, the point of departure.

But let us see exactly how the problem is stated.

  1. Here is an apple.
  2. When it decomposes, it engenders a tree or some trees.
  3. Each tree does not produce one apple, but several apples.

Hence, we do not return to the same point of departure; we come back to the apple, but on another level.

Similarly, if we begin with the tree, we have:

  1. A tree which produces
  2. some apples, which in turn produce
  3. some trees

Here again we return to the tree, but on another level. The scope has widened.

Hence, we do not have a circle, as appearances might make us think, but a process of development which we shall call a historical development. History shows us that time does not go by without leaving any traces. Time passes, but the same developments do not return. The world, nature and society constitute a development which is historical, a development which, in philosophical language, is called “spiral.”

We use this image in order to make our ideas clear; it is a comparison to illustrate the fact that things evolve according to a circular process, but do not return to the point of departure; they come back a bit above, on another level, and so on, which produces an ascending spiral.

Hence, the world, nature and society have a historical (spiral) development, and what stimulates this development, let us not forget, is autodynamism.


If we examine the process which we are beginning to know a little more closely, we see that the apple is the result of a sequence of processes. Where does the apple come from? The apple comes from the tree. Where does the tree come from? From the apple. We may then think that we have here a vicious circle in which we always return to the same point. Tree, apple. Apple, tree. Likewise, if we take the example of the egg and the hen. Where does the egg come from? From the hen. Where does the hen come from? From the egg.

If we regarded things in this way, this would not be a process, but a circle. This appearance, moreover, has created the idea of the “eternal return.” That is to say, we always come back to the same point, the point of departure.

But let us see exactly how the problem is stated.

  1. Here is an apple.
  2. When it decomposes, it engenders a tree or some trees.
  3. Each tree does not produce one apple, but several apples.

Hence, we do not return to the same point of departure; we come back to the apple, but on another level.

Similarly, if we begin with the tree, we have:

  1. A tree which produces
  2. some apples, which in turn produce
  3. some trees

Here again we return to the tree, but on another level. The scope has widened.

Hence, we do not have a circle, as appearances might make us think, but a process of development which we shall call a historical development. History shows us that time does not go by without leaving any traces. Time passes, but the same developments do not return. The world, nature and society constitute a development which is historical, a development which, in philosophical language, is called “spiral.”

We use this image in order to make our ideas clear; it is a comparison to illustrate the fact that things evolve according to a circular process, but do not return to the point of departure; they come back a bit above, on another level, and so on, which produces an ascending spiral.

Hence, the world, nature and society have a historical (spiral) development, and what stimulates this development, let us not forget, is autodynamism.


We have seen that dialectics regards things as being in perpetual change, continually evolving, in a word, undergoing a dialectical motion (first law).

This dialectical motion is possible because everything, at the moment when we are studying it, is but the result of a sequence of processes, i.e., a sequence of stages come from each other. And, continuing our study further, we have seen that this sequence of processes necessarily develops in time into a progressive motion, “in spite of any momentary backsliding.”

We have called this development “historical” or “spiral,” and we know that it generates itself, through autodynamism.

But what are the laws of autodynamism? What are the laws which enable the stages to proceed from each other? They are called the “laws of dialectical motion.”

Dialectics teaches us that things are not eternal: they have a beginning, a maturity, and an old age, which has an end, a death.

All things pass through these stages: birth, maturity, old age, end. Why is this so? Why are things not eternal?

This is an old question which has always interested humanity. Why must we die? We do not understand this necessity; throughout history, men have dreamed of eternal life, of the ways of changing this state of affairs. For example, in the Middle Ages, they invented magic potions for eternal youth or life.

Why then is everything which is born obliged to die? This is a great law of dialectics which we should compare with metaphysics in order to really understand it.

Life and death

From the metaphysical point of view, things are considered in an isolated fashion, taken by themselves, and, because metaphysics studies things in this way, it considers them unilaterally, i.e., from one side. This is why it can be said that those who see things one-sidedly are metaphysicians. Briefly, when a metaphysician studies the phenomenon called life, he does so without relating this phenomenon to any other. He sees life for itself and by itself, unilaterally. He sees it from one side only. If he examines death, he will do the same thing; he will apply his unilateral point of view and conclude by saying: life is life and death is death. Between the two there is nothing in common; one cannot be both alive and dead, for the two are opposite things and completely contrary to each other.

To see things in this way is to view them superficially. Upon closer examination, it will be seen firstly, that they cannot be opposed, nor even can they be so brutally separated, since experience and reality show us that death continues life and that it derives from the living.

As for life, can it derive from death? Yes. The transformation of the elements of the dead corpse will give birth to other lives and be used as fertilizer for the earth, making it more fertile, for example. Death, in many cases, will help life; death will enable life to be born; and, in living bodies themselves, life is only possible because there is a continual replacement of dead cells by those which are newly-born. (See Translator’s notes.)

Hence, life and death are constantly being transformed into each other, and in everything we observe the invariability of this great law: everywhere, things are transformed into their opposites.

Things turn into their opposite

Metaphysicians set opposites against each other, but reality shows us that opposites are transformedinto each other, that things do not remain themselves, but are transformed into their opposites.

If we examine truth and error, we tend to think that there is nothing in common between them. Truth is truth and error is error. This the unilateral point of view, which sets the two opposites at loggerheads, as one might do with life and death.

And yet, sometimes when we exclaim, "Hey, it's raining!", no sooner have we finished saying so than the rain has stopped. The sentence was correct when we began it, but it was transformed into an error. (The Greeks had already observed this fact, so they said that in order not to be mistaken it was best to keep silent!)

In the same vein, let us go back to the example of the apple. We see a ripe apple on the ground and we say, “There is a ripe apple.” However, it has been on the ground for some time and already it is beginning to decompose, so that truth becomes error.

Science also provides us with numerous examples of laws, considered for many years to be “truths” and which scientific progress has proven to be “errors” at a certain moment.

Hence, we see that truth changes into error. But does error ever change into truth?

In the beginning of civilization, notably in Egypt, men imagined fights between the gods in order to explain the rising and setting of the sun. This is an error to the extent that it was said that the gods push or pull the sun to make it move. But science says that this theory is partially justified in that there are in fact forces which make the sun move. So we see that error is not diametrically opposed to truth.

If, then, things do change into their opposites, how is this possible? How does life change into death?

If there were only life, 100 percent pure life, it could never be death, and if death were totally itself, 100 percent pure death, it would be impossible for the one to change into the other. But there is already some death in life and thus some life in death.

By looking closely, we see that a living being is composed of cells, that these cells are renewed, that they disappear and reappear in the same place. They live and die continually in a living being, in which there is therefore both life and death.

We also know that the beard of a dead man continues to grow. The same is true for his nails and hair. These are clear-cut phenomena which prove that life continues after death.

In the Soviet Union, the blood of the dead is preserved under special conditions for blood transfusions: thus, with the blood of a dead person a living person is remade. Consequently, we can say that in the midst of death there is life. “Life is therefore also a contradiction which is present in things and processes themselves, and which constantly asserts and solves itself; and as soon as the contradiction ceases, life too comes to an end, and death steps in.” [note 13]

Hence, things not only change into each other, but also a thing is not only itself, but another thing which is its opposite, for everything contains its opposite.

If we represent a thing by a circle, we have force which pushes this thing toward life, pushing from the center outwards, for example (expression), but we also have forces which push this thing in the opposite direction, forces of death, pushing from the exterior inwards (compression).

Thus, within everything opposed forces, antagonisms, exist.

What happens between these forces? They struggle with each other. Consequently, a thing is not only moved by a force acting in a single direction, but everything is really moved by two forces acting in opposing directions: one towards the affirmation and one towards the negation of things, one towards life and one towards death. What does the affirmation and negation of things mean?

In life, there are forces which maintain life, which tends toward the affirmation of life. Then there are also forces in living organisms which tend towards negation. In everything, some forces tend towards affirmation and others towards negation, and, between affirmation and negation there is a contradiction.

Hence, dialectics observes change, but why do things change? Because they are not in agreement with themselves, because there is a struggle between forces, between internal antagonisms, because there is contradiction. Here is the third law of dialectics: Things change because they contain contradictions within themselves.

(If we are obliged, at times, to use more or less complicated words—like dialectics, autodynamism, etc.—or terms which seem contrary to traditional logic and difficult to understand, it is not because we like to complicate things at whim as the bourgeoisie does. No. But this study, although elementary, seeks to be as complete as possible and to facilitate the later reading of the philosophical works of Marx, Engels and Lenin, who use these terms. In any case, since we must utilize something other than everyday language, we are determined to make it comprehensible to everyone in the framework of this study.)

To see things in this way is to view them superficially. Upon closer examination, it will be seen firstly, that they cannot be opposed, nor even can they be so brutally separated, since experience and reality show us that death continues life and that it derives from the living.

As for life, can it derive from death? Yes. The transformation of the elements of the dead corpse will give birth to other lives and be used as fertilizer for the earth, making it more fertile, for example. Death, in many cases, will help life; death will enable life to be born; and, in living bodies themselves, life is only possible because there is a continual replacement of dead cells by those which are newly-born.

Hence, life and death are constantly being transformed into each other, and in everything we observe the invariability of this great law: everywhere, things are transformed into their opposites.

Affirmation, negation and negation of negation

Here we must make a distinction between what is called a verbal contradiction—which means that, when someone tells you “yes,” you answer “no”—and the contradiction which we have just seen and which is called a dialectical contradiction, i.e., a contradiction in facts, in things themselves.

When we speak of the contradiction which exists in the heart of capitalist society, this does not mean that some people say yes and others say no about certain theories. This means that there is a contradiction in factual reality, that there are real forces which are fighting each other: first, a force which tends to affirm itself, viz., the bourgeois class which tends to maintain itself; then, a second social force which tends toward the negation of the bourgeois class, viz., the proletariat. Hence the contradiction does exist in reality, because the bourgeoisie cannot exist without creating its opposite, the proletariat.

As Marx says,

“What the bourgeoisie, therefore produces, above all, are its own grave-diggers.” [note 22]

In order to prevent this, the bourgeoisie would have stop being itself, which would be absurd. Consequently, by affirming itself, it creates its own negation.

Let us take the example of an egg which is laid and sat on by a hen: we find that in the egg there is a seed which develops at a certain temperature and under certain conditions. This seed, while developing, will produce a chick; hence, the seed is already the negation of the egg. We see then that in the egg there are two forces: one which tends to make it remain an egg and one which tends to make it become a chick. Therefore, the egg is in disagreement with itself and all things are in disagreement with themselves.

This may seem difficult to understand, because we are used to the metaphysical way of reasoning, but this is why we should make an effort to become accustomed to seeing things in their reality.

A thing begins by being an affirmation which comes from negation. The chick is an affirmation born from the negation of the egg. It is one stage of the process. But the chick, in turn, will be transformed into a hen. During this transformation, there will be a contradiction between the forces which fight to make the chick become a hen and those which fight to make the chick remain a chick. The hen will thus be the negation of the chick, the latter having derived from the negation of the egg.

The hen will therefore be the negation of the negation. And this is the general course of the stages of dialectics.

Affirmation also called thesis
Negation or antithesis
Negation of the negation or synthesis

These words summarize dialectical development. They are used to represent the sequence of stages, to indicate that each stage is the destruction of the preceding one.

Destruction is a negation. The chick is the negation of the egg, since by being born it destroys the egg. Similarly, the ear of wheat is the negation of the grain of wheat. The grain will germinate in the soil; this germination is the germination of the grain of wheat and will produce a plant. This plant, in turn, will flower and produce an ear; the latter will be the negation of the plant or the negation of the negation.

Hence, we see that the negation which dialectics speaks of is another way of speaking of destruction. There is a negation of what disappears, of what is destroyed.

  1. Feudalism was the negation of the slave state.
  2. Capitalism is the negation of feudalism.
  3. Socialism is the negation of capitalism.

Just as when we made a distinction between verbal contradiction and dialectical contradiction, here we must clearly understand what verbal negation, which says “no,” is and what dialectical negation, which means “destruction,” is.

But while negation means destruction, it does not mean just any kind of destruction, but dialectical destruction. Thus, when we crush a flea, it does not die from internal destruction, from dialectical negation. Its destruction is not the result of autodynamic stages; it is the result of a purely mechanical change.

Destruction is a negation only if it is a product of affirmation, if it comes from it. Thus, the egg which is sat on, being the affirmation of what an egg is, engenders its own negation: it becomes a chick, and the latter symbolizes the destruction or the negation of the egg, by piercing and destroying the shell.

In the chick we observe two adverse forces; “chick” and “hen.” In the course of this development of the process, the hen will lay eggs, whence a new negation of the negation arises. From these eggs, then, a new sequence of the process will begin.

In the case of wheat we also see an affirmation, then a negation and negation of the negation.

Let us take materialist philosophy as another example.

In the beginning, we find a primitive, spontaneous materialism, which, due to its ignorance, creates its own negation: idealism. But the idealism which negates the old materialism will itself be repudiated in turn by modern or dialectical materialism, because philosophy, along with the sciences, develops and provokes the destruction of idealism. Hence, here also, we have affirmation, negation and negation of the negation.

We may also observe this cycle in the evolution of society.

In the beginning of history we find the existence of a primitive Communist society, a society without classes, based on the common ownership of the land. But this form of ownership becomes a hindrance to the development of production and, in this way, creates its own negation: a class society, based on private ownership and the exploitation of man by man. But this society as well carries its own negation within itself, because a superior development of the means of production brings about the necessity of negating the division of society into classes, of negating private ownership. So we return to the point of departure: the necessity for a Communist society, but on another level. In the beginning, there was a lack of commodities; today, we have a very high capacity of production.

Notice that for all the examples we have given we return to the point of departure, but on another level (spiral development), a higher level.

We see then that contradiction is the great law of dialectics. That evolution is a fight between antagonistic forces. That not only do things change into each other, but also everything is transformed into its opposite. That things do not agree with themselves because there are struggles inside them between opposed forces, because there are internal contradictions within them.

Note. The expressions “affirmation,” “negation,” and “negation of the negation” are only verbal shorthand for the moments of dialectical evolution. Therefore, we should be careful not to run about trying to find these three stages everywhere. Sometimes we shall not find all of them because the evolution is not complete. So we mustn’t mechanically try to see these changes as such in everything. Let us especially remember that contradiction is the great law of dialectics. That is the essential point.


We already know that dialectics is a method of thinking, of reasoning and of analyzing which enables us to make good observations and to study well, for it obliges us to look for the source of everything and to describe its history.

We have seen that the former method of thinking certainly had its necessity in its time. But to study with the dialectical method is to observe, let us repeat, that all things, apparently immobile, are but a sequence of processes in which everything has a beginning and an end, where in everything, “in spite of all seeming accidents and of all temporary retrogression, a progressive development asserts itself in the end...” [note 19]

Only dialectics enables us to understand the development and the evolution of things; it alone permits us to understand the destruction of ancient things and the birth of new ones. Only dialectics lets us understand all developments in their transformations by letting us know them as entities made up of opposites. For, as far as the dialectical concept is concerned, the natural development of things, evolution, is a continual struggle between antagonistic forces and principles.

Hence, while for dialectics the first law is the observation of motion and change—“Nothing remains what, where and as it was.” (Engels)—we now know that the explanation of this law resides in the fact that things change not only by transforming themselves into each other, but also by transforming themselves into their opposites. Contradiction is therefore a great law of dialectics.

We have studied what contradiction is from the dialectical point of view, but we must again lay stress on this in order to add certain details and to point out certain errors which we should not commit.

It is quite certain that we must first familiarize ourselves with this assertion, which is in harmony with reality: the transformation of things into their opposites. Certainly, this shocks our understanding and surprises us, because we are accustomed to thinking with the old metaphysical method. But we have seen why this is so. We have seen in detail, with examples, that this exists in reality and why things are changed into their opposites.

This is why it can be maintained that, if things are transformed, if they change and evolve, it is because they are in contradiction with themselves, because they carry their opposites within themselves, because they contain within themselves an interpenetration, a unity and struggle of opposites.

The unity of opposites

Each thing is an interpenetration of opposites.

To declare such a thing at first appears absurd. "A thing and its opposite have nothing in common." This is what is generally thought. For dialectics, however, each thing is, at the same time, itself and its opposite; each thing is an interpenetration of opposites, and we must explain this.

For a metaphysician, the unity and struggle of opposites is an impossible thing. For him, things are made up of a single piece, in harmony with themselves. Here we are declaring just the opposite, namely that things are made up of two pieces—themselves and their opposites—and that there are two forces in them which fight each other because things are not in harmony with themselves, because they contradict themselves.

If we take the example of ignorance and science, i.e., knowledge, we know that from the metaphysical point of view these are two totally opposed and contrary things. Someone who is ignorant is not a scientist and someone who is a scientist is not ignorant.

However, if we look at the facts, we see that they do not give rise to such a rigid opposition. We see that at first ignorance prevailed, then science appeared; and we thereby ascertain that one thing is transformed into its opposite: ignorance is transformed into science.

There is no ignorance without science or knowledge. There is no 100 percent pure ignorance. An individual, no matter how ignorant he may be, can at least recognize objects and his food. There is never absolute ignorance: there is always some knowledge in ignorance. The seeds of knowledge have already been planted in ignorance. Therefore, we are correct in maintaining that the opposite of a thing is found in the thing itself.

Let us look at knowledge now. Can there be 100 percent pure knowledge? No. One is always ignorant of something. Lenin says, “The object of knowledge is inexhaustible,” which means that there is always something to be learned. There is no absolute knowledge. All knowledge and every science contains some ignorance.

What exists in reality is relative knowledge and ignorance, a mixture of knowledge and ignorance.

Hence, in this example it is not the transformation of things into their opposites which we observe, but rather the existence of opposites in the same thing, or, in other words, the interpenetration of opposites.

We could go back to the examples which we have already seen: life and death, truth and error, and we would find that, in both cases, as in everything, an interpenetration of opposites exists, i.e., each thing contains at the same time itself and its opposite. This is why Engels says:

If, however, investigation always proceeds from this standpoint, the demand for final solutions and eternal truths ceases once for all; one is always conscious of the necessary limitation of all acquired knowledge, of the fact that it is conditioned by the circumstances in which it was acquired. On the other hand, one no longer permits oneself to be imposed upon by the antitheses, insuperable for the still common old metaphysics, between true and false, good and bad, identical and different, necessary and accidental. One knows that these antitheses have only a relative validity; that that which is recognized now as true has also its latent false side which will later manifest itself, just as that which is now regarded as false has also its true side by virtue of which it could previously have been regarded as true. [note 19]

This text by Engels clearly shows us how dialectics should be understood and the true meaning of the interpenetration of opposites.

Mistakes to avoid

This great law of dialectics, contradiction, must be clearly explained in order not to create any misunderstandings.

First, it should not be interpreted in a mechanical way. We mustn’t think that in all knowledge there is truth plus error, or both something true and something false.

If this law were applied in this way, it would justify those who say that there is something true plus something false in all opinions, so “let’s remove what is false, and what is true and good will remain.” This is said in certain so-called Marxist circles, where it is thought that marxism is right to point out that, in capitalism, there are factories, trusts and banks which hold economic life in their hands, that it is correct to say that this economic life is going badly; but what is false in marxism, they add, is class struggle: let’s leave out the theory of class struggle and we shall have a good doctrine. It is also said that marxism applied to the study of society is correct and true “but why mix in dialectics? This is the false side, let’s remove dialectics and keep the rest of marxism as true!”

These are mechanical interpretations of the interpenetration of opposites.

Here is another example: Proudhon, after having learned of this theory of opposites, thought that there was a good and a bad side in everything. So, observing that there is a bourgeoisie and a proletariat in society, he said, “Let’s remove what is bad, the proletariat!” That is how he constructed his system of credits which was to create "parcelled out property," i.e., to allow the proletarians to become owners. In this way, there would only be the bourgeoisie and society would be good.

However, we know very well that there can be no proletariat without the bourgeoisie and that the bourgeoisie exists only through the proletariat: these are two opposites which are inseparable. This unity and struggle of opposites is internal and real: it is an inseparable union. Hence, in order to get rid of the opposites it is not sufficient to cut one from the other. In a society based on the exploitation of man by man, there necessarily exists two antagonistic classes: masters and slaves in antiquity, lords and serfs in the Middle Ages, bourgeoisie and proletariat today.

In order to abolish capitalist society, to create a society without classes, both the bourgeoisie and the proletariat must be eliminated - in order to enable free men to create a materially and intellectually more advanced society, to go towards communism in its superior form and not to create, as our adversaries claim, a communism which is "egalitarian in poverty."

Hence, we must be very careful when we explain or when we apply the interpenetration of opposites to an example or to a study. We should avoid trying to find everywhere and to apply mechanically, for example, the negation of the negation, or to find the interpenetration of opposites everywhere, for our knowledge in general is limited and this can lead us to blind alleys.

What counts is this principle: dialectics and its laws oblige us to study things in order to discover their evolution and the forces, the opposites, which determine this evolution. We must therefore study the interpenetration of opposites contained in things, and this interpenetration of opposites is tantamount to saying that an affirmation is never an absolute affirmation, since it contains within itself a negative portion. And this is the essential point: It is because things contain their own negation that they are transformed. Negation is the “solvent”: if it did not exist, things would not change. As, in fact, things do change, they must then contain a solvent principle. We can declare beforehand that it exists since we see things evolving, but we cannot discover this principle without a detailed study of the thing itself, for this principle does not have the same appearance in everything.

Practical consequences of dialectics

Hence, in practice, dialectics obliges us always to consider both, not one, sides of things: never to consider truth without ignorance. The big mistake of metaphysics is precisely to consider only one side of things, to judge unilaterally. If we make many mistakes, it is always to the extent that we see but one side of things, because we often reason unilaterally.

While idealist philosophy maintains that the world exists only in the ideas of men, we must recognize that, in truth, there are some things which exist only in our thoughts. This is true. But idealism is unilateral: it sees only this aspect. It sees only man who invents things which are not found in reality and it then concludes that nothing exists outside of our ideas. Idealism is correct to point out this faculty in man, but, by not applying the criterion of practice, it sees only that.

Metaphysical materialism is also mistaken because it sees but one side of problems. It sees the universe as a mechanism. Does mechanics exist? Yes! Does it play an important role? Yes! Metaphysical materialism is thus correct to say this, but it is a mistake to see only mechanical motion.

Naturally, we are prone to seeing only one side of things and people. If we judge a comrade, almost always we see only his good or his bad side. We must see both, without which it would not be possible to have cadres in organizations. In political practice, the unilateral method of judgment leads to sectarianism. If we encounter an adversary belonging to a reactionary organization, we judge him by his bosses. Yet, he is perhaps only an embittered, discontent employee, and we should not judge him like a fascist boss. Likewise, we can apply this reasoning to bosses and understand that, while they may seem bad to us, it is often because they themselves are dominated by the structure of society and, under different social conditions, they would perhaps be different.

If we keep the interpenetration, the unity and struggle of opposites in mind, we look at things in their multiple aspects. We see then that this reactionary is, on the one hand, reactionary, but, on the other, he is a worker and in his case there is a contradiction. We should look and find out why he has joined this organization and, at the same time, why he should not have joined. In this way we can judge and discuss his case in a less sectarian manner.

In accordance with dialectics then, we must consider things from all the angles which we can differentiate.

To summarize, and as a theoretical conclusion, we shall say: Things change because they include an internal contradiction (themselves and their opposites). The opposites are in conflict, and changes arise from these conflicts. Thus change is the solution of the conflict.

Capitalism contains an internal contradiction, the conflict between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie. Change is explained by this conflict and the transformation of capitalist society into a socialist society is the end of this conflict.

There is change and motion wherever there is contradiction. Contradiction is the negation of the affirmation. When the third term, negation of the negation, is achieved, the solution appears, for, at that moment, the reason for the contradiction is eliminated, obsolete.

Hence, it can be said that, while the sciences—chemistry, physics, biology, etc.—study the laws of change particular to them, dialectics studies the most general laws of change. Engels says,

“Dialectics is nothing more than the science of the general laws of motion and development of Nature, human society and thought.” [note 13]

Further reading

Engels: Anti-Dühring

Transformation of quantity into quality or the law of progress by leaps

Before tackling the problem of the application of dialectics to history, it remains for us to study one last law of dialectics.

This will be facilitated by the studies which we have just made wherein we have seen what negation of the negation is and what is meant by the interpenetration, the unity and struggle of opposites.

As always, let us proceed by examples.

Reforms or revolution

When speaking of society, people ask, “Should we instigate reforms or make a revolution?” They debate whether, in order to transform capitalist society into a socialist society, successive reforms or an abrupt transformation—revolution—is needed.

With respect to this problem, let us recall what we have already studied. Every transformation is the result of a struggle between opposing forces. When something evolves, it is because it contains its opposite, everything being an interpenetration of opposites. We can observe the struggle of opposites and the transformation of the thing into its opposite. How does this transformation take place? This is the new problem which confronts us.

One may believe that this transformation occurs little by little, through a series of small transformations, that the green apple changes into a ripe apple through a series of progressive changes.

Many people think in this way that society is transformed little by little and that the result of a series of these small transformations will be the transformation of capitalist society into a socialist society. These small transformations are reforms and it will be their total, the sum of the small, gradual changes, which will give us a new society.

This theory is called reformism. The supporters of this theory are called reformists, not because they demand reforms, but because they think that reforms are sufficient, that their accumulation will imperceptibly transform society.

Let us see if this is true:

The political argument

If we look at the facts, i.e., what has happened in other countries, we shall see that, where this system has been tried, it has not been successful. The transformation of capitalist society—its destruction—has succeeded in a single country: the U.S.S.R., and we find that it was not through a series of reforms, but through revolution.

The historical argument

Generally speaking, is it true that things are transformed by small changes, by reforms?

Let us still look at the facts. If we examine historical changes, we see that they do not occur indefinitely, that they are not continuous. There comes a moment when, instead of small changes, change takes place with an abrupt leap.

In the history of societies, the outstanding events which we find are abrupt changes, revolutions.

Even those who are not familiar with dialectics know, nowadays, that violent changes have occurred in history. However, until the 17th century, it was believed that “nature does not jump,” that it makes no leaps. People refused to see any abrupt changes in the continuity of change. But science stepped in and revealed, with facts, that changes did occur abruptly. The revolution of 1789 opened people’s eyes even better; it was in itself an obvious example of a clean break with the past. It came to be seen that all the decisive stages of history had been important, abrupt and sudden upheavals. For example, as friendly as they may have been, the relations between two states grew colder, more strained and bitter, then took on a hostile character—and, all of a sudden, it was war, an abrupt rupture with the continuity of events. Another example: in Germany, after the war of 1914-1918, there was a gradual rise of fascism, then one day Hitler took power: Germany entered a new historical stage.

Today, those who do not deny these abrupt changes maintain that they are accidents, an accident being something which happens but which might not have happened.

In this way, people explain revolutions in the history of societies by saying, “They were accidents.”

With regard to the history of France, for example, it is maintained that the fall of Louis XVI and the French Revolution occurred because Louis XVI was a weak and soft man. “If he had been an energetic man, we would not have had a revolution.” We even read that, if he had not prolonged his meal at Varennes, he would not have been arrested and the course of history would have been changed. Hence, the French Revolution was just an accident, it is said.

Dialectics, on the contrary, recognized that revolutions are necessities. There are, indeed, gradual changes, but their accumulation ends up producing abrupt changes.

The scientific argument

Let us take the example of water, if we start at 0° Centigrade, and raise the temperature of the water from 1°, 2°, 3° up to 98°, the change is continuous. But can it continue indefinitely? We can go again up to 99°, but, at 100° Centigrade, we have an abrupt change: the water is transformed into steam.

If, inversely, from 99° we go down to 1°, again we have a continuous change; but we cannot lower the temperature like this indefinitely, for, at 0° Centigrade, the water is transformed into ice.

From 1° to 99° the water still remains water; only its temperature changes. This is what is called a quantitative change, which answers the question “How much?”, i.e., “How much heat is there in the water?”. When the water changes into ice or steam, we have a qualitative change, a change in quality. It is no longer water: it has become ice or steam.

When a thing does not change its nature, we have a quantitative change (in the example of water, we have a change in the degree of heat, but not in nature). When it changes in nature, when a thing becomes another thing, this change is qualitative.

Hence, we see that the evolution of things cannot be quantitative indefinitely: things which change finally undergo a qualitative change. Quantity changes into quality. This is a general law. But, as always, we mustn’t be satisfied with only this abstract formula.

In Engels’ book Anti-Dühring, in the chapter entitled “Dialectics, quantity and quality” we can find a large number of examples illustrating how exact this law is, not only in the natural sciences, but in everything else; a law according to which

quantitative change suddenly produces, at certain points, a qualitative difference [note 13]

Here is another example, cited by H. Wallon in volume VIII of the French Encyclopédie (in which he refers to Engels): nervous energy which accumulates in a child provokes laughter; but, if it continues to grow, laughter changes into a fit of tears; in this way, children who become excited and laugh too hard end up crying.

We shall give one last well-known example: that of someone running for an elected office. If 4,500 votes are needed for an absolute majority, the candidate is not elected with 4,499 votes; he remains what he is: a candidate. With one more vote, this quantitative change determines a qualitative change, since the candidate becomes an elected official.

This law provides us with the solution to the problem: reform or revolution.

Reformists tell us: “You want the impossible which happens only by accident; you are utopians.” But with this law we can see who really is the one who is dreaming the impossible! The study of the phenomena of nature and science shows us that changes are not gradual indefinitely, but that at a certain moment change becomes abrupt. We are not declaring this arbitrarily; rather it is science, nature and reality which declare this to be true.

We might then ask, “What role do we play in these abrupt changes?”

We are going to answer this question and develop this problem by applying dialectics to history. Here we have come to a very famous part of dialectical materialism: historical materialism.

Historical materialism

What is historical materialism? It is simply, now that we know what dialectics is, the application of this method to the history of human societies.

In order to clearly understand this, we must clarify what history is. History implies change, change in society. Society has a history throughout which it is constantly changing; we see great events taking place in it. So, the following question is raised: since, in history, societies change, what explains these changes?

How to explain history?

In this regard it is often asked, “For what reason must there always be war? Men ought to be able to live in peace!”

To these questions we are going to provide materialist answers.

A cardinal might explain that war is a punishment from God; this is an idealist answer, for it uses God to explain events. This is explaining history by spirit. It is spirit which creates and makes history.

Speaking of Providence is also an idealist answer. Hitler, in Mein Kampf, tells us that history is the work of Providence, and he thanks the latter for having placed his place of birth on the Austrian border.

To make God or Providence responsible for history is a convenient theory; men can do nothing and, consequently, we can do nothing to stop war, we must let it happen.

From a scientific point of view, can we support such a theory? Can we find its justification in facts? No.

The first materialist affirmation in this discussion is that history is not the work of God, but the work of men. So then, men can act on history and prevent the war.

History is the work of people

Men make their own history, whatever its outcome may be, in that each person follows his own consciously desired end, and it is precisely the resultant of these many wills operating in different directions and of their manifold effects upon the outer world that constitutes history. Thus it is also a question of what the many individuals desire. The will is determined by passion or deliberation. But the levers which immediately determine passion or deliberation are of very different kinds. Partly they may be external objects, partly ideal motives, ambition, enthusiasm for whims of all kinds. But, on the one hand, we have seen that the many individual wills active in history for the most part produce results quite other than those they intended— often quite the opposite; their motives therefore in relation to the total result are likewise of only secondary significance. On the other hand, the further question arises: What driving forces in turn stand behind these motives? What are the historical causes which transform themselves into these motives in the brains of the actors? [note 19]

This text of Engels tells us then that it is men who act according to their will (desires), but that these desires do not always go in the same direction! What is it then which determines, which decides the actions of men? Why do their desires not go in the same direction?

Some idealists will agree that it is the actions of men which make history and that these actions result from their will: it is will which determines action, and it is our thoughts and our feelings which determine our will. We would then have the following sequence: idea—will—action. In order to explain action, we must revert back to find the determining idea-cause.

Now we make it immediately clear that the action of great men and of doctrine is undeniable, but that it needs to be explained. It is not the sequence “idea—will—action” which explains it. In this way some people claim that in the 18th century Diderot and the Encyclopedists, by spreading to the public the ideas of the Rights of Man, seduced and won, by these ideas, the will of those men who, consequently, made the revolution. Similarly, in the U.S.S.R. the ideas of Lenin were spread and people acted in conformity with these ideas. People then conclude from this that, if there were no revolutionary ideas, there would be no revolution. This point of view leads to the conclusion that the motor forces of history are the ideas of great leaders, that it is these leaders who make history. You know the formula of Action Française, “Forty kings made France”; we might add, kings who did not have many “ideas”!

What is the materialist point of view on this question?

We have seen that there were many points in common between 18th century materialism and modern materialism, but that the former materialism had an idealist theory of history.

Hence, whether frankly idealist or disguised behind an inconsistent materialism, this idealist theory which we have just seen and which seems to explain history explains nothing. For what provokes action? Engels says:

The old materialism never put this question to itself. Its conception of history, in so far as it has one at all, is therefore essentially pragmatic; it divides men who act in history into noble and ignoble and then finds that as a rule the noble are defrauded and the ignoble are victorious. hence, it follows for the old materialism that nothing very edifying is to be got from the study of history, and for us that in the realm of history the old materialism becomes untrue to itself because it takes the ideal driving forces which operate there as ultimate causes, instead of investigating what is behind them, what are the driving forces of these driving forces. [note 19]

Will, ideas, it is claimed. But why did the philosophers of the 18th century have precisely these ideas? If they had tried to propound marxism, no one would have listened to them, for, at this time, people would not have understood. It is not only the fact that ideas are conveyed which counts; they must also be understood. Consequently, there are definite times for accepting ideas as well as for forging them.

We have always said that ideas are of great importance, but we must see where they come from.

We must then search for the causes which give us these ideas, and for what are, in the final analysis, the motor forces of history.

Further reading

Lenin: Materialism and empiriocriticism

Engels: Ludwig Feuerbach and the end of classical German philosophy

See: Control questions

The historical materialism

The driving forces of history

As soon as the question, “Where do our ideas come from?” is raised, the need for pursuing our research further becomes apparent. If we reasoned in the manner of the 18th century materialists, who thought that “the mind secretes thought as the liver secretes bile,” we could answer this question by saying that it is nature which produces the mind and that, consequently, our ideas are the product of nature and the product of our minds.

It could then be said that history is made by the action of men driven by their will, the latter being the expression of their ideas which are themselves derived from their brains. But watch out!

One mistake to avoid

If we explained the French Revolution by saying that it was the result of the application of the ideas which arose in the minds of philosophers, this would be a narrow and insufficient explanation and a poor application of materialism.

What must be seen is why the ideas launched by the thinkers of this period were adopted by the masses. Why was Diderot not alone in conceiving of them and for what reason were the great majority of minds since the 16th century developing the same ideas? Is it because these minds suddenly had the same weight, the same convolution? No. There were changes in ideas, but no change took place inside the skull.

This explanation of ideas by the brain seems like a materialist explanation. But to speak of Diderot’s brain is really to speak of the ideas in Diderot’s brain. Hence, this is a falsified and improper materialist theory, in which we witness the revival of the idealist tendency to give primary importance to ideas.

Let us go back to the sequence: history — action — will — ideas. Ideas have a meaning, a content. The working class, for example, struggles for the elimination of capitalism. This is an idea held by the struggling workers. They think because they have brains, certainly, and the brain is therefore a necessary condition for thinking; but it is not a sufficient condition. The brain explains the material act of having ideas, but it does not explain why one has certain ideas rather than others. “Everything which sets men in motion must go through their minds; but what form it will take in the mind will depend very much upon the circumstances.” [note 19]

How can we then explain the content of our ideas, that is, how does the idea of overthrowing capitalism come to us?

The "social being" and consciousness

We know that our ideas are the reflection of things. The goals which our ideas contain are also the reflection of things, but which things?

In order to answer this question, we must see where men live and where their ideas appear. We find that men live in a capitalist society and that their ideas appear in this society and are derived from it.

“It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness.” [note 23]

In this definition, what Marx calls “their being,” signifies what we are; “consciousness” is what we think, what we desire.

We are struggling for an ideal profoundly rooted in us, it is generally said, and as a result of this, it is our consciousness which determines our being. We act in a certain way because we think in a certain way, because we want to.

It is a grave error to speak this way, for in reality it is our social being which determines our consciousness.

A proletarian thinks like a proletarian, and a bourgeois thinks like a bourgeois (we shall see later why this is not always the case). But, generally speaking, “A man thinks differently in a palace and in a hut.” [note 24]

Idealist theories

Idealists say that a proletarian or a bourgeois is one or the other because he thinks like one or the other.

We say, on the contrary, that, while one may think like a proletarian or a bourgeois, this is because one is one or the other. A proletarian has a proletarian class consciousness because he is a proletarian.

We should pay close attention to the practical consequences of this idealist theory. Accordingly, if one is a bourgeois, it is because one thinks like a bourgeois. Hence, in order to stop being one, it is sufficient to change the way of thinking in question; and in order to halt bourgeois exploitation, it is sufficient to make the bosses change their convictions. This is a theory defended by Christian socialists; it was also shared by the founders of utopian socialism.

Moreover, it is also held by the fascists who fight against capitalism, not to eliminate it, but to make it more “rational”! As soon as management understands that it exploits workers, they say, it will no longer do so. Here we have a completely idealist theory whose dangers are obvious to us.

The "social being" and the conditions of existence

Marx speaks of “social being.” What does he mean by this?

“Social being” is determined by the material conditions of existence in which men live in society.

It is not the consciousness of men which determines their material conditions of existence, but these material conditions which determine their consciousness.

What are the material conditions of existence? In society, there are rich people and poor people, and their way of thinking is different, their ideas on the same subject are different. Taking the subway, for someone poor and unemployed, is a luxury, but it is a disgrace for someone rich who has a car.

Does a poor person entertain these ideas about the subway because he is poor or because he takes the subway? Because he is poor. Being poor is his condition of existence.

So, we must see why there are rich people and poor people in order to be able to explain men’s conditions of existence.

In the economic process of production, a group of people occupying an analogous place (i.e., in the present capitalist system, possessing the means of production—or, on the contrary, working on the means of production which do not belong to them), and consequently having to a certain extent the same material conditions of existence, form a class. However, the notion of class is not simply that of wealth or poverty. A proletarian may earn more than a bourgeois. He is, nonetheless, a proletarian because he is dependent on a boss and because his life is neither secure nor independent. The material conditions of existence consist not only of money earned, but also of social function. Therefore, we have the following sequence:

People make their history through their actions according to their will, which is the expression of their ideas. The latter are derived from their material conditions of existence, i.e., their membership in a class.

Class struggles, the driving force of history

People act because they have certain ideas. They owe these ideas to their material conditions of existence, because they belong to one class or another. This does not mean that there are only two classes in society. There are a number of classes, of which two are principally in conflict: the bourgeoisie and the proletariat.

Hence, beneath ideas there are classes.

Society is divided into classes which struggle against each other. Thus, if we examine the ideas which man has, we see that these ideas are in conflict, and that, beneath these ideas, we find classes which are themselves in conflict as well.

Consequently, the motor forces of history, i.e., the explanation of history, is class struggle.

If we take the permanent deficit of the budget, for example, we see that there are two solutions: one consists of continuing what is called financial orthodoxy: savings, loans, new taxes, etc.; the other solution consists of making the rich pay.

We observe a political struggle around these ideas. Generally, one is “sorry” that one cannot reach an agreement on this matter. The marxist, however, wants to understand and looks for what is underneath the political struggle. He then discovers the social struggle, i.e., class struggle. Struggle between those who favor the first solution (capitalists) and those who favor making the rich pay (middle classes and proletariat). Engels says:

In modern history at least it is, therefore, proved that all political struggles are class struggles, and all class struggles for emancipation, despite their necessarily political form — for every class struggle is a political struggle — turn ultimately on the question of economic emancipation. [note 19]

Thus we have another link to add to the sequence we have used to explain history. We now have: action, will, ideas, beneath which are found classes and, behind classes, is the economy. Hence, it is indeed class struggles which explain history, but it is the economy which determines classes.

If we wish to explain a historical fact, we must examine which ideas are in conflict, look for the classes beneath these ideas and, finally, define the economic mode which characterizes these classes.

One may still wonder where classes and the economic mode come from (and dialecticians are not afraid of asking all these successive questions because they know that we must find the source of everything). This is what we shall study in detail in the next chapter, but we can already say:

In order to know where classes come from, one must study the history of society, and then one will see that the existing classes have not always been the same. In Greece: slaves and masters: in the Middle Ages: serfs and lords; next, to simplify the enumeration, the bourgeoisie and the proletariat.

In the above description, we find that classes change, and, if we look for the reason why they change, we shall see that it is because the economic conditions have changed (by economic conditions we mean: the structure of production, of distribution, of exchange, of the consumption of goods, and, as the ultimate condition of all the rest, the way of producing, or technology).

Here follows a text by Engels:

Bourgeoisie and proletariat both arose in consequence of a transformation of the economic conditions, more precisely, of the mode of production. The transition, first from guild handicrafts to manufacture, and then from manufacture to large-scale industry, with steam and mechanical power, had caused the development of these two classes. [note 19]

Hence, in the last analysis, we see that we may represent the motor forces of history by the following sequence:

  1. History is the work of people.
  2. Action, which creates history, is determined by their will.
  3. This will is the expression of their ideas.
  4. These ideas are the reflection of the social conditions in which they live.
  5. It is these social conditions which determine classes and their struggles.
  6. Classes are themselves determined by economic conditions.

To clarify in what forms and under what conditions this sequence takes place, let us say that:

  1. Ideas find their expression in life in the political sphere.
  2. Class struggles, which are behind the struggles of ideas, are manifested in the social sphere.
  3. Economic conditions (which are determined by the state of technology) find their expression in the economic sphere.

Further reading

Marx and Engels: Manifesto of the communist party

Marx: A contribution to the critique of political economy

Where do classes and economic conditions come from?

We have seen that, in the last analysis, the motor forces of history are classes and their struggles determined by economic conditions.

This may be expressed by the following sequence: people have ideas in their heads which make them act. These ideas are derived from the material conditions of existence in which they live. These material conditions of existence are determined by the social place they occupy in society, i.e., by the class to which they belong, and classes are themselves determined by the economic conditions in which society evolves.

But it remains for us to see what it is which determines economic conditions and the classes they create. This is what we propose to study below.

First major division of labor

By studying the evolution of society and taking into account the events of the past, the first observation one makes is that the division of society into classes has not always existed. Dialectics demands that we search for the origin of things. Now we find that, in a far-distant past, there were no classes. In The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, Engels tells us:

Production at all former stages of society was essentially collective: there was not one class, one category, then another. Likewise, consumption of the products created by men was collective. This is primitive communism.

All men participate in production; the individual instruments of labor are private property, but those which are used in common belong to the community. The division of labor exists at this lower stage only between the sexes. Man hunts, fishes, etc.; woman takes care of the house. There are no “private” interests at stake.

But men did not remain in this period; the first change in the life of men will be the division of labor in society. “But the division of labor slowly insinuates itself into this process of production.” [note 25]

This first event occurs where men:

found animals which could be tamed and, when once tamed, bred. The wild buffalo cow had to be hunted; the tame buffalo cow gave a calf yearly and milk as well. A number of the most advanced tribes— the Aryans, Semites, perhaps already also the Turanians—now made their chief work first the taming of cattle, later their breeding and tending only. Pastoral tribes separated themselves from the mass of the rest of the barbarians—the first great social division of labor. [note 25]

Hence we have, as the first mode of production: hunting and fishing; as the second mode of production: cattle raising, which gives rise to pastoral tribes.

This first division of labor is the basis for:

First division of society into classes

By studying the evolution of society and taking into account the events of the past, the first observation one makes is that the division of society into classes has not always existed. Dialectics demands that we search for the origin of things. Now we find that, in a far-distant past, there were no classes. In The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, Engels tells us:

Production at all former stages of society was essentially collective: there was not one class, one category, then another. Likewise, consumption of the products created by men was collective. This is primitive communism.

All men participate in production; the individual instruments of labor are private property, but those which are used in common belong to the community. The division of labor exists at this lower stage only between the sexes. Man hunts, fishes, etc.; woman takes care of the house. There are no “private” interests at stake. But men did not remain in this period; the first change in the life of men will be the division of labor in society.

“But the division of labor slowly insinuates itself into this process of production.” [note 25]

This first event occurs where men:

found animals which could be tamed and, when once tamed, bred. The wild buffalo cow had to be hunted; the tame buffalo cow gave a calf yearly and milk as well. A number of the most advanced tribes— the Aryans, Semites, perhaps already also the Turanians—now made their chief work first the taming of cattle, later their breeding and tending only. Pastoral tribes separated themselves from the mass of the rest of the barbarians—the first great social division of labor. [note 25]

Hence we have, as the first mode of production: hunting and fishing; as the second mode of production: cattle raising, which gives rise to pastoral tribes.

This first division of labor is the basis for:

Second major division of labour

Wealth increased rapidly, but as the wealth of individuals. The products of weaving, metalwork and the other handicrafts, which were becoming more and more differentiated, displayed growing variety and skill. In addition to corn, leguminous plants and fruits, agriculture now provided wine and oil, the preparation of which had been learned. Such manifold activities were no longer within the scope of one and the same individual; the second great division of labor took place—handicraft separated from agriculture. The continuous increase of production and simultaneously of the productivity of labor heightened the value of human labor power. Slavery… now be-comes an essential constituent part of the social system; slaves ... are driven by dozens to work in the fields and the workshops. With the splitting up of production into the two great main branches, agriculture and handicrafts, arises production directly for exchange, commodity production; with it came commerce, … [note 25]

Second division of society into classes

In this way, the first great division of labor increases the value of human labor, and creates a growth of wealth, which again increases the value of labor and makes a second division of labor necessary: handicrafts and agriculture. At this moment, the constant increase of production and with it of the value of the human labor power makes slaves ’’indispensable" and creates commercial production and with it a third class: merchants.

Hence, at this moment in society, we have a triple division of labor and three classes: farmers, artisans, merchants. For the first time we see a class appear which does not participate in production, and this class, the merchant class, will dominate the other two.

The upper stage of barbarism brings us the further division of labor between agriculture and handicrafts, hence the production of a constantly increasing portion of the products of labor directly for exchange, so that exchange between individual producers assumes the importance of a vital social function. Civilization consolidates and intensifies all these existing divisions of labor, particularly by sharpening the opposition between town and country (the town may economically dominate the country, as in antiquity, or the country the town, as in the middle ages), and it adds a third division of labor peculiar to itself and of decisive importance. It creates a class which no longer concerns itself with production, but only with the exchange of the products—the merchants…. (This class) makes itself into an indispensable middleman between any two producers and exploits them both. Under the pretext… (of becoming) the most useful class of the population, a class of parasites… who, as a reward for their actually very insignificant services, skim all the cream off production at home and abroad, rapidly amass enormous wealth and a corresponding social influence, and for that reason receive under civilization ever higher honors and ever greater control of production until at last they also bring forth a product of their own — the periodical trade crises. [note 25]

Hence, we see the sequence which, beginning with primitive communism, leads us to capitalism.

  1. Primitive communism.
  2. Division between barbarians and pastoral tribes (first division of labor: masters and slaves).
  3. Division between farmers and artisans (second division of labor).
  4. Birth of a merchant class (third division of labor) which
  5. Engenders periodic commercial crises (capitalism).

Now we know where classes come from; it remains for us to study:

This determines the economic conditions

We should first review very briefly the different societies which have preceded us.

We lack documents with which to study in detail the history of societies which preceded those of antiquity. But we know, for example, that with the Greeks, masters and slaves existed and that the merchant class was already beginning to develop. Then, in the Middle Ages, feudal society, with its lords and serfs, enabled the merchants to gain more and more importance. They clustered near the castles, in the heart of the bourgs (whence the name “bourgeois”). Moreover, in the Middle Ages, before capitalist production, there were only small enterprises, whose primary condition was that the producer be the owner of his instruments of labor. The means of production belonged to the individual and were adapted only to individual use. Consequently, they were paltry, small, and limited. The historical role of capitalist production and the bourgeoisie was to concentrate and enlarge these means of production, transforming them into the powerful levers of modern production.

...since the 15th century this has been historically worked out through the three phases of simple co-operation, manufacture, and modern industry. But the bourgeoisie, as is shown there, could not transform these puny means of production into mighty productive forces without transforming them, at the same time, from means of production of the individual into social means of production only workable by a collectivity of men. [note 26]

Hence, we see that, parallel with the evolution of classes (masters and slaves; lords and serfs), there is an evolution of the conditions of production, of distribution and of exchange of wealth, i.e., of economic conditions, and that this economic evolution follows step by step and coincides with the evolution of the modes of production. It is therefore the

Modes of production

that is, the condition of instruments and tools, their utilization, labor methods, in a word, the state of technology, which determines economic conditions.

The spinning-wheel, the hand-loom, the blacksmith’s hammer were replaced by the spinning machine, the power-loom, the steam-hammer; the individual workshop, by the factory, implying the cooperation of hundreds of thousands of workmen. In like manner, production itself changed from a series of individual into a series of social acts, and the products from individual to social products. [note 26]

Here we see that the evolution of modes of production totally transformed the productive forces. Now, while the tools of labor have become collective, the ownership of property has remained individual! Machines which can function only through collective implementation have remained the property of a single man. For this reason we see that

“[The productive forces], as they grow more and more powerful, against their quality as capital, this stronger and stronger command that their social character shall be recognized (...), tends to bring about that form of the socialization of great masses of the means of production which we meet with in the different kinds of joint-stock companies (...) At a further stage of evolution, this form also becomes insufficient (...), the official representative of capitalist society — the state — will ultimately have to undertake the direction of production (...) show how unnecessary the bourgeoisie are for that purpose [note 26] “All [the capitalist's] social functions are now performed by salaried employees.” [note 27]

Thus the contradictions of the capitalist system become clear to us:

On the one hand, perfecting of machinery, made by competition compulsory for each individual manufacturer, and complemented by a constantly growing displacement of laborers. Industrial reserve-army. On the other hand, unlimited extension of production, also compulsory under competition, for every manufacturer. On both sides, unheard-of development of productive forces, excess of supply over demand, over-production and products — excess there, of laborers, without employment and without means of existence. [note 27]

There is a contradiction between work which has become social and collective and property which has remained private. And so, with Marx, we shall say:

From forms of development of the productive forces these relations turn into their fetters. Then begins an era of social revolution. [note 23]


Before ending this chapter, we must make a few comments and underline the fact that, in this study, we find all the characteristics and laws of dialectics which we have just studied.

Indeed, we have just very quickly traced the history of societies, of classes and of modes of production. We see how dependent each part of this study is on the others. We find that this history is essentially in motion and that the changes which occur at each stage of the evolution of society are provoked by an internal struggle between the different conservative and progressive elements, a struggle which ends in the destruction of one society and in the birth of a new one. Each society has a character and a structure quite different from the society which preceded it. These radical transformations occur after an accumulation of events which, in themselves, seem insignificant, but which, at a certain moment, create by their accumulation a situation which provokes an abrupt, revolutionary change.

Hence, here we recognize the characteristics and the great general laws of dialectics namely:

  • The interdependence of things and events.
  • Dialectical motion and change.
  • Autodynamism.
  • Contradiction.
  • Reciprocal action.
  • And evolution by leaps (transformation of quantity into quality).

Further reading

Engels: Socialism: utopian and scientific

Engels: The origin of the family, private property and the state

See: Control questions

Dialectical materialism and ideologies

Application of the dialectical method to ideologies

What is the importance of ideologies for marxism?

We are accustomed to hearing that marxism is a materialist philosophy which denies the role of ideas in history. Denying the role of the ideological factor, it only considers economic influences.

This is false. Marxism does not deny the important role of the mind, of art or of ideas in life. Quite to the contrary, it attaches a particular importance to these ideological forms. We are going to end this study of the elementary principles of marxism by examining how the method of dialectical materialism may be applied to ideologies. We shall see what the role of ideologies in history, i.e., the influence of the ideological factor, is and what ideological forms are.

This part of marxism which we are about to study is the least known part of this philosophy. The reason for this is that, for a long time, attention has been centered on the part of marxism which deals with political economy. As a result, this subject has been arbitrarily separated, not only from the great “whole” which marxism forms, but from its very foundation. For what enabled political economy to become a true science was historical materialism, which is, as we have seen, an application of dialectical materialism.

We might point out, parenthetically, that this manner of proceeding derives from the metaphysical spirit which we have so much trouble ridding ourselves of. It is, let us repeat, to the extent that we isolate things and study them unilaterally, that we commit mistakes.

Incorrect interpretations of marxism derive, therefore, from the fact that the role of ideologies in history and in life has not been sufficiently underlined. Ideologies have been separated from marxism. As a result, marxism has been separated from dialectical materialism, that is to say, from itself!

We are happy to see that, in recent years, thanks in part to the work of the Workers’ University in Paris, through which several thousands of students have come to know marxism, thanks also to the work of our intellectual comrades who have contributed to the cause through their work and their books, marxism has regained its true character and the place which belongs to it.

What is an ideology? (Ideological factors and forms)

We shall open this chapter, which is dedicated to the role of ideologies, with a few definitions.

What do we call an ideology? Ideology implies, above all, ideas. Ideology is a collection of ideas which form a whole, a theory, a system or even at times simply a state of mind.

Marxism is an ideology which forms a whole and which offers a method of resolving all problems. A republican ideology is the collection of ideas which we find in the mind of a republican. [note 28]

But an ideology is not only a collection of pure ideas, supposedly void of any feeling (this is a metaphysical concept); an ideology necessarily includes feelings, likes, dislikes, hopes, fears, etc. In the proletarian ideology, we find the ideal elements of class struggle, but we also find feelings of solidarity with those who are exploited by the capitalist system, with the “imprisoned,” as well as feelings of revolt, of enthusiasm, etc. All of these elements make up an ideology.

Now let us see what is meant by the ideological factor: this is ideology considered as a cause or a force which acts, which is capable of exerting influence. This is why one speaks of the influence of the ideological factor. Religions, for example, are an ideological factor which we must take account of; they have a moral force of considerable influence.

What is an ideological form? This term designates a collection of particular ideas which form an ideology in a specialized field. Religion and ethics are forms of ideology, as are science, philosophy, literature, art and poetry.

Hence, if we want to examine the role of the history of ideology in general and of all its forms in particular, we must conduct our study, not by separating ideology from history, i.e., from the life of society, but by determining the role of ideology, its factors and forms, in and beginning with society.

Economic structure and ideological structure

In our study of historical materialism, we saw that the history of societies may be explained in the following sequence: men make history by their actions, the expression of their will. The latter is determined by their ideas. We have seen that what explains men’s ideas, i.e., their ideology, is the social milieu in which we find classes, themselves determined by the economic factor, i.e., in the last analysis, by the mode of production.

We have also seen that between the ideological factor and the social factor there is the political factor, which appears in the ideological struggle as the expression of the social struggle.

If, then, we examine the structure of society in the light of historical materialism, we see that its foundation is the economic structure, then, above it, there is the social structure, which supports the political structure, and finally the ideological structure.

We see that, for materialists, the ideological structure is at the top of the social edifice, while, for idealists, the ideological structure is at its base.

In the social production of their existence, men inevitably enter into definite relations, which are independent of their will, namely relations of production appropriate to a given stage in the development of their material forces of production. The totality of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which arises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness. The mode of production of material life conditions the general process of social, political and intellectual life. [note 23]

Consequently, we see that it is the economic structure which forms the foundation of society. We might also say that it is the infrastructure (which means inferior, or lower, structure).

Ideology, including all its forms: ethics, religion, science, poetry, art and literature, constitutes the supra—or superstructure (which means structure at the top).

Since we know, as materialist theory shows, that ideas are the reflection of things, that it is our social existence which determines our consciousness, we may say that the superstructure is the reflection of the infrastructure.

Here is an example by Engels, which clearly shows this to be so:

Calvin's creed was one fit for the boldest of the bourgeoisie of his time. His predestination doctrine was the religious expression of the fact that in the commercial world of competition success or failure does not depend upon a man's activity or cleverness, but upon circumstances uncontrollable by him. It is not of him that willeth or of him that runneth, but of the mercy of unknown superior economic powers; and this was especially true at a period of economic revolution, when all old commercial routes and centres were replaced by new ones, when India and America were opened to the world, and when even the most sacred economic articles of faith – the value of gold and silver – began to totter and to break down. [note 29]

What happens in the economic life of merchants? They compete with each other. Merchants and bourgeois alike have experienced this competition, in which there are victors and vanquished. Quite often, the most resourceful and intelligent are defeated by competition, by a crisis which crops up and downs them. For them, this crisis is unpredictable, a blow of fate. It is this idea, that, for no apparent reason, the least clever sometimes survive crises, which is transposed in the Protestant religion. It is this observation, that some accidentally “make it,” which creates the idea of predestination according to which men must submit to a fate which is fixed, for all eternity, by God.

From this example of the reflection of economic conditions, we see how the superstructure is the reflection of the infrastructure.

Here is another example: let us take the mentality of two non-union, i.e., politically undeveloped, workers. One works in a big factory, where the work is rationalized; the other for a small craftsman. It is certain that both of them will have a different conception of their boss. For one, the boss will be the ferocious exploiter, characteristic of capitalism. The other will see the boss as a worker, certainly well-off, but a worker and not a tyrant.

It is surely the reflection of their conditions of work which will determine their conception of management.

This important example causes us, in order to be precise, to make certain observations.

True and false consciousness

We have just said that ideologies are the reflection of the material conditions of society, that social being determines social consciousness. One might conclude from this that the proletariat must automatically have a proletarian ideology.

But such a supposition does not correspond to reality, for there are workers who do not have a worker’s consciousness.

Hence, we must make a distinction: people may live in certain conditions, but their consciousness of it may not correspond to reality. This is what Engels terms “having a false consciousness.”

Example: some workers are influenced by the doctrine of corporatism which is a return towards the Middle Ages and handicrafts. In this case, there is a consciousness of the misery of workers, but it is not a true and correct consciousness. Ideology certainly is, in this case, a reflection of the conditions of social life, but it is not a loyal or exact reflection.

In people’s consciousness, this reflection is often “upside down.” To observe the existence of misery is a reflection of social conditions, but this reflection becomes false when one thinks that a return to handicrafts would be the solution to the problem. Hence, here we see a consciousness which is partly true and partly false.

The worker who is a royalist also has a consciousness which is both true and false. True because he wants to eliminate the misery which he observes; false because he thinks a king can do that. And, simply because he has reasoned badly, because he has poorly chosen his ideology, this worker can become a class enemy for us, even though he belongs to our class. Thus, to have a false consciousness is to be mistaken or deceived about one’s true condition.

We can say, then, that ideology is the reflection of the conditions of existence, but that it is not an inevitable reflection.

Moreover, we must point out that everything possible is done to give us a false consciousness and to develop the influence of the ideology of the ruling classes on the exploited classes. The first elements of a life conception which we receive, our education and instruction, give us a false consciousness. Our connections in life, a peasant background for some of us, propaganda, the press, the radio also falsify our consciousness at times.

Consequently, ideological work is of extreme importance for us as Marxists. False consciousness must be destroyed in order for us to attain a true consciousness. Without ideological work, this transformation cannot be realized.

Those who consider marxism to be a fatalistic doctrine are, therefore, wrong, since, in reality, we believe that ideologies play a large role in society and that one must teach and learn the philosophy of marxism so that it may become an efficient tool and weapon.

Action and reaction of ideological factors

From the examples of true and false consciousness above, we have seen that we mustn’t always try to explain ideas only by the economy, thereby denying that ideas exert any influence. To proceed in this way would be to interpret marxism incorrectly.

Ideas can be explained, certainly, in the last analysis, by the economy, but they also have an activity of their own.

…According to the materialist conception of history, the ultimately determining element in history is the production and reproduction of real life. More than this neither Marx nor I have ever asserted. Hence if somebody twists this into saying that the economic element is the only determining one, he transforms that proposition into a meaningless, abstract, senseless phrase. The economic situation is the basis, but the various elements of the superstructure... also exercise their influence upon the course of the historical struggles and in many cases preponderate in determining their form. There is an interaction of all these elements in which, amid all the endless host of accidents (that is, of things and events whose inner interconnection is so remote or so impossible of proof that we can regard it as nonexistent, as negligible), the economic movement finally asserts itself as necessary. [note 30]

Hence, we see that we must examine everything before looking for the economic factor and that, while the latter is the cause in the last analysis, we must always remember that it is not the only cause.

Ideologies are reflections and the effects of economic conditions, but the relation between the two is not simple, for we also observe a reciprocal action of ideologies on the infrastructure.

If we want to study the mass movement which developed in France after February 6, 1934 [note 31], we shall do so from two angles, in order to demonstrate what we have just discussed.

  1. Some explain this movement by saying that its cause was the economic crisis. This is a materialist, but unilateral, explanation. This explanation takes only one factor into consideration: the economic one, in this case, the crisis.
  2. This reasoning is, therefore, partly correct, but on the condition that another explanatory factor be added: what people were thinking, their ideology. Now, in this mass movement, people were “anti-Fascist.” These feelings were due to the propaganda which gave rise to the Popular Front. But, in order for this propaganda to be effective, a favorable terrain was necessary. What one was able to do in 1936 was not possible in 1932. Finally, we know how, afterwards, this mass movement and its ideology in turn influenced the economy by the social struggle which they inspired.

Hence, in this example we see that ideology, which is the reflection of social conditions, becomes in turn a cause of events.

Political, juridical, philosophical, religious, literary, artistic, etc., development is based on economic development. But all these react upon one another and also upon the economic basis. It is not that the economic situation is cause, solely active, while everything else is only passive effect. There is, rather, interaction on the basis of economic necessity, which ultimately asserts itself. [note 32]


The basis of the right of inheritance—assuming that the stages reached in the development of the family are the same—is an economic one. Nevertheless, it would be difficult to prove, for instance, that the absolute liberty of the testator in England and the severe restrictions in every detail imposed upon him in France are due to economic causes alone. Both react back, however, on the economic sphere to a very considerable extent, because they influence the distribution of property. [note 33]

To cite a more contemporary example, we shall take that of taxes. We all have an idea about taxes. The rich want theirs reduced and so favor indirect taxes; workers and the middle classes want, on the contrary, a fiscality based on direct and progressive taxation. So then, the idea which we have about taxes, and which is an ideological factor, has its origin in our economic situation, which is created and imposed by capitalism. The rich wish to keep their privileges and fight to preserve the present mode of taxation and to reinforce the laws in this direction. Now, these laws, which derive from ideas, react on the economy, for they destroy small commerce and the handicrafts and accelerate capitalist concentration.

Consequently, we see that economic conditions give rise to modifications in economic conditions, and that is by taking into account this reciprocity of relations that we should examine ideologies, all ideologies. It is only in the last analysis that we see economic necessities always prevail.

We know that it is the mission of writers and thinkers to propagate, if not defend, ideologies. Their thoughts and writings are not always very typical or straightforward, but, in fact, even in simple tales or stories, upon analysis we can always find an ideology. To make this type of analysis is a very delicate operation, and we must be very prudent. We are going to indicate a dialectical method of analysis, which will be of great assistance, but we must be careful not to be mechanical and try to explain the unexplainable.

Dialectical method of analysis

In order to apply the dialectical method properly, one must know many things. If you do not know your subject, it must be studied carefully, otherwise, your judgment will amount to only a caricature of the truth.

  1. In order to make an analysis of a literary work, a book or story, we are going to indicate a method which may be applied to other subjects as well.You must first pay attention to the content of the book or story you wish to analyze. Examine it independently of any social question, for not everything is derived from class struggle or economic conditions. There are literary influences which we must take into consideration. Try to see to which “literary school” the work belongs. Take into account the internal development of ideologies. Practically speaking, it would be good to make a summary of the subject under analysis and to note down anything you found remarkable.
  2. Next observe the social types the heroes of the intrigue belong to. Look for the class to which they belong. Examine the action of the characters and see if what takes place in the novel can be linked in some way to a social viewpoint. If this is not possible, if it cannot reasonably be done, it is better to abandon the analysis rather than invent. You must never invent an explanation.
  3. After you have discovered what class or classes are involved, you must determine the economic foundation, i.e., the means of production and the way of producing at the moment when the action of the novel takes place. If, for example, the action is contemporary, the economic system is capitalism. At present we see numerous stories and novels which criticize and fight capitalism. But there are two ways to fight capitalism:
    1. As a revolutionary seeking to go forward.
    2. As a reactionary, who wants to return to the past. It is often this form which we encounter in modern novels, in which one longs for the “good old days.”
  4. Once we have obtained all this, we can then look for the ideology, i.e., see what the ideas and feelings, the way of thinking, of the author is. While searching for the ideology, we shall keep in mind the role it plays, its influence on the minds of those who read the book.
  5. We can then conclude our analysis, by saying why such a story or novel was written at such a moment. And criticize or praise, according to the case, the author’s intentions (often unconscious).

This method of analysis can be effective only if one remembers, while applying it, everything which has been said previously. We must remember that dialectics, while it provides us with a new way of conceiving things, also demands that we know them well in order to discuss and analyze them.

Consequently, now that we have seen what our method consists of, we must try, in our studies and in our personal and militant lives, to see things in their motion, in their changes, in their contradictions and in their historical significance and not in a static, immobile state. We must try to study them as well in all their aspects and not unilaterally. In short, we must always try to apply the dialectical spirit everywhere.

The need for ideological struggle

We know better now what dialectical materialism is, the modern form of materialism founded by Marx and Engels and developed by Lenin. In the present work we have made particular use of texts by Marx and Engels, but we cannot end this course without pointing out that the philosophical work of Lenin is also considerable. That is why today we speak of marxism-leninism.

Marxism-leninism and dialectical materialism are inseparably united. Only through the knowledge of dialectical materialism can one measure the entire scope and wealth of marxism-leninism. This leads us to the conclusion that the militant is not truly armed ideologically unless he is familiar with the entirety of this doctrine. Having understood this, the bourgeoisie attempts to introduce, by any means, its own ideology into the consciousness of workers. Knowing perfectly well that, of all the aspects of marxism-leninism, it is dialectical materialism which is, at present, least known, the bourgeoisie has organized a campaign of silence against it. It is painful to note that the official instruction is oblivious to this method, and that teaching methodology in schools and universities has not changed in the last hundred years.

If, formerly, the metaphysical method dominated the dialectical method, this was due, as we have seen, to the ignorance of people. Today, science has provided us with the means to demonstrate that the dialectical method is most suitable to scientific research. It is scandalous that our children continue to be taught how to think and study with a method born of ignorance.

While in their scientific research scientists can no longer study, in their specializations, without taking into account the interpenetration of the sciences, in this way unconsciously utilizing a part of dialectics, too often they apply the intellectual training given to them and which is infused with the metaphysical spirit. How much progress would have been realized by those great scientists who have already contributed to humanity—for example, Pasteur and Branly, who were idealists and believers—if they had had a dialectical training!

But there is a form of struggle against marxism-leninism which is even more dangerous than this campaign of silence, namely, those distortions which the bourgeoisie tries to organize even within the workers’ movement. At this moment, we witness the blossoming of numerous “theoreticians,” who claim to be “Marxists” and who pretend to be “renewing” or “rejuvenating” marxism. Campaigns of this nature often choose for their foundation those aspects of marxism which are least known, in particular, materialist philosophy.

Thus, for example, there are people who claim to accept marxism as a concept of revolutionary action, but not as a general conception of the world. They maintain that one can be perfectly Marxist without accepting materialist philosophy. In conformity with this general attitude, diverse attempts at adulteration occur. People who still call themselves Marxists try to introduce into marxism concepts which are incompatible with its very foundation, namely, materialist philosophy. We have seen such attempts in the past. It was against them that Lenin wrote Materialism and empiriocriticism. At the present time, in a period of large diffusion of marxism, we are witnessing the rebirth and multiplication of these attempts. How can we expect to recognize and uncover those who attack marxism in its philosophical aspect, if we do not know the true philosophy of marxism?


Fortunately, for several years now, and in the working class in particular, we have observed a tremendous thrust towards the study of the whole of marxism and a growing interest precisely in the study of materialist philosophy. This is clearly an indication that, in the present situation, the working class has perfectly understood the justice of the reasons which we gave in the beginning for studying materialist philosophy. Through their own experience, workers have learned the necessity of linking practice to theory and, at the same time, the necessity of extending theoretical study as far as possible. The role of every militant must be to reinforce this tendency and to give it a proper direction and content. We are happy to see that, thanks to the Workers’ University in Paris, (Today “Université Nouvelle” [New University] 8, Avenue Mathurin-Moreau, Paris, France.), several thousand have learned what dialectical materialism is. While this illustrates in a striking manner our struggle against the bourgeoisie and shows us which side science is on, it also shows us our duty. We must study. We must know and make marxism known in all circles. Parallel with the struggle in the streets and at work, militants must lead an ideological struggle. Their duty is to defend our ideology against all forms of attack and, at the same time, to lead the counter-offensive for the destruction of bourgeois ideology in the consciousness of workers. But, in order to dominate all aspects of this struggle, we must be armed. The militant can truly be armed only through the knowledge of dialectical materialism.

Until we have constructed a classless society in which nothing will thwart the development of science, such is the essential part of our duty.

See: Control questions


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 1.5 1.6 1.7 1.8 Engels: Ludwig Feuerbach: Materialism
  2. Diderot, “Letter on the blind”.
  3. Lenin: Materialism and empiriocriticism/Prefaces: In lieu of an introduction
  4. Berkeley, as cited by Lenin in Materialism and empiriocriticism/Prefaces, In lieu of an introduction
  5. Theology is the “science” (!) that deals with God and divine things.
  6. René Maublanc: La vie ouvrière, November 25, 1935
  7. See, as an example of the idealists' way of arguing, the chapter entitled “The discovery of the world-elements”, in Lenin's book: Materialism and empiriocriticism.
  8. Lenin: Materialism and empiriocriticism/Prefaces
  9. 9.0 9.1 Hume, as cited by Lenin in Materialism and empiriocriticism/Prefaces: In lieu of an introduction
  10. 10.0 10.1 10.2 Engels: Socialism: utopian and scientific/Prefaces: General introduction and the history of materialism
  11. Lenin: Materialism and empiriocriticism: What is matter? What is experience?
  12. Lenin: Materialism and empiriocriticism: “Matter has disappeared”
  13. 13.0 13.1 13.2 13.3 13.4 Engels: Anti-Dühring: Philosophy
  14. 14.0 14.1 Lenin: Materialism and empiriocriticism
  15. See explanation of this word, section “Consequences of idealist reasoning”
  16. Marx-Engels: "The Holy Family", Philosophical Studies, Social Editions, 1961
  17. Engels: Socialism: utopian and scientific
  18. 18.0 18.1 Engels: Ludwig Feuerbach: Hegel
  19. 19.00 19.01 19.02 19.03 19.04 19.05 19.06 19.07 19.08 19.09 19.10 19.11 Engels: Ludwig Feuerbach: Marx
  20. See: Study of metaphysics
  21. 21.0 21.1 21.2 Engels: Anti-Dühring: Introduction
  22. Marx and Engels: Manifesto of the communist party: Bourgeois and proletarians
  23. 23.0 23.1 23.2 Marx: A contribution to the critique of political economy: Preface
  24. Engels: Ludwig Feuerbach: Feuerbach
  25. 25.0 25.1 25.2 25.3 25.4 25.5 Engels: The origin of the family, private property and the state: Barbarism and civilization
  26. 26.0 26.1 26.2 Engels: Socialism: utopian and scientific: Historical materialism
  27. 27.0 27.1 Engels: Socialism: utopian and scientific: Historical materialism: Capitalist_revolution
  28. “Republican” as in someone who supports a republic.
  29. Engels: Socialism: utopian and scientific/Prefaces: History of the English middle-class
  30. Engels letter to J. Bloch In Königsberg Available in MIA: https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1890/letters/90_09_21.htm
  31. The authors are referring to the Popular Front, a coalition of left-wing parties (Socialists, Communists and Radicals) which came to power in France in 1936. The riot of February 6, 1934, was crucial to this movement, for it led first to a spontaneous grouping of the masses with the leaders of the left-wing parties and, later in the year, to an agreement “against fascism and war,” signed between Communists and Socialists. After the success of the Popular Front in the elections of May 1936, Leon Blum constituted a left-wing government which was to remain in power until June 1937
  32. Engels letter to Borgius Available on MIA: https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1894/letters/94_01_25.htm
  33. Engels letter to C. Schmidt Available on MIA: https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1890/letters/90_10_27.htm