Marxism and materialism: part 1

Epicurus, the greatest ancient Greek materialist philosopher

Any Marxist knows that one of the key features of Marxism is that it is materialist, this word being used in the philosophical sense, i.e. not a shallow focus on material goods.  At one level this is a really simple idea  – “being causes consciousness” in the last instance, as the famous dictum goes.  But   at another level, this is really quite an ambiguous idea.  What does materialism mean?  And, just as importantly, what has it meant and what should it mean?

Marx’s writings don’t – at least explicitly –  give us a lot to go on as far as his idea of materialism is concerned.  We know that Marx was critical of what he called “contemplative” (what Engels calls “mechanical”) materialism, and we have a lot of negative/indirect resources in the form of Marx’s critiques of Hegel.  What can we glean from what we have concerning Marx’s view, which is not of course the end of the story, as Marx’s writings aren’t some kind if holy scripture.  Marxism is a living project.

There are, as I see it, three broad ways we can usually classify materialism through most of its history:

  • Practical materialism: Emphasizes concrete social practice, says that ideas emerge from such social practice.
  • Epistemological/methodological materialism: In the process of inquiry, operating under the assumption that all things have material explanations, in the last instance, such as in natural science.
  • Ontological materialism: The idea that everything that exists is constitutively “material” in its nature.

The most important materialism for Marx is historical materialism, his historiography and method of social inquiry, and inasmuch as this method is materialist, the emphasis seems to be on practical materialism, while Engels focused his attention on the latter two.  This isn’t to suggest that Marx wouldn’t have endorsed Engels’ philosophy, or that there is some radical break between the two thinkers, as is popular among many “academic Marxists.”  I am simply saying what implications can be drawn from that individuals’ authored texts.

A later photo of Karl Marx

Leaving aside several possible controversies for now (such as the extent of a real division between ontological and epistemological materialism), let’s move to Engels, where materialism as a philosophical view is treated much more extensively.  Engels is pretty clearly committed to ontological materialism, as he thinks materialism is an idea that applies universally (rather than particularly), and to reality itself.  This is a pretty clear answer to the classical ontological question, what is the nature of being? “Material, in the last instance,” replies Engels, with the “in the last instance” indicating the dialectical and non-reductive nature of that materialism.  Right now my goal is not to assess the relative merits of these various past conceptions of materialism, so let’s move on.

Marx and Engels, together, as they should be

The next major theorist of materialism, in terms of real innovation, was Lenin, with his Materialism and Empirio-Criticism and his Philosophical Notebooks.  While there was a lot of important Marxist materialist work done prior to Lenin (Plekhanov, Kautsky, etc.), these were more elaborations and systematization of views found in Marx and particularly Engels than it was highly original work; Engels was doing most of the philosophical heavy-lifting prior to Lenin, at least in my view.  Lenin is focused particularly on epistemological materialism, materialism as a form of thought.  Again, this isn’t to say he wouldn’t have endorsed ontological materialism, but he was preoccupied in Materialism and Empirio-criticism with attacking empirio-criticism, (very roughly) a sort of positivism that was taking hold among some of Lenin’s comrades, such as Bogdanov.

The first edition cover of Materialism and Empirio-criticism, published under the pseudonym V.I. Ilyin.

It is after this that the debate surrounding the relationship between Marxism and materialism gets a lot more complicated.  In 1923, Georg  Lukács, a major Hungarian communist thinker, published the monumental History and Class Consciousness.  It is difficult to understate the importance of this book, for it inaugurated the tradition of “Western Marxism,” in part a reaction to “official” Soviet Marxism.  After the turbulence of the first decades of the 20th century for the communist movement (the failure of the German revolution and the subsequent isolation of the Soviet Union, among other events), Lukács emphasized the dialectical, Hegelian side of Marx against the materialist side which was emphasized in the Second and eventually Third Internationals.

An analysis of Western Marxism as a phenomenon could take up a whole book, and in fact has taken up an excellent such book, Considerations on Western Marxism by Perry Anderson, which I highly recommend.  Regardless, in the Cold War years, the investigation into Marxist materialism entered a foggy and relatively unproductive phase.  In “the West,” Western Marxism reigned, retreating into universities and flinging cultural criticism from the ivory tower, while in “the East,” a relatively mechanical and shallow view of materialism similar to that in Engels’ Dialectics of Nature prevailed (Anti-Dühring is infinitely superior in my opinion).  There were exceptions to this trend on both sides of the iron curtain.  In “the West,” Louis Althusser with his anti-humanist structural Marxism made many important contributions to our understanding of the relationship between structure and conjuncture, Marxism and science, and most crucially critiques of the extreme Lukács-derived humanist Marxism, Roy Bhaskar (trained as an analytic philosopher) made critical contributions to Marxist philosophy of science, which is particularly important for our topic here, as did the admittedly Hegelian Marxist Alfred Schmidt with his The Concept of Nature in Marx.

Louis Althusser

I also happen to think that though he is not in the full-on Marxist camp, Gilles Deleuze produced crucial work n Materialism, but anyway, moving on.  In “the East,” Mao Tse-tung’s On Practice was a crucial contribution to our understanding of “practical materialism,” while for ontological and epistemological materialism, the work of Soviet thinkers like Evald Ilyenkov remain sadly under-appreciated in Western academia.  But, to return to where we started, there was still a relative dearth of Marxist materialism answering the central question at the heart of all this debate, the elephant in the room; what does it mean for something to be “material?”

There are a few answers to this question that are immediately apparent which I think are inadequate.  These days, one of the most intuitive answers seems to be physicalism.  This isn’t the same as “physicalism” in economics, which is an important concept for Marxism.  This is a specifically ontological view, which says that reality is ultimately made of those entities described by fundamental physics, whatever they happen to be at the moment.  It is worth noting here that even though I reject physicalism, it is a view that is often misunderstood by idiot mystics who think that quantum mechanics is somehow problematic for materialism.  Unless we understand “matter” to mean “really really small balls of baryonic matter,” like in Democritus, quantum mechanics is completely unproblematic insofar as materialism is concerned (whether it is problematic for reductive, non-dialectical materialism is another question).

This view, physicalism, is overall dominant within Anglophone analytic philosophy.  It is essentially the idea that “the physical” is the ultimate nature of being qua being, and takes two major forms.  The first, which I find much weaker intellectually, is reductive physicalism, the idea that all things can be reduced to physical things, or, in obnoxiously analytic language (sorry everyone), that all propositions are ultimately reducible to physical propositions.  The non-physical is just the composite of the physical, and usually doesn’t have ontological status.  The second version, which I admittedly find stronger, is so-called “supervenience physicalism.”  Despite the fancy analytic language, it’s really a simple idea.  Basically, all the physical facts “fix” all the non-physical facts, but the the non-physical facts are not reducible to the physical facts.  That is, there cannot be a change in the set of non-physical facts without a corresponding change in the set of physical facts, but the former cannot be “dissolved” and are not mere composites of the latter.

There are many problems I have with this view, not the least of which is my disapproval of analytic philosophy in general (I’m a recovering analytic philosopher myself, my background is originally in Quine, Wittgenstein, Frege, Searle, Dennett, Kripke, Strawson, Davidson, etc.).  While I won’t launch into detail here, I see no reason to accept physicalism.  The usual argument put forward usually boils down to an appeal to the history of science, where vital-force-type explanations gradually got replaced with explanations which can supposedly be reduced to physical ones.  Biology is reducible to chemistry is reducible to physics, so the usual hierarchy goes.  However, I have so many problems with the assumptions involved here that I don’t know where to even begin in building enough common ground from which to launch a critique.  First, I think the direction of reduction is totally arbitrary outside of the historical/institutional weight that physics carries (not to bash physics, I’m a student of physics myself).  From the perspective of an electron, why wouldn’t we say that their world is “fixed” by virtue of their organic relations to the totality, or at least organic system, of which they are a moment?  In other words, isn’t some physical entity, like an electron, defined partly through its relation to non-electrons?  It is what it is partly by virtue of what it is not.  This applies in general to the relationship between part and whole; one does not make sense without the other, and neither is “ultimate” in the last instance (Badiou’s notion of a multiplicity of multiplicities, “the one is not,” is crucial” here.)  This is basic dialectics, but arguing this to an analytic philosopher is usually futile.

Hegel, showing vulgar philosophers who’s boss since 1770

There is also the assumption that biology, chemistry, and physics exhaust “real science,” a corrosive and insidious positivism/scientism.  Lastly, there are problematic assumptions regarding the nature of scientific explanations.  Do not mistake me for an enemy of science here – I’m a scientific realist, not a postmodernist.  But there is often a conflating of “explanation” with prediction, of information in the probabilistic sense with knowledge/meaning, and a crude empiricism and/or falsificationism, the latter being especially prevalent.  Similar criticisms apply to conceptions of “the material” as “those sorts of things described by the natural sciences,” even if non-reductive.

In part 2, I will continue with my brief criticisms of various approaches to materialism that have been attempted both by Marxists and some others, and then lay out what I think is the best way to move forwards.


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