In the previous article we analysed some of the basic concepts in Engels’ work and what the problem with utopian socialism was. The basic problem was that the utopian socialists, lacking the proper class analysis, ended up fusing their socialism with the ethics, values and class interests of the emerging capitalist class.
We examined how the philosophy of materialism laid the groundwork for scientific socialism and how idealism led the utopian socialists astray. This time, in chapter two, Engels transports us to Germany to explain one of the most formidable concepts in philosophy, dialectics. Dialectics is an incredibly complex topic, whose history and development are equally complicated, originating from Ancient Greece. However, for our purposes, since we take a materialist position, the question of dialectics boils down to a simple question: is matter stationary or is it in motion? This question may seem incredibly banal or irrelevant to a discussion of scientific socialism. However, it is fundamental to an understanding of what makes the materialism of scientific socialists different from the idealism of the utopians.
Engels asserts that our intuitive understanding of the world around us is that everything is constantly in motion:
“When we consider and reflect upon Nature at large, or the history of mankind, or our own intellectual activity, at first we see the picture of an endless entanglement of relations and reactions, permutations and combinations, in which nothing remains what, where and as it was, but everything moves, changes, comes into being and passes away […] we observe the movements, transitions, connections, rather than the things that move, combine, and are connected.”
Put simply, when we look out into the world, we see that things come and go; a flower blossoms in the spring and wilts in the autumn as the trees lose their leaves. But the question Engels is asking us is slightly more subtle than these obvious changes. He thinks that we are looking too narrowly at the changes in individual objects, rather than looking at them and the relationships between them in their broader context. This is how he characterises the work of the natural sciences. When we began studying the natural world, we broke it down into its different distinct parts, observed their natural processes, and then classified them into different categories. We saw the example of botany earlier, with the tree and the flower, but the same process is at play across the natural sciences: chemistry, biology, geology, and so on.
The problem Engels sees in the approach of the natural sciences is that they observe things in isolation from one another. Engels refers to this as metaphysics, which, in philosophy, is the study of the fundamental nature of reality. Metaphysics, he says, is the opposite of dialectics, because:
“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 … 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.”
Or put another way, metaphysicians can only think about things as totally separated and isolated binaries; for example, a tree is not a flower. While Engels admits that this appeals to our common sense understanding of things, he implores us to take a closer look at the binary relationship between fixed things to understand that reality is more complex than a “this or that” analysis. True, a tree is not a flower, but the two things are not entirely distinct. Both receive their nourishment from the soil and the sun, and indeed flowers may grow on trees, for example. So, when we take a broader view, the two things are related. Far from being abstract philosophical speculation, the metaphysical way of thinking should remind us of how Engels spoke about the utopian socialists. Their way of thinking was based on fixed ideas about what the ideal society should look like, projected above our heads like the heavens, as opposed to the scientific socialist perspective on what society currently does look like and how it develops.
This brings us to the concept of dialectics. Take for example, red and blue. They are contrasting colours: red is not blue. However, by understanding this contrast, we gain a clearer understanding of what colour itself is by expanding our knowledge of the different shades, which in turn leads us towards a greater understanding of the light spectrum in general. As the shades of blue and red intersect, we get purple. Their initial opposition becomes a unity which, as soon as it appears, continues its movement, becoming something else. While this is a very simple example, the important point is that this contrast helps us understand the bigger picture, that is, the light spectrum in general.
To use the example of cause-and-effect which Engels cited above, it is clear that cause and effect are total opposites of one another. However, is it possible to think about one without the other? What meaning does a cause possess on its own without the effect it produces? Essentially, dialectics says that the very identity of a thing depends upon what it is contrasted with, its opposite. In this case, the cause is contained within the effect and vice versa. The tree contains the seed which will then produce another tree. They both depend on one another for us to understand; the seed cannot be thought about in isolation from the tree. This ongoing exchange is at the heart of dialectics. It starts with a simple opposition between two things and begins the process of comparing and contrasting to arrive at a fuller understanding of what we are investigating. This is possible because matter is in constant motion, as we described above.
Now that we’ve grasped this we can see what the metaphysicians get wrong: nothing is ever entirely fixed or rigid but rather, things are always in motion. To bring these philosophical questions back to socialism, it is clear why dialectics would appeal to the scientific socialists. A metaphysician could say of politics, “your place in society is fixed because that is just how the world works.” There are plenty of concrete, historical examples of this reasoning. We need only consider the justifications for slavery on the basis of skin colour, a peasant’s place in the feudal order because the social hierarchy was “God’s will,” the poor under capitalism being poor because they are innately less hard working than capitalist “innovators.” However, for scientific socialists, a person has no fixed, unchanging “human nature” or “essence,” but rather, they change according to the developments in the material conditions of the society they’re living in.
However, Engels (and Marx) didn’t come up with this particular kind of dialectics on their own. The concept of dialectics was first elaborated by Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, an 18th century German philosopher. In Hegel’s system:
“for the first time the whole world, natural, historical, intellectual, is represented as a process – i.e., as in constant motion, change, transformation, development; and the attempt is made to trace out the internal connection that makes a continuous whole of all this movement and development.”
Despite crediting Hegel with this new philosophy, there remained a problem for Engels: Hegel was an idealist. As we saw in the previous article, idealism holds that reality is constituted by human ideas about objects, and rejects the claim that objects have an independent existence to human thought. We saw the outcome of this reasoning in the previous article. Now we can add that not only were the utopian socialists idealists, but they were also metaphysicians. They did not see society in motion but instead invented fixed visions of what an ideal society could look like, ignoring what already exists. The scientific socialists, the materialists, did the opposite and took a dialectical approach to understanding society as it currently exists and develops.
A contradiction appears here: if an idealist philosopher developed dialectics, and the utopian socialists were idealists, then how can Engels claim that dialectics is at the heart of scientific socialism? To break out of this contradiction, Marx and Engels had to develop their own philosophy: dialectical materialism. Dialectical materialism is distinct from the idealist Hegelian model of dialectics. As the name suggests, it is a combination of materialism (matter precedes thought) and dialectics (the theory of development and motion). Why is this change from idealism to materialism in dialectics so important? Because this approach allows us to concretely understand not only the natural world but society and its development as well. Dialectical materialism is therefore also a theory of history which will be analysed in the next part.
This section has gone through quite a few quite complex parts of socialist theory and philosophy while leaving quite a few loose ends. In the next article we shall see how they relate to historical materialism and how they are used to understand and analyse the economic mode of production of our society.