[CU for Thursday, 29 October 2009]
This series on “Philosophy, Religion, and Revolution” is bound to come up against Frederick Engels, and it might as well do so early. So the main linked item below, known as “On Dialectics”, is a preface to Engel’s polemical work against Herr Eugen Dühring, known as “Anti-Dühring”.
Among other things, we are going to be saying that philosophy is indispensible to politics, and that weakness in philosophy will have, and in the past did have, disastrous effects upon political work. It turns out that although Karl Marx had a doctorate in philosophy and was reliable, and did inform all his works with philosophy, yet it was Engels who wrote didactically (that is, he preached) about philosophy, and principally in the work known as “Anti-Dühring”. This is the work that contains the notorious “tools of analysis” that encourage people to have the illusion that they have a simple set of keys to the kingdom of knowledge. This CU course will leave those “tools” aside, deliberately; but we are forced to spend some time with the book in general, because it has been so influential.
The book is an argument against a person who was of very little consequence in history. Without wishing to be cruel, one could say that Dühring was a nobody. At least, he was thoroughly ordinary, only extraordinarily muddle-headed. In the book, Engels spends a tedious amount of time explaining Dühring’s errors. Engels is then obliged to express a fully-elaborated alternative world outlook, being unable to rely upon any of Dühring’s work. Hence “Anti-Dühring” appears as and became known as a compendium, and was recognised as such by Lenin, among others.
Engels spends the first page of this preface with Dühring, before breaking away with the remark that “theoretical thought is a historical product”. Then he begins to expound dialectics, investigated, as he claims, prior to his and Marx’s work, only by Hegel [Image, above] and by Aristotle. Dialectics “alone offers the analogue for, and thereby the method of explaining, the evolutionary processes occurring in nature, inter-connections in general, and transitions from one field of investigation to another,” says Engels.
The claim that Engels is making for dialectics is that it, and only it, can embrace the entirety of human thought through history, as well as the entirety of human understanding in the present. Because of dialectics, because of Aristotle, Hegel, Marx and Engels, all of this becomes possible and at the same time, therefore, unavoidable.
This recognition of unity in human history, experience, and understanding is simultaneously a great breakthrough and a pillar of our age, but also a contested, and to some extent unabsorbed idea. It would make racism impossible, for example; yet racism survives. There remain opposing schools of philosophy, and the irrational, anti-human and reactionary system called “post-modernism” has in recent decades become the mental currency of Imperialism.
To illustrate the continuity of philosophical thought and development the CU gives you a chronicle and a diagram of philosophical thought that may serve as a framework for further studies (“Philosophers”, linked). This is followed by a longer document, written by Anthony Blunt, that describes the Italian Renaissance (rebirth) through the life and work of Leon Battista Alberti. The Renaissance is significant as the link between the ancient Greek and Roman worlds and the modern world. It drew also upon Arab, Indian and Chinese culture. This piece of writing can help show how, in historical actuality, the unity of historical thought that Hegel later theorised had in fact been created.
The Italian Renaissance, based as it was on reason and the understanding that humans can develop human culture, not absolutely limited by the extent of the knowledge of the ancients, or by any other limitation, offers a pure and developed form of humanism. The Italian Renaissance was later overcome by its own internal reactionary forces, but humanism did not sleep as long as it had after the fall of the
Finally, but not for the first time in the new CU Generic Courses, we link to Engels’ “Socialism, Utopian and Scientific”, extracted by Engels from his larger work, “Anti-Dühring”, which helps to place thought in a historical framework. For example, dealing with the period subsequent to the Renaissance and immediately prior to the French Revolution that is often referred to as “The Enlightenment”, Engels writes:
“We know today that this kingdom of reason was nothing more than the idealized kingdom of the bourgeoisie; that this eternal Right found its realization in bourgeois justice; that this equality reduced itself to bourgeois equality before the law; that bourgeois property was proclaimed as one of the essential rights of man; and that the government of reason, the Contrat Social [Social Contract] of Rousseau, came into being, and only could come into being, as a democratic bourgeois republic. The great thinkers of the 18th century could, no more than their predecessors, go beyond the limits imposed upon them by their epoch.”
Here is the limitation imposed upon the Subject by the objective circumstances. This is humanism. Humanism says that humans build humanity (see also the quote from Spinoza referred to above) within the given material world and history. Nowhere does Engels say that humanity is an accidental combination of atoms and molecules.
Yet, by chastising the great Hegel with the same kind of roughness as he treats the nonentity Dühring, Engels sowed the seeds of others’ subsequent and greater errors, by elevating the dichotomy of “idealism and materialism” to a master-narrative of philosophy, which it is not, and leading finally towards that absurdity which we will continue to expose, that says that humanity is reducible to matter.
Communists have relied too heavily upon Engels to teach them philosophy. As a result they have magnified Engels’ otherwise unremarkable mistakes to monstrous proportions. The main one of these is the denigration of “idealism” and the perverse worship of “materialism”. Whereas it is the free-willing human Subject which was at the centre of Marx’s work, and which must be at the centre of any communist’s work.
Click on these links:
On Dialectics, 1878, Engels (3279 words)
Philosophers, 2004, Tweedie (2657 words)
Alberti and Spinoza compilation, Blunt, Spinoza (7150 words)
Socialism, Utopian and Scientific, 1880, Engels (16229 words)