26 July 2013

The Subject Lives

Philosophy and Religion, Part 5a

The Subject Lives

In the previous post we said that in the late 20th Century, irrational “Post-modernism” became the house philosophy of Imperialism. Some declared the “Death of the Subject”, denying human free will, or agency.

James Heartfield’s 2002 book called “The ‘Death of the Subject’ Explained” confronted the Post-Modernists. Among other things, this book helped inspire the Johannesburg Communist University that started in 2003. Heartfield kindly allowed the CU to use extracts from the book. Some of these are contained in today’s main linked document, below. The illustration above is from the cover of the book.

What Heartfield manages to do very excellently is to make clear the nature of “Post-modernism” by contrasting it polemically with the basic question of philosophy, which is the relationship between the human Subject (individual and collective) and the external, objective, material universe.

Post-modernism had flourished in haze and half-light that was the consequence of the “Western” bourgeois anti-communism, hardly challenged, and veiled in mystification and obfuscation.

Whereas outright fascism had promoted the “triumph of the will”, or in other words pure subjectivism, post-modernism became a prophecy of impotence and fatalism, also sometimes called determinism.

Heartfield showed that these trends (i.e. both pure objectivism and pure subjectivism) though each appeared opposite to the other, yet both amounted to the same thing, namely anti-humanism, which in our time is anti-communism.

The human being exists, and can only exist, in the meeting place of Subject and Object. This is the master dialectic.

The first three pages of this document are a very brilliant explanation of the basis of society as it is in fact presently constructed around the freely willing human Subject. The following fifteen pages comprise a somewhat detailed account of the growth and the ramifications of post-modernism in the second half of the 20th Century.

In the eleven years that have passed since the publication of Heartfield’s book, it appears that the former ascendancy of post-modernism in the academy and in the intellectual community as a whole is now a thing of the past, and that the free-willing human Subjected has re-asserted itself. This coincides with the resurgence of Marxist thought and criticism in the world.

  • The above is to introduce the original reading-text: Death of the Subject Explained Selection, 2002, Heartfield, Part 1 and Part 2.

25 July 2013


Philosophy and Religion, Part 5

Uomo Universale: Man, the Measure of the Universe

Before we consider the main downloadable text of this post (see below), which is Christopher Caudwell’s essay on “Liberty”, here are two quotations from Caudwell via Helena Sheehan, taken from Helena Sheehan’s Christopher Caudwell web page, preceded by Sheehan’s remarks. These quotations bear on the fundamental question of “which is first, mind or matter”.

The act of knowing transformed what was known. It was never possible to detach the thing known from the knowing of it. Caudwell opposed all passivist imagery in describing knowledge. Knowledge was not a matter of copying, mirroring, photographing, reflecting. Although he never remarked on Lenin's use of such imagery in [Lenin’s] Materialism and Empirio-Criticism, he had read the book and his rejection of the reflectionist model was quite explicit and polemically expressed. In no uncertain terms, Caudwell made his point:

“The mirror reflects accurately: it does not know. Each particle in the universe reflects the rest of the universe, but knowledge is only given to human beings as a result of an active and social relation to the rest of reality.”

In terms of the debate within [Lenin’s] Materialism and Empirio-Criticism, [Caudwell’s] was neither the position of Lenin nor that of Bogdanov. Nor was it the position of Lukacs or Korsch either. It was perhaps the position Gramsci was groping for, but never expressed with such confident clarity as Caudwell. When it came down to it, being preceded knowing, knowing flowed from being and evolved as an extension of being. Decidedly post-Cartesian, Caudwell asserted: I live therefore I think I am. In a concise statement of the fundamental contours of his theory of knowledge, he wrote:

“The question of which is first, mind or matter, is not therefore a question of which is first, subject or object ... Going back in the universe along the dialectic of qualities, we reach by inference a state where no human or animal bodies existed and therefore no minds. It is not strictly accurate to say that therefore the object is prior to the subject any more than it is correct to say the opposite. Object and subject as exhibited by the mind relation, come into being simultaneously.... We can say that relations seen by us between qualities in our environment (the arrangement of the cosmos, energy, mass, all the entities of physics) existed before the subject-object relationship implied in mind. We prove this by the transformations which take place independent of our desires. In this sense, nature is prior to mind and this is the vital sense for science. These qualities produced, as cause and around produce effect, the synthesis, or particular subject-object relationship which we call knowing.  Nature therefore produced mind.  But the nature which produced mind was not nature "as seen by us." . . . It is nature.... as having indirect not direct relations with us.... Such a view reconciles the endless dualism of mentalism and objectivism. It is the universe of dialectical materialism. Unlike previous philosophies, it includes all reality: it includes not only the world of physics, but it includes smells, tastes, colors, the touch of a loved hand, hopes, desires, beauties, death and life, truth and error.”

Caudwell on Liberty

Christopher Caudwell’s “Studies in a Dying Culture” were published at a particular moment in history. Caudwell had been killed while defending the Republic in the Spanish Civil War [Image below: Caudwell on the eve of his departure for Spain, from a group photograph]. With its references to his contemporaries H G Wells, Bertrand Russell, and E M Forster (and the 18th-century philosopher Jean-Jaques Rousseau) Caudwell’s essay may seem dated at first glance, but actually, like a lot of Caudwell’s work, it remains critical today and right up to date, in a time when the question of the free-willing human Subject is once again at the forefront.

“Implicit in the conception of thinkers like Russell and Forster, that all social relations are restraints on spontaneous liberty, is the assumption that the animal is the only completely free creature. No one constrains the solitary carnivore to do anything. This is of course an ancient fallacy. Rousseau is the famous exponent. Man is born free but is everywhere in chains. Always in the bourgeois mind is this legend of the golden age, of a perfectly good man corrupted by institutions. Unfortunately not only is man not good without institutions, he is not evil either. He is no man at all; he is neither good nor evil; he is an unconscious brute.

“Russell's idea of liberty is the unphilosophical idea of bestiality… The man alone, unconstrained, answerable only to his instincts, is Russell's free man. Thus all man's painful progress from the beasts is held to be useless. All men's work and sweat and revolutions have been away from freedom. If this is true, and if a man believes, as most of us do, as Russell does, that freedom is the essential goal of human effort, then civilisation should be abandoned and we should return to the woods. I am a Communist because I believe in freedom. I criticise Russell, and Wells, and Forster, because I believe they are the champions of unfreedom.”

Caudwell had got to the heart of the matter: “I am a Communist because I believe in freedom,” he wrote. And what is that? Of all politicians, only those who are communists will be able to answer the question “What is freedom?” in a satisfactory way. Others will echo the sophisticated Bertrand Russell’s bourgeois-romantic version of freedom, as a return to the condition of the wild beasts, or else they will say little, or nothing.

“Power to the People” is our slogan. This is the essence of our project. It means that the masses will have agency. The masses will be human, which is to say, able to think and to act upon their thoughts. This is the active freedom that Caudwell writes about. “This good, liberty, contains all good,” he says.

After Caudwell, and after the war that ended in victory over the fascists against whom Caudwell had fought with his body as well as his pen, bourgeois thinkers did not embrace Caudwell’s idea of liberty. Instead, they fled to irrational, anti-humanist and even outright anti-human philosophies: existentialism, positivism, structuralism, and especially the overtly irrational “Post-modernism” that became the house philosophy of Imperialism. Some of them declared “The Death of the Subject”. In other words, they denied human free will.

In 2002 another English author and philosopher called James Heartfield defied the Post-Modernists and published a book called “The ‘Death of the Subject’ Explained” thereby helping to inspire the Johannesburg Communist University that started in 2003. Heartfield kindly allowed the CU to use some extracts from his book. These are featured in the next item within this part.

We communists are for freedom. We are human, not post-human. We are part of a liberation movement, not only of the colonially oppressed, but of humanity worldwide against Imperialism. We are the ones with the theory of freedom. It is the source of our morality. Power to the People! Amandla!

The concept of the free-willing human Subject is the most valuable product of philosophy, including the philosophy of Karl Marx and Frederick Engels. We are going to defend it, including, if necessary, against the concept of materialism, if materialism is taken to say that human life and culture is only a transitory arrangement of molecules.

The image at the top of this post is the “Uomo Vitruviano” of Leonardo da Vinci, from the humanist period of the Italian Renaissance. Its meaning is that Man (humanity) is the measure of the Universe.

24 July 2013

Lenin’s Encyclopaedia entry on Marx

Philosophy and Religion, Part 4b

Lenin’s Encyclopaedia entry on Marx

The attached item today is Lenin’s “Biographical Sketch and Exposition” of Karl Marx, written and first published as an encyclopaedia entry. It has all the hallmarks of Lenin’s precision of style, being concise and concrete, but also has traces of the worst side of Lenin’s didacticism, almost to the point of dogma. “Marxism is the system of Marx’s views and teachings,” writes Lenin, cheerfully beginning a section headed “The Marxist Doctrine”. The next section is called “Marx’s Economic Doctrine”.

But Marx did not write economics, and he didn’t write “doctrine” of any kind.

We will be dealing with such un-Marx-like formulations as “Marx’s Economic Doctrine” in later parts of this course.

Lenin was the greatest practical revolutionist in history, to date, but he was not the greatest philosopher. Karl Marx was the greatest philosopher, to date, and Marx stood on the shoulders of Hegel.

Lenin was one of hundreds of millions of followers of Marx. All of them have struggled to understand Marx. Lenin wrote, also in 1914:

“It is impossible completely to understand Marx's Capital, and especially its first chapter, without having thoroughly studied and understood the whole of Hegel's Logic. Consequently, half a century later none of the Marxists understood Marx!!”

Lenin’s long book on philosophy is called “Materialism and Empirio-Criticism” (1909).

The main downloadable document is an outstanding summary of Karl Marx’s life and work. A large portion of it is about philosophy. Do not be put off by any reservations that may have been expressed above. This text is a “must read”, in any case, as well as being a significant part of this course.

  • The above is to introduce the original reading-text: Karl Marx, Biographical Sketch and Exposition, 1914, Lenin, Part 1 and Part 2.

23 July 2013

Three Sources and Component Parts

Philosophy and Religion, Part 4a

Three Sources and Component Parts

Lenin’s “The 3 Sources and 3 Component Parts of Marxism” (attached; download linked below) is a favourite because it is very concise - only four pages long - and very illuminating.

But it also contains mistakes, and it encourages mistakes.

For example, Lenin writes: “… there is nothing resembling "sectarianism" in Marxism, in the sense of its being a hidebound, petrified doctrine, a doctrine which arose away from the highroad of development of world civilisation.” This is true.

But Lenin immediately follows with: “The Marxian doctrine is omnipotent because it is true. It is complete and harmonious, and provides men with an integral world conception” - in other words, he says, it is fixed, hidebound and petrified.

This pair of sentences constitutes a self-contradiction by Lenin. What happened to the “highroad of development of world civilisation” in between the two statements? Did it come to a dead end?

“The philosophy of Marxism is materialism,” writes Lenin, and not “old and rotten idealism.” This is philosophy reduced to catechism, or of pat answers to “Frequently Asked Questions”. It is not much use, not even as propaganda. It is so much simplified as to be dangerous.

Actually, Marx himself opposed the concept of a “doctrine” that would be “omnipotent because true”, or “complete”. Marx’s work was not complete in his lifetime, and if he had been blessed with two lifetimes, he would surely have left, not less, but more like double the amount of revolutionary work-in-progress. The more work Marx did, the larger was the frontier that he opened up.

Lenin writes: “Where the bourgeois economists saw a relation of things (the exchange of one commodity for another), Marx revealed a relation of men.” This is true. Marx was concerned with the men, more than with the things. This is why it is necessary to be careful with the word “materialism”.

Lenin writes: “The doctrine of surplus value is the cornerstone of Marx's economic theory.” This is only half true. Surplus Value is not merely the cornerstone of some discrete part of Marxism called “economic theory”. It is much more than that. The sale of Labour-Power to a capitalist at the point of production, and the subsequent expropriation of the entire product of the worker’s labour by the capitalist, is the source of Surplus Value. It is also the source of class differentiation and class conflict. It is the reason for the necessity of the development of a collective popular Subject of History around the working-class cause.

In short, it is good to examine the abstract parts of any phenomenon, including “Marxism”, but only if one is to proceed to a synthesis, or concretisation of these parts into a dynamically-comprehended whole. That is how dialectics works. That is how an examination of the sources and component parts of Marxism should be concluded, but in this instance Lenin does not quite succeed in doing so. Instead, he leaves the parts as parts. He leaves us with a list of ingredients, but not the finished cake.

Lenin writes: “While increasing the dependence of the workers on capital, the capitalist system creates the great power of united labour.”

Capitalism does create a working class, and it organises it as a labour-force, but it does not unite it politically. This, like the previous examples, shows the danger of over-simplification. Lenin was no doubt writing for workers, and brevity was his aim, and he possessed an extraordinary ability to compress difficult ideas into a few, clear words. Yet even Great Lenin, the most famous advocate of determined, deliberate political organisation, including vanguard organisation of professional revolution (e.g. in “What is to be Done?”) could be tempted to undermine himself in the over-pursuit of simplification.

Lenin recovers this particular matter of organisation in the document’s concluding paragraph, where he even mentions South Africa (this was in 1913):

“Independent organisations of the proletariat are multiplying all over the world, from America to Japan and from Sweden to South Africa. The proletariat is becoming enlightened and educated by waging its class struggle; it is ridding itself of the prejudices of bourgeois society; it is rallying its ranks ever more closely and is learning to gauge the measure of its successes; it is steeling its forces and is growing irresistibly.”

18 July 2013


Philosophy and Religion, Part 4


The philosopher Helena Sheehan records that Christopher Caudwell, whose work we will look at later on in this series, used a quote from Lenin that says:

"Communism becomes a mere empty phrase, a mere facade, and the communist a mere bluffer, if he has not worked over in his consciousness the whole inheritance of human knowledge."

Whether this quotation is genuine or not, Lenin certainly did take philosophy seriously, and worked at it hard. Through 1908 and into 1909 he wrote and then published an entire book on philosophy called Materialism and Empirio-Criticism. The book is belligerently partisan for materialism as against idealism, in the way that Lenin saw such things at the time.

“Anyone in the least acquainted with philosophical literature must know that scarcely a single contemporary professor of philosophy (or of theology) can be found who is not directly or indirectly engaged in refuting materialism,” says Lenin about his bourgeois opponents (“in lieu of an Introduction”).

Vladimir Ilyich also left his notebook on philosophy, “Conspectus of Hegel’s book ‘The Science of Logic’”, dated 1914, in which, among other things he, Lenin, wrote:

“It is impossible completely to understand Marx’s Capital, and especially its first chapter, without having thoroughly studied and understood the whole of Hegel’s Logic. Consequently, half a century later, none of the Marxists understood Marx!!”

These stances of Lenin’s are not exactly compatible with each other. Hegel, after all, had always been denounced, including by Lenin, as an “idealist”.

Lenin was still deliberately studying philosophy up until the tumultuous events that followed the outbreak of the Imperialist World War in mid-1914, the resulting split in the communist movement, the two Russian Revolutions of 1917, and the enormous consequences that followed all of these events, when Lenin was required to give a lead in almost every sphere of life. We will ask whether Lenin’s philosophical preparations for revolution, and those of his peers, were sufficient; we may conclude that they were not.

We are also looking at religion, so what we will use for discussion in the first place is a text concerning Lenin’s approach to religion. Among the “classics” it is Lenin who provided explicit and direct prescriptions as to how practical, organising, educating and mobilising communists should deal with the question of religion. Whether he does so in a completely satisfactory way, or not, can be part of the discussion.

Lenin cannot be accused of being sympathetic to religion, as Karl Marx could be, for example, on the strength of the Introduction to a Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right; while Engels appears to have left the topic alone. Lenin’s feelings about religion can be judged from a note in “Materialism and Empirio-Criticism” where Lenin writes “However good your intentions may be, Comrade Lunacharsky, it is not a smile, but disgust your flirtation with religion provokes.”

Altogether, the amount of writing by Marx, Engels and Lenin on the subject of religion is remarkably little. It may amount to as little as a thousandth of one per cent of what they wrote altogether.

This is not surprising considering that communism is not about religion and is not at war with religion or at war with God. Communists are interested in individual people and in humanity generally. It remains a fact that in most countries, including South Africa, the majority of people, including workers, are, if not strictly religious, brought up within the fold of religion from one generation to another. So even if the communist theoretical legacy around the question of religion is very small, yet it is important. A theory of how to deal with religion will be helpful to communist cadres today.

Lenin’s “Attitude of Worker's Party to Religion” (linked below) attacks the question. Let us quarrel with Lenin, for once in our lives.

He writes: “It is the absolute duty of Social-Democrats to make a public statement of their attitude towards religion.” Is it? Why is it?

Lenin writes: “The philosophical basis of Marxism, as Marx and Engels repeatedly declared, is dialectical materialism… a materialism which is absolutely atheistic and positively hostile to all religion.”

In truth, neither Marx nor Engels ever used the phrase “dialectical materialism”, as we will show later on in this series. Nor is our materialism the opposite of religion, in the way that Lenin puts it here. Ours is only to say that the counterpart to the human Subject is the real, objective universe. This is not an anti-religious statement, or an anti-religious materialism. It is humanism, and humanism is not necessarily atheism.

“Religion is the opium of the people—this dictum by Marx is the corner-stone of the whole Marxist outlook on religion,” writes Lenin, lending his authority to a terrible mistake that has since been repeated millions of times. Marx’s point was that religion was a relief to the poor people who could not afford opium, and that religion was also “the heart of a heartless world” and the “sigh of the oppressed creature”.

But Lenin, in this rather badly-constructed statement, appears more concerned to establish his atheistic credentials than to push his denunciations of religion to a conclusion, because he soon starts back-tracking. He recalls various examples of bourgeois persecution of religion, disapprovingly. He manages to say at the same time that the socialist revolutionaries are not tactical about religion, but also to say that they subordinate the question of religion to more crucial necessities (i.e. they are tactical). So he appears to contradict himself in this regard, too.

Then, towards the end, Lenin managed to praise the Duma deputy (parliamentary representative) Surkov, who had made a speech denouncing religion as the opium of the masses. Really, this pamphlet looks like damage control or spin-doctoring by Lenin. It looks like Comrade Surkov had got into a controversy and needed some public backing.

The first image above is of Lenin in 1896, aged 26. The second image is of Anatoly Lunacharsky, People's Commissar of Education in Lenin’s first Soviet government.

14 July 2013

Ludwig Feuerbach

Philosophy and Religion, Part 3b

Ludwig Feuerbach

Engels’ “Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classical German Philosophy” was written when he was 66 years old, and three years after the death of his close comrade Karl Marx. It is a retrospective assessment in four short, powerful parts, for publication in a magazine called Die Neue Zeit. We considered the first part, headed “Hegel”, in a previous post in this CU series on “Philosophy and Religion”. To save time, we skip the parts headed “Materialism” and “Feuerbach”, though they are good and useful. The concluding and summarising part of “Ludwig Feuerbach” is headed “Marx” (download linked below).

Necessity of struggle in philosophy

Let us now look at the question of philosophy’s relation to revolution.

In “Ludwig Feuerbach”, Engels is saying that prior to each great revolution of the past there had been a period of catastrophic ferment in philosophy. He comes close to saying that a conscious, public break-up of the pre-existing philosophy is a necessary condition for revolution. At any rate, this was historically the case in France prior to the Great French Revolution, and in Germany prior to the upheavals of 1848 that established the modern world’s politics of Bourgeois, Proletarians and Communists.

Engels is saying that it was the thorough breaking-up of the philosophical soil that allowed these two great revolutions to put down permanent roots.

Later on in our CU series on Philosophy and Religion we will read an argument that says that in the case of the Great October proletarian revolution in Russia in 1917, the philosophical ground had not been sufficiently prepared, and that is why the Russian revolution developed the way it did, and why the USSR eventually collapsed in the way that it did, at the end of the 1980s, just prior to South Africa’s democratic breakthrough.

This in turn raises the question of whether it will be possible to have any further revolutionary advance in South Africa, or anywhere else, let alone any final and permanent revolution, without a thorough breaking-up of the philosophical ground upon which we stand today, and which has hardly been disturbed since the mid-19th century.

Assuming that we agree that this could be the case, then we would need to ask, first, how to take stock of the received philosophical legacy, including its revolutionary component? And then, having discovered and delineated the frontier from which we will have to depart, to make out a line of march and to begin a campaign. We will attempt to do this as the series develops, up to its tenth part.

For now, let us begin to draft a provisional outline of the principal sources of philosophy that would form part of such an assessment, plan and campaign. It could include the following, taken in chronological order:

  1. The historical legacy in philosophy, e.g. Aristotle, Alberti, Descartes, Hobbes and Spinoza
  2. Hegel’s works, especially “Logic” and the “Philosophy of Right”
  3. Explicitly philosophical unpublished and published writings of Marx and Engels in the 1840s, during the multiple struggles of the “Old Hegelians”, “Young Hegelians”, Schelling, Feuerbach, Stirner, Bauer, Proudhon et cetera
  4. The remainder of Marx’s work, which, though not directly philosophical, contains constant implicit and tacit philosophical determinations
  5. Engels’ late work on philosophy including “Anti-Dühring”, “Ludwig Feuerbach”, and certain other short writings
  6. Lenin’s philosophical grounding, especially as it comes out in “The State and Revolution
  7. Critical reflections on the philosophy contained in the revolutionary “classics”, by writers such as Christopher Caudwell, Evald Ilyenkov, Cyril Smith and James Heartfield
  8. Forward-looking revolutionary philosophy that corresponds with developments in science, taking for an example the late South African revolutionary Ron Press’s “New Tools for Marxists”

To all of this we will have to add a sensitive and wide-ranging assessment of the de facto philosophy or world-outlook of our South African society today, in its abstract parts and in its concrete whole. This will be in the nature of active research, because as we find, so we will have to engage.

Religious Struggle Not Now So Necessary

Religion was historically crucial in the case of the 1848 revolutions, as Engels shows. Religion had become the vehicle or the proxy whereby the revolutionary elements of the bourgeoisie expressed themselves, and articulated their struggles intellectually, even though these struggles had a material basis and a basis in class struggle.

In the linked extract from his “Ludwig Feuerbach” Engels describes the movement in religion in marvellous, masterful, sweeping paragraphs. Please, read it, comrades. Nothing I say can improve it, and it does not need shortening because it is already short, tight, concentrated and clear.

It is not the case that religion necessarily plays the same role today in South Africa, as it did then in Germany. On the contrary, religious formations are a strong part of the National Democratic Revolution. The liberation theologists are our allies.

Worldwide, and as a rule, religion has long since reconciled itself with science such as the discoveries of Charles Darwin, for example, which had to do with the evolution of species, including humans. “Materialism” has won, in that sense. Atheism was never an issue for Marx and hardly an issue for Marxists in general, and Feuerbach was religious, even if materialist. There are no texts to be found among the Marxist “classics” that preach atheism as such.

Thus, though the moment when Ludwig Feuerbach (see his image, above) published his book “Essence of Christianity” in 1841 was for Engels a defining one, yet the place of religion today is not the same as was the place of religion then, and so Feuerbach’s “materialism” does not now have the force or the purpose that it had, for a short time, in Engels’ youth. Feuerbach and his “materialism” had their moment, and it was a short moment. What matters now is freedom, agency, and the ability to decide. What matters is: Power, to the People!

In 1843 Karl Marx wrote: “For Germany, the criticism of religion has been essentially completed, and the criticism of religion is the prerequisite of all criticism.” Completed, indeed; and so it is with us today. We may thus conclude that we have no business making war on religion; and we will come back to this point soon, with Lenin.

13 July 2013

Freedom and Necessity

Philosophy and Religion, Part 3a

Freedom and Necessity

The attached item, also linked below, which is from Anti-Dühring, suffers from the occasional problem of that work: that it gives rather too much attention to Herr Dühring. The relevant part is mainly on page 5, which begins:

“Hegel was the first to state correctly the relation between freedom and necessity. To him, freedom is the insight into necessity (die Einsicht in die Notwendigheit).

"‘Necessity is blind only in so far as it is not understood [begriffen].’

“Freedom does not consist in any dreamt-of independence from natural laws, but in the knowledge of these laws, and in the possibility this gives of systematically making them work towards definite ends.”

Freedom is the recognition of necessity. The Subject knows the Object, and is made free. This is the discovery of freedom in the Fundamental Question of Philosophy (i.e. the relation of mind to matter), and it is the only answer that we need from that Question. Preoccupation with the alleged primacy of the material over the human is a scholastic dispute that has no practical use.

Marx by Engels

Let us jump forward now to the third item in this part (we will return to it again in the next instalment), which is Engels’ “Ludwig Feuerbach” in its fourth and final section, mainly dealing with Engels’ friend Karl Marx, who had died three years prior to the publication of this work of Engels’.

Says Engels:

“Out of the dissolution of the Hegelian school, however, there developed still another tendency, the only one which has borne real fruit. And this tendency is essentially connected with the name of Marx (1).

“The separation from Hegelian philosophy was here also the result of a return to the materialist standpoint. That means it was resolved to comprehend the real world — nature and history — just as it presents itself to everyone who approaches it free from preconceived idealist crotchets. It was decided mercilessly to sacrifice every idealist fancy which could not be brought into harmony with the facts conceived in their own and not in a fantastic interconnection. And materialism means nothing more than this.”

Yes, materialism was crucial to Marx’s theories. Materialism gazed mercilessly at the objective universe from the point of view of the free individual human being. But this did not amount to an elevation of the material universe to the status of a “prime mover” God, progenitor of life and breather of spirit into man. Materialism means nothing more than reality, as opposed to fantasy; reality, as looked upon mercilessly by the human Subject.

The remainder of Part 4 of “Ludwig Feuerbach” develops into one of those grand sweeping overviews of which both Engels and Marx were capable. In this case science, philosophy and class politics are interwoven in an undoubtedly dialectical way.

There is also a typically self-deprecating footnote by Engels about Karl Marx and their relationship, but here Engels may be too close to the action to be able to make a correct judgement. The full truth is surely not contained in these few words of his. The political contribution of any comrade, in total, is an unknowable quantity. Comparisons between one comrade and another are generally odious. Engels’ contribution is undoubted, and his contribution to this CU topic of “Philosophy, Religion, and Revolution” and of Hegel in particular is proportionately greater than any other, because he was involved with it from the early 1840s, before he met Marx, and because he took care to write about it after Marx passed away.

12 July 2013


Philosophy and Religion, Part 3


George William Frederick Hegel (1770-1831) [Image: Hegel with his students] was not just somebody whose theories were surpassed by those of Marx and Engels, nor was he merely a John the Baptist to Karl Marx’s Christ. Hegel was an original, with an indelible part in the development of human thought that is inseparable from Marx’s contribution.

Engels in his short “Ludwig Feuerbach, Part 1 - Hegel” (linked below) writes that the revolutions of 1789 and 1848 were each preceded by uproar in the field of philosophy; but there were differences.

Whereas the French philosophers had been banned and proscribed, Hegel had advanced in “a triumphant procession which lasted for decades” at times with “the rank of a royal Prussian philosophy of state”. Even in the decade following Hegel’s death, until the lectures of Schelling in 1841 which Engels (aged 21) attended, “‘Hegelianism’ reigned most exclusively.” This was the ground in which Marxism grew, and this is what Engels is describing in the main linked text.

One of our CU correspondents has written to say that it is unfair to lay the blame for “mechanical materialism” at Engels’ door.  This is true, but the unfairness does not arise from prejudice. It arises because of Engels’ ambiguous semi-filial relationship with Hegel, which causes Engels to defend Hegel, while at the same time strongly repudiating some aspects of Hegel’s work.

For us who are far less familiar with Hegel than were Engels and his contemporaries, the simultaneous defence and attack can appear self-contradictory, or worse. Stripped from the tactical context, some of Engels’ words may appear to lend support to absolute “mechanical materialism”.

Circumstances, and tactics responding to circumstances, played a part. Engels says: “At that time politics was a very thorny field, and hence the main fight came to be directed against religion; this fight, particularly since 1840, was indirectly also political.”

This proxy role played in politics by religion in 1840s Germany is the reason for the apparent elevation of the dichotomy of idealism and materialism, which later writers, out of context, have somehow tended to treat like a sort of “Rosetta Stone” of Marxism, as if the ideal/material dichotomy explains everything, when by itself it explains nothing.

The question of what, if anything, was really discarded by Marx and Engels from Hegel is one we may look at again later in this series. Lenin wrote: “It is impossible completely to understand Marx's Capital, and especially its first chapter, without having thoroughly studied and understood the whole of Hegel's Logic. Consequently, half a century later none of the Marxists understood Marx!!”

Clearly, Lenin did not think of Hegel as being redundant or superseded.

Evidence of Engels’ and Marx’s debt to Hegel is found in the works themselves, which are saturated with Hegelian method, as Ilyenkov points out in his work on Capital.

A good place to start learning about Hegel is Andy Blunden’s Getting to know Hegel, which is in turn part of Andy’s great resource called Hegel by Hypertext.

But first, the short Part 1 of Hegel’s Ludwig Feuerbach explains a lot.

7 July 2013

Utopia and Science

Philosophy and Religion, Part 2c

Utopia and Science

In this, the last of this week’s part of the course on Philosophy and Religion, we link once again to Engels’ “Socialism, Utopian and Scientific”. This is a short text extracted by Engels from his larger work, “Anti-Dühring”, and it helps us to place thought in a historical framework. For example, dealing with the period subsequent to the Renaissance and 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 Engels describes the limitation imposed upon the human Subject by the objective circumstances, and also the possibility of transcending such limitations. This is humanism. Humanism says that humans build humanity within the given material world and history.

Nowhere does Engels say that humanity is an accidental combination of atoms and molecules.

Yet, by sometimes chastising the great Hegel with the same kind of roughness as he treated the nonentity Dühring, Engels sowed the seeds of others’ subsequent and greater errors. Such an error came about when the dichotomy of “idealism and materialism” was elevated to a master-narrative of philosophy, which it is not. Humanity is not reducible to matter.

As great as he was, communists have in practice 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.

The image is of Charles Fourier (1772-1837), maybe the greatest of the utopian socialists, and also the inventor of the word “feminism”. The utopian socialists were prominent after the Great French Revolution that started in 1789 with the storming of the Bastille on the 14th of July of that year. Marx and Engels wrote of them in the third part of Chapter 3 of the 1848 Communist Manifesto, called “Critical-Utopian Socialism and Communism”.

  • The above is to introduce the original reading-text: Socialism, Utopian and Scientific, 1880, Engels, Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3.

6 July 2013

Renaissance and Enlightenment

Philosophy and Religion, Part 2b

Renaissance and Enlightenment

The longer part of today’s linked text, on Alberti and Spinoza, written by Anthony Blunt, describes the Italian Renaissance (= “rebirth”) through the life and work of Leon Battista Alberti (1404-1472). The Renaissance is significant as an intermediate high point of humanism between the ancient Greek and Roman worlds and the modern, Marxist world. The Renaissance followed the European “Dark Ages” and “Middle Ages”. The Renaissance thinkers drew upon Arab, Indian and Chinese culture as well as on that of the Ancients who had slept for a thousand years beneath their Italian feet. This piece of writing can also help to show how the unity of historical thought that Hegel later theorised had in practice been realised.

The Italian Renaissance, based on reason and the understanding that humans can and do by themselves develop human culture; and that human culture not limited by the extent of the knowledge of the ancients, or by any other interior limitation. The Italian Renaissance at its peak represents a pure form of humanism – the best-developed in history up to that time.

The Italian Renaissance was later overcome by its own internal reactionary forces (e.g. see the last paragraph of Blunt’s account), but humanism did not then sleep as long as it had after the fall of the Roman Empire. It quickly rose again in Northern Europe, led in particular by the work of Baruch Spinoza (1632-1637) among others, in a movement known as The Enlightenment, which we may regard as continuing up to the time of Hegel, and therefore up to the dawn of Marxism. A short piece of Spinoza’s writing is given at the end of the Anthony Blunt document.

The following quotation is from a Spinoza page on MIA. It shows how Spinoza’s thought prepares the way for Engels’ thought:

“That thing is said to be FREE (libera) which exists by the mere necessity of its own nature and is determined to act by itself alone. That thing is said to be NECESSARY (necessaria), or rather COMPELLED (coacta), which is determined by something else to exist and act in a certain fixed and determinate way.”

These writings show the development of understanding of the dialectic of Freedom and Necessity, and the closely-related, parallel dialectic of Subject and Object. They can help one to understand the philosophical ground upon which Marx and Engels stood. For further reading on Spinoza, see the Soviet philosopher Evald Ilyenkov’s essay on Spinoza on MIA, where Ilyenkov remarks, and then quotes Hegel, as follows:

“…he was probably the only one of the great thinkers of the pre-Marxian era who knew how to unite brilliant models of acutely dialectical thought with a consistently held materialist principle (rigorously applied throughout his system) of understanding thought and its relations to the external world lying in the space outside the human head.

“The influence of Spinoza’s ideas on the subsequent development of dialectical thought can hardly be exaggerated. ‘It is therefore worthy of note that thought must begin by placing itself at the standpoint of Spinozism; to be a follower of Spinoza is the essential commencement of all Philosophy.’ [Lectures on the History of Philosophy, Hegel]

5 July 2013


Philosophy and Religion, Part 2a


Johannesburg, 2004
The Communist University started in June, 2003, more than ten years ago. The main text linked below was prepared for the CU when it was six months old (it has since been re-written, so that it is shorter). It is an attempt to walk through the history of philosophy using the problematic of individual-versus-society as the binding dialectical theme. As well as a chronicle of philosophical thought, it includes a diagram that traces the present-day contending schools back to a split that took place around where Marx and Engels come into the picture, in the early 1840s. That great parting of the ways was marked by a specific set of circumstances, which is worth describing and referencing.

Berlin, 1841
Hegel died in November, 1831, when Karl Marx was 13 and Frederick Engels 11. Ten years later, Marx graduated from the University of Berlin and was awarded a doctorate of philosophy by the University of Jena, shortly before his 24th birthday. Also in 1841, Engels was sent to Berlin to spend a year with the Artillery Guards. There is no record of Marx and Engels meeting in Berlin at this time. Their first recorded meeting was in Cologne, in November, 1842. Marx was by then editing a magazine called the Rheinische Zeitung (it was his first job) while Engels was on his way back to Manchester to recommence working in his father’s company. The two teamed up permanently in Paris two years later, in 1844.

In the same year of 1841, Ludwig Feuerbach published his “Essence of Christianity” of which Engels later said: “…the spell was broken; the "system" was exploded and cast aside ... one must have experienced the liberating effect of this book to get an idea of it. Enthusiasm was general.” During the next part, we will look at the book Ludwig Feuerbach and the end of German Classical Philosophy, which Engels wrote forty-five years later, in 1886, about the effect of Feuerbach’s intervention.

Meanwhile along came F W J Schelling, who had been a colleague and rival of Hegel’s, and had struggled in the great man’s shade. In 1841, at the age of 66, Schelling was suddenly made a Prussian privy councillor and member of the Berlin Academy, with a political instruction to give lectures at the university against Hegel, so as to demolish Hegel’s reputation, ten years after Hegel’s death.

Hegel’s philosophy had long been the pride of the Prussian establishment, but it had turned out to be potential weapon in the hands of the proletarian class then growing with the spread of capitalism in Germany. In Berlin, philosophical uproar had begun, involving the “Young Hegelians”, Feuerbach, Marx, Engels and others. The revolutions of 1848 were only a few years away.

Schelling was appointed with an instruction to debunk Hegel. His lectures attracted a sensationally distinguished audience, which included Engels, who said: "It will be our business to follow the course of his [Schelling's] thinking and to shield the great man's [Hegel's] grave from abuse. We are not afraid to fight.” Others present included the Russian anarchist Mikhail Bakunin, the Danish theologian Søren Kierkegaard, and the great Swiss humanist historian of the Renaissance, Jacob Burkhardt.

A good account by Andy Blunden of this “world-historic” philosophical event can be found here on MIA.

In 1842, Engels published a work known as “Anti-Schelling”, which includes in its Chapter 5 the following classically dialectical line: “Only that freedom is genuine which contains necessity…”

Engels was 21 when he started writing “Anti-Schelling”. In contrast to Doctor Karl Marx, Engels was at that stage a military cadet who had never been to university (and never did go). Yet he was bold enough to challenge the official state philosopher, in print. The image above is of Engels in 1841, in his military uniform.

In terms of my rough chronology of philosophers in today’s text, this was the situation following Hume, Rousseau and Kant, and when Marx and Engels came in. Seven years prior to the revolutions of 1848, where the proletariat appears for the first time as a crucial revolutionary actor and subject of history, this was the moment when philosophy split into its subsequent fragments, of which the contending philosophical schools of today are the direct successors.