Tuesday, August 13, 2013
Soviet-Russian Dialectical Materialism
During my recent trip through Europe, I studied J. M. Bochenski’s Der Sowjet-russische dialektische Materialismus. If you are interested in worldviews in general and Marxism-Leninism in particular, check out my summary here.
For the Soviet Marxist-Leninists, politics was not sufficient. In order for a revolutionary political movement to be successful, it had to have a metaphysic. Although I am on the complete opposite end of the political spectrum as the communists, I agree with them about the following proposition: A metaphysical worldview is of essential importance to live an authentically human life, to have a basis for one’s views, and to provide meaning to one’s life. They were right about all of this. So what was the worldview that they chose?
It is important to emphasize how crucial Dialectical Materialism (DM) was for the Marxist-Leninists. For them, it was essential—one could not truly be a Marxist-Leninist without adopting DM. The Soviet ideologues never ceased to emphasize its importance.
The influences for DM were Hegel (developed the idea of a dialectical movement of history), Feuerbach (took Hegel’s notion of the spiritual nature of reality and flipped it into a material one), Marx (developed the idea of Historical Materialism, in which history has a necessary and inevitable development through time), Engels (developed DM as a metaphysical explanation of Marx’s Historical Materialism), Lenin (developed Engels’ ideas and emphasized the importance of the rejection of God’s existence and religion for the sake of revolution), and the scientific materialism beginning with the French philosophes and carrying through Darwin’s work and the mechanistic materialistic determinists of all stripes.
DM possesses the following traits: It is Realist (affirms the existence of a real world outside our consciousness that in no way depends on consciousness for its reality), Rationalist (the world is theoretically knowable in all of its particulars), Materialist (affirms that matter is the ultimate reality), Evolutionist (accepts Darwin’s theory and affirms that reality is constantly evolving in general), Optimistic (reality is evolving in a positive direction), and Dialectical (the universe evolves through a series of “leaps” to ever higher degrees of reality).
On Materialism: DM affirms that mind depends entirely on matter, but that mind, being a “product” or “process” of matter, is not merely matter. To assert that mind is merely matter is to be a “vulgar materialist” in the eyes of the DMers. Also, there is no afterlife, all human behavior is causally determined (there is no free will), there is no God or Gods, there are no supernatural forces or powers of any kind. The universe is uncreated and infinite in both time and space.
On the Dialectic: Through a process of development, a “thesis” (a particular state of affairs) gives rise to an “anti-thesis” (a “contradicting” state of affairs), and the conflict between the two creates a “synthesis” (a new reality that encompasses the best of both previous states of affairs and brings about a new one). As quantitative developments accumulate, they produce a qualitative “leap” that brings about a previously non-existent state of affairs. Examples of such qualitative developments are life, consciousness, animals, and man. Man is the highest state of metaphysical development in existence, and can therefore be seen as the highest order of being that exists.
Bochenski identifies the following as praiseworthy in the theory: He appreciates that DM affirms Realism and Rationalism, in contradistinction to the fuzziness of Idealism (the idea that no reality exists outside of consciousness) and the lazy lack of disciplined thought that produces both Relativism (the idea that there are no absolute truths or standards) and Skepticism (the idea that nothing can be known). DM also rejects a categorical Monism (the idea that there is only one kind of thing) by its tweaking of classical Monist Materialism (which does not recognize the existence of mind). He agrees with its claim that our bodies and minds affect each other, and that our environment—including our economic environment—affects the way our minds work, although DM overemphasizes this.
He finds the following to be seriously problematic: DM emphasizes reason and rationality in the metaphysical sphere, but also emphasizes that one must believe DM on the basis of succeeding with a revolutionary political movement, thereby simultaneously emphasizing Pragmatism, the opposite of Rationalism. Also, DM recognizes a series of qualitatively different realities, which is in deep theoretical conflict with its Materialism, which is supposed to assert that only matter exists (this is the fundamental conflict that develops when uniting Materialism with Hegel’s Dialectical Idealism). Finally, although Marxism-Leninism is obsessed with moral obligations (one must serve the proletariat, capitalism is evil, etc.), DM provides no basis for objective ethics in any way, producing an internal conflict between moral demands and the lack of any basis for them. Finally, the Dialectic makes no sense, since true contradictions can’t exist by logical law, and if the “contradictions” are understood in any other way than in the sense of true logical contradictions, then the problem is solved at the expense of making DM’s claims about contradictions trivially and uninterestingly true.
If DM has intellectual problems, why were so many attracted to it? He identifies the following: The moral appeal of Communism leads people to accept whatever metaphysical basis is given to it, since it is Communism’s moral appeal that is really doing the work, rather than any persuasive arguments for DM. Also, DM gives people a sense of meaning in life—by contributing to the forward march of the universe and history, one connects oneself to the movement of the deepest reality of the universe. Additionally, DM appeals to us by virtue of its “heroic ethic”—Man, alone in a godless reality, tragically strives to improve the condition of Humanity in the face of an uncaring universe.
My thoughts on DM: I find DM to be an amazing and creative worldview that understandably appealed to people. I believe that no consistently atheistic and anti-supernatural worldview has ever been more successful in offering humans a story in which their lives could have a transcendental meaning, thereby motivating humans to live with passion and energy. At the same time, I believe that DM is ultimately false, and that that is the ultimate standard by which we should judge it. I am of the opinion that any worldview that categorically rejects any transcendental reality (as DM explicitly does) is going to have an ultimately impossible time of explaining from where absolute moral obligations originate. I am convinced that there are, in fact, such things as absolute moral obligations (a good example being, “Don’t rape children solely for the sake of your own sexual pleasure”). Since DM can’t provide a convincing foundation for such claims, I am forced to reject it. In spite of that, DM is certainly worth studying and reflecting upon, since it offers many thought-provoking ideas that can help a person to come ever closer to the Truth about what the universe is and how it works.