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The Position and Significance of J. Dietzgen’s Philosophical Works / Anton Pannekoek, 1906
Electronic source: marxists.org ; transcribed by Adam Buick, 2004; original source: The Positive Outcome of Philosophie : The Nature of Human Brain Work : Letters on Logic : The Positive Outcome of Philosophie / Joseph Dietzgen [the Elder]. – Translated by E[rnest]. Untermann ; with an Introduction by Dr. A[nton]. Pannekoek ; translated by Ernest Untermann ; edited by E[ugen]. Dietzgen and J[oseph] Dietzgen Jr. – Chicago : Charles H. Kerr & Co, . – 444 p. (Original German edition 1902); contains: The Position and Significance of J. Dietzgen’s Philosophical Works / Anton Pannekoek, p. 7-37.
In the history of philosophy we see before us the consecutive forms of the thoughts of the ruling classes of society on life and on the world at large. This class thought appears after the primitive communism has given way to a society with class antagonisms, at a stage when the wealth of the members of the ruling class gave them leisure time and thus stimulated them to turn their attention to the productions of the mind. The beginning of this thought is found in classic Greece. But it assumed its clearest and best developed form when the modern bourgeoisie had become the ruling class in capitalistic Europe and the thinkers gave expression to the ideas of this class. The characteristic mark of these ideas is dualism, that is to say the misunderstood contrast between thinking and being, between nature and spirit, the result of the mental unclearness of this class and of its incapacity to see the things of the world in their true interconnection. This mental state is but the expression of the division of mankind into classes and of the uncomprehended nature of social production ever since it became a production of goods for exchange.
In times of primitive communism, the conditions of production were clear and easily understood. Things were produced jointly for use and consumed in common. Man was master of his mode of production and thus master of his own fate as far as the superior forces of nature admitted it. Under such conditions, social ideas could not help being simple and clear. There being no clash between personal and social interests, men had no conception of a deep chasm between good and bad. Only the uncontrolled forces of nature stood like unintelligible and mysterious powers, that appeared to them either as well meaning or as evil spirits, above these primitive little societies.
But with the advent of the production of commodities the picture changes. Civilized humanity begins to feel itself somewhat relieved from the hard and ungovernable pressure of fickle natural forces. But now new demons arise out of social conditions. “No sooner did the producers give their products away in exchange instead of consuming them as heretofore, than they lost control of them. They no longer knew what became of their products, and there was a possibility that these products might some day be used for the exploitation and oppression of the producers – The products rule the producers” (Engels). In the production of commodities, it is not the purpose of the individual producer which is accomplished, but rather that which the productive forces back of him are aiming at. Man proposes, but a social power, stronger than himself, disposes; he is no longer master of his fate. The inter-relations of production become complicated and difficult to grasp. While it is true that the individual is the producing unit, yet the individual labor is only a subordinate part of the whole process of social production, of which he remains a tool. The fruits of the labor of many are enjoyed by a few individuals. The social co-operation is concealed behind a violent competitive struggle of the producers against one another. The interests of the individuals are at war with those of society. Good, that is to say the consideration of the common welfare, is opposed to bad, that is to say the sacrifice of everything to private interests. The passions of men as well as their mental gifts, after they have been aroused, developed, trained, strengthened, and refined in this struggle, henceforth become so many weapons which a superior power turns against their helpless possessors.
Such were the impressions out of which thinking men were obliged to fashion their world-philosophy, while, at the same time, they were members of the possessing classes and had thus an opportunity to employ their leisure for a certain self-study, without, however, being in touch with the source of their impressions, viz., the process of social labor which alone could have enabled them to see through the social origin of their ideas. Men of this class, therefore, were led to the assumption that their ideas emanated from some supernatural and spiritual power or that they were themselves independent supernatural powers. The dualist metaphysical mode of thought has gone through various transformations in the course of time, adapting itself to the evolution of production beginning with ancient slavery, on through the serfdom of the Middle Ages and of mediaeval commodity production, to modern capitalism. These successive changes of form are embodied in Grecian philosophy, in the various phases of the Christian religion, and in the modern systems of philosophy.
But we must not regard these systems and religions for what they generally pass, that is to say, we must not think them to be only repeated unsuccessful attempts to formulate absolute truth. They are merely the incarnations of progressive stages of better knowledge acquired by the human mind about itself and about the universe. It was the aim of philosophical thought to find satisfaction in understanding. And as long as understanding could not wholly be gotten by natural means, there remained always a field for the supernatural and incomprehensible. But by the painstaking mental work of the deepest thinkers, the material of science was ceaselessly increased, and the field of the supernatural and incomprehensible was ever narrowed. And this is especially the case since the progress of capitalist production has promoted the persistent study of nature. For through this study the human mind was enabled to test its powers by simple, quiet, persistent and fruitful labor in the search for successive parts of truth, and thus to rid itself from the overirritation of hopeless quest after absolute truth. The desire to ascertain the value of these new truths gave rise to the problems of the theory of understanding. But the supernatural element in these systems prevented their perfection.
Under the impulse of the technical requirements of capitalism, the evolution of natural sciences became a triumphal march of the human mind. Nature was subjugated first through the discovery of its laws by the human mind, and then by the material subordination of the known forces of nature to the human will in the service of our main object, the production of the necessaries of life with a minimum expenditure of energy. But this bright shining light rendered, by contrast, the gloom which surrounded the phenomena of human society only the darker, and capitalism in its development still accentuates this contrast, as it accentuates and thus renders more easily visible and intelligible all contrasts. While the natural sciences dispensed with all mysterious secrecy within their narrower domain, the darkness shrouding the origin of ideas still offered a welcome refuge to the belief in miracles on the spiritual field.
Capitalism is now approaching its decline. Socialism is near. And the vital importance of this transition cannot be stated more strongly than in the words of Marx and Engels: “This concludes the primary history of man. He thereby passes definitely out of the animal kingdom.” The social regulation of production makes man fully the master of his own fate. No longer does any mysterious social power then thwart his plans or jeopardise his success. Nor does any mysterious natural force control him henceforth. He is no longer the slave, but the master of nature. He has investigated its effects, understands them, and presses them into his service. For the first time in his history he will then be the ruler of the earth.
We now see that the many centuries that filled the history of civilization were a necessary preparation for socialism, a slow struggle to escape from nature’s slavery, a gradual increase in the productivity of labor, up to the point where the necessaries of life for all may be obtained almost without exertion. This is the prime merit of capitalism and its justification, that after so many centuries of hardly perceptible progress it taught man to conquer nature by a rapid result. At the same time it set loose the forces of production and finally transformed and bared the springs of the productive process to such a degree that they easily could be perceived and grasped by the human mind; this was the indispensable condition for the control of this process.
As never since the first advent of production of commodities there has been such a fundamental revolution, it must necessarily be accompanied by an equally fundamental spiritual revolution. This economic revolution is the conclusion of the long period of class antagonisms and of production of commodities; it carries with it the end of the dualist and supernatural thoughts arising from this source. The mystery of social processes passes away with this period, and the spiritual expression of these mysteries must necessarily disappear with it. The slow development of human thought from ignorance to an ever increased understanding thereby ends its first chapter. This signifies the completion and conclusion of philosophy, which is equivalent to saying that philosophy as such passes out of existence, while its place is taken by the science of the human mind, a part of natural science.
A new system of production sheds its light into the minds of men already before it has fully materialized. The same science which teaches us to understand and thereby to control the social forces, also unfetters the mind from the bewitching effects of those forces. It enables him even now already to emancipate himself from traditional superstitions and ideas which were formerly the expression of things unknown. We may anticipate with our mind the coming time. And thus the ideas which will then dominate are already even now growing within us in a rudimentary form corresponding to the present actual economic development. By this means we are even now enabled to overcome the capitalist philosophy in thought and to soberly and clearly grasp the matter-dependent nature of our spirit.
The completion and the end of philosophy need not wait for the realization of socialist production. The new understanding does not fall from heaven like a meteor. It develops with the social-economic development, first imperfectly and imperceptibly, in a few thinkers who most strongly feel the breath of the approaching time. With the growth of the science of sociology and with that of its practical application, the socialist labor movement, the new understanding simultaneously spreads and gains ground step by step, waging a relentless battle against the traditional ideas to which the ruling classes are clinging. This struggle is the mental companion of the social class struggle.
The methods of the new natural science had already been practiced for a few centuries before the new theory was formulated. It first found vent in the expression of surprise at the great confidence with which men assumed to predict certain phenomena and to point out their connections. Our experience is limited to a few successive observations of the regularity or coincidence of events. But we attribute to natural laws, in which are expressed causal relations of phenomena, a general and necessary applicability which far exceeds our experience. The English thinker Hume was the first who clearly expressed and formulated the question – since called the problem of causality – why men always act in this manner. But as he believed the reason for such action should be sought in the nature of experience alone, experience being the only source of knowledge, and as he did not further investigate the special and distinct part played by the nature of the human mind in this experiential connection, he could not find any satisfactory answer.
Kant, who made the first important step toward the solution of this question, had been trained in the school of rationalism which then dominated in Germany and which represented an adaptation of mediaeval scholasticism to the requirements of increased knowledge. Starting from the thesis that things which are logical in the mind must be real in nature, the rationalists formulated by mere deduction general truths about god, infinity and immortality. Under the influence of Hume, Kant became the critic of rationalism and thus the reformer of philosophy.
The question how it is that we have knowledge of generally applicable laws in which we have implicit confidence – such as mathematical theses, or the maxim that every change has a cause – was answered by Kant in this way: Experience and science are as much conditioned on properties inherent in the organization of our mind as on the impressions of the outer world. The former properties must necessarily be contained in all experience and science. Therefore everything dependent on this common mental part of science must be perfectly certain and independent of special sense impressions. Common to all experience, and inseparable from it, are the pure sense-conceptions (reine Anshauungsformen), such as space and time, while the many experiences, in order to succeed in forming understanding and science, must be connected by the pure mind-conceptions (reine Verstandesbegriffe), the so-called categories; among the latter also belongs causality.
Now Kant explains the necessity and general applicability of the pure sense and mind conceptions by the fact that they arise from the organization of our mind. Accordingly, the world appears to the senses as a succession of phenomena in time and space. Our reason transforms these phenomena into things which are welded into one aggregate nature by laws of cause and effect. On the things as they really are in themselves, in the opinion of Kant, these pure conceptions cannot be applied. We know nothing of them and can neither perceive nor reconstruct them by reason, because “in themselves” they are wholly beyond reason and knowledge.
The result of this investigation, which was the first valuable contribution to a scientific theory of understanding and forms, from our standpoint, the most important part of Kant’s philosophy, served him mainly as a means of answering the following questions: What is the value of knowledge which exceeds experience? Can we, by mere deduction through concepts which go beyond experience, arrive at truths? His answer was: No, and it was a crushing blow to rationalism. We cannot exceed the boundaries of experience. By experience alone can we arrive at science. All supposed knowledge about the unlimited and infinite, about concepts of pure reason, called Ideas by Kant (as the soul, the world, and God) is nothing but illusions. The contradictions in which the human mind becomes involved whenever it applies the categories outside of experience to such subjects, are manifested in the fruitless strife between the philosophical systems. Metaphysics as a science is impossible.
This did not give the deathblow to rationalism alone, but also to bourgeois materialism which reigned among the French radical thinkers. Kant’s researches refuted the negative as well as the positive assertions anent the supernatural and infinite. This cleared the field for faith, for intuitive conviction. God, freedom and immortality are concepts the truth of which cannot be proved by reason, like the natural truths derived from experience. But nevertheless their reality is no less certain, only it is of a different nature, being subjective and, therefore, necessarily a matter of personal conviction. The freedom of the will, for instance, is not a knowledge gained by experience, because experience never teaches us anything but lack of freedom and dependence on the laws of nature. But nevertheless freedom of will is a necessary conviction of every one who feels it in the categorical imperative: Thou shalt! of every one possessed by a sense of duty and of the knowledge that he can act accordingly; therefore freedom of will is unconditionally certain and requires no proof of experience. And from this premise there follows in same way the assurance of the immortality of the soul and of the existence of God. It gives the same kind of uncertainty by the critique of pure reason. At the same time freedom of will determines the form of the theory of understanding. In the entire world of phenomena there was no room for freedom, for these phenomena follow strict rules of causality, as demanded by the organization of our mind. Therefore it was necessary to make room for freedom of will somewhere else, and so “things in themselves,” hitherto a phrase without value and meaning, assumed a higher importance. They were not bound to space, time or categories, they were free; they formed so to say a second world, the world of noumena, which stood behind the world of phenomena and which solved the contradiction between the lawful dependence of things in nature and between the personal conviction of freedom of will.
These opinions and reasonings were fully in accord with the conditions of science and the economic development of Kant’s time. The field of nature was left entirely to the inductive method of science which based itself on strictly materialist experience and observation, classifying things systematically in their causal order and excluding all supernatural interference. But while faith was banished from the natural sciences forever, it could not be dispensed with. The ignorance as to the origin of the human will left room for a supernatural ethic. The attempts of the materialists to exclude the supernatural also from this field failed. The time had not come as yet for a materialist and natural ethics, for science was not yet able to demonstrate as an indisputable truth, founded on experience, in what manner ethical codes and moral ideas in general had a material origin.
This state of things shows that the Kantian philosophy is the purest expression of bourgeois thought, and this is still more emphasized by the fact that freedom is the center of his system and controls it. Rising capitalism required freedom for the producers of commodities in order to expand its productive forces, it required freedom of competition and freedom of unlimited exploitation. The producers of commodities should be free from all fetters and restrictions, and unhampered by any coercion, in order that they could go, under the sole direction of their own intelligence, into free competition with their fellow citizens. For this reason, freedom became the slogan of the young bourgeoisie aspiring to political power, and Kant’s doctrine of the free will, the basis of his ethics, was the echo of the approaching French Revolution. But freedom was not absolute; it was to be dependent on the moral law. It was not to be used in the quest for happiness, but in accord with the moral law, in the service of duty. If the bourgeois society was to exist, the private interest of the individual must not be paramount, the welfare of the entire class had to be superior to that of the individual, and the commandments of this class had to be recognized as moral laws taking precedence over the quest for happiness. But for this very reason, these moral laws could never be fully obeyed, and every one found himself compelled to violate them in his own interest. Hence the moral law existed only as a code which could never be fulfilled. And so it stood outside of experience.
In Kant’s ethics the internal antagonism of bourgeois society is reflected, that antagonism which is the compelling force of the ever increasing economic development. The foundation of this antagonism is the antagonism, already mentioned, between the individual and social character of production that gives rise to omnipotent, but unconceived social forces ruling the destiny of man. In capitalistic production it is still intensified by the antithesis of the wealthy ruling class and the poor producing class that is continuously augmented by those who are expropriated by competition. This antagonism gave rise to the contradiction between the aims of men and the results achieved, between the desire of happiness and the misery of the great mass. It is the basis of the contradiction between virtue and vice, between freedom and independence, between faith and science, between phenomenon and “thing itself.” It is at the bottom of all contradictions and of the entire pronounced dualism of the Kantian philosophy. These contradictions are to blame for the downfall of the system, and the work of disintegration was unavoidable from the moment that the contradictions of the bourgeois production became apparent, that is to say immediately after the political victory of the bourgeoisie. The system of Kant could, however, not be overcome, unless the material origin of morality could be uncovered. Then these contradictions could be understood and solved by showing that they were relative and not absolute as they appeared. And not until then could a materialist ethics, a science of morality, drive faith from its last retreat. This was at last accomplished by the discovery of social class struggles and of the nature of capitalist production, by the pioneer work of Karl Marx.
The practice of developed capitalism about the middle of the 19th century directly challenged proletarian thinkers to criticise Kant’s doctrine of practical reason. Bourgeois ethics and freedom manifested themselves in the form of freedom of exploitation in the interest of the bourgeoisie, as slavery for the working class. The maintenance of human dignity appeared in reality as the brutalization and degradation of the proletarians, and the state founded on justice proved to be nothing but the class state of the bourgeoisie. And so it was seen that Kant’s sublime ethics, instead of being the basis in all eternity of human activity in general, was merely the expression of the narrow class interests of the bourgeoisie. This proletarian criticism was the first material for a general theory, and once it had been stated, its correctness was demonstrated more and more by the study of previous historical events, and these events were thereby shown in their proper light. It was then understood by this theory that the social classes, distinguished by their position in the process of production, had different and antagonistic economic interests, and that each class did necessarily regard its own interest as good and sacred. These general class interests were not recognized in their true character but appeared to men in the guise of superior moral motives; in this form they crowded the special individual interests into the background, and since the class interests were generally felt, all the members of the same class recognized them. Moreover, a ruling class could temporarily compel a defeated or suppressed class to recognize the class interests of the rulers as a moral law, so long as the inevitability of the mode of production in which that class ruled was acknowledged. Owing to the fact that the nature and significance of the productive process was not understood, the origin of human motives could not be discovered. They were not traced back to experience, but simply felt directly and intuitively. And consequently they were thought to be of a supernatural origin and eternal duration.
Not only the moral codes, but also other products of the human mind, such as religion, science, arts, philosophy, were then understood to be intimately connected with the actual material conditions of society. The human mind is influenced in all its products by the entire world outside of it. And thus the mind is seen to be a part of nature, and the science of the mind becomes a natural science. The impressions of the outer world determine the experience of man, his wants determine his will, and his general wants his moral will. The world around him determines man’s wants and impressions, but these, on the other hand, determine his will and activity by which he changes the world; this will-directed activity appears in the process of social production. In this manner man by his work is a part, a link in the great chain of natural and social development.
This conception overturns the foundations of philosophy. Since the human mind is seen now to be a part of nature and interacts with the rest of the world according to laws which are more or less known, it is classed among Kant’s phenomena. There is no longer any need of talking about noumena. Thus they do no longer exist for us. Philosophy then reduces itself to the theory of experience, to the science of the human mind. It is at this point that the beginning made by Kant had to be farther developed. Kant had always separated mind from nature very sharply. But the understanding that this separation should only be made temporarily for the purpose of better investigation, and that there is no absolute difference between matter and mind made it possible to advance the science of thought processes. However, this could be accomplished only by a thinker who had fully digested the teachings of socialism. This problem was solved by Joseph Dietzgen in his work on The Nature of Human Brain Work, the first edition of which appeared in 1869, and by this work he won for himself the name of philosopher of the proletariat. This problem could be solved only by the help of the dialectic method. Therefore, the idealist philosophical system from Kant to Hegel which consist chiefly in the development of the dialectic method, must be regarded as the indispensable pioneers and precursors of Dietzgen’s proletarian philosophy.
The philosophy of Kant necessarily broke down on account of his dualism. It had shown that there is safety only in finite and material experience, and that the mind becomes involved in contradictions whenever it ventures beyond that line. The mind’s reason calls for absolute truth which cannot be gotten. Hence the mind is groping in the dark, but it cannot show the way out. What is called with Kant dialectics is in reality resignation. True, the mind finds knowledge about things outside of experience by some other way, viz., by means of its moral consciousness, but this intuitive knowledge in the form of faith remains sharply separated from scientific understanding. It was the task of philosophical development immediately after Kant, to do away with this sharp separation, this unreconciled contradiction. This development ended with Hegel; its result was the understanding that contradiction is the true nature of everything. But this contradiction cannot be left to stand undisturbed, it must be solved and still retained in a higher form, and thus be reconciled. Therefore the world of phenomena cannot be understood as being at rest. It can be understood only as a thing in motion, as activity, as a continuous change. Action is always the reconciliation of contradiction in some higher form, and contradiction appears in this way as the lever of progressive development. That which accomplishes this dialectic self-development does not appear in the idealistic systems as the material world itself, but as the spiritual, as the idea. In Hegel’s philosophy, this conception assumes the form of a comprehensive system outlining the self-development of the Absolute which is spiritual and is identical with God. The development of this Absolute takes place in three stages; in its primitive pure spiritual form it develops out of its undifferentiated being the conceptions of logic; then it expresses itself in another, an external form, opposite to self, as Nature. In nature all forms develop by way of contradictions which are eliminated by the development of some higher form. Finally the Absolute awakens to consciousness in nature in the form of the human mind and reaches thus its third stage, at which the opposite elements, matter and spirit, are reconciled into a unity. The human mind evolves in the same way to ever higher stages, until it arrives, at the end of its development by understanding itself, that is to say, by knowing intuitively the Absolute. This is what happens unconsciously in religion. Religion, which in the form of faith must be satisfied with a modest corner in the system of Kant, appears in the system of Hegel very proudly as a higher sort of understanding superior to all other knowledge, as an intuitive knowledge of absolute truth (God). In philosophy this is done consciously. And the historical development which finds its conclusion and climax in the Hegelian philosophy corresponds to the logical development of the human mind.
Thus Hegel unites all sciences and all parts of the world into one masterly system in which the revolutionary dialectics, the theory of evolution, that considers all finite things as perishable and transitory, is given a conservative conclusion by putting an end to all further development when the absolute truth is reached. All the knowledge of that period was assigned to its place somewhere in this system, on one of the steps of the dialectic development. Many of the conceptions of the natural sciences of that day, which later on were found to be erroneous, are there presented as necessary truths resting on deduction, not on experience. This could give the impression that the Hegelian philosophy made empirical research superfluous as a source of concrete truths. This appearance is to blame for the slight recognition of Hegel among naturalists; in natural sciences, this philosophy therefore has won much less importance than it deserved and than it might have won, if its actual significance, which consists in the harmonious connection between widely separated events and sciences, had been better understood under its deceptive guise.
On the abstract sciences the influence of Hegel was greater, and here he held an exceptionally prominent position in the scientific world of that time. On one hand, his conception of history as a progressive evolution in which every imperfect previous condition is regarded as a necessary phase and preparation for subsequent conditions and thus appears natural and reasonable, was a great gain for science. On the other hand, his statements on the philosophy of law and religion met the requirements and conceptions of his time. In his philosophy of law, the human mind is taken in that stage in which it steps into reality, having as its principal characteristic a free will. It is first considered as a single individual which finds its freedom incorporated in its property. This personality enters into relations with others like it. Its freedom of will is thereby expressed in moral laws. By combining all individuals into one aggregate whole, their contradictory relations are merged into the social units, viz., the family, the bourgeois society (bürgerliche Gesellschaft) and the state. There the moral rules are carried from the inner to the outer reality. As the expressions of a superior, common and more general will, they stand forth in the generally accepted moral codes, in the natural laws of bourgeois society and in the authoritative laws of the state. In the state, the highest form of which is the monarchy, the mind finds itself at its highest stage of objective realization as the idea of the state.
The reactionary character of Hegelian philosophy is not merely a superficial appearance that rests on the glorification of state and royalty, thanks to which this philosophy was raised to the position of Prussian state philosophy after the restoration. It was in its very essence a product of reaction which in those days represented the only possible advance after the revolution. This reaction was the first practical critique of bourgeois society. After this society had been firmly established, the relative amenities of the old time appeared in a better light, because the shortcomings of the new society made themselves soon felt. The bourgeoisie had recoiled before the consequences of its revolution, when it recognized that the proletariat was its barrier. It arrested the revolution as soon as its bourgeois aims had been accomplished, and it was willing to acknowledge again the mastery of the feudal state and monarchy, provided they would protect it and serve its interests. The feudal powers that previously had been overcome by the weight of their own sins and by the unconditional superiority of the new social order, again lifted their heads when the new order in its turn gave cause for well founded criticisms. But they could not keep the revolution in check, unless they recognized it in a limited degree. They could once more rule over the bourgeoisie, provided they compromised with it so far as it was inevitable. They could no longer prevail against capitalism, but they could govern for it. Thus, by their rule, the imperfectness of capitalism was revealed.
The theory of restoration, therefore, had to consist first of all of a thorough critique of the revolutionary bourgeois philosophy. But this philosophy could not be thrown aside entirely. So far as a critique of the old order was concerned, the truth of bourgeois philosophy had to be admitted. On the other hand, the sharp distinction it made between the falsity of the old and the truth of the new order was found to be beside the mark. So the correctness of the bourgeois philosophy itself proved to be relative and limited, like that of a herald of some higher truth which in turn would acknowledge that which was temporarily and partially true in its vanquished precursor. In this way the contradictions become moments in the evolution of absolute truth, in this way, furthermore, the dialectics became the main feature and method of post-Kantian philosophy; and in this way, finally, the theorists of the reaction were the men who steered philosophy over new courses and who thereby became the harbingers of socialism. Scepticism and a critique of all traditional things, yet a careful protection of endangered faith, had characterized the tendencies of bourgeois thought during its revolutionary period. In the reactionary stage, the bourgeois implicitly accepted the belief in absolute truth and cultivated a self-righteous faith. The practice of Metternich and of the Holy Alliance corresponded to the theory of Hegelian philosophy.
The practice of the Prussian police state, which embodied the shortcomings of capitalism without its advantages and thus represented a higher degree of reaction, destroyed the Hegelian philosophy, as soon as the practices of maturing capitalism began to rebel against the fetters by which reaction endeavoured to bind it. Feuerbach returned in his critique of religion from the fantastical heights of abstraction to physical man. Marx demonstrated that the reality of bourgeois society expresses itself in its class antagonisms which herald its imperfectness and approaching downfall, and he discovered that the actual historical development rested on the development of the process of material production. The absolute spirit that was supposed to be embodied in the constitution of the despotic state before the March revolution now revealed itself as the narrow bourgeois spirit which regards bourgeois society as the final aim of all historical development. The Hegelian statement that all finite things carry within themselves the germ of their own dissolution came home to his own philosophy, as soon as its finiteness and limitations had been grasped. Its conservative form was abandoned, but its revolutionary content, the dialectics, was preserved. The Hegelian philosophy was finally superseded by dialectic materialism which declares that absolute truth is realized only in the infinite progress of society and of scientific understanding.
This does not imply a wholesale rejection of Hegelian philosophy. It merely means that the relative validity of that philosophy has been recognized. The vicissitudes of the absolute spirit in the course of its self-development are but a fantastical description of the process which the real human mind experiences in its acquaintance with the world and its active participation in life. Instead of the evolution of the absolute idea, the dialectics henceforth becomes the sole correct method of thought to be employed by the real human mind in the study of the actual world and for the purpose of understanding social development. The great and lasting importance of Hegel’s philosophy, even for our own time, is that it is an excellent theory of the human mind and its working methods, provided we strip off its transcendental character, and that it far excels the first laborious contributions of Kant to the theory of human understanding.
But this quality of the Hegelian philosophy could not be appreciated, until Dietzgen had created the basis for a dialectic and materialistic theory of understanding. The indispensable character of dialectic thought, which is illustrated by the monumental works of Marx and Engels, has been first demonstrated in a perfectly convincing manner by Dietzgen’s critical analysis of the human force of thinking. It was only by means of this method of thought – of which he was according to Engels’ testimony an independent discoverer – that he could succeed in completing the theory of understanding and bringing it to a close for the time being.
If we refer to the ideas laid down by Dietzgen in this work as “his philosophy,” we say too much, because it does not assume to be a new system of philosophy. Yet, on the other hand, we should not say enough, because it would mean that his work is as passing as the systems before it. It is the merit of Dietzgen to have raised philosophy to the position of a natural science, the same as Marx did with history. The human faculty of thought is thereby stripped of its fantastic garb. It is regarded as a part of nature, and by means of experience a progressive understanding of its concrete and ever changing historical nature must be gained. Dietzgen’s work refers to itself as a finite and temporary realization of this aim, just as every new theory in natural science is a finite and temporary realization of its aims. This realization must be further improved and perfected by successive investigations. This is the method of natural science; philosophical systems, on the contrary, pretended to give absolute truth, that could not be improved upon. Dietzgen’s work is fundamentally different from these former philosophies, and more than they, because it wishes to be less. It presents itself as the positive outcome of philosophy toward which all great thinkers have contributed, seen by the sober eyes of a socialist and analyzed, recounted and further developed by him. At the same time, it attributes to previous systems the same character of partial truths and shows that they were not entirely useless speculations, but ascending stages of understanding naturally related, which contain ever more truth and ever less error. Hegel had likewise entertained this broader view, but with him this development came to a self-contradictory end in his own system. Dietzgen also calls his own conception the highest then existing, and its distinctive step in the evolution is that it for the first time adopts and professes this natural and scientific view, instead of the supernatural point of view of the former systems. The new understanding that the human mind is a common and natural thing is a decisive step in the progressive investigation of the mind, and this step places Dietzgen at the head of this evolution. And it is a step which cannot be retraced, because it signifies a sober awakening after centuries of vain imaginings. Since this system does not pretend to be absolute truth, but rather a finite and temporal one, it cannot fall as its predecessors did. It represents a scientific continuation of former philosophies, just as astronomy is the continuation of astrology and of the Pythagorean fantasies, and chemistry the continuation of alchemy. It takes the place that formerly was held by its unscientific predecessors and has this in common with them, apart from its essential theory of understanding, that it is the basis of a new world-philosophy, of a methodical conception of the universe.
This modern world-philosophy (Weltanschauung), being a socialist or proletarian one, takes issue with the bourgeois conceptions; it was first conceived as a new view of the world, entirely opposite to the ruling bourgeois conceptions, by Marx and Engels, who developed its sociological and historical contents; its philosophical basis is here developed by Dietzgen; its real character is indicated by the terms dialectic and materialist. By its core, historical materialism, it gains a wholly new theory of social evolution that forms its chief content. This theory was for the first time sketched in its main outlines in the Communist Manifesto, and later on fully developed in a number of other works and thoroughly vindicated by innumerable facts. It gives us the scientific assurance that the misery and imperfectness of present society, which bourgeois philosophy regards as inevitable and natural, is but a transitory condition, and that man will within measurable time emancipate himself from the slavery of his material wants by the regulation of social production. By this certainty socialism is put on an eminence so far above all bourgeois conceptions that these appear barbarous in comparison with it. And what is more significant, our world-philosophy may justly claim to have for the first time thrown the light of an indisputable science on society and man; combined with the maturest products of natural sciences it forms a complete science of the world, making all superstitions superfluous, and thus involving the theoretical emancipation, that is to say the emancipation of the mind. The science treating of the human mind forms the essence and foundation of this theory of society and man, not only because it gives us the same as the natural sciences a scientific or experience-proven theory of the function of human thinking, but also, because this theory of cognition can alone assure us that such sciences are able to furnish us an adequate picture of the world, and that anything outside of them is mere fantasy. For this reason we owe to Dietzgen’s theory of cognition the firm foundation of our world-philosophy.
Its character is primarily materialistic. In contradistinction to the idealist systems of the most flourishing time of German philosophy which considered the Mind as the basis of all existence, it starts from concrete materialist being. Not that it regards mere physical matter as its basis; it is rather opposed to the crude bourgeois materialism, and matter to it means everything which exists and furnishes material for thought, including thoughts and imaginations. Its foundation is the unity of all concrete being. Thus it assigns to the human mind an equal place among the other parts of the universe; it shows that the mind is as closely connected with all the other parts of the universe as those parts are among themselves; that is to say, the mind exists only as a part if the entire universe so that its content is only the effect of the other parts. Thus our philosophy forms the theoretical basis of historical materialism. While the statement that “the consciousness of man is determined by his social life” could hitherto at best be regarded as a generalization of many historical facts and open to criticism, capable of improvement by later discoveries, the same as all other scientific theories, henceforth the complete dependence of the mind on the rest of the world becomes as impregnable and immutable a requirement of thought as causality. This signifies the thorough refutation of the belief in miracles. After having been banished long ago from the field of natural science, miracles were now banished from the domain of thought.
The enlightening effect of this proletarian philosophy consists furthermore in its opposition to all superstition and its demonstration of the senselessness of all idol worship. Socialist understanding accomplished something which the bourgeois reformers could not do, because they were limited to natural science in a narrow sense and could not solve the mystery of the mind; for in explaining all the mental, spiritual phenomena as natural phenomena our proletarian philosophy furnishes the means of a trenchant critique of Christian faith which consists in the belief in a supernatural spiritual being. In his dialectic discussions of the mind and matter, finiteness and infinity, god and the world, Dietzgen has thoroughly clarified the confused mystery which surrounded these conceptions and has definitely refuted all transcendental beliefs. And this critique is no less destructive for the bourgeois idols: Freedom, Right, Spirit, Force, which are shown to be but fantastic images of abstract conceptions with a limited validity.
This could be accomplished in no other way than by simultaneously determining, in its capacity as a theory of understanding, the relation of the world around us to the image which our mind forms of it. In this respect Dietzgen completed the work begun by Hume and Kant. As a theory of understanding, his conceptions are not only the philosophical basis of historical materialism, but also of all other sciences as well. The thorough critique directed by Dietzgen against the works of prominent natural scientists, shows that he was well aware of the importance of his own work. But, as might be expected, the voice of a socialist artisan did not penetrate to the lecture hall of the academics. It was not until much later that similar views appeared among the natural scientists. And now at last the most prominent theorists of natural science have adopted the view that explaining signifies nothing else but simply and completely describing the processes of nature.
By this theory of understanding Dietzgen has made it plainly perceptible why the dialectic method is an indispensable auxiliary in the quest for an explanation of the nature of understanding. The mind is the faculty of generalization. It forms out of concrete realities, which are a continuous and unbounded stream in perpetual motion, abstract conceptions that are essentially rigid, bounded, stable, and unchangeable. This gives rise to the contradictions that our conceptions must always adapt themselves to new realities without ever fully succeeding; the contradiction that they represent the living by what is dead, the infinite by what is finite, and that they are themselves finite though partaking of the infinite. This contradiction is understood and reconciled by the insight into the nature of the faculty of understanding, which is simultaneously a faculty of combination and of distinction, which forms a limited part of the universe and yet encompasses everything, and it is furthermore solved by the resulting penetration of the nature of the world. The world is a unity of the infinitely numerous multitude of phenomena and comprises within itself all contradictions, makes them relative and equalizes them. Within its circle there are no absolute opposites. The mind merely constructs them, because it has not only the faculty of generalization but also of distinguishing. The practical solution of all contradictions is the revolutionary practice of infinitely progressing science which moulds old conceptions into new ones, rejects some, substitutes others in their place, improves, connects and dissects, still striving for an always greater unity and an always wider differentiation.
By means of this theory of understanding, dialectic materialism also furnishes the means for the solution of the riddles of the world (Welträtsel). Not that it solves all these riddles; on the contrary, it says explicitly that this solution can be but the work of an ever advancing scientific research. But it solves them in so far as it deprives them of the character of a mysterious enigma and transforms them into a practical problem, the solution of which we are approaching by infinite progression. Bourgeois thought cannot solve the riddles of the world. A few years after the first publication of Dietzgen’s work, natural science in the person of Du Bois-Reymond acknowledged its incapacity in his “Ignorabimus”: “We shall never know.” Proletarian philosophy, in solving the riddle of the human mind, gives us the assurance that there are no insoluble riddles before us.
In conclusion, Dietzgen in this work indicates the principles of a new ethics. Starting with the understanding that the origin of the ideas of good and bad is found in the needs of man, and designating as really moral that which is generally useful, he logically discovers that the essence of modern morality rests in its class interests. At the same time, a relative justification is accorded to these temporary ethics, since they are the necessary products of definite social requirements. The link between man and nature is formed by the process of social production carried on for the satisfaction of man’s material wants. So long as this link was a fetter, it bound man by a misapprehended supernatural ethics. But once the process of social labor is understood, regulated and controlled, then this fetter is dropped and the place of ethics is taken by a reasonable understanding of the general wants.
The philosophical works of Dietzgen do not seem to have, until now, exerted any perceptible influence on the socialist movement. While they may have found a silent admirer and contributed much toward a clearing up of their thoughts, yet the importance of his writings for the theory of our movement has not been realized. But this is not a matter for great surprise. In the first decade after their publication, even the economic works of Marx, the value of which was much more apparent, were little appreciated. The movement developed spontaneously, and the Marxian theory could exert a useful and determining influence only by means of the clear foresight of a few leaders. Hence it is no wonder that the philosophy of the proletariat, which is less easily and directly applicable than our economics, did not receive much attention. The political maturity of the German working class, which was farthest advanced in the theories of the international movement, did not develop to the point of adopting Marxian theses as party principles, until after the abolition of the anti-socialist laws. But even then they were for most of the spokesmen of the party rather concise formulations of a few practical convictions than the outcome of a thorough scientific training and understanding. It was no doubt the great expansion of the party and of its activity which demanded all their powers for its organization and management, that led the younger intellectuals of the party to devote themselves to practical work and to neglect theoretical studies. This neglect has bitterly avenged itself in the theoretical schisms of the subsequent years.
The decrepit condition of capitalism is now evidenced very plainly by the decay of the bourgeois parties, so that the practical work of the socialist party is in itself sufficient to attract every one who has an independent turn of mind and a capacity for deep feeling. But under the present circumstances, such a transition was not accomplished by a proletarian world-philosophy acquired by painstaking study. Instead of such a philosophy, we are confronted by a critique of socialist science from the bourgeois standpoint. Marxism is measured by the standard of the immature bourgeois theory of understanding, and the Neokantians, unconscious of the positive outcome of philosophy of the past century, are trying to connect socialism with Kantian ethics. Some even speak of a reconciliation with Christianity and a renunciation of materialism.
This bourgeois method of thought, which, being anti-dialectic and anti-materialistic, is opposed to Marxism, has acquired some practical importance in the socialistic movement of countries where by lack of economical development the class-consciousness of the workers is hindered by relics of the narrow-minded views of the class of little producers – as in France and Italy under the name of reformism. In Germany where it could not obtain much practical importance it presented itself mostly as a theoretical struggle against Marxism under the name of revisionism. It combines bourgeois philosophy and anti-capitalist disposition and takes the place formerly occupied by anarchism, and, like anarchism, it again represents in many respects the little bourgeois tendencies in the fight against capitalism. Under these circumstances, a closer study of Dietzgen’s philosophical works becomes a necessity.
Marx has disclosed the nature of the social process of production, and its fundamental significance as a lever of social development. But he has not fully explained, by what means the nature of the human mind is involved in this material process. Owing to the great traditional influence exerted by bourgeois thought, this weak spot in Marxism is one of the main reasons for the incomplete and erroneous understanding of Marxian theories. This shortcoming of Marxism is cured by Dietzgen, who made the nature of the mind the special object of his investigations. For this reason, a thorough study of Dietzgen’s philosophical writings is an important and indispensable auxiliary for the understanding of the fundamental works of Marx and Engels. Dietzgen’s work demonstrates that the proletariat has a mighty weapon not only in proletarian economics, but also in proletarian philosophy. Let us learn to wield these weapons!
Compiled by Vico, 15 August 2018