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Why is Marxist philosophy interested in materialism?

This week, the MARX MEMORIAL LIBRARY describes what Marx’s materialism is and what it meant at the time

LET’S start with “materialism” first. We’ll follow up with the “dialectical” bit in the next instalment.

Colloquially, the terms materialism and materialistic are often used in a pejorative way to mean “concerned or preoccupied with material things” at the expense of values and ideas. But in philosophy the term materialism is used rather differently.

Materialism holds that the world, the universe and “nature,” actually exist. Beyond this, it holds that that all phenomena — including consciousness — are ultimately the outcome of (though not reducible to) material processes. And that humans can, in principle, understand that world — often incorrectly and never completely, but that over time we can collectively work towards a better knowledge of what reality is and how it functions.

That sounds pretty obvious now, but in Karl Marx’s time (1818-1883), there were, as there are today, philosophers who argue that ideas are primary and that it is impossible to ever “know” the world — all we can be sure of are our sensations — or even to know that we exist. Others argue that ideas (consciousness) can exist independently of the brain, books or other physical entities.

And, of course, most religions posit a non-material god (or gods) which operates via mechanisms which, by definition, are incomprehensible to the human mind.

An example of an idealist approach is Bertrand Russell’s The Problems of Philosophy, first published in 1912 and reprinted many times since. The book is still used as an introductory text to philosophical thinking.

Russell’s first chapter, entitled Appearance and Reality, asks whether the table that we sit at corresponds to what we experience with our senses. It concludes that “doubt suggests that perhaps there is no table at all.”

The book’s final paragraph ends: “Philosophy is to be studied, not for the sake of any definite answers to its questions, since no definite answers can, as a rule, be known to be true, but rather for the sake of the questions themselves […] but above all because, through the greatness of the universe which philosophy contemplates, the mind is also rendered great, and becomes capable of that union with the universe which constitutes its highest good.”

That’s fine, of course, for academic or self-funded philosophers. It can be quite fun too for us ordinary folk who occupy a lower station in life. But it’s not much help in actually changing the world.

Marx famously declared that “the philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways. The point, however is to change it.” Russell to his credit, and despite his doubts about existence, did try to change the world, opposing World War I, engaging in direct action for nuclear disarmament and leading opposition to US war crimes in Vietnam. He spent time in prison as a consequence.

All this doesn’t mean, of course, that “reality” and what we perceive with our senses are the same.

We’ve probably all wondered at times whether things are really as they seem. Marx himself argued that this was rarely the case, famously stating that “all science would be superfluous if the outward appearance and the essence of things directly coincided.”

Science is precisely that — the endeavour to go beyond the superficial appearance of things and to understand their essence, whether this is in physics, chemistry, biology, the environmental sciences or in those sciences which deal with human affairs.

Marx’s own great contribution was to articulate a materialist approach to history (“historical materialism”) in which the production and reproduction of human existence (the “economic base” of society) are fundamental to an understanding of its culture, ideas, and politics (sometimes called “the superstructure”). This is broadly accepted today, although there are still those who present history solely in terms of “great minds” or the actions of individuals independent of their material environment.

Let’s end here before we proceed to look at dialectics in the next instalment by challenging dictionary definitions of philosophical materialism that go something along the lines of “the philosophical belief that nothing exists beyond what is physical.”

Marxists of course are hugely concerned with ideas, values and ethics and they would dispute any suggestion that these don’t exist, or that they can be reduced merely to physical processes.

Marxists would insist, however, that knowledge, ideas, values and ethics cannot exist independently of the physical world.

They have a dialectical relationship with the material world and, like that world, they are constantly changing. They need to be understood in their material context.

Engels put this as well as anyone else since in his speech at Marx’s graveside in 1883:

“Just as Darwin discovered the law of development or organic nature, so Marx discovered the law of development of human history: the simple fact, hitherto concealed by an overgrowth of ideology, that humankind must first of all eat, drink, have shelter and clothing, before it can pursue politics, science, art, religion, etc; that therefore the production of the immediate material means, and consequently the degree of economic development attained by a given people or during a given epoch, form the foundation upon which the state institutions, the legal conceptions, art, and even the ideas on religion of the people concerned have been evolved, and in the light of which they must, therefore, be explained, instead of vice versa, as had hitherto been the case.”


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