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Dialectics Precede ... Part 4

Dialectics Precede ... Part 4 (On Theses on Feuerbach and Marx Melding Materialism with Dialectics)

By Dennis Loo (12/29/17)

Part 1 is here. Part 2 is here. Part 3 is here.

It is probably wise here for me to explain something implicit in this series. In philosophy, as Frederick Engels once said, there are basically two schools of, and in, philosophy: there is idealism and there is materialism. All that exists in philosophy is a variant of one or the other school. 

We use these terms not in their ordinary forms but mean by idealism the way that Plato meant it - that any concrete object (if even they exist at all, since some idealists do not believe in real objects - really[1]), are first an idea. The leading ideas and those who embody those leading ideas, according to the Idealist School, make history. The idea of a chair, for example, precedes any real chair, according to Idealists. Thus, their name - ideas precede ideas' expression in material objects. 

Materialism (again, I’m using the term in its philosophic sense), on the other hand, says that before you have a thought, you must first have a brain. In the case of a chair, a materialist would say that it probably originated from sitting on a tree stump, or log, or rock, or some such thing, and then the idea for a chair began from that. Material forces and/or material activity are generally primary over idealist ones, according to a materialist dialectician, although ideas play an important, though overall secondary, role.

Racism or sexism are ideas and as such have an impact, but those ideas are not mainly why we continue to have racism or sexism, even though wrong ideas such as male chauvinist or anti-immigrant ideas help to reinforce racial and sexual division. If you carefully trace the origin of these ideas back what you find is not that racist ideas towards dark-skinned people predate slavery; in fact, it was in elite hopes of preventing future alliances of poor blacks and whites that such cross-race alliance resulted in the Bacon’s Rebellion in early colonial America. Specific measures were taken by endangered elites to drive a wedge between the races; they started to make certain concessions to whites that they withheld from blacks. Racism towards blacks is not what caused slavery to start, but racist ideas helped to perpetuate, justify, and rationalize an institution.

So too the subordination of women does not originate with the idea that females are “naturally” inferior, but sexist ideas help to perpetuate, justify, and rationalize unequal relations between the genders. “To what end?” you might ask: in order to help justify inequality of pay and life conditions (such as how you are treated), thus allowing those who literally profit off that differential to continue to do so and as a sop to the relatively more privileged. The latter is important, because people don’t in general like great inequality but racist and sexist ideas help them feel better about them, and makes them less likely to challenge them. Racist and sexist ideas (e.g., the ridiculous idea that blacks have an extra muscle in their ankle area that makes them faster runners) help those who benefit from racial and/or sexual division to feel okay that they are benefiting from those divisions because they feel justified in some ways by that difference.

Marx as a young man was at one point a “young Hegelian.” Hegel was popular for his idea that one could understand history as dialectical, though Hegel was a dialectical idealist. He believed that the clash of ideas resulted in conflict and was eventually resolved through a process of thesis vs. anti-thesis, resulting eventually in a new synthesis. What Marx did that no one before him did was marry dialectics with materialism.

By doing so he introduced a dynamic element to what in materialism had been simple mechanical materialism – waiting for material conditions to change themselves. You hear this refrain often, usually with people saying that “things have to get worse” before others (they usually exclude themselves from this Rx, however, which is a clue to its invalidity!) are stirred into motion.

Things are getting worse, so what happened? There is no guarantee that “things getting worse” will lead to people going in the right direction. In fact, there is every reason that they will try what the system offers them, look at the millions who voted for Donald Trump: because they wanted a drastic change and are unsophisticated about how this political and economic system actually works!

What you see primarily in Theses on Feuerbach, as obscure and dense as it might at first seem – is Marx working through what his linkage of dialectics with the heretofore mechanical materialism does and why this is such a seminal work. 

In the first sentences of Theses he states this:

The chief defect of all hitherto existing materialism – that of [Ludwig] Feuerbach included – is that the thing, reality, sensuousness, is conceived only in the form of the object or of contemplation, but not as sensuous human activity, practice, not subjectively. Hence, in contradistinction to materialism, the active side was developed abstractly by idealism – which, of course, does not know real, sensuous activity as such.

Marx’s use of the term “sensuousness” here should not be taken in its usual, sexual sense but rather he is here searching for a term to describe what he is working out here – a joining of dynamic human activity that you see in dialectics, within the context of social forces. There is an interaction between practice and theory that he is striving to express. 

To be continued - in this series: Dialectics Precede and Are Primary Over Materailism Part I 

Part 2 (On the Basic Nature of Reality)

Part 3 (The Liar's Paradox Solved and Godel's Incompleteness Theorem Revisited)

Part 4 (On Theses on Feuerbach and Marx Melding Materialism with Dialectics)

Part 5 (our decoding of Theses on Feuerbach Continues and Preview Why Dialectics Are Key Even As To Materialism)

Part 6 (Why God Does Not Exist and Why It's Materialist Dialectics, Not Dialectical Materialism)


[1] For example, postmodernists, strict social constructionists, and what I call literal textualists (such as some religious types) claim we make up the physical world and the empirical world otherwise does not exist. Note, however, that none of them live their actual lives as if their philosophies are true. For example, when they meet their flight to go to one of their postmodern conferences, they board the plane confident that aerodynamics actually work and none of the physical laws such as gravity that have been discovered by science so far are mere inventions, but are real. They live out their lives as if the physical world that we recognize so far is real (such as meeting an appointment at a set time and place) because they have to in order to get along and because it is, despite their philosophies.

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Elaine Brower 2

Elaine Brower of World Can't Wait speaking at the NYC Stop the War on Iran rally 2/4/12