Modern dialectical materialism

Modern dialectical materialism

(essay)


Introduction

We are living in a period of profound historical change. After a period of 40 years of unprecedented economic growth the market economy is reaching its limits. At the dawn of capitalism despite its barbarous crimes it revolutionized the productive forces thus laying the basis for a new system of society. The First World War and the Russian Revolution signalled a decisive change in the historical role of capitalism. From a means of developing the productive forces it became transformed into a gigantic fetter upon economic and social development. The period of upswing in the West in the period of 1948-73 seemed to promise a new dawn. Even so the benefits were limited to a handful of developed capitalist countries. For two-thirds of humanity living in the Third World the picture was one of mass unemployment poverty wars and exploitation on an unprecedented scale. This period of capitalism ended with the so-called "oil crisis" of 1973-4. Since then they have not managed to get back to the kind of growth and levels of employment they had achieved in the post-war period.

A social system in a state of irreversible decline expresses itself in cultural decay. This is reflected in a hundred different ways. A general mood of anxiety and pessimism as regards the future spreads especially among the intelligentsia. Those who yesterday talked confidently about the inevitability of human progress and evolution now see only darkness and uncertainty. The 20th century is staggering to a close having witnessed two terrible world wars economic collapse and the nightmare of fascism in the period between the wars. These were already a stern warning that the progressive phase of capitalism was past.

The crisis of capitalism pervades all levels of life. It is not merely an economic phenomenon. It is reflected in speculation and corruption drug abuse violence all-pervasive egotism and indifference to the suffering of others the breakdown of the bourgeois family the crisis of bourgeois morality culture and philosophy. How could it be otherwise? One of the symptoms of a social system in crisis is that the ruling class increasingly feels itself to be a fetter on the development of society.

Marx pointed out that the ruling ideas of any society are the ideas of the ruling class. In its heyday the bourgeoisie not only played a progressive role in pushing back the frontiers of civilisation but was well aware of the fact. Now the strategists of capital are seized with pessimism. They are the representatives of an historically doomed system but cannot reconcile themselves to the fact. This central contradiction is the decisive factor which sets its imprint upon the mode of thinking of the bourgeoisie today. Lenin once said that a man on the edge of a cliff does not reason.


Lag in Consciousness

Contrary to the prejudice of philosophical idealism human consciousness in general is extraordinarily conservative and always tends to lag far behind the development of society technology and the productive forces. Habit routine and tradition to use a phrase of Marx weigh like an Alp on the minds of men and women who in "normal" historical periods cling stubbornly to the well-trodden paths from an instinct of self-preservation the roots of which lie in the remote past of the species. Only in exceptional periods of history when the social and moral order begin to crack under the strain of intolerable pressures do the mass of people start to question the world into which they have been born and to doubt the beliefs and prejudices of a lifetime.

Such a period was the epoch of the birth of capitalism heralded by the great cultural re-awakening and spiritual regeneration of Europe after its lengthy winter sleep under feudalism. In the period of its historical ascent the bourgeoisie played a most progressive role not only in developing the productive forces and thereby mightily expanding humanity’s power over nature but also in extending the frontiers of science knowledge and culture. Luther Michelangelo Leonardo Dührer Bacon Kepler Galileo and a host of other pathfinders of civilisation shine like a galaxy illuminating the broad highroad of human cultural and scientific advance opened by the Reformation and Renaissance. However such revolutionary periods do not come into being easily or automatically. The price of progress is struggle—the struggle of the new against the old the living against the dead the future against the past.

The rise of the bourgeoisie in Italy Holland England and later in France was accompanied by an extraordinary flourishing of culture art and science. One would have to look back to ancient Athens to find a precedent for this. Particularly in those countries where the bourgeois revolution triumphed in the 17th and 18th centuries the development of the forces of production and technology was accompanied by a parallel development of science and thought which drastically undermined the ideological domination of the Church.

In France the classical country of the bourgeois revolution in its political expression the bourgeoisie in 1789-93 carried out its revolution under the banner of Reason. Long before it toppled the formidable walls of the Bastille it was necessary to overthrow the invisible but no less formidable walls of religious superstition in the minds of men and women. In its revolutionary youth the French bourgeoisie was rationalist and atheist. Only after installing themselves in power did the men of property finding themselves confronted by a new revolutionary class jettison the ideological baggage of their youth.

Not long ago France celebrated the two hundredth anniversary of its great revolution. It was curious to note how even the memory of a revolution two centuries ago fills the establishment with unease. The attitude of the French ruling class to their own revolution vividly recalled that of an old libertine who tries to gain a ticket to respectability—and perhaps admittance to heaven—by renouncing the sins of his youth which he is no longer in a position to repeat. Like all established privileged classes the capitalist class seeks to justify its existence not only to society at large but to itself. In its search for ideological points of support which would tend to justify the status quo and sanctify existing social relations they rapidly rediscovered the enchantments of Mother Church particularly after the mortal terror they experienced at the time of the Paris Commune. The church of Sacré Coeur is a concrete expression of the bourgeois’ fear of revolution translated into the language of architectural philistinism.

Marx (1818-83) and Engels (1820-95) explained that the fundamental driving force of all human progress is the development of the productive forces—industry agriculture science and technique. This is a truly great theoretical generalisation without which it is impossible to understand the movement of human history in general. However it does not mean as dishonest or ignorant detractors of Marxism have attempted to show that Marx "reduces everything to economics." Dialectical and historical materialism takes full account of phenomena such as religion art science morality law politics tradition national characteristics and all the other manifold manifestations of human consciousness. But not only that. It shows their real content and how they relate to the actual development of society which in the last analysis clearly depends upon its capacity to reproduce and expand the material conditions for its existence. On this subject Engels wrote the following:

"According to the materialist conception of history the ultimately determining element in history is the production and reproduction of real life. More than this neither Marx nor I have ever asserted. Hence if someone twists this into saying that the economic element is the only determining one he transforms that position into a meaningless abstract senseless phrase. The economic situation is the basis but the various elements of the superstructure—political forms of the class struggle and its results to wit: constitutions established by victorious classes after a successful battle etc. judicial forms and the reflexes of all these actual struggles in the brains of the participants political juristic philosophical theories religious views and their further development into systems of dogmas also exercise their influence upon the course of the historical struggles and in many cases predominate in determining their form." (1)

The affirmation of historical materialism that in general human consciousness tends to lag behind the development of the productive forces seems paradoxical to some. Yet it is graphically expressed in all kinds of ways in the United States where the achievements of science have reached their highest level. The constant advance of technology is the prior condition for bringing about the real emancipation of men and women through the establishment of a rational socioeconomic system in which human beings exercise conscious control over their lives and environment. Here however the contrast between the rapid development of science and technology and the extraordinary lag in human thinking presents itself in its most glaring form.

In the USA nine persons out of ten believe in the existence of a supreme being and seven out of ten in a life after death. When the first American astronaut who succeeded in circumnavigating the world in a spacecraft was asked to broadcast a message to the inhabitants of the earth he made a significant choice. Out of the whole of world literature he chose the first sentence of the book of Genesis: "In the beginning God created heaven and the earth." This man sitting in his space ship a product of the most advanced technology ever seen had his mind full to the brim with superstitions and phantoms handed down with little change from the primeval past.

Seventy years ago in the notorious "monkey trial" of 1925 a teacher called John Scopes was found guilty of teaching the theory of evolution in contravention of the laws of the state of Tennessee. The trial actually upheld the state’s anti-evolution laws which were not abolished until 1968 when the US Supreme Court ruled that the teaching of creation theories was a violation of the constitutional ban on the teaching of religion in state schools. Since then the creationists changed their tactics trying to turn creationism into a "science." In this they have the support not only of a wide layer of public opinion but of not a few scientists who are prepared to place their services at the disposal of religion in its most crude and obscurantist form.

In 1981 American scientists making use of Kepler’s laws of planetary motion launched a spacecraft that made a spectacular rendezvous with Saturn. In the same year an American judge had to declare unconstitutional a law passed in the state of Arkansas which imposed on schools the obligation to treat so-called "creation-science" on equal terms with the theory of evolution. Among other things the creationists demanded the recognition of Noah’s flood as a primary geological agent. In the course of the trial witnesses for the defence expressed fervent belief in Satan and the possibility that life was brought to earth in meteorites the variety of species being explained by a kind of meteoric shuttle-service! At the trial Mr. N. K. Wickremasinge of the University of Wales was quoted as saying that insects might be more intelligent than humans although "they’re not letting on…because things are going so well for them." (2)

The religious fundamentalist lobby in the USA has mass support access to unlimited funds and the backing of congressmen. Evangelical crooks make fortunes out of radio stations with a following of millions. The fact that in the last decade of the 20th century there are a large number of educated men and women—including scientists—in the most technologically advanced country the world has ever known who are prepared to fight for the idea that the book of Genesis is literally true that the universe was created in six days about 6 000 years ago is in itself a most remarkable example of the workings of the dialectic.

 

"Reason Becomes Unreason"

The period when the capitalist class stood for a rational world outlook has become a dim memory. In the epoch of the senile decay of capitalism the earlier processes have been thrown into reverse. In the words of Hegel "Reason becomes Unreason." It is true that in the industrialised countries "official" religion is dying on its feet. The churches are empty and increasingly in crisis. Instead we see a veritable "Egyptian plague" of peculiar religious sects accompanied by the flourishing of mysticism and all kinds of superstition. The frightful epidemic of religious fundamentalism—Christian Jewish Islamic Hindu—is a graphic manifestation of the impasse of society. As the new century beckons we observe the most horrific throwbacks to the Dark Ages.

This phenomenon is not confined to Iran India and Algeria. In the United States we saw the "Waco massacre " and after that in Switzerland the collective suicide of another group of religious fanatics. In other Western countries we see the uncontrolled spread of religious sects superstition astrology and all kinds of irrational tendencies. In France there are about 36 000 Catholic priests and over 40 000 professional astrologers who declared their earnings to the taxman. Until recently Japan appeared to be an exception to the rule. William Rees-Mogg former editor of the London Times and arch-Conservative in his recent book The Great Reckoning How the World Will Change in the Depression of the 1990s states that: "The revival of religion is something that is happening throughout the world in varying degrees. Japan may be an exception perhaps because social order has as yet shown no signs of breaking down there…" (3) Rees-Mogg spoke too soon. A couple of years after these lines were written the horrific gas attack on the Tokyo underground drew the world’s attention to the existence of sizable groups of religious fanatics even in Japan where the economic crisis has put an end to the long period of full employment and social stability. All these phenomena bear a striking resemblance to what occurred in the period of the decline of the Roman Empire. Let no one object that such things are confined to the fringes of society. Ronald and Nancy Reagan regularly consulted astrologers about all their actions big and small. Here are a couple of extracts from Donald Regan’s book For the Record:

"Virtually every major move and decision the Reagans made during my time as White House chief of staff was cleared in advance with a woman in San Francisco who drew up horoscopes to make certain that the planets were in a favourable alignment for the enterprise. Nancy Reagan seemed to have absolute faith in the clairvoyant powers of this woman who had predicted that ‘something’ bad was going to happen to the president shortly before he was wounded in an assassination attempt in 1981.

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