Marxism materialism and atheism

Talk given at Atheist Society on the 12th of May 2009 by Chris Gaffney

The title of this talk may raise certain expectations. In fact I will have little to say specifically about atheism because I think atheism can only be materialist in its philosophy and by arguing for dialectical materialism I will of necessity leave only atheism as a response to the question of God or no God.

From the time of the Greeks through to modern philosophy, which is but a continuation of the Greeks, a major question has been how is reality known?

The answer given divides into two principle viewpoints, the materialist and the idealist. These terms are not related at all to the popular meanings of the terms namely the person who values only material things we call materialist and the person who pursues loft ideas is an idealist. We speak only of philosophical methods here.

The materialist method stands sat one end and the idealist view at the other. It makes a mockery of the person who says that they are Marxist or materialist and yet believe in God. That is, the two viewpoints are opposites

We can point out the distinctive features of both viewpoints

  1. The basic proposition of materialism refers to the nature of reality regardless of the existence of humanity. That is matter came first. When the earth was in its infancy, a flaming sphere in the heavens, before it began to cool, there was no life on its surface, no thinking creature of any kind. We had matter that was incapable of thought, out of which over several billion years developed a creature with a brain that could think.
  2. Science has demonstrated that the thinking mind does not appear until we already had matter organized to a certain level of complexity. The human brain is the part of the human being that thinks- that is thinking matter, organized in a highly intricate form
  3. It follows that matter can and did exist without mind, while the mind cannot exist without matter. Matter existed before the appearance of any kind of mind on the earth’s surface- that is before the appearance of thinking human beings
  4. In other words matter exits objectively independently of mind.
  5. Mind is a special kind of matter which develops out of the increasingly complex development of matter. It is only at this point that the idea of god makes an appearance, when it appears in the primitive thinking mind looking to make sense of a world over which they had no control or understanding

What are the distinctive features of idealism?

1 The basic element of reality to the idealist is mind or spirit. Everything else comes from mind or spirit and depends on it for its existence. Thus "god created the world"

2 Mind or spirit exists before and apart from matter. It is the abiding reality, matter no more than a passing phase or illusion. Thus god created the world. That is a spirit created the material world

Or again, when you die your material existence will end and your spirit or soul will live with god in the non material world for ever and ever. Well for some of you anyway, for the rest of you, eternal damnation

3 Mind or spirit is identical with or comes from the divine or at least leaves open the possibility of supernatural existence power and influence

We can see that idealism is a form of the religious conception according to which a divine mysterious power is placed above nature. Human consciousness being considered a tiny spark coming from the divine power that created the human species. It denies the independent existence of matter from the mind of the divine spirit.

The most extreme idealists reach the height of absurdity in arguing that nothing exists outside me, that there is only my ego, my mental existence, there is no external world apart from me. I see a chair, but the chair does not really exist independently of my perception so that when I close my eyes the chair is no longer there this is the viewpoint of solipsism.

Materialism and idealism while they are the two defining poles are not the only positions. There are a number of views that occupy a position between these two poles. For example the agnostics who cannot decide whether an external reality actually exists apart from our selves and whether it is possible to know it.

Emmanuel Kant the German philosopher developed a theory of knowledge which taught that ‘things in themselves "existed as objective reality, which was in accord with materialism, but then he stated that humanity could never know them, all we could know was phenomena or "things as they appear to us"

This was what places Kant among the idealists.

Many pragmatists refuse to take a firm stand on whether experience necessarily arises out of nature, and after it, or whether nature emerges from experience. They claim they have overcome the opposition between the idealist and the materialism viewpoints, but in fact they have simply dodged the question. They usually end up with the idealists.

The division of philosophies into materialist or idealist is not modern, it has always been a fundamental divide beginning in the world of ancient Greece

The setting aside of religious attitudes and ideas by the Milesian school (about 585 BC) laid the basis for materialist philosophy

The Iliad and the Odyssey of Homer which were completed about 550BC has human affairs subject to the whim of the gods. These were the leading ideas of the day and they reflected popular thinking, but the Milesians disposed of God and offered a crude explanation of the origin of the world and humanity without bringing in any unnatural forces at all. No gods, no miracles .This was an amazing stride for at the same time Judaism, Buddhism, and Zorocasterism were all in the process of being formed outside of Greece.

The Milesians believe the earth had four elements air fire mist and earth, but they had no explanation as to why change occurred. This was the problem the later pre-Marxist mechanical materialists had as well

Heraclites (500BC) was considered by Hegel to be the first to discover the laws of dialectics. He saw phenomena as in constant change, in perpetual motion .He noted their interconnections and contradictions that changed them into something different to their original state. Everything flows and changes. The sun is new every day. We cannot step into the same river for its waters are always changing. All objects are and are not, they are always changing. All fixed states are dissolved. It follows that there are no absolutes; no eternal values no timeless morality.

Nothing except change is eternal .Everything is composed of opposites, the result of the balance of the opposing forces within it. Pairs of opposites must be considered as internally unified.

Disease makes health pleasant, hunger brings satisfaction

"The fairest harmony is born of things different and discord is what produces all things".

Even the most harmonious unit cannot continue as such because of the incessant movement of the opposites, the unbalancing of its contending forces

"strife is the father of all things, the king of all things and has made gods and men free men and slaves"

The Atomists were the second materialist school of philosophy in Greece. The saw atoms as in ceaseless motion with empty space between them. The coupling of the atoms with the void explained permanence and change, motion and rest, identity and difference. They were wrong in many ways believing that atoms were not capable of alteration and division, but they presented as accurate a picture of natural processes as was possible given the state of knowledge at the time.

Yet the Atomists were not the dominant school of thought of their day. Plato (427 BC) and Aristotle (384 BC) were idealists who reflected the conditions of the slave owning system and their ideology served the aristocrats who were battling against the democratic tendencies of the merchants and the poor. Plato was driven to look for stable intellectual concepts that would cement the ruling class indefinitely. Something fixed in a world of change and passing away. Plato felt the horror of change because he could not fully know things that were changing and becoming something else

He used his discoveries about geometry to negate this change he feared, so that we could acquire knowledge about the properties of figures that was stable, an absolute which would stand separately from the imperfections of any figure we might draw. Thus the circle of which geometry spoke was not an actual circle but an idealized perfect circle. Likewise there must be an idea of men to which ordinary men aspired. There must be an idea of justice to which our idea of justice approximated. These ideas which came into our head had a real existence apart from the human mind.

One of their more political tasks of Plato and Aristotle was to renovate religion for the educated aristocrats. Religion was openly seen as social cement and an instrument of class domination. Plato hated democracy. He posited a state remote from the influences of commerce or the people. He wanted an ideal state in which an aristocracy of the wisest ruled-clear, fixed, and changeless.

Plato and the Athenian Oligarchs were well aware of the value of religion as an instrument of class domination. And Plato in his ‘Republic" advocated for this purpose the "noble lie". Plato advocated setting it in some distant past where it could not be verified, at a time when the gods created social distinctions or as Plato put it "how can we contrive one of those expedient falsehoods….. one noble falsehood which we may persuade the whole community, including the rulers to accept" This falsehood being that human beings were not born the same, that some had gold in their essence, others silver and the lower orders had only bronze and that the gods had made it so.

Aristotle, his successor, gave theology its name. He put the earth back as the centre of the universe reversing Plato. He argued that a non material spirit alone could cause the eternal substance that moved the stars without itself being moved.

Christian theology plundered Plato and Aristotle and they have been very helpful to ruling classes ever since. The rise of Christianity and its ascension to a state religion in the early 300s CE blotted out the advances of the Greek materialists and scientists replacing it with dogma and theology. For a thousand years in the so called dark ages the Catholic Church stood in the way of social advance in its role as the main ideological prop for the feudal ruling classes.

What changed this was the gradual development of the productive forces, of the bourgeoisie within feudal society, a rising class whose economy was based on money i.e. capital and not land as under feudalism. The rising capitalist needed science to develop the productive forces and an ideological out look that would promote this development

A range of materialist philosophers including Hobbs and later in Germany Feuerbach emerged. The materialism they developed was predominately mechanistic materialism and as such remained idealist in out look.

True both views recognized change; they could hardly do anything else. The seasons changed, all life was seen to be born, live, and then die. For the idealists this was due to some divine or cosmic authority outside the material world and not subject to its laws where as the materialists of the 17thC and C18th sought material reasons for change .They sought also for something changeless which they found in the " the eternal and indestructible atom . The world they reasoned was nothing but particles of matter in interaction but these particles were distinct from each other. The physical process of plants and animals was rather like a machine. They asked "What is its mechanism how does it work. Newton’s discovery of the solar system’s mechanism in terms of gravity and mechanical forces was one such answer

But how this originated, developed or changed the early mechanical materialist was not interested. Mostly they left the origins of things to some supreme being as did Voltaire and Tom Payne.

This way of thinking was well suited to the bourgeoisie production methods of its day which was essentially mechanical. It also suited reformers who believe that their utopian socialist ideas could be achieved because the bits of society could be re arranged according to some abstract moral code. Robert Owen wrote to Queen Victoria and the Archbishop of Canterbury asking for support for his socialist programme by appealing to their better nature, thus seeing human nature as fixed rather than as a result of their social activity based on their class

Engels answered the mechanical materialist in Ludwig Feuerbach and the end of German classical philosophy. Engels refer to them as metaphysicians

‘ the world is not to be comprehended as complex ready made things but as a complex of processes in which things apparently stable, no less than their mind images in our heads , the concepts, go through an uninterrupted change of coming into being and passing away"

Science is completely in accord with this.

Mechanistic materialism also holds that change can only take place through the action of some external cause and if this does not happen it will remain the same for ever. As to who or what created the prime movement and it nature was usually left to a supreme power ,but matter cannot be separated from motion or as Engels puts it "motion is the mode of existence of matter" and that "matter without motion is just as unthinkable as motion without matter"

As matter in motion has no beginning, it eliminates the need for a prime mover or God and in seeking the cause for social development we will not find it in the actions of great men, but through the development of the internal productive forces, that is changes in the social forces of production.

The basis for Marx and Engel’s critique of existing materialist thought lay in their use of dialectics developed by G.Hegel 1770-1831 who wished to discover how things change.

Hegel was an idealist because he believed that this dialectic process happening in nature and the material world was but a reflection of the absolute idea, a non material spirit force

His model of change was not a machine, but the organism which was born, grew, and then died.

For dialectics an entity is not a homogeneous clump of inert matter, but a dynamic unity of opposites containing opposing forces within itself which are in continuous struggle against each other. Change occurs as a result of the interaction of these forces for example when they become unbalanced and overpower the other.

A few examples may help

Today most people live in a society which is a nation state. Patriotism means identifying one self with that country regardless of one’s social position, of seeing threats to that country coming from outside the country.

A better understanding is that the Australian national state is not a homogenous entity but a dialectical entity, a unity of opposites namely the owners of capital, the capitalist class and those that sell their labour power,the working class. These two classes are tied together into a single productive system by bonds of mutual dependence, but at the same time their interests are opposed and they are in constant struggle. This dialectic model explains more than the patriotic one does- it explains change. We could put it that mechanical materialism gives us a photo of reality, but dialectical materialism gives us the film version.

During the stable periods of apparent stability the opposing forces continue to develop until the balance shifts, a revolution erupts and a qualitatively new kind of order emerges based on a higher system of production.

Another example from nature, the typical history of stars has found to consist of a series of violent explosions separated by long periods of apparent stability. During the stable period the star consists of a massive globe of material producing energy by nuclear fusion .The energy from this creates an outward pressure on the star material but the gravitational force of the star’s material creates an inward pressure. . The star is a unity of opposites. The forces balance each other and the star remains stable for a few billions years until the nuclear fuel begins to give out and the fusion process slows down, then the gravitational forces get the upper hand and the star implodes explosively. This ignites a higher type of level of fusion reaction and the process begins again at a higher level

We may notice in both these examples that there are explosive leaps that change quantitative changes into qualitative change. Some see evolution and dialectics as identical but many evolutionist deny that there are leaps in nature

Hegel shows that both in nature and human society leaps constitute just as essential stages of evolution as gradual qualitative changes. He says "Changes in being consists not only in the fact that one quantity passes into another quantity but also that quality passes into quantity and vice versa"

A classic example is the transformation of water into steam; if water is heated it will remain water until its temperature reaches 100 C, when it suddenly ceases to be water. It becomes steam it is transformed into something different, a qualitative leap has occurred, a revolutionary transformation .

Again when nuclear fuel is brought together, if there is less than the critical mass nothing will happen but at a certain point when fuel is continually added a critical mass will be reached and a nuclear chain reaction will begin

We say humans are mortal as though death is alien to the nature of the living person. For us it follows that humans have two qualities first of life and second of being mortal. But looked at closely it turns out that life bears within itself the germ of death ,so that in general phenomena is contradictory in the sense that it developes out of itself elements which sooner or later will put an end to its existence and transforms it in to its opposite. Everything flows, everything changes ,and there is no force that can arrest this constant flux.

Even the idea of god who is posed as an eternal and unchanging being has in fact changed with every social transformation.

At a particular moment a moving body is at a particular spot, but at the same time it is outside it as well, because if it were only in that spot it would become motionless. Every motion is a dialectical process, a living contradiction. We cannot have matter without motion so we would have to agree with Hegel that dialectics is the soul of any scientific cognition

Let us again look at political economy. Every capitalist strives to beat his competitors to become master of the market and sometimes succeeds, which show us that free competition does not stay free competition because out of the free competition develops its opposite, an inevitable trend towards monopoly- the opposite of free competition

As we have seen dialectics was developed by Hegel in the framework of an idealist philosophy who saw the material world as but a progress to attainment of the absolute idea which like Plato was spiritual and eternal which of course was his contradiction, as dialectics allows of no divine no eternal thing, no permanence because all that comes into being, passes away, but apparently for Hegel not the absolute idea.

Marx and Engels took abstractions of Hegel and turned the dialectic on its head

Says Marx

To Hegel the life process of the human brain, i.e. the process of thinking, which under the name of the idea, he even transforms into an independent subject, is the demiurgos ( creator) of the real world and the real world is only the external, the phenomenal form of the ‘idea".

With me on the contrary, the ideal is nothing else than the material world reflected by the human mind and translated into forms of thought’ Das Capital

Hegel’s idealist dialectics have been put on its feet by the incorporation of dialectic logic into a materialist view of the world. Dialectical materialism conceives of capitalist society not as a perpetual motion in equilibrium but as an organism with competing forces namely classes and a finite life span.

Marx discovered that the mode of production or the way in which material life is produced, will depend on the level of development of technology, and that this conditions the social, political and intellectual life process in general ,that all the social and political relations ,all religious and legal systems, all the intellectual outlooks which emerge in history are to be comprehended only when the material conditions of life of the era are understood and the former are derived from these material conditions.

"It is not the consciousness of humans that determine their being but their social being, their class if you like, that determine their consciousness. This is the materialism of Marx.

Says Marx At a certain stage of their development the material productive forces come into conflict with the existing relations of production or what is but a legal expression for the same thing—with the property relations within which they have been at work . From forms of development of the productive forces these relations turn into their fetters. Then begins a period of social revolution. With the change of the economic foundations the entire super structure is more of less rapidly transformed.

Thus the capitalist class grew up in the womb of feudal society but they could only develop to certain point because the feudal class structure blocked their way, denied them a free market, a labour force or access to the productive forces. The capitalist class led a revolution against feudalism in England 1640 and France 1789. As the capitalist system took root it developed within it a working class, and with it a struggle by the working class for its own class interests which are diametrically opposed to those of their capitalist exploiters .This is the only class that will end the existence of capitalism and take us to a planned democratic society controlled by the working class,

We see here both the materialism and the dialectical understanding of change that made Marx a unique political thinker

The bourgeois ideologue denies the contradictions of capitalist society and the social democrat believes these contradictions can be resolved and reconciled, but contradiction and opposing forces are in the nature of any entity. The social democrats proceeded with the accord between the trade unions and the capitalist state in the 1980s on the myth that the interests of the two major classes were reconcilable. The almost total decline of the trade unions and the enfeebling of the working class was the result.

Capitalism is a unity of opposites of private property exploiters, the bourgeoisie, and the property less working class forced to sell their labour power to the owners of capital. Of course there are intermediate classes like the very small capitalist, small farmer or family business or the petty bourgeoisie as Marx describes them. Such classes are declining as capitalism develops, have limited social power and as a result they align themselves with either of the two major classes History is nothing but a history of class struggle.

Marxist s not only recognize contradictions but work hard to convince the working class that their real interests do not lie with the exploiters We also anticipate that the contradictions of capitalism will proceed to crisis after crisis bringing opportunities for a revolutionary reconstruction of society and that independence of the working class movement from the bourgeoisie is imperative if we are to successfully wage the class struggle.

The working classes must unite on the widest possible basis, but know that no unity should ever be sought with forces that are hostile by their nature to working class interests. This is the dialectic essence knowing that even a period like today when working class struggle against capitalism is at its lowest ebb that nothing is static, capitalist crisis is ongoing, and our class interests can never be reconciled.

As Marx puts it in the manifesto

"Ever lasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from earlier ones. All fixed fast frozen relations are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air"

Chris Gaffney 8th may 2009

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