The Dialectics of Nature
This talk on Engels’ introduction to his Dialectics of Nature was given by comrade Giles Shorter at a recent school of the Communist Party of Great Britain (Marxist-Leninist) held in Saklatvala Hall in Southall.
Somebody once suggested that we should imitate the nuns – in one respect at least. Each night before sleep, they are supposed to ask themselves: how can I serve God better tomorrow? Except in our case, we should ask: how can I serve the party better?
In the same spirit, I want to suggest another “spiritual exercise” to comrades. The next time you are standing on the street selling Proletarian and feeling so much like a great sore thumb that you are tempted to question the sanity of your undertaking, think back to what Engels had to say in his introduction to the Dialectics of Nature. No comrade who grasps the significance of those few brief pages will ever again need to doubt that the work we are engaged in is the most natural and sensible activity possible, and puts down the clearest possible marker for the future progress of modern humanity.
Engels takes us right back to scratch, to the most basic of basics. What is the world? A lot of stuff moving about – or more elegantly, matter in motion. How did our solar system form? Out of a nebular chaos from which our sun and related planets differentiated themselves. What kind of motion occurs within the sun? That arising from the contradiction between heat and gravity. What kind of motion occurs on the sun’s cooling satellites, including our own earth? “With progressive cooling the interplay of the physical forms of motion which become transformed into one another comes more and more to the forefront until finally a point is reached from when on chemical affinity begins to make itself felt, the previous chemically indifferent elements become differentiated chemically one after another, acquire chemical properties, and enter into combination with one another”. Further development through contradiction occurs as the land separates from the sea and the temperature drops low enough to permit the formation of living protoplasm, clearing the way for the evolution of the single-celled organism. From this spark of life in turn emerge multi-cellular organisms, plants and animals, all the way through to the evolution of the human mammal, modern man.
Engels remarks that this process of differentiation operates “not only individually – by development from a single egg-cell to the most complicated organism that nature produces – but also historically”. The advance of our species from its animal origins occurs through the differentiation of hand and foot, and the related quantitative expansion and qualitative leap in development of the human brain. And the contradiction driving on this great forward progress is that between man and nature. Engels reminds us that the specialization of the hand “implies the tool, and the tool implies specific human activity, the transforming reaction of man on nature, production”. In the exercise of his productive labour, man is at once in unity and in conflict with the natural world, transforming the world through his work and at the same time transforming his own social nature.
Natural history – a history in which organic life conforms to natural laws without reflection – with the advent of man becomes social history, a history which by increasing degrees is consciously made by humanity. The more comprehensively nature is able to reflect upon its own laws via the medium of our mammalian brains, the more conscious mastery man is able to wield over his own history.
The single greatest remaining obstacle to the unfettered reflection of nature in the human brain – and by the same token, to the ever more fully achieved appreciation of necessity upon which alone future human freedom can be founded – is the unresolved contradiction between the private character of capitalist appropriation and the social character of production.
Properly understood, then, the struggle to overthrow this outdated and destructive mode of capitalist commodity production is not alone about the emancipation of the proletariat from exploitation, but also about the emancipation of the whole species, through the ever more complete appreciation of the laws which govern all of matter in motion, not least those governing our own social history.
So as you shiver on that street corner with a bunch of leaflets in your hand, it’s helpful to remember the dizzying train of development leading up to your small but significant act. From the first differentiation out of nebular chaos, through every intermediate stage of development up to the modern human society, this trajectory from simple to complex forms of material organization, and from blind instinct to conscious grasp, has been traced by an arrow of development whose point can be no other than the sharpest anti-imperialist struggle. And the most conscious crystallization of that struggle can be no other than the emergence of the vanguard communist party of the proletariat.
This is not an excuse for megalomania. It is the initiative, heroism and sacrifice of the toiling masses which makes history, not a handful of modest scholars of history in Southall. But next time you stand up in a meeting and offer a sample of communist rationality to a distinctly underwhelmed audience, it’s worth considering the long march that has taken our species to this point, and just how mainstream to that development Marxism-Leninism really is, however hard today’s academic luminaries and fake lefties try to marginalize it.
Dialectical materialism is not some crackpot system which has dropped out of the sky, but an understanding of the world whose earliest roots go back at least into antiquity. The struggle between idealism and materialism was already in full swing in Ancient Greece. Engels points out that the early Greeks had a lively sense of the universe consisting entirely of matter in motion, with nothing remaining constant except change itself.
A glance at the pre-Socratic thinkers at work in Samos and nearby Greek colonies between 600 and 400 BC, a period when rapidly developing trade and manufacture gave a spur to science, reveals a startling intellectual kinship with modern scientific thinking. Anaximander argued that life originated spontaneously from mud, with spiny fish crawling out of the ooze and then evolving via a sequence of stages into humans. Democritus insisted that “nothing exists but atoms and the void” and that human thought is an attribute of highly organised matter, not spirit infused into matter by the gods. Anaxagoras scorned the notion that the sun and moon were gods, explaining that the sun was a fiery stone and the moon reflected its light.
In particular their sense of a world in which something new is always forming, whilst something old is dying away, showed great insight. However their intuitive theoretical grasp could not be matched by a corresponding practical grasp at such an early stage of productive development. Once slavery was firmly established as the economic basis of Athenian society, separating manual (slave) labour from intellectual (scholastic) labour, the intuitive materialism of the Ionians was supplanted by the idealism of Socrates and Plato.
The way in which the disconnect between low scientific knowledge base and vaulting theoretical intuition was subsequently overcome is itself a striking illustration of the dialectical character of all development, not least in the realm of human thought itself. Where straight-line logic might have expected to see the gradual accumulation of knowledge bringing about the amicable convergence of intuitive insight and scientific fact, what actually happened was very different.
Engels describes how the gathering strength of the nascent capitalist class found ideological expression in the brilliant artistic and scientific achievements of the Renaissance and beyond. At the same time, he demonstrates that the brilliance of those achievements stands in contradiction to the essentially static worldview within which science remained locked, all the way from the Renaissance and through into the eighteenth century. As Engels says, even though this period began with the astronomy of Copernicus challenging the authority of the Church, it ended with Newton dredging up the notion of a divine first impulse. For all the scientific advances of this period, science remained a hostage to religious idealism. As Engels puts it,
“High as the natural science of the first half of the eighteenth century stood above Greek antiquity in knowledge and even in the sifting of the material, it stood just as deeply below Greek antiquity in the theoretical mastery of this material, in the general outlook on nature. For the Greek philosophers the world was essentially something that had emerged from chaos, something that had developed, that had come into being. For the natural scientists of the period that we are dealing with it was something ossified, something immutable, and for most of them something that had been created at one stroke.”
Great gains were made in the realm of empirical investigation, grounded in the rapid transformation of the productive forces which accompanied the growth of capitalism. Yet this epoch marked a simultaneous step backwards from the intuitive dialectical grasp of the ancient world. And it was not until the decisive struggles of the nineteenth century – first in the field of geology, then in the field of biology, culminating in Darwin’s great work on the origin of species – that modern evolutionary science was able to put a serious dent in this static worldview.
Engels’s account makes clear how this restoration of dialectics to scientific knowledge is itself a dialectical movement, not a self-repeating circle but a spiral which recapitulates the insights of the Greeks on the basis of a massively expanded knowledge base. As he puts it,
“Thus we have once again returned to the mode of outlook of the great founders of Greek philosophy, the view that the whole of nature, from the smallest element to the greatest, from grains of sand to suns, from Protista to man, has its existence in eternal coming into being and passing away, in ceaseless flux, in unresting motion and change. Only with the essential difference that what in the case of the Greeks was a brilliant intuition, is in our case the result of strictly scientific research in accordance with experience, and hence also it emerges in a much more definite and clear form.”
However, despite this enormous advance which Engels celebrates, the final resolution of the contradiction between scientific progress and the (bourgeois) worldview behind which that progress unfolds is hindered by the reluctance of capitalist commodity production relations to quit the field. So long as bourgeois ideology dominates world human society, dialectical materialism is prevented from taking its rightful place. The flawed and incomplete materialism behind which scientific research was obliged to limp was the target of Engels in Anti-Dühring. And despite the fantastic advances in the intervening period, that limp is no better today, with a great pioneer in theoretical physics like Stephen Hawking still wanting to believe that science “helps us know the mind of God”!
The full flowering of rational social production made possible by the universal overthrow of the capitalist mode of production will provide the material basis for an unprecedented leap forward in every branch of human culture. And the worldview which will come to be regarded as common sense in that communist future can only be that of Marxism-Leninism – the same understanding which, applied in the sphere of class struggle, will by then have guided the toiling masses to success in their revolutionary work.
At the recent Climate Change demonstration in London we marched behind a banner proclaiming “You’ve got to be Red to be Green”. The irrational and destructive organization of production under imperialism does indeed pose a real and present danger to the natural environment of which our mammalian species is the highest form of development. But Green idealism confuses the specific destructiveness of the modern capitalist mode of production with the supposed innately destructive character of our species in general. It further muddies the waters by presenting man’s relationship with nature as though what was at issue was simply a moral choice between preserving or destroying the “delicate balance of nature”. It is a short step from this to the frank assertion that, really, nature would be better off without us all together! After all, the consequences of our intervention on the planet are massive and irreversible. As Engels says,
“Man alone has succeeded in impressing his stamp on nature, not only by shifting plant and animal species from one place to another, but also by so altering the aspect and climate of his dwelling-place, and even the plants and animals themselves, that the consequences of his activity can disappear only with the general extinction of the terrestrial globe.”
So there’s no going back. The only question is: how do we advance? The reality is that the “delicate balance” of every phenomenon is always in the process of being compromised – precisely because matter in motion never ceases to develop, and that development always involves an internal struggle between opposites, between forces that are decaying and dying away, and other forces that are coming into being. The point is not to make a fetish out of “preserving the delicate balance” at all costs and under all circumstances. Rather, it’s a question of extending our knowledge of the laws governing the development of matter in motion in such a way as to increase the conscious social mastery of production. For example, rather than either squandering our entire legacy of fossil fuels in a world-polluting binge, or damning all further use of fossil fuels under any circumstances as a sin against Gaia, a planned socialist approach will be able to exercise rational social judgement on the question of fuels use, unhampered by the contradictions of capitalism or the reflection of those contradictions in bourgeois ideology. Sanity will find room to breathe on other issues like GM crops and nuclear energy.
Human labour will always be in both unity and conflict with the rest of nature. As we advance beyond class-exploitation, however, this contradiction will lose its antagonistic character, clearing the way for an unbounded flourishing of all nature, human and non-human alike.
Let Engels have the final word. Much gloomy idealism is wont to brood on the “extinction of the terrestrial globe”. Engels does not shy away from this either, freely acknowledging that
“Millions of years may elapse, hundreds of thousands of generations be born and die, but inexorably the time will come when … the last trace of organic life will vanish …”.
Yet his conclusions are anything but gloomy.
“It is an eternal cycle in which matter moves, a cycle that certainly only completes its orbit in periods of time for which our terrestrial year is no adequate measure, a cycle in which the time of highest development, the time of organic life and still more that of the life of beings conscious of nature and of themselves, is just as narrowly restricted as the space in which life and self-consciousness come into operation; a cycle in which every finite mode of existence of matter, whether it be sun or nebular vapour, single animal or genus of animals, chemical combination or dissociation, is equally transient, and wherein nothing is eternal but eternally changing, eternally moving matter and the laws according to which it moves and changes. But however often, and however relentlessly, this cycle is completed in time and space; however many millions of suns and earths may arise and pass away, however long it may last before, in one solar system and only on one planet, the conditions for organic life develop; however innumerable the organic beings, too, that have to arise and to pass away before animals with a brain capable of thought are developed from their midst, and for a short span of time find conditions suitable for life, only to be exterminated later without mercy – we have the certainty that matter remains eternally the same in all its transformations, that none of its attributes can ever be lost, and therefore, also, that with the same iron necessity that it will exterminate on the earth its highest creation, the thinking mind, it must somewhere else and at another time again produce it.”
The point is of course not that we should console ourselves with the speculation that communist intelligence might even now be steaming ahead on some other planet, or that even if the human race destroys itself without ever getting beyond class-division, there will be another sentient race along somewhere and sometime. The point is that there is nothing but matter in motion, that matter cannot be destroyed , that matter cannot cease to move, that motion differentiates into a multiplicity of distinct forces, that matter moves from less complex to more complex forms of organization, that the most complex form of the self-organization of matter that we know of is the human brain, that the development of human society and thought has been driven by tool-use and the transformation of nature through labour, and that this process is in essence neither arbitrary nor accidental. By projecting his argument to such remote reaches of space and time, Engels is underscoring that, in the “eternal cycle in which matter moves”, there is no hiding place for God and his angels, no opportunity for the Holy Ghost to slip between the cracks, no backdoor through which a “divine first impulse” can creep. Appreciating that we humans are no more nor less than matter in motion, in unity and conflict with a boundless and endless natural world does not rob us of dignity. Rather, it puts us back on our feet. And in particular, by appreciating the necessity of the laws of matter in motion as they apply to imperialist society world’s toilers seize upon their one sure ideological instrument of emancipation from capitalist exploitation. That is why the science of proletarian revolution can stand on no other ground than that of consistent, dialectical materialism.
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