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Author: Ivan Kinkel


History of dialectical materialism

Dialectical materialism was coined in 1887 by Joseph Dietzgen, a socialist tanner who corresponded with Marx both during and after the failed 1848 German Revolution. Casual mention of the term is also found in writings of Frederick Engels in the same year. Marx himself had talked about the "materialist conception of history", which was later referred as "historical materialism" by Engels. Engels further exposed the "materialist dialectic" — not "dialectical materialism" — in his "Dialectics of Nature" in 1883.

Georgi Plekhanov, the father of Russian Marxism, later introduced the term dialectical materialism to Marxist literature. Stalin further codified it as Dia-Mat and imposed it as the doctrine of Marxism-Leninism. The term wasn't coupled by Marx himself, and it refers to the combination of dialectics and materialism in Marx's thinking as material forces causing social and economic changes. It is sometimes seen complementary to historical materialism which is the name given to Marx's methodology in the study of society, economics and history.

Dialectical Materialism is the philosophy of Karl Marx which he formulated by taking the dialectic of Hegel and joining it to the Materialism of Feuerbach, extracting from it a concept of progress in terms of the contradictory, interacting forces — called the thesis and antithesis, culminating at a critical nodal point where one overthrows the other, giving rise to the synthesis — and, applying it to the history of social development and deriving there-from an essentially revolutionary concept of social change.


Lenin's contributions

Dialectical materialism was first elaborated by Lenin in "Materialism and Empirio-Criticism" in 1908 around three axes, — the "materialist inversion" of Hegelian dialectics, the historicity of ethical principles ordered to class struggle and the convergence of "laws of evolution" in physics (Helmholtz), biology (Darwin) and in political economics (Marx). Lenin hence took position between a historicist Marxism (Labriola) and a determinist Marxism, close to "social Darwinism" (Kautsky). New discoveries in physics, — including x-rays — quantum mechanics, etc. challenged previous conceptions of matter and materialism. Matter seemed to be disappearing. Lenin disagreed:

"Matter disappearing means that the limit within which we have hitherto known matter disappears and that our knowledge is penetrating deeper; properties of matter are disappearing that formerly seemed absolute, immutable and primary, and which are now revealed to be relative and characteristic only of certain states of matter. For the sole 'property' of matter with whose recognition philosophical materialism is bound up is the property of being an objective reality, of existing outside of the mind."

Lenin was following on from the work of Friedrich Engels, who had noted that "with each epoch-making discovery even in the sphere of natural science, materialism has to change its form." One of Lenin's challenges was distancing materialism as a viable philosophical outlook from what he referred to as the "vulgar materialism" expressed in statements like "the brain secretes thought in the same way as the liver secretes bile" (attributed to 18th century physician Pierre Jean Georges Cabanis, 1757-1808); "metaphysical materialism" (matter is composed of immutable, unchanging particles); and 19th century "mechanical materialism" (matter was like little molecular billiard balls interacting according to simple laws of mechanics). Lenin's (and Engels') solution to this challenge was "dialectical materialism", where matter was understood in the broader sense of "objective reality" and consistent with new developments in science.


Marxist criticisms of dialectical materialism

Dialectical materialism has been criticized by many Marxist theorists, including Marxist philosophers Louis Althusser and Antonio Gramsci, who proposed a Marxist "philosophy of praxis" instead. Other thinkers in Marxist philosophy have had recourse to the original texts of Marx and Engels and have created other Marxist philosophical projects and concepts which present alternatives to dialectical materialism.

As early as 1937, Mao Zedong proposed another interpretation in his essay "On Contradiction", in which he rejected the "laws of dialectics" and insisted on the complexity of the contradiction. Mao's text inspired Althusser's work on the contradiction, which was a driving theme in his well-known essay "For Marx" (1965). Althusser attempted to nuance the Marxist concept of "contradiction" by borrowing the concept of "over-determination" from psychoanalysis. He criticized the alleged teleological reading of Marx as a return to Hegel's idealism. Althusser developed the concept of "random materialism" (matérialisme aléatoire) in contrast to dialectical materialism, a move which grew out of Althusser's project of "anti-humanism," or the "philosophy of the subject." In an attempt to approach the problem in a new way, Italian philosopher Antonio Gramsci constructed a historical epistemology from dialectical materialism. Gramsci backed up the epistemological method centered on the rejection of the dichotomy between subject and object, and declared Marx's work incompatible with its antecedents.



Materialist Conception of History

Although written in 1927, when Kautsky was seventy-three, "Materialist Conception of History" is more nearly a work of the late 19th century or pre-World War I, rather than of the 1920s, ... and should be read as a document illustrating the state of Marxism in the generation after Marx's death, according to grandson and publisher John Kautsky, who also edited the work, published by Yale University Press in 1988, to reduce its length.

John Kautsky, the grandson of Karl Kautsky, the "Pope of Marxism", has rendered an immense service in presenting this book in a form that English readers can use. The measure of his achievement (and even more so, that of his grandfather, the author) can be gauged from the fact that this version is smaller than either of the volumes of the German text, but by judicious editing none of the coherence of the original is lost.

The book's value can hardly be overestimated. Kautsky was the literary legatee of Marx and Engels, and to a greater extent systematized their work. This volume is thus a synthesis, if not an Encyclopedia of the world view of the German Social Democratic Party, and indeed of the Second International as a whole.

It also represents, of course, the background against which Lenin and Trotsky developed their ideas. Kautsky's negative attitude to Freud, for example, stands in marked contrast to Trotsky in "Culture and Socialism", and readers of Lenin's "Materialism and Empirio-criticism" will be interested to learn that Kautsky placed far more value on Mach's work than Lenin did. Those who are fond of holding forth on the superiority of Lenin's dialectics over Kautsky's alleged "mechanical materialism" will be surprised to find out that he is very critical of Engels' concept of the "dialectics of nature", holding that, like Hegel, we assume that the dialectic in which the thesis itself generates its own antithesis holds good only for human development in society.

Coming to the broad sweep of history, students of the Marxist theory of historical development will note that Kautsky identifies and describes the Asiatic Mode, in which he includes Egyptian, Mesopotamian, Indian and especially Chinese society, whose basic mechanism he accepts as hydraulic works, and delineates the causes of its limitation and stagnation. He even anticipates the theories of Umberto Melotti's "Marx and the Third World" when he explains the state form of the Soviet Union as a reversion to "a new despotism, a bureaucratic military despotism under the leadership of a dictatorship of intellectuals". He has none of the reservations of our modern quasi-Marxists at describing Classical society as slave-based and ascribes the ultimate failure of the city-state to the inbuilt tendency of the slave mode of production to stagnation and decline.

There is, of course, a weaker side to the book. Kautsky's Olympian detachment deserts him when he goes over once again his polemic with Bolshevism, which he accuses of holding "that every antagonism among peoples and classes can only be fought out by bloody war", and it is inevitably over the question of revolution and the class theory of the state that he appears most limp. He assures us that "there is no longer room for armed struggle as a way of carrying on class conflicts" in a democratic state, in which even the mass strike "hardly seems applicable". Industrial capital, we are told, "cannot simply be expropriated without economic damage to society and to the workers themselves". Considerable exegetical violence is done both to Marx, whose concept of the "dictatorship of the proletariat is identified with a democratic republic", and to Engels, whose "forecast of the state taking possession of production as an act" is put down to an inability to understand that this transition can only be a more or less slowly advancing process.

Kautsky's book "Materialist Conception of History" was published in 1927, in the middle of the palm days of the "Roaring Twenties" and the Stresemann Era, and its trouble-free, evolutionary, unproblematic conception of gradual upward human progress seemed to be a reasonable assumption at the time. Hegelian discontinuities and dialectical leaps are noticeably absent from it. As he admits in several places, he came to his theory of historical change through Darwin rather than Hegel or Marx, and in the end his work is really no more than an immense Darwinian evolutionary rationalization. History was shortly to deal it a series of rapid and cruel blows. Two years later came the Wall Street crash and another two more years were to see Hitler in power and Kautsky in exile in Prague, where he died in year 1938 witnessing the massive wreck of the German workers' movement.

Meanwhile, there were others who also took their inspiration from Darwin and developed his insights in unforeseen ways. As opposed to Kautsky, who took over the theory of evolution, others were more interested in natural selection and the survival of the fittest. In several places Kautsky has to argue against racial theories erected on just these Darwinian premises. For the moment, Hitler's movement was no larger than a cloud, the size of a man's hand in an otherwise clear sky. If the expression "intensification of class antagonisms" means that the class struggles assume increasingly violent forms, Kautsky notes, "then the view implicit in that expression would certainly not be correct". He writes his political epitaph, and unfortunately that of the German proletariat as well, with massive if unconscious irony:

"The question of whether the capitalists will undertake an armed attack on democracy comes down ... to the question of whether they will be able to find an adequate armed force that is available to them for this purpose ... Today it is the Fascists who have become the paid executioners of the people's freedom. They are certainly dangerous, but fortunately only under certain conditions that the capitalists cannot conjure up as they choose. In order to be politically effective, the Fascists must appear in large numbers ... In Germany, they will have to be almost one million strong in order to attain this proportion. In an industrialized country, it is impossible to get hold of such a large number of scoundrels in the prime of life for capitalistic purposes".



Supplementary Notes: Ivan Germanov Kinkel (1883-1945) was outmost political economy scholar who ranked high in scientific circles of interwar Bulgaria. He debuted on Bulgarian scene in the early 1920s — coming as refugee in the remnants of General Wrangel's White Army, needlessly being handicapped for life in the war conflict — thenceforth, becoming "professor of the Chair" in Sofia University. His close friend and colleague Prof. Simeon Demostenov, appointee at the same time in Sofia University, shared an unhappy exile and reminiscences with Kinkel on past and present problems of the social revolution (nee, in pre-war tsarist Russia). The former was adherent of liberal economics with special proponent on theory of money. The latter (i.e., Kinkel) became rather skeptical in his late years and moved toward eclecticism, whatsoever.

We shall try to outline the universal political system of Prof. Ivan Kinkel, while still retaining some belligerence and coherence of his outlook. This is not only because literature on / from him is fragmentary or because he seldom transcended from one pole of thinking to another. Kinkel's educational level was beyond surmise very high — he had a primer from Imperial College at Tzarskoe Selo, studied medicine in Berlin, graduated social philosophy in Leipzig and specialized psychoanalyses in Zurich — so far, his aficionado coincided with that of German theoretician and anti-Marxist Karl Kautsky. Both never recognized the necessity of demolishing the bourgeois state, although strictly were adherents to Marx's dialectical materialism. In the long run, Lenin himself shunned those opportunists and called them "philistines of Marxism", etc. But hypocritical or not, Kautsky's (or Kinkel's) materialist conception of history lasted longer than the apologetics of Marxism-Leninism itself.

So, given the parsimony of sources and we continue to outline the universal history and system of Prof. Ivan Kinkel. Albeit, we should reiterate that accordingly he remains one of the most important Bulgarian philosophers in the period between the World Wars:

On Anthroposociology, called a reactionary racialist theory. Founded by J. V. Lapouge and labeled by J. Gobineau in the late 19th century. Adherently it associated the social position of individuals and / or groups with the anatomical and physiological properties of man (size and shape of skull, height, colour of hair, etc.) Aryans are the higher, aristocratic race, and the nobility and bourgeoisie belong to that race. Class struggle is depicted as struggle between races, and the growth of the workers' liberation movement comes as retrogression brought by a reduction of the Aryan element. Eugenic measures, capable of moderating the "restless masses", were essential.

On Anthroposophy, a mystical, decadent theory; a variation of theosophy. This theory borrowed ideas from Pythagorean and Neo-Platonic philosophy, gnosticism, cabala, free-masonry, and German natural philosophy. Its central feature is deification of man's nature, supposed to be revealed only to the initiated. The currents of those thinking are still viable today.

On Freudism, the theory and method of psychoanalyses. Named after Sigmund Freud (1856-1939), who was neuro-pathologist and psychiatrist from Vienna lastly expelled from country by the Nazis and died from cancer. Freud's interpretations are recognized as manifestations of the unconscious, above all sexual but also some pathological impulses. The ideal psychic phenomenon, the unknowable "Id", is considered the cause of all mankind history, morality, art, science, religion, state, law, wars, and so on. It became a dictum of Neo-Freudists and cultural psychologists of modern times.

On Social-Darwinism, a doctrine for the struggle of existence and natural selection as the prime mover of social progress. It originated from application of Darwin's biological theory to sociology by Friedrich Lange, Otto Ammon and Benjamin Kidd. Classified as the only operational force in the past 100 years or so, but in recent times under the impact of progress in science and technology had emerged a situation where not only the fittest could survive but also those who in earlier conditions were doomed to extinction. Exponentially, the roots of all social evil in the capitalist society are seen in the intensified propagation of such inferior groups.

On Negro Question, as metaphysical negation signified by simple discarding and destruction of the old. See W. E. B. Du Bois writings on contemporary liberal Negro philosophy.


Pictures 1 & 2: Sample illustrations on the text above.

(i). Prof. Ivan Kinkel (farther to the left) with part of the staff from Faculty of Law; also, two unnamed members (in the middle) and young Atanas Totev (standing to right).



Copyright © 2008 by the author.