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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas

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2. The Dialectical Materialism of Engels. In contrast
to the “historical materialism” of Marx which, what-
ever its inadequacies, represents a momentous intel-
lectual achievement, the “dialectical materialism” of
Engels cannot be regarded as an important contri-
bution to philosophy. Its significance lies in the fact
that, for historical reasons, it has become the keystone
of an institutionalized system of thought binding upon
the adherents of what is officially known as Marxism-
Leninism. This philosophy having obtained official
status in the USSR and in Eastern Europe (not to
mention China, where it has undergone a further proc-
ess of barbarization and banalization), every discussion
of the subject necessarily assumes an unwelcome
quasi-political character. In what follows, these cir-
cumstances are disregarded as much as possible, and
attention is centered upon the intellectual substance
of the doctrine. The topical importance of what for
convenience may be termed “Soviet Marxism,” or
“Marxism-Leninism,” makes it necessary to direct the
reader's attention to the existence of an indigenous
literature on the subject; but it needs to be emphasized
that this literature holds little interest for anyone con-
cerned with the basic philosophical issues (Jordan,

Unlike Marx, who had undergone a rigorous aca-
demic training and possessed a comprehensive knowl-
edge of both ancient and modern philosophy, Engels
was self-taught in philosophic matters, a circumstance
which weighed heavily upon his subsequent attempts
to effect a synthesis of Hegelian logic and natural
science. A man of great talent, enormous versatility,
and inexhaustible capacity for work, he nonetheless
lacked the intellectual power which enabled Marx to
unify history, sociology, and economics into a coherent
system of thought. At the same time, the example set
by his senior associate, and his own profound attach-
ment to the Hegelian tradition—of which in a sense
he remained a lifelong prisoner—activated a dormant
ambition which he shared with other German writers
of his time: the desire to bring about a reconciliation
between the “natural philosophy” of the romantic
school and the positive sciences which had developed
under the quite different impact of Cartesian and
Hobbesian “mechanical materialism.” The resultant
synthesis—sketched in outline by Engels in his writings
of the 1870's and 1880's, and eventually termed
“dialectical materialism” by Plekhanov—became the
philosophical foundation of what from the 1890's on-
wards was very generally described as “Marxism”; the
term encompassing at one and the same time the


historical materialism of Marx (as interpreted by
Engels), and the pseudo-ontological doctrine con-
structed by Engels from the debris of the Hegelian

While it has been noted that Marx's naturalistic
approach from the start contained a “dialectical” ele-
ment, in that it left room for the interaction of human
consciousness and a nonhuman environment, the mate-
rialism of Engels could be described as “dialectical”
for reasons much more closely connected with the
enduring legacy of Hegel's system. Hegel had seen in
nature and history the unfolding of a metaphysical
substance which he termed “Spirit”; ultimately a theo-
logical conception, although Hegel for the most part
stayed closer to Aristotelianism than to Neo-Platonism.
For Marx there was no such universal principle of
motion. What he inherited from Hegel was rather a
species of holism which placed the idea of totality at
the center of all theoretical conceptualizations. From
this he deduced the methodological rule that the ele-
ments of a social structure could not be dissociated
from each other: they had to be regarded as parts
forming an organic, interconnected whole. While in
principle there was no reason why this rule should not
be extended to the domain of nature, Marx did not
in fact attempt to outline a general logic applicable
to nature and history alike. His doctrines relating to
societal evolution were not deduced from a general
principle, nor did he infer from his reading of Hegel's
Logic (cf. Wissenschaft der Logik, 1812-16) that par-
ticular changes in society were traceable to the opera-
tion of a universal law of motion. Least of all was he
concerned with the concept of an eternal material
substance underlying the phenomena. “The anthropo-
logical realism of Marx precluded the adherence to
absolute materialism of any sort, including dialectical
materialism” (Jordan, p. 93).

In contrast to Marx, who had genuinely abandoned
the Hegelian search for an all-embracing logic of (ma-
terial or spiritual) development, Engels revived the
notion that an objective process of this kind was
actually discoverable. Moreover, he undertook to show
that the dialectical principle—self-transcendence by
way of internal conflict to higher levels of develop-
ment—was operative in human history, conceived as
a singularity within the domain of nature. The basic
assumption of the dialectical method, on his reading,
was that:

The world is not to be understood as a complex of ready-
made things, but as a complex of processes, in which the
things apparently stable, no less than their mental images
in our heads (Gedankenabbilder), the concepts, go through
an uninterrupted change of coming into being and passing
away, in which despite all seeming accidentality and tem
porary retrogression, a progressive development asserts itself
in the end

(Ludwig Feuerbach, in Selected Works, II, 351).

This speculative hypothesis in turn became the
foundation of an evolutionary doctrine applicable to
nature and history alike. In contrast to the prevailing
positivist evolutionism which was popular among lib-
erals because it specified an uninterrupted forward
movement from “barbarism” to “civilization,” Engels'
quasi-Hegelian approach emphasized the self-contra-
dictory nature of the process; dialectical motion im-
plied progress through conflict between opposing
forces. In its application to society this principle was
invoked by Engels' followers to account both for the
necessity of class conflict and for the inevitablity of
socialism as the resolution of one particular conflict
between classes. This presentation of the subject was
not understood as an imaginative metaphor—as such
it might have had some limited usefulness—but as the
“scientific” description of an ongoing process, one that
possessed a logic quite indifferent to the subjective
volition of its human representatives. As in Hegel's
philosophy of history, the Idea (the hidden rationality
of the Whole) triumphed at the expense of its own
agents, who might include entire classes, nations, or
generations. This reversion to Hegel's metaphysical
construction of world history was dubbed “dialectical
materialism” for no better reason than that Engels
substituted “matter” for “spirit” as the ontological
substance underlying the motion of the phenomena.
In practice his approach represented an abandonment
of Marx's revolutionary humanism and a return to the
Hegelian standpoint.

While Engels' partiality to the romantic Naturphi-
inaugurated by Schelling, Carus, and other
German writers of Hegel's time had no practical con-
sequences, his adoption of a determinist approach in
the field of history opened the door to the subsequent
introduction by Kautsky of an evolutionism virtually
indistinguishable from that of Auguste Comte and
Herbert Spencer. The irony lay in the circumstance
that this mode of thought was positivist rather than
speculative. But having once introduced a determinist
monism in the name of “dialectical materialism,” it
proved comparatively easy to extrude the Hegelian
element while retaining the determinism. This became
the distinguishing mark of the Social-Democratic
variant of “orthodox Marxism.” In contrast to this
evolutionism, which went with democratic optimism
in politics, Lenin from about 1914 onwards system-
atically reintroduced the Hegelian emphasis upon con-
flict and contradiction as the motivating force. Before
that date he had been content to expand Engels' hints
into a “materialist” philosophy of science which was


not particularly “dialectical,” but rather concerned to
defend the “objective” reality of the external world
against the “subjectivism” of Kant and his followers
(Jordan, pp. 208ff.).

In purely philosophical terms, the difference be-
tween Engels' ontological, or metaphysical, materi-
alism, and the doctrine of Plekhanov and Lenin is not
without interest. Plekhanov, and following him Lenin,
eliminated from the concept of “dialectical materi-
alism” the ontological notion of “matter” as an absolute
substance or constituent element of the universe. In
its place they introduced the rather more common
sensible use of “matter” as a logical concept signifying
little more than the externality of the world for the
reflective consciousness. In other words, they substi-
tuted for Engels' metaphysical monism an ordinary
epistemological realism which at least had the advan-
tage of being compatible with the procedure of the
natural sciences. The locus classicus of this trans-
formation (which was never described as such) is
Lenin's Materialism and Empirio-Criticism (1909), a
work which after 1917 obtained canonical status in the
USSR and for the Marxist-Leninist school generally.
Unfortunately, the philosophers of this school have
simultaneously had to cope with Engels' own quite
different (because fundamentally metaphysical) under-
standing of the term “materialism,” as well as with
Lenin's quasi-Hegelian logical speculations in his
Notebooks of 1915-16. The resulting conflicts and con-
tradictions have furnished material for exhaustive logi-
cal tournaments among philosophers in Eastern
Europe, without for that reason bringing any nearer
that fusion of dialectical logic with positive science
which remains the stated aim of the Marxist-Leninist
school. Insofar as the gradual change in the intellectual
atmosphere since the late 1950's has encouraged
greater independence of thought in the Soviet sphere,
there has been a tendency for two “revisionist” trends
to crystallize outside the official orthodoxy: existential-
ist humanism, oriented on the writings of the young
Marx, on the one hand, positivist scientism and em-
piricism on the other. In countering these trends, the
official dogmatism of the Leninist school, while retain-
ing its function as an integrative ideology or Weltan-
for the benefit of the Communist party,
appears to have been placed on the defensive; a posi-
tion from which it is unlikely to emerge.