A modern, living dialectics is essential for social revolution, explains Steve Masterson
The previous article described the centrality of human development for social revolution in the context of Marx’s ‘productive forces’ and his concept of ‘rich human beings’ of the future. For us today it’s all about further building the disparate but growing human movement we have now into an ever-more conscious human network of direct action, of spreading out from single issues and into a re-awakening process of our humaneness – but now on a global and not a communal nomadic level.
We are now almost ready to begin an overview of praxis. By praxis we here mean all types of human activity guided by ‘experience’. For analytical purposes we can examine any single nesting activity and its parts and their ordered, sequential and similar spiral patterns, tendencies and rhythms, no matter how small or big the social act. These social acts all begin and end with objective reality in change.
Each social project of activity is a system, it can be a nod or a wink, cooking a meal, a family outing, a day’s work with colleagues, going together to a sports event, or the game itself, or the team’s defence system, or building a Eurasian bullet-train trade network as China is doing, or selling and encouraging bomb/arms use in the Middle-East and beyond as U$-policy and companies are doing today in fear of Eurasian economic unity, etc.
Each social activity at whatever nesting size is a system in itself with boundaries and wholes; with parts and their interconnections; with processes, tendencies, patterns and rhythms; with contradictions and development. Each social activity is a learning process; synthesised, interconnected and interdependent with all our other learning processes.
‘Experience’ and permanent learning enriches and accumulates as cultural development; from the inseparable oscillations and morphing sequential relations between any specific action: from being-in-need, sensuousness and internal-notions, becoming aware of the need, thinking and feeling, talking, spoken-notions and decision-making and agreements, practical (physical labour), making products and our learning processes; resulting in new being, richer need, and spiralling on. We can call it all cultural cumulation, developing human relations, permanent learning or spiral development.
Revolutionary activity is not simplistically composed of first ‘theory and then practice’ afterwards, as most of the left and hierarchical simplistic thinking believes. Conversely, the richness of Marx’s grasp of the human essence as many interdependent human activities can be seen in his 1844 Paris Manuscripts, (Progress, p100), where he wrote: “… the ‘perceptible’ appropriation for and by man of the human essence of the human life, of ‘objective’ man, of human achievements. . . Man appropriates his comprehensive manner, that is to say, as a whole man. Each of his ‘human’ relations to the world – seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, feeling, thinking, observing, experiencing, wanting, acting, loving – in short, all the organs of his individual being, those organs which are directly social in their form. . . it is human activity”, etc.
This rich array of interdependent different activities is for Marx “human activity” – he just hadn’t (and couldn’t at the time) discovered the sequential spiral of human activity. The richness of this and many other similar paragraphs of Marx’s writings in these years of his younger-mid life contrasts sharply with this later, alien to Marx, ‘theory and practice’ aberration; in terms of him seeing not just the thinking human being, but the whole human being engaged in social, interconnected, interdependent nesting systems of human activity, experience, achievements and development.
We cannot separate concrete sensuous-perception or practical activity, from various thought activities or the connecting morphing phases and numerous other parts of activity that always occur in any and every spiral-act or learning process. We can only separate them in reflection, in abstract thinking, not in everyday actual sensuous living where actual development occurs. Those processes in every human/social action also belong to the two much misunderstood but inseparable abstraction and concretisation processes specific to we humans, which are further key aspects of any specific spiral activity: more on this later.
Getting agreement on defining dialectics
First though, we need to get some agreement on Marx’s definition of dialectics. This way we can move on from our existing expansion and simplification of dialectics which has so far embraced aspects of modern non-linear sciences – ideas such as systems and complexity theories, chaos and order – but much more important, we now also need to begin and include everyday human activity, revolutionary practice or praxis, into this new cauldron of the most delicious nutritional food to help complete our human revolution.
We cannot separate thought activity from practical activity – it’s not how we work – yet, old academic dialectics sourced in Hegel does just that. Here is the fundamental underdeveloped aspect in both Marx and ‘Marxism’ – and further, Engels, as I will shortly quote below, makes this so obvious in 1888. We can only go forward if we stand on the shoulders of Marx and Engels, using the latest in human, technological and scientific developments.
In fact the heights of science and general human development were not in previous times at levels that could develop ‘a unified theory of human activity’: of what made and still makes us human. This is a much richer grasping of the human form of development, many thousands of times faster than genetic development, from which we evolved, and remember, we are still 100% part of nature.
In a preface to Das Kapital, Marx writes, “My dialectic method. . . is nothing more than the material world reflected by the human mind, and translated into forms of thought.” Dialectics is all about understanding material reality in the head for Marx, dialectics is about brain-work!
Yet, in seeming contradiction, in 1845 Marx at 27 years old, also scribbled down a few brilliant lines for self-clarification, the “mice-gnawed” Eleven Theses on Feuerbach, about revolutionary practice, not discovered by Engels until years after Marx’s death in 1883. ‘Marxists’ since then have worshiped these few lines and turned these scribbled words into ‘absolute proof’ of the completion of their ‘Marxism’ as ‘theory and practice’, a phrase adopted by all sorts of left, ‘Marxist’, Stalinist, less so anarchist; but not surprisingly nowadays mostly by bourgeois organisations and businesses – a phrase never uttered by Marx or Engels. Just search ‘theory and practice’ and you might want to spew-up.
And rightly so, as the idea of ‘first’ thinking, then ‘second’ comes the practice, is hierarchical; it supports leadership ideas, separates manual from mental labour, bosses from workers and union bureaucrats from members, the party from the working class. It’s the opposite of grassroots participatory democracy, collective learning, seeking consensus and cooperation. This is why I will now spend time to extensively prove beyond doubt that the old dialectics excludes practical and other activities – and that this is one basic reason why dialectical philosophy has not developed into a practical science; and that limiting the dialectic to brain-work became an impasse, a bottleneck!
There have been shallow attempts to unify theory and practice as one. But there are more than two activities – there are several types of human activity included in every human act as outlined above.
Now, some further quotes from Engels, Lenin, Trotsky and Mao. Reader, please be aware of how many times words like; thought, philosophy, research, comprehend, science, doctrine, knowledge, reflection, logic, laws, cognition, brain, etc; come up when they are defining the dialectic. So, confirming the Marx quotation above are some quotes explaining both the brilliance and the limits of the old dialectic”
In 1914 Lenin quotes Engels then Marx on dialectics, “’The great basic thought,’ Engels writes, ‘that the world is not to be comprehended as a complex of ready-made things, but as a complex of processes. . . for dialectical philosophy nothing is final, absolute, sacred. It reveals the transitory character of everything … and dialectical philosophy itself is nothing more than the mere reflection of this process in the thinking brain.’ Thus [writes Lenin] according to Marx, dialectics is ‘the science of the general laws of motion, both of the external world and of human thought.’”
Engels wrote, “Dialectics is the criteria for further research and the method for this research.” At another time he wrote that dialectics “is the most general laws of motion of nature, society, and human thought.”
Lenin quotes Engels, “‘. . . dialectics, i.e., the doctrine of development in its fuller, deeper form, free from one-sidedness – the doctrine, and also of the relativity of human knowledge that provides us with a reflection of eternally developing matter.'”
Lenin, who really appreciated rich aspects of Hegel, wrote in 1915, “The splitting of a single whole and the cognition of its contradictory parts is the essence (one of the essentials, one of the principal, if not the principal characteristics or features) of dialectics. That is precisely how Hegel too, puts the matter. . . dialectics as a property of all human knowledge in general. . . dialectics as living, many sided knowledge [which] is not (or does not follow) a straight line, but a curve, which endlessly approximates a series of circles, a spiral. . . Dialectics is the theory of knowledge of (Hegel and) Marxism.”
Lenin also brilliantly notes that dialectics is “. . . not only the unity of opposites, but the transition of every determination, quality, feature, side, property into every other [into its opposite]. . . the endless process of the discovery of new sides, relations, etc. . . the endless process of the deepening of man’s knowledge of the thing, of phenomena, processes, etc., from appearance to essence and from less profound to more profound essence. . . Dialectics as ‘living’, many-sided knowledge (with the number of sides eternally increasing), with an infinite number of shades of every approach and approximation to reality (with a philosophical system growing into a whole out of each shade).”
Mao said revolutionary ‘leaders’, “must make use of dialectical materialism as its mental arm. . . in order to arm one’s brain anew.”
And Trotsky defined “the dialectic as the logic of contradiction in the domain of theoretical thought.”
Trotsky also paid incredible attention to development and evolution in terms of the significance of the category of ‘quantitative’ change and ‘qualitative’ transformation – as do I. See the until recently unpublished Trotsky’s Notebooks 1933-1935 – Writings on Lenin, Dialectics and Evolutionism. Notice also how in Lenin’s last sentence I quoted he talks of ‘dialectics as living’.
There are hundreds of similar quotes from this relatively early period of our movement, limiting dialectics to the domains of cognition, reflection, investigation, logic, thought and knowledge – that is, brain activity reflecting on material reality. So, let us discard those who belatedly say dialectics is about ‘theory and practice’, an alien phrase never uttered by Marx or Engels.
The Eleven Theses on Feuerbach on revolutionary practice
Reader; just read these short scribbled 11 Theses, if you haven’t already. They are marvellous; Engels correctly and prophetically calls them “the brilliant germ of the new world outlook”. Just think what those Engels’ words actually mean, written in 1888, five years after Marx’s death. What does he mean by ‘new’ in 1888? Below are some excerpts from Marx’s 11 Theses. By ‘object’ Marx means the aim of any action, the object of meeting human objective ‘need’, be it picking an apple, getting a home, a job, a cuddle or just giving a smile.
“The main defect of all hitherto-existing materialism – that of Feuerbach included – is that the Object, actuality, sensuousness, are conceived only in the form of the object , or of contemplation, but not as human sensuous activity, practice (Praxis), not subjectively. . . idealism does not know real, sensuous activity as such. Feuerbach wants sensuous objects, differentiated from thought-objects, but he does not conceive human activity itself as objective activity. . . [Feuerbach] does not grasp the significance of ‘revolutionary’, of ‘practical-critical’, activity.
“The question whether objective truth can be attributed to human thinking is not a question of theory but is a practical question. Man must prove the truth, i.e., the reality and power, the this-sidedness of his thinking, in practice.
“The coincidence of the changing of circumstances and of human activity or self-change can be conceived and rationally understood only as revolutionary practice.
“Feuerbach, not satisfied with abstract thinking, wants sensuous contemplation; but he does not conceive sensuousness as practical, human-sensuous activity. The essence of man. . . is the ensemble of social relations.
“All social life is essentially practical. All mysteries which lead theory to mysticism find their rational solution in human practice and in the comprehension of this practice.
“The standpoint of the old materialism is civil society; the standpoint of the new is human society or social humanity.
“Philosophers have hitherto only ‘interpreted’ the world in various ways; the point however, is to ‘change’ it.”
There is so much here to digest from Marx. However, before we go on to Engels’ all-important comments on these short Theses, Marx yet again emphasises “the standpoint of the new is human society or social humanity”, which I emphasised in my previous chapter as Marx’s fundamental position in defining our future society – despite other labels.
Also, when Marx states “The essence of man. . . is the ensemble of social relations”, it has parallels to the very opening lines of his Capital: “The wealth of those societies in which the capitalist mode of production prevails, presents itself as ‘an immense accumulation of commodities,’ its unit being a single commodity. Our investigation must therefore begin with the analysis of a commodity.”
The simple commodity as a unit-cell of capitalism is objective and a concrete abstraction, but there is an equally important subjective/active side of this dialectical-cell to take into consideration, the ‘simple exchange of commodities’.
Engels’ first comment on Marx’s 11 Theses on revolutionary practice
Engels put the last Thesis on Marx’s gravestone here in London: “Philosophers have hitherto only ‘interpreted’ the world in various ways; the point however, is to ‘change’ it.”
Engels published a book on Ludwig Feuerbach some years after Marx’s death and in his Foreword in 1888, he most profoundly wrote, “Before sending these lines to press, I have once again ferreted out and looked over the old manuscript of 1845–46 [The German Ideology]. We abandoned the manuscript to the gnawing criticism of the mice. . . Marx died without either of us having had an opportunity of returning to the subject. . . and in an old notebook [of that same time] of Marx’s, I have found the 11 Theses on Feuerbach, printed here as an appendix. These are notes hurriedly scribbled down for later elaboration, absolutely not intended for publication, but invaluable as the first document in which is deposited the brilliant germ of the new world outlook.”
Engels first discovered this “new world outlook”, a few scribbled notes, 42 or so years after they were written – “We abandoned the manuscript [of The German Ideology] to the gnawing criticism of the mice.” But for Engels to state that these few scribbled notes of the ‘11 Theses…’ were “the first document. . . the brilliant germ of the new world outlook,” is more than quite a radical statement, “a subject to which we never returned”. And I fully agree with Engels on this crucial question of these ‘11 Theses’ as a “brilliant germ”, a starting point for development, something of immense importance for revolutionaries. But revolutionaries of all shades since have not taken this ‘germ’, nurtured and grown it alongside exponential scientific development. No! They froze and worshiped this ‘germ’, making it dead, unusable, disfiguring it as a creative living force!
Inside Engels’ book on Feuerbach, nothing at all is written on the content of the 11 Theses on Feuerbach on revolutionary practice. It is not touched upon and there’s no attempt to develop Marx’s “brilliant germ of the new world outlook”. There was no “later elaboration” on this new paradigm, this “new world outlook” – which indeed it was, and still is! Sure, Lenin, Trotsky, Vygotsky, Ilyenkov and a few others added new insights, but there were no substantial leaps forward for a living dialectic. The levels of science and human development were just not in existence in their times.
Real living-scientific attempts at marrying the dialectic (of thoughts about material reality) and conscious practice, of meeting objective needs, have not been forthcoming: the levels of science and we humans were not ready to further substantially develop Marx’s genius; not back then. That’s why it never happened.
Reader, you must from all this realise that the great gap in Marxist development has been the combining of Marx’s dialectical-cell of capitalism as the unfolding of the simple commodity, with a single human social act and the cell of a simple action that now also needs unfolding; one which unites our dialectics of brain work with revolutionary practice – in everything we do. This is the missing key!
Indeed, Marx’s writing in the mid-1840s, especially the Paris Manuscripts of 1844, and The German Ideology of 1845-6, and his Comments of James Mill of 1845, were the most all-rounded of his writings, touching on philosophy, dialectics, practice, political economy, human development, human society, naturalism, humanism, alienation, language, thinking, feelings, love, human origins, etc, etc.
It was not long before Marx specialised in political economy and he only ever finished a small part of his whole outlook, even within the realm of political economy. There was just so much to do. So, these “mice-gnawed scribbled notes”, Engels’ “brilliant germ of a new world outlook”, were not developed at all.
Well, actually dialectics was ‘elaborated’ upon and ‘developed’, but not by Marx or Engels. No! I’ve mentioned the crude, shallow, anti-Marx ‘Marxist’ phrase that came into being after their deaths; ‘theory and practice’, and they called it ‘Marxism’. And, his ‘followers’ – those who were reformists or sectarians, and almost all fractions of socialist, communist, even some anarchists, repeated this mechanical hierarchical phrase again and again! They too recognised there was incredible significance to those scribbled “mice-gnawed” notes of Marx, the 11 Theses on revolutionary practice – but they didn’t know how to develop them and relate it to brain-work – and so they tried to artificially squash ‘theory and practice’, Marx’s ‘dialectics’ and ‘revolutionary practice’ together like a banana and sand sandwich, as if it was somehow scrumptious, scientific, or holistic, when in fact it was, at best, bad guesswork; at worst, and normally it was, reactionary.
The ‘Marxists’ and ‘communists’ and the ‘socialists’ (of representative pretence democracy) had ‘leaders’ who excluded the mass of people from participatory inclusive real democracy – from the collective learning process. Another equally valid way to look at it is that the level of general human development was so low that the mass of people did not demand and force-through inclusive collective learning and take their self-development into their own hands.
The best of them would say from time to time, to quote Lenin, “Practice is higher than theoretical (knowledge). . .” echoing Marx’s 11 Theses, but it was inadequate, as history has proven – there was no development on this question, and Lenin like Marx thought this social revolution could happen in their own lifetimes, and so Lenin tried to force through the Russian revolution, with Trotsky’s support only from 1917, with a hierarchical Bolshevism – although Trotsky from 1903-17 had most powerfully criticised what he saw as Lenin’s hierarchical methods. Rosa Luxembourg was a most effective opponent of this too, alongside anarchists.
Some anarchists used the ‘theory and practice’ phrase and most have focussed one-sidedly on practice, historically ignoring dialectics because of its connection to this dominant ‘flawed Marxism’. However, young anarchists today, it seems, are taking more interest than old ‘Marxists’ in the old dialectics of Marx and Engels. Just search ‘libcom dialectics’ for example. Indeed it will surprise many that it is not an anarchist such as Kropotkin or Bakunin or Chomsky who is the libcom ‘favourite thinker’ of all time on the biggest anarchist information and discussion list going: they are behind Marx, who is favourite. What on earth is going on here?
In fact, the great natural scientist Kropotkin, and his wonderful book Mutual Aid is unknowingly full of the dialectical method (as are all good scientists), of the latest science of his time, yet he was opposed to ‘the dialectic’, because it was of Marx. So much rich potential has been lost in this 1872 split in the First International. And Marx, relatively new to organisational matters, is not blameless in this split – he applied his ruthless ideological battles to organisational norms – he could have avoided the split. Indeed, Marxist Joseph Dietzgen – the activist whom Marx praised as simultaneously and independently discovering the materialist dialectic – fought hard to avoid it.
Generalised human development in our communities within the capitalist system (a dialectical grasp of contradiction, the new human growing within the old system), was way down the list of lefties, and the idea of autonomous and caring cooperating communities was considered a laugh – “follow us leaders, obey our programme” was their motto (I know, I was part of it for far too long in London), then ‘we’ will achieve ‘freedom’. With hindsight, we know too painfully what happened – and still happens within the remaining shrinking sect ‘Marxist’ grouplets of today who need to wake up and arise from their slumber.
I’m going to now quote Phil Ferguson of Redline website, who introduced this series with, “…dialectics is usually assigned a role as abstract/rarefied theory, the subject of an occasional intellectual paper or talk, but not a central part of day-to-day political analysis and activity on the left and not something for the ‘mere’ rank-and-file to bother themselves with. Hopefully, Steve’s work will spark off the kind of discussion and debate which is much-needed in relation to dialectics.”
‘Praxis’ as a term is much less of a problem than ‘theory and practice’ and was/is used by a few in an inadequate manner, beginning with Aristotle and Plato but also including some on the left in the last century and today – but praxis was never popularised nor clearly defined. It could crudely be defined as ‘practice and theory’, the other way around, or learning from experience. Maybe praxis could be a term we could redefine, sharpen-up and utilise – I’m not sure.
Praxis could become a description of the simpler, deeper truth of the actual living dynamics of the integral and systemic nature of human activities that I will be outlining as best I can in this series. If we transformed the word praxis in this way it would mean that dialectics would become a key aspect of praxis, brain-work would become one type of activity in a cluster/spiral of activities that make up any specific free human collaborative action/project.
So, we have a ‘dialectics’ that includes natures’ laws; 14 or so billion years of cosmic evolution; of inorganic development, of organic development and human thought processes knowing material reality. I think we should fully respect the old dialectics and keep it to thoughts or understanding of material reality; we have to preserve and yet transcend it. Then we have ‘praxis’ that more or less includes a coarse ‘practice and theory’ approach, or activity guided by experience – one that for only a few includes the old dialectic. It is all quite a linguistic mess and I’m not sure which way to turn here in this search for a living dynamics of everything natural, which includes we humans.
A living dialectics of human origins
I hope this article has now prepared readers for a living dialectical investigation into how and what started that transition from ape to human activities; that special mode of development that separates us from animals, that went far beyond the genetic mode of relatively snail-pace development. Our human mode of activity runs many thousands of times faster and grows exponentially, faster and ever-faster, now dangerously so. In the next article we investigate human origins, and begin looking at the dialectical-cell of human activity.