Engels on Dialectics, Part Two: Either/Or, Both This and That

Dialectics, so-called objective dialectics, prevails throughout nature, and so-called subjective dialectics, dialectical thought, is only the reflection of the motion through opposites which asserts itself everywhere in nature, and which by the continual conflict of the opposites and their final passage into one another, or into higher forms, determines the life of nature. Attraction and repulsion. Polarity begins with magnetism, it is exhibited in one and the same body; in the case of electricity it distributes itself over two or more bodies which become oppositely charged. All chemical processes reduce themselves to processes of chemical attraction and repulsion. Finally, in organic life the formation of the cell nucleus is likewise to be regarded as a polarisation of the living protein material, and from the simple cell onwards the theory of evolution demonstrates how each advance up to the most complicated plant on the one side, and up to man on the other, is effected by the continual conflict between heredity and adaptation. In this connection it becomes evident how little applicable to such forms of evolution are categories like ‘positive’ and ‘negative’. One can conceive of heredity as the positive, conservative side, adaptation as the negative side that continually destroys what has been inherited, but one can just as well take adaptation as the creative, active, positive activity, and heredity as the resisting, passive, negative activity. But just as in history progress makes its appearance as the negation of the existing state of things, so here also – on purely practical grounds – adaptation is better conceived as negative activity. In history, motion through opposites is most markedly exhibited in all critical epochs of the foremost peoples. At such moments a people has only the choice between the two horns of a dilemma: ‘either-or!’ and indeed the question is always put in a way quite different from that in which the philistines, who dabble in politics in every age, would have liked it put. Even the liberal German philistine of 1848 found himself in 1849 suddenly, unexpectedly, and against his will confronted by the question: a return to the old reaction in an intensified form, or continuance of the revolution up to the republic, perhaps even the one and indivisible republic with a socialist background. He did not spend long in reflection and helped to create the Manteuffel reaction as the flower of German liberalism. Similarly, in 1851, the French bourgeois when faced with the dilemma which he certainly did not expect: a caricature of the empire, pretorian rule, and the exploitation of France by a gang of scoundrels, or a social-democratic republic – and he bowed down before the gang of scoundrels so as to be able, under their protection, to go on exploiting the workers.

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Hard and fast lines are incompatible with the theory of evolution. Even the border-line between vertebrates and invertebrates is now no longer rigid, just as little is that between fishes and amphibians, while that between birds and reptiles dwindles more and more every day. Between Compsognathus and Archaeopteryx only a few intermediate links are wanting, and birds’ beaks with teeth crop up in both hemispheres. ‘Either-or’ becomes more and more inadequate. Among lower animals the concept of the individual cannot be established at all sharply. Not only as to whether a particular animal is an individual or a colony, but also where in development one individual ceases and the other begins (nurses).

For a stage in the outlook on nature where all differences become merged in intermediate steps, and all opposites pass into one another through intermediate links, the old metaphysical method of thought no longer suffices. Dialectics, which likewise knows no hard and fast lines, no unconditional, universally valid ‘either-or’ and which bridges the fixed metaphysical differences, and besides ‘either-or’ recognises also in the right place ‘both this – and that’ and reconciles the opposites, is the sole method of thought appropriate in the highest degree to this stage. Of course, for everyday use, for the small change of science, the metaphysical categories retain their validity.

Frederick Engels, Dialectics of Nature, Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1976, 211-213

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Part two/to be continued…

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