15. Conclusion (continued)
Both Marx and Engels referred to Hegel’s philosophy as mystical. Because of their hostility to mysticism, neither had any interest in recognising that it was the consummate achievement of a long process of development within Neoplatonism.1 For them, it was simply Hegel’s mystical philosophy, the dialectic of which suffered because of its mysticism.
Marx acknowledged his great debt to Hegel – and thereby, to Neoplatonism. He also put his finger on why the ideologues of the bourgeoisie – particularly in philosophy – have been and are so fearful of acknowledging this current, now materialist, and of according it its rightful position as our method of knowing
I therefore openly avowed myself the pupil of that mighty thinker…The mystification which the dialectic suffers in Hegel’s hands by no means prevents him from being the first to present its general forms of motion in a comprehensive and conscious manner. With him it is standing on its head. It must be inverted, in order to discover the rational kernel within the mystical shell.
In its mystified form, the dialectic became the fashion in Germany, because it seemed to transfigure and glorify what exists. In its rational form it is a scandal and an abomination to the bourgeoisie and its doctrinaire spokesmen, because it includes in its positive understanding of what exists a simultaneous recognition of its negation, its inevitable destruction; because it regards every historically developed form as being in a fluid state, in motion, and therefore grasps its transient aspect as well; and because it does not let itself be impressed by anything, being in its very essence critical and revolutionary.2
In his Dialectics of Nature Engels summarised what was involved in his and Marx’s inversion of Hegel’s philosophy
This mystical in Hegel himself, because the categories appear as pre-existing and the dialectics of the real world as their mere reflection. In reality it is the reverse: the dialectics of the mind is only the reflection of the forms of motion of the real world, both of nature and of history.3
Cyril Smith wrote importantly that Marx had demystified mysticism without rejecting it.4 In other words, Marx had demystified mysticism by retaining and using what had been developed within it.
In his eleven short Theses on Feuerbach of 1845, Marx discussed fundamental materialist precepts, distinguishing between them and idealism. In the first, he distinguished between contemplative activity and sensuous activity/practice. He wrote
the active side, in contradistinction to materialism, was set forth by idealism – but only abstractly, since, of course, idealism does not know real, sensuous activity as such.5
Neoplatonism, with its emphasis on creativity and dynamic, dialectical development was ‘perfectly’ suited to ‘set forth the active side’ within idealism.
In his second thesis, Marx wrote that the question of truth is a practical question
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-worldliness of his thinking in practice. The dispute over the reality or non-reality of thinking which isolates itself from practice is a purely scholastic question.6
In his eighth thesis Marx wrote that the solution to questions of mystical theory is to be found in practice and in the comprehension of this practice.7
Materialist dialectics is a philosophical method for investigating nature and society.8 It holds practical activity to be the basis of our relations with the world and therefore of cognition. Praxis is thus a criterion of knowledge. Only when practical activity confirms the coincidence of ideas and hypotheses with reality can it be said that they are true. Since practical activity is relative to the level of technological development, truth can never be that absolute ardently sought and equally trembled before by the idealists, rather, it is a deepening relative in relation to an absolute which can only ever be theoretical. Lenin wrote
From living perception to abstract thought, and from this to practice, such is the dialectical path of the cognition of truth, of the cognition of objective reality. Kant disparages knowledge in order to make way for faith: Hegel exalts knowledge, asserting that knowledge is knowledge of God. The materialist exalts the knowledge of matter, of nature’9
Contradiction is the chief category of materialist dialectics. It expresses the inner source of all motion and development and is the essence of objects, the basis of their self-development.
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. …The correctness of this aspect of the content of dialectics must be tested by the history of science.10
Every concept and category is historical by nature and therefore warrants investigation.
Engels put the excellent argument that scientists should know dialectics
Until the end of the last century, indeed until 1830, natural scientists could manage pretty well with the old metaphysics, because real science did not go beyond mechanics…Now, however, everything is quite different. Chemistry, the abstract divisibility of physical things, bad infinity – atomistics. …and finally the identity of the forces of nature and their mutual convertibility, which put an end to all fixity of categories. Nevertheless, the bulk of natural scientists are still held fast in the old metaphysical categories and helpless when these modern facts, which so to say prove the dialectics in nature, have to be rationally explained and brought into relation with one another. …Dialectics divested of mysticism becomes an absolute necessity for natural science11
In standing the philosophy of the consummate Neoplatonist on its material feet, Marx and Engels enabled the fruits of that current’s long development to flourish, not least those of its perspectival unity – a development from the unity-in-multiplicity of Plotinus’ ideal second hypostasis to the unity-in-multiplicity of Cusanus’ ideal Christian cultus to the unity-in-multiplicity of Hegel’s ideal philosophical cultus to the unity-in-multiplicity of the brains of an infinite number of finite individuals
Just as the infinity of knowable matter is composed of the purely finite things, so the infinity of the thought which knows the absolute is composed of an infinite number of finite human minds, working side by side and successively at this infinite knowledge, committing practical and theoretical blunders, setting out from erroneous, one-sided, and false premises, pursuing false, tortuous, and uncertain paths, and often not even finding what is right when they run their noses against it.12
1. ‘dialectics has so far been fairly closely investigated by only two thinkers, Aristotle and Hegel.’, Friedrich Engels, Dialectics of Nature, Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1976, 43 ↩
2. Karl Marx, Capital, vol. 1, Postface to the Second Edition 1873, Penguin, London, 1982, 103. Redding wrote of Marx’s ‘inversion’ of Hegel’s mystical philosophy of history ‘(Hegel) is perhaps most well-known for his teleological account of history, an account that was later taken over by Marx and “inverted” into a materialist theory of an historical development culminating in communism.’, Redding, ‘Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel,’ Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/hegel/, op. cit. ↩
3. Engels, Dialectics of Nature, op. cit., 203 ↩
4. ‘In demystifying mysticism without rejecting it, Marx shows how humanity can bring about its own emancipation.’, Cyril Smith, Karl Marx and Human Self-creation, 2002, https://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/smith-cyril/works/alteration/ch06.htm ↩
5. Karl Marx, First thesis, ’Theses on Feuerbach’, 1845 in The German Ideology, Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1976, 618 ↩
6. Ibid. ↩
7. ‘Social life is essentially practical. All mysteries which mislead theory into mysticism find their rational solution in human practice and in the comprehension of this practice.’, Ibid., 620 ↩
8. ‘dialectics…offers…the method of explaining, the evolutionary processes occurring in nature, inter-connections in general, and transitions from one field of investigation to another.’, Engels, Dialectics of Nature, op. cit., 41 ↩
9. V.I.Lenin, Collected Works, Vol., 38 (Philosophical Notebooks), Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1976, 171. ↩
10. Ibid., ‘On the Question of Dialectics’, 357-361, 357 ↩
11. Engels, Dialectics of Nature, op. cit., 203-204 ↩
12. Ibid., 234 ↩