Challenging the philosophy of Marxism


The Poverty of Dialectical Materialism
By Eric Peterson
Summer Hill NSW: Red Door
Reviewed by Rurik Davidson.
Not all philosophers are wankers. There have been people who have been genuinely concerned with the big problems for a reason — to use philosophy as a means of better understanding the world, in order to change it. Karl Marx developed a theory which included philosophy, political and economic theory. His aim was to provide a scientific understanding of the world, one which was based on the real development of social formations and which therefore could be used by people in the struggle against inequality and oppression. Marx arrived at his theory through the turbulent tunnel of philosophy. He began as a young devotee of the German philosopher Hegel. Then he engaged with the work of another, Feuerbach. Taking aspects of both, he developed his own philosophical outlook, which became known as dialectical materialism. While Marx's texts concentrate strongly on the materialist side of dialectical materialism, the dialectical side (that matter is constantly in motion and can be understood by a series of laws — influenced by Hegel) had only a few oblique references to it. It was left up to Marx's long-time collaborator, Engels, to systematise their joint views on philosophy, which he did in such works as Anti-Dühring and Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classical German Philosophy. Eric Peterson's The Poverty of Dialectical Materialism follows in a long line of Marxist critiques of the dialectical side of dialectical materialism. The first half of the book is dedicated to a reasonably fair summary of the writings of Marx, Engels, Plekhanov, Lenin, Trotsky and other Marxists on dialectical materialism. The second half is devoted to Peterson's own critique. He states his position clearly: "there is no such thing as the dialectic of nature; dialectical materialism is useless, if not downright dangerous". According to Peterson, dialectics has led Marxists to a series of erroneous positions or has been used to justify Stalinism: Trotsky used it to misunderstand Stalin's counter-revolution (the former USSR was actually state-capitalist); Mao and Stalin used it to justify their repressive practices etc. By the time he has finished, there is apparently nothing left of the influence of Hegel within Marxism. It was all a long, pointless, detour that is better left forgotten. Peterson's arguments are nothing new. A shared characteristic of many Western Marxists was their attempt to replace the influence of Hegel, especially his notion of dialectics, with concepts drawn from other philosophers: for Colleti it was Kant; for Sartre it was Heidegger and Kierkegaard; for Della Volpe it was Croce. This elimination of Hegel all too often resulted in a one-sidedness on many questions. In particular, one of the repercussions was an inability to explain change. The elimination of dialectics weakens, rather than strengthens (as Peterson argues), Marxist politics. The purpose of dialectical materialism was to explain how and why change occurs — that it follows certain laws. Once that is removed, other philosophical foundations must be integrated into Marxism. For example, the influential Western Marxist Louis Althusser attempted to synthesise structuralism with Marxism. For him the secret of change was "structural causality": an elaborate construction of structural machinery composed of cleary separated, rigid categories, which operated much like a clockwork model. In E.P. Thompson's phrase, it was an "orrery of errors". It led Althusser to the complete elimination of all subjects as agents of social change. People simply became appendages to structures. The result was a fatalistic undermining of the need for political action altogether. In reality, while society is composed of structures, there are real people who operate within them — who are formed by them, but also form these structures and can ultimately transform them. In Althusser's case the elimination of dialectics resulted in the one-sided ascendancy of structures, when in fact the dialectical interdependence of structure and subject needed to be respected. The same problem is posed for Peterson. In order to eliminate dialectics, he needs to offer an alternative philosophical foundation. But he prefers to evade the question, asserting that Marx's theory of history, fused with natural science and Marxist politics and economics, is enough. But at this point, the only philosophical positions one can replace dialectics with are a series of obfuscatory philosophies: empiricism, structuralism, post-structuralism. For people interested in anti-dialectical Marxism, Peterson's book is a good introduction. It is written in a clear, straightforward style which is a departure from the majority of dense and obscure philosophical texts written nowadays. For anyone who has been forced to read Derrida, or any of the other post-structuralists currently so popular, it will be a pleasant change.