[Marxism] Marx, materialism and idealism

Haines Brown brownh at hartford-hwp.com
Sun Jun 1 07:33:43 MDT 2008

James, your reply much appreciated.

> Sorry for the perhaps provocative, smart alec throwaway line, but it
> is an expression of resentment over ruthless state and (all)party
> enforcement of conformity about mind-boggling propositions, which
> derived from a Kautskyan and Plekhanovite mechanistic bourgeois
> mindset which ejected the writings of Marx's formative years out of
> the canon as juvenilia.  That's why I called it Diamat and not
> dialectical materialism.

Well, yes, your comment understood.

But my real concern is, why should we be concerned with this
"mechanistic bourgeois mindset"?

Whether we happen to be bourgeois reformers or Marxist
revolutionaries, our real concern is action today and the intellectual
environment that informs our action. Of course, I can read Alcuin,
Bonaventura or Adam Smith with pleasure and benefit, but that is a
personal pleasure and a very minor achievement in relation to class
struggle today.

I don't want to appear anti-intellectual, but it seems to me that the
old (pre-WWII?) intellectual framework (whether we speak of the
bourgeoisie or working class) seems today to be pretty decrepit, and
at the same time there are new exciting intellectual currents that are
sorely in need of our development.

We often assume that one way to advance understanding is to launch a
critique of received opinion, but this is not really what is involved
here. The "mindset" to which you refer is not a current "standard"
view. Of course, some people don't know that, but we waste our time if
we critique ideas a century out of date. I suggest the aim should be
to criticize current thinking, not thinking that is long passé.

The people who do look carefully at what was said in the distant past
are intellectual historians. They do honest work, but like cosmology
or cosmetology, it is of limited immediate relevance, especially in
relation to action today. We seek to understand the rationale of past
thinking, how it advanced thought or related to the circumstances of
the time, but we should not try to extract truth from it. Unless, of
course, we mistakenly presume that some Truth is eternal and absolute
and that ideas have causal potency (both views profoundly hostile to
working-class ideology). 

I get the feeling that some people use argumentation about
intellectual history as a way to legitimate their political
positions. I think this is unwise. Our positions today should stand on
their own in terms of the world we experience and the intellectual
milieu that we know.

As for the term "diamat", it is frequently employed as a put-down of
dialectical materialism by citing the pat little dialectical laws that
were once embedded in schoolbooks. Of course they don't stand up well
under close inspection, or at least not without some pushing and
shoving, However, we can take opposite attitudes toward them: a) they
were simplified formulae that usefully served to draw children and the
poorly educated into the intellectual milieu of Marxist materialism,
or b) they represent, not a degeneration, but a falsification of Marxist

People who feel that dialectical materialism is a viable intellectual
current are inclined to accept the first; people who reject
dialectical materialism prefer the second. The difference in these two
connotations of "diamat" is that the former sees it as only a
simplification and popularization of Marxist materialism - crude, but
essentially true; but for the latter, it serves as a label for
non-Marxist bourgeois thinking.

Do you find that folks who reject "diamat" are the ones who also
happen to be hostile to Stalin or even to a Leninist vanguard party?
It is intellectually dishonest to employ an argument over one issue to
serve as a covert argument over quite another.  

It seems to me that the other trend, perhaps more important, is to
reduce dialectical materialism to a dialectical interactionism that
impliciltly leaves out of it. The notion of "dialectical" is not at
all controversial today, and neither should materialism be for anyone
who thinks in scientific terms. Unfortunately, some post-modern (using
"modern" in sense of post-Enlightenment) thinking, Marxist and
otherwise, seems profoundly unscientific, and I fear that the position
that views Stalin as un-Marxist is often just another expression of
bourgeois post-modernism.

You might infer, with some truth, that I suspect the real intellectual
issue today is scientificity, not Marxism. Because contemporary
philosophy of science is today implicitly Marxist (a point that may
not be obvious to those who have not studied the matter), and because
reactionary tendencies seem un-scientific, the contested terrain of
post-modernism should perhaps be over whether we are scientific, not
whether we are Marxists. I'm not sure of this, so I'd really like to
see objections to the point.

Haines Brown    

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