“Like every new theory, modern socialism had, at first, to connect itself with the intellectual stock-in-trade ready to its hand, however deeply its roots lay in economic facts.”
Ideas are, above all, reflections of the material world. But ideas also have their own development and motion. The ideas of Einstienian physics grew not only from discoveries in nature, and improved technology that permitted closer observation of nature, but also from Newtonian physics. The dialectic is here: the discoveries of Einstein negated and overturned those of Newton, yet the former could not have existed without the latter. The same is true of the theories of scientific socialism. They required the increased technological forces (and data!) produced by the industrial revolution, but also the earlier theories of the Utopians. That Marxism negated and overturned those theories does not mean those theories were worthless; on the contrary.
But the really significant point in this chapter is this: other than trivialities, there are no truths for all times. The development of ideas moves with the developments in the material world. Imperfectly, with back-and-forth, with starts-and-stops, yet inevitably. Herr Dühring, in his claim to have found all-time and absolute truth, is being unhistorical, as well as idealistic.
Engels continues this theme further down the page, talking about the relationship between the ideas of the bourgeois revolutions, and the practice of the bourgeois revolutions.
In my opinion, this is key. The Enlightenment brought rationalism into the realm of social systems. Those who did so were great men, but still unable to leap beyond themselves. The ideas of a time are tied to that time. The greatest thinkers can leap ahead–somewhat. But the visions of a “perfect society” created by and for the bourgeois revolution were necessarily visions of a perfect bourgeois society.
“Socialism is the expression of absolute truth, reason and justice and has only to be discovered to conquer all the world by virtue of its own power. And as absolute truth is independent of time, space, and of the historical development of man, it is a mere accident when and where it is discovered.”
Just in case anyone is unclear, Engels is being ironic here.
“To make a science of socialism, it had first to be placed upon a real basis.”
That one sentence is vital. The fact that it is one of very few one-sentence paragraphs–that Engels sets it off by itself–indicates how important it is.
It was inevitable that Utopians would exist; that in response to the misery generated by feudal and capitalist societies, there would be opposition. And that, in response to that opposition, various individuals would say, “Here is the solution, I made it up and it’s right.” Today, we see same the same thing in reactionary form among Libertarians–starting with a vision of what the world should be, and then working to make it so. But to put socialism on a scientific basis required a study of society as it was, required understanding the historical and economic roots, and to then see the future development as part of an historical process. One might claim that Marxists are wrong in their analysis of capitalism, or vision of the future; but no one who is serious can deny that it came from study of the real world, rather than beginning with imaginings. This is exactly Marx’s and Engels’ contribution.
“…branches of science which the Greeks of classical times on very good grounds, relegated to a subordinate position, because they had first of all to collect the material.”
I want to hit this again, because I believe it is so very important. Science, whether chemistry, scientific socialism, or a scientific understanding of history, is not simply a product of thought. That is, the failure of our ancestors to grasp the fundamentals of astrophysics is not because no one was smart enough, or happened to think of it–it’s because the information simply wasn’t there. Our knowledge moves from the particular to the general to the particular, constantly. Improved theory permits improved technology which permits the gathering of more data which leads to improved theory. That is a vital part of dialectics. Today’s understanding of socialism, of history, of biology, is not the end of the process; it is merely as far as we’ve come. The process goes on, and will go on as long as humanity exists. We make progress; that’s what we do. Sometimes, in the fight for progress (social, economic, political, or theoretical) we take a step backward, because that, also, is what we do. But we make progress.
“Only sound common sense, respectable fellow that he is, in the homely realm of his own four walls, has very wonderful adventures directly he ventures out into the wide world of research.”
Nothing to add, just quoting it because I love it so much.
On Hegel: “Upon the one hand, its essential proposition was the conception that human history is a process of evolution, which, by its very nature, cannot find its intellectual final term in the discovery of any so-called absolute truth. But, on the other hand, it laid claim to being the very essence of this absolute truth.”
I quote this because it relates to a reflection of my own: Any theory that attempts to explain human ideas or behavior ought to be applicable to itself. The fact that, for example, evolutionary psychology does not account for or explain evolutionary psychology, or that memetics is helpless when asked for an explanation of memetics, is sufficient, in my view, to make one cast a suspicious eye on them.
“As soon as each special science is bound to make clear its position in the great totality of things and of our knowledge of things, a special science dealing with this totality is superfluous.”
And here is where I have some trouble. I think what is going on is something like this: philosophy is the branch of science that deals with how to interpret science. But as scientific discoveries show us that the different branches and disciplines are connected (who can now separate archaeology from paleontology, or chemistry from biology?), there is no longer a point to a separate, individual discipline of philosophy apart from other sciences. It becomes folded in, a method for evaluating discoveries. I’m not sure of this interpretation, however.