Anti-Dühring Part 2: Chapter 1


“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.


Anti-Dühring Part 1: Prefaces


The first sections of Anti-Dühring were released in the German socialist press in 1877.  The point of the prefaces is to establish a context, both for the original work and the new editions.  In part, this includes what was happening in German philosophy at the time. It was, in a sense, a “fad” within scientific and philosophical circles, to create all-embracing “systems” that explained everything. It’s certainly understandable; the middle-late 19th Century spanned the period from the threshold of breakthroughs in nearly all of the physical sciences, to the time when such breakthroughs became commonplace. Before this period, it was still unknown how the transformation of the form of motion (for example, the emission of steam to the raising of a given weight a given distance) changed the calculation necessary to determine the quantity of motion; by the end of it, these laws were an accepted part of physics and casually used to make other calculations. In the middle of this period of discovery, it would be an almost irresistible temptation to come with a Grand Theory of Everything, and many people did–particularly those who had no knowledge of anything. Let us recall that Herr Dühring’s expertise–such as it was–was in the law. While this ought not to qualify him to speak of biology, physics, economics, &c, he was by no means alone in believing otherwise. In this, of course, nothing has changed.

This was also, more significantly, still early in the formation of German, and international, socialism.  The Reichsbank, and all it said about German Imperialism, was only a year old. The Communist Manifesto, with its promise of a scientific basis for socialism, was not yet 30 years old; the first volume of Capital, which delivered on that promise, only ten.  Russia and Turkey were gearing up for war.  The ideas of Socialism were spreading throughout Europe fast enough that in only a year Germany would declare them illegal–which would, naturally, spur their growth even more.

If you have a rapidly growing movement based on difficult and complex political principles, it is very nearly foreordained that a great deal of confusion over those principles will occur.  The tradition of free, open, lively, and far-ranging discussion within the socialist movement–brutally interrupted by Stalinsim, reestablished by Trotskyism–dates back to this period.

In the prefaces, Engels establishes some principles that will be important in understanding the book: “to me there could be no question of building the laws of dialectics into nature, but of discovering them in it and evolving them from it.”  In general, laws of motion are deduced from facts–this applies to laws governing “nature” as well as laws governing “society.”  I put quotes around those words to emphasize that, while many consider them opposites, there is, in fact, no reason to view society as anything but part of nature; hence no reason why the search for the laws of motion should be approached any differently.

Engels then goes on speak of advancements in science between 1877 and the time of the current preface (1885).  “The old rigid antagonisms, the sharp, impassable dividing lines are more and more disappearing. Since even the last ‘true’ gases have been liquefied, and since it has been proved that a body can be brought into a condition in which the liquid and the gaseous forms are indistinguishable, the aggregate states have lost the last relics of their former absolute character….” and “Whereas only ten years ago the great basic law of motion, then recently discovered, was as yet conceived merely as a law of the conservation of energy, as the mere expression of the indestructibility and uncreatability of motion, that is, merely in its quantitative aspect, this narrow negative conception is being more and more supplanted by the positive idea of the transformation of energy, in which for the first time the qualitative content of the process comes into its own, and the last vestige of an extramundane creator is obliterated.”

He was wrong about that last, of course–the ever-creative theists, once it was shown that God was not, in fact, responsible for those things “science will never answer” retreated and took a new stand on matters “science will never answer,” such as the creation of life, which held good until the twentieth century, and when that fell, it turned into vague, abstract, and meaningless questions “science will never answer.”  But in principle he was right, and for those with an interest in the history of religious thought, it is worth considering.

“And since biology has been pursued in the light of the theory of evolution, one rigid boundary line of classification after another has been swept away in the domain of organic nature. The almost unclassifiable intermediate links are growing daily more numerous, closer investigation throws organisms out of one class into another, and distinguishing characteristics which almost became articles of faith are losing their absolute validity.”

I do want to take a moment with this, because I think it is useful as a pointer to the method of dialectical materialism, which Engels will be demonstrating throughout the book: The materialist dialectic does not deny that categories exist in nature. But it does not treat those categories as rigid, inflexible, set for all time.  There is, in other words, a real difference between a liquid and a solid–between water and ice. That difference isn’t just in our heads, it reflects actual differences in nature. But water and ice can transform into one another; there can be boundary conditions that blur the lines; there is motion and transformation of categories, as well as of the things that may be contained within them.  So far, the only rigid, inflexible, permanent categorization known to exist is between science fiction and fantasy.

“The recognition that these antagonisms and distinctions, though to be found in nature, are only of relative validity, and that on the other hand their imagined rigidity and absolute validity have been introduced into nature only by our reflective minds — this recognition is the kernel of the dialectical conception of nature.”

Which is also true of society, and also true of the ideas with which we understand society.  That it, this recognition not only drives Engels’ exploration in the book, but ought to drive our own investigation of the book.  The critical approach, looking for truth that has become untruth, or categories that have changed, or discoveries that have negated what was then known, is the difference between the method of Marxism and dogmatism.


Anti- Dühring

My three favorite Marxist works are Trotsky’s Literature and Revolution, Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution, and Engels’ Anti-Dühring.  Of those, the latter is by far of the most general interest.  In it, Engels lays out of the basics of Marxist economics, sociology, and philosophy, as well as making more than a few fascinating insights into the natural sciences.  As Engels said in the Preface, “it was necessary to follow Herr Dühring into that vast territory in which he dealt with all things under the sun and with some others as well.”

It’s been at least three years since I last read it, and that’s too long.  Jenphalian and I have been talking about reading it together, and I can see no good reason not to do so here, in front of god, Texas, and everyone else.

I daresay everyone is invited, even encouraged, to participate, but I’m going to make explicit something that I never expressed during my earlier readings of Capital (which I’d like to continue if my fucking book would show up) and The Wealth of Nations: I have no special interest, in these cases, of arguing.  I’m doing these readings for my own benefit (in this case, also jenphalian’s), not to convince anyone of anything.  In my reading of Capital, I didn’t bother arguing with those who were certain that value is a product of ideas because arguing with them would not help clarify the points I was working through.  I do not doubt that this book, with its wide-ranging subject matter, will inspire vitriol and impassioned dispute from those who long ago made up their minds about Marxism.  That’s fine, and if that’s you, feel free to contribute your idiotic opinions, but I probably won’t answer unless doing so will help my own understanding.  Nevertheless, I would ask that you not respond to my observations unless you have also read the material.

Unless I forget, I’ll be sticking in cut tags for those poor souls on Livejournal.  If I can recall how those work.

Comments will account for 20% of your grade, the mid-term 30%, and the final test…oh, wait.  Never mind.

The version I’m using is here.