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Idealism or materialism: Two approaches to the world

Analysis by J. Sykes |
March 27, 2022
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Engels and Marx.
Engels and Marx.

When we talk about the philosophy that forms the basis of Marxism-Leninism, we say that that philosophy is dialectical materialism. At this point in our series on the theoretical concepts of Marxism-Leninism, we are going to focus on the materialism of dialectical materialism and try to come to a clear understanding of what that means. And to do that, we’re going to also look at materialism’s philosophical opposite: idealism.

Ultimately, materialism and idealism are two opposing ways of approaching every question that we might take up. Many might consider this too abstract a point for revolutionaries to wish to pay attention to, or they may mistake this for some sort of moral judgment about people. The common understanding of these terms would lend itself to such a view. The everyday view is that an idealist is a person concerned with high-minded ideals whereas a materialist is someone concerned with accumulating or possessing material things. Philosophically this isn’t what the terms mean at all, as we shall see. We need to dispel this view and understand what these terms mean philosophically. They actually connect in a very important way with what we’ve previously talked about in our articles on how we know and how we learn (epistemology).

The battle between idealism and materialism in fact divides the history of human thought into two camps. A materialist is someone who says being is primary over thinking. An idealist says the opposite: that thinking is primary over being. In other words, a materialist thinks that being determines thinking, while an idealist thinks the opposite, that thinking determines being. Similarly, idealism is dualistic, separating ideas from matter as two fundamental metaphysical substances. Materialism is monistic, uniting ideas and matter as two components of one social reality. This is the main distinction, though it is still very abstract. We might simplify it by saying that a materialist starts with things the way they are, while an idealist starts with the way they want things to be. But that doesn’t give us the whole picture. Let’s take each one by one, starting with idealism.

Beginning with ancient religious thinking, and even before that, faced with a complex and turbulent existence, human beings tried to understand why things happened as they did. When there was a storm, the failure of crops, a military victory, or a great tragedy, people wanted to understand why these things happened. With no scientific understanding of nature, often the recourse was to say, “it is as the gods will it,” or perhaps it was “fate” or “karma” that caused things to happen as they did. People tried to understand what it was that made up the world around them.

Early idealist philosophers weren’t satisfied with religious explanations and so speculated that reality didn’t exist apart from the mind, and that the ideas that made up reality had their own existence apart from the material world, and that it is these ideas that shape what reality is. This tradition in philosophy leads from the ancient Greeks like Socrates and Plato to modern philosophers such as Kant, Hegel and Berkley. The world was created from ideas, in some way or another. Idealism reigned supreme in the ancient slave societies and under feudal social relations, when the temples and the church were the main ideological levers of the ruling class. The king ruled because it was God’s will. One suffered because it was one’s fate. If you were born into a lower caste it was karma and you were being punished for the misdeeds of your past lives. This kind of thinking served the needs of the slave societies and feudal lords well.

But even among the ancients’ early attempts at materialism were made. Ancient Greek and Indian philosophy separately developed philosophies of atomism. They posited that there were basic atoms that made up the world. Some said that basic elements like earth, air, water or fire, or some combination of these elements, made up the world. Modern materialists like Hobbes, Diderot and Fuerebach brought materialism into the modern, scientific age. To materialists, ideas arose from nature, as human thought arises from our material existence.

Nevertheless, materialism didn’t really take hold as a dominant position in ideology until the Enlightenment, with the rise of the bourgeoisie. This is why the French Revolution at the end of the 1700s was so emphatic about secularism. The overthrow of feudalism also required the overthrow of the ideological domination of the church. Not only was the political power to be moved out of the hands of the feudal lords into the hands of the rising bourgeoisie, but the ideology of the divine right of kings had to be struck down as the basis of that claim to power.

Scientific thinking and secularism were required to push forward the productive forces of society and develop modern industry. Newtonian physics saw the world as functioning like a great machine operating according to natural laws. Everything was in its place and every effect could be traced to a definite material cause. This mechanical or metaphysical materialism didn’t see this great systematic machine as dynamic and changing as a result of its internal contradictions, but as fixed, immutable and unchanging. Natural Law is enshrined as the reason things are as they are. Everything, to the mechanical materialist, is exact, distinct and repeatable, like clockwork.

Mechanical materialism, however, rests on a number of dogmatic assumptions. The British Marxist philosopher Maurice Cornforth enumerates them as follows in his book Dialectical Materialism: First, all change is based on permanent things with stable and fixed properties. Second, change only occurs due to external causes. Third, all change can be reduced to the mechanical motion of particles. And fourth, things exist in separation from other things as independent units.

While the rise of modern, metaphysical materialism was a step in the right direction, we are still a long way away from the dialectical materialism developed by Marx and Engels, which will advance materialism beyond these dogmatic assumptions listed above. It does this by divorcing materialism from the metaphysical method of analysis and by uniting materialism with dialectics. Having looked at what distinguishes materialism from idealism, in our next article we’ll look at the difference between dialectics and metaphysics. From this we should be able to get a clear picture of what dialectical materialism is and what it means for us as revolutionaries.

See our full series on Marxist-Leninist theory here.