Anti-Dialectics For Beginners
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[Latest Update: 10/07/21.]
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1) Introduction [Please read first!]
2) So, What Is Dialectical Materialism?
(a) 'Mediated' Totality
(b) Law One: Quantity And Quality
(c) Law Two: The Interpenetration Of Opposites
(d) Law Three: The Negation Of The Negation
(e) Universal Change
(f) Formal Logic
(g) Is That It?
3) So, What's The Problem?
(a) Disaster Central
4) Main Objections
(a) Quantity Into Quality
(b) The Unity And Interpenetration Of Opposites
(c) The Negation Of The Negation
(d) Universal Change
(e) Formal Logic Again
(f) Ruling-Class Thought
Why I Began This Project
Why I Oppose Dialectical Materialism
Abbreviations Used At This Site
Return To The Main Index Page
This Essay is a simplified and down-to-earth summary of a few of the main arguments against classical Dialectical Materialism [DM] presented at this site -- and, believe it or not, this has been done from a Marxist angle, too.
It was written for those who find the Basic Introductory Essay either too long or too difficult. Hence, at the request of a handful of younger comrades, I have tried to keep everything straight-forward and concise, saying all I want to in less than 10,000 words -- not including this preamble, of course! It is also worth pointing out that about a third of this Essay is devoted to summarising DM in simple terms, quoting several of its theorists.
Those requiring more detail, greater explanation, or more philosophical sophistication should consult the longer Essays published at the main site, or, perhaps. the slightly longer Summary Essays posted here.
Anyone who still complains about the many over-simplifications below should re-read the title --, it's 'Anti-Dialectics For Beginners', not experts!
In what follows, I largely confine my criticisms to Engels's so-called 'three laws of dialectics', but no one should be under any illusion that these 'laws' capture the full complexity or sophistication of this theory. In many ways the opposite is in fact the case.
However, and once again, this is meant to be a ground-level introduction to my case against DM, not a research paper! In the main Essays, I enter into the aforementioned 'complexities' of dialectical thought in unprecedented detail -- as will soon become apparent to anyone who reads them -- presenting what I consider to be a definitive demolition of this entire 'world-view'/'method'. Naturally, the accuracy of that particular claim is for others to decide.
As is the case with all my work, nothing here should be read as an attack either on Historical Materialism [HM] -- a theory I fully accept --, or, indeed, on revolutionary socialism. I remain as committed to the self-emancipation of the working class and the dictatorship of the proletariat as I was when I first became a revolutionary nearly thirty-five years ago.
The difference between DM and HM, as I see it, is explained here. I have dealt with the claim that Marx himself accepted DM, here and here.
Please note that in the first part of this Essay I am summarising DM, not my own views! The counter arguments begin here.
Final thought: I have seen criticism on the Internet to the effect that I quote Rob Sewell (of the IMT) as if I think he is an expert on this subject. I don't, but this Essay is meant to be a very basic introduction, and he is at least very basic. In the main Essays, I examine the more sophisticated ideas of other theorists ranging from Hegel to Marx, Lenin to Mao, Engels to Trotsky, Lukacs to Marcuse, Plotinus to Spinoza..., and many others besides.
So, What Is DM?
Anyone new to Marxism sooner or later encounters DM -- or, its more political twin, "Materialist Dialectics" [MD].1
But, what exactly is DM? We are told by its supporters that it is first and foremost a materialist theory -- as Rob Sewell explains:
Philosophical materialism is the outlook which explains that there is only one material world.... The universe...is not the creation of any supernatural being, is in the process of constant flux [i.e., change -- RL]. Human beings are a part of nature, and evolved from lower forms of life, whose origins sprung from a lifeless planet some 3.6 billion or so years ago. With the evolution of life, at a certain stage, came the development of animals with a nervous system, and eventually human beings with a large brain. With humans emerged human thought and consciousness.... Therefore matter...existed and still exists independently of the mind and human beings. Things existed long before any awareness of them arose or could have arisen on the part of living organisms.... Matter is not a product of mind, but mind itself is the highest product of matter. Ideas are simply a reflection of the independent material world that surrounds us.... [Quoted from here. Paragraphs merged.]
And yet, this theory is so much more than this. Dialecticians also believe that the world is an integrated ("mediated") whole, a "Totality", with all its parts interconnected and interdependent:
The whole of nature accessible to us forms a system, an interconnected totality of bodies, and by bodies we understand here all material existences extending from stars to atoms, indeed right to ether particles, in so far as one grants the existence of the last named. In the fact that these bodies are interconnected is already included that they react on one another, and it is precisely this mutual reaction that constitutes motion. It already becomes evident that matter is unthinkable without motion. [Engels (1954), p.70.]
[Among the elements of dialectics are the following:] [I]nternally contradictory tendencies…in [a thing]…as the sum and unity of opposites…. [E]ach thing (phenomenon, process, etc.)…is connected with every other…. [This involves] not only the unity of opposites, but the transitions of every determination, quality, feature, side, property into every other…. [Lenin (1961), p.221. Emphases in the original.]
This Totality has developed over billions of years under the control and operation of a series of laws discovered (in their more modern form) by a leading German Philosopher, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1779-1831). However Hegel was an Idealist (he was also a devotee of Christian and Hermetic Mysticism); that is, he considered that what we take to be the material world is dependent on an underlying non-material reality, a World of Ideas -- in fact, this hidden world was merely a form of the development of 'God's' knowledge of 'Himself'.
[How that works is best left to one side for now!]
Throughout history, ruling elites and their ideologues have generally seen the world this way; the world we see around us isn't considered to be the 'real' world. The 'really real' world is a world of ideas lying out of sight, underlying 'appearances', and is accessible to 'thought' alone. The main difference is that the vast majority of traditional theorists viewed 'reality' as fundamentally changeless -- despite appearances to the contrary -- whereas Hegel saw it as fundamentally developmental.
Nevertheless, Hegel's theory was taken up by Marx and Engels, who, so legend has it, stripped away its mystical, Idealist outer layer and put its "rational kernel" to work in their theory of human history, the class struggle and social change. For them, the world of ideas was just a "reflection" of the material world in the minds of men and women -- indeed, as Rob Sewell pointed out.
Engels later re-formulated its "rational kernel" and applied it to the entire universe. This greatly expanded theory subsequently came to be known as "Dialectical Materialism". In Engels's hands, and in those of subsequent dialecticians, this theory taught that the development of nature and society is governed by a number of inter-related laws, several of which are outlined below.
Law One: Quantity And Quality [Q«Q]
DM holds that change isn't just an accidental or superficial feature of nature and society (on that, see below). The qualitative aspects of objects and processes we see around us alter in specific ways, according to precise laws -- or so dialecticians would have us believe.
The first law governing development is the change of quantity into quality.
It is a familiar feature of our experience that objects and processes around us have different properties/qualities and that these can change. So, for instance, they can change from solid to liquid, hot to cold, red to green, stationary to moving, and so on. Some of these developments are superficial; for example, if you have your fingernails trimmed that doesn't really alter who you are in any significant way. Others are more profound; so, if a building burns down, that is a pretty fundamental difference!
However, underlying such apparent diversity there are several unifying factors, which is where this law comes in. The first law holds that if matter or energy is fed into, or drained out of, a body or system, at some point it will undergo a sudden, or "nodal", change -- a "leap". For instance, if you load straws onto the proverbial camel's back, at some point it will break. Gradual "quantitative" change in the end leads to sudden, significant "qualitative" change.
Here is Rob Sewell again, quoting Hegel:
"It has been said that there are no sudden leaps in nature, and it is a common notion that things have their origin through gradual increase or decrease," states Hegel. "But there is also such a thing as sudden transformation from quantity to quality. For example, water does not become gradually hard on cooling, becoming first pulpy and ultimately attaining a rigidity of ice, but turns hard at once. If temperature be lowered to a certain degree, the water is suddenly changed into ice, i.e., the quantity -- the number of degrees of temperature -- is transformed into quality, a change in the nature of the thing." (Logic §776) This is the cornerstone of understanding change. Change or evolution does not take place gradually in a straight smooth line.... [Quoted from here. Paragraphs merged.]
This is an important principle for dialecticians since they think it helps explain the sudden onset of revolutions, as well as the qualitative change between different socio-economic systems -- like that between Capitalism and Socialism --, among other things.
The law of the change of quantity into quality is thus diametrically opposed to any principle that advocates a gradualist, or reformist, route to socialism -- or, so we have been led to believe...
Law Two: The Unity And Interpenetration Of Opposites [UO]
This law is much more complicated, but the basic idea is reasonably simple: according to dialecticians, objects and processes in nature are composed of paired "opposites". Some of these might be 'internal' to the objects and processes concerned; hence, we have positive and negative particles inside atoms holding them together (as it were). Alternatively, others might be 'external'; so, we have positive and negative electric charges, the North and South magnetic poles, male and female organisms, and so on. Of course, many of these might turn out to be a mixture of internal and external factors.
However, these opposite pairs aren't accidentally connected, like, say, two passengers sat opposite each other on the underground. There is a deeper connection between them, which is brought out by a use of the word "internal" (indeed, these are described as "internal opposites"), implying that one opposite can't exist without the other. So, under capitalism, the capitalist class can't exist without the working class. If there were no workers, there would be no capitalists -- nor vice versa --, since the latter have to employ the former in order for them to be capitalists.
So, these "dialectical opposites" in a very real sense depend on one another. You couldn't have a magnetic North without a South. They inter-define and are inter-determine each other; hence the use of the word "interpenetrate". Dialecticians also confusingly call these opposites "contradictions" --, or, rather, they use that term to describe the dynamic relationship that is supposed to hold between them.
Nevertheless, these "contradictions" are the universal 'motor' of change in nature and society, according to dialecticians; the dynamic interplay between contradictory opposites is what 'powers' universal development.
Sewell once more:
"In brief", states Lenin, "dialectics can be defined as the doctrine of the unity of opposites. This embodies the essence of dialectics…." The world in which we live is a unity of contradictions or a unity of opposites: cold-heat, light-darkness, Capital-Labour, birth-death, riches-poverty, positive-negative, boom-slump, thinking-being, finite-infinite, repulsion-attraction, left-right, above-below, evolution-revolution, chance-necessity, sale-purchase, and so on. [Quoted from here. Paragraphs merged.]
Indeed, as Hegel himself asserted:
[C]ontradiction is the root of all movement and vitality; it is only in so far as something has a contradiction within it that it moves, has an urge and activity. [Hegel (1999), p.439, §956.]
Law Three: The Negation Of The Negation [NON]
Plainly, objects and processes in nature and society don't last forever. Some things slowly crumble to dust, some fall apart rather quickly, while others develop, reproduce, grow, and subsequently die, their offspring continuing the cycle. When objects, organisms, processes or social systems are destroyed, or cease to exist as such, dialecticians say they have been "negated". However, when they develop into something new -- and whatever it is that emerges as a result is systematically connected to the earlier stages of that process, preserving aspects of the old while introducing novelty --, they then say that this "negated" stage has been further "negated" into something new, something of a higher type, perhaps. This is the "negation of the negation".
The law of the negation of the negation explains the repetition at a higher level of certain features and properties of the lower level and the apparent return of past features....This whole process can be best pictured as a spiral, where the movement comes back to the position it started, but at a higher level. In other words, historical progress is achieved through a series of contradictions. Where the previous stage is negated, this does not represent its total elimination. It does not wipe out completely the stage that it supplants. Engels gives a[n]...example from the insect world. "Butterflies, for example, spring from the egg through a negation of the egg, they pass through certain transformations until they reach sexual maturity, they pair and are in turn negated, dying as soon as the pairing process has been completed and the female has laid its numerous eggs." [Quoted from here. Paragraphs merged.]
Another core thesis promoted by dialecticians, which knits the above ideas together, is the theory of universal motion and change. This idea was borrowed from the fragmentary thoughts of an Ancient Greek Philosopher, Heraclitus (c.535-c.475 BC), often described as the very first dialectician.
Here, for example, are Engels and Trotsky:
Motion is the mode of existence of matter. Never anywhere has there been matter without motion, nor can there be…. Matter without motion is just as inconceivable as motion without matter. Motion is therefore as uncreatable and indestructible as matter itself; as the older philosophy (Descartes) expressed it, the quantity of motion existing in the world is always the same. Motion therefore cannot be created; it can only be transmitted….
A motionless state of matter therefore proves to be one of the most empty and nonsensical of ideas…. [Engels (1976), p.74. Italic emphasis in the original.]
The great basic thought that the world is not to be comprehended as a complex of ready-made things, but a complex of processes, in which things apparently stable…, go through an uninterrupted change of coming into being and passing away…. [Engels (1888), p.609.]
All bodies change uninterruptedly in size, weight, colour etc. They are never equal to themselves….Dialectical logic [asserts] the axiom that everything is always changing. [Trotsky (1971), pp.64-66.]
And here are Woods and Grant (IMT theorists):
Dialectics…sets out from the axiom that everything is in a constant state of change and flux…. The fundamental proposition of dialectics is that everything is in a constant process of change, motion and development. [Woods and Grant (1995), pp.43-44. Paragraphs merged.]
This idea, of course, isn't unique to DM, but as the above theorists point out, their theory is unique in asserting that change is motivated by 'internal contradictions' -- an idea promoted by Hegel, as, indeed, we saw earlier.
Formal Logic [FL]
As far as we know, FL was invented in the 'West' single-handedly by the Ancient Greek Philosopher, Aristotle (384-322BC). His was the first systematic attempt to study and codify the principles underlying valid argument patterns -- that is, patterns where, if the premisses are true, the conclusion is also true. Hence, the conclusion is said to "follow from" the premisses.
[It must be said, however, that this isn't the way that DM-theorists themselves characterise Aristotle's Logic!]
Now, one of the oddest things about dialecticians is that, to a greater or lesser extent, every last one of them criticises FL, saying things like the following:
When dealing with drawn out processes or complicated events, formal logic becomes a totally inadequate way of thinking. This is particularly the case in dealing with movement, change and contradiction. Formal logic regards things as fixed and motionless. Of course, this is not to deny the everyday usefulness of formal logic, on the contrary, but we need to recognise it limits. [Sewell.]
It is worth pointing that the vast majority of such criticisms are aimed at Aristotelian Formal Logic [AFL]. However, AFL is now a wholly defunct system, having been superseded well over a hundred years ago by far more elaborate and sophisticated systems of Modern Logic (now confusingly called "Classical Logic"), and by something far more technical, Mathematical Logic.
Unfortunately, this means that much of what dialecticians have to say about FL is as relevant as if they were criticising ancient theories of the heavens -- such as Ptolemy's long defunct Geocentric System -- while imagining they were addressing contemporary Astrophysics!
Is That It?
Of course, as noted above, there is much more to DM than this very brief summary would suggest. [For more on this theory, see here, for example.] However, if I entered into greater detail, this Essay would soon exceed the 10,000 word limit I have set myself!
So, What's The Problem?
Dialecticians spare no opportunity telling us that truth is tested in practice. Here, for example, is Lenin:
From living perception to abstract thought, and from this to practice, -- such is the dialectical path of the cognition of truth, of the cognition of objective reality. [Lenin (1961), p.171. Emphases in the original.]
In that case, what does practice reveal?
Unfortunately, Dialectical Marxism hasn't known much in the way of lasting success. The 1917 revolution has been reversed, practically every single 'socialist' state has abandoned Marxism. Indeed, when many of these states fell between 1989 and 1991 the workers there failed to lift so much as one finger in their defence; compare that with the heroic and determined struggle, even for limited forms of bourgeois democracy, mounted by ordinary workers across North Africa and the Middle East in 2011-13, and that was in the face of vicious repression, imprisonment, torture, and sometimes death. Or, indeed, workers' struggles in Greece, Venezuela, Bolivia, Portugal, Spain, Turkey, Italy,...
Furthermore, all four Internationals have gone down the pan, and few revolutionary parties these days can boast active membership rolls that rise much above the risible. To cap it all, billions of workers world-wide not only ignore DM, they have never even heard of it.
And yet, dialecticians claim that DM lies at the heart of revolutionary theory and practice, representing the "world-view of the proletariat"! Here is Trotsky:
It [is] absolutely necessary to explain why the American 'radical' intellectuals accept Marxism without the dialectic (a clock without a spring). [Trotsky (1971), p.56. Bold emphasis added.]
If so, why has no dialectician drawn the obvious conclusion, that history has refuted their theory?
If theory is indeed tested in practice, then one of the following must be true:
(a) DM has never actually been used by revolutionaries, and hence it has never been tested in practice, despite what we might otherwise have been told.
(b) DM has been used and has been refuted as a result.
But, (a) is scarcely believable, so (b) must be the case.
The reasons for asserting that are complex, and won't be entered into in any detail in this Essay. Nevertheless, as I argue in Essay Nine Parts One and Two and Essay Ten Part One, the fact that DM-theorists ignore the profoundly negative verdict that history and practice have delivered on their theory for the best part of a century has much to do with the role it plays in convincing revolutionaries that, despite appearances to the contrary, and in spite of all the set-backs, disasters and defeats over the last hundred or so years, the tide of history is relentlessly moving their way. If dialectics operates right throughout the universe, not even the capitalist class can thwart it for long. DM thus provides its adherents with a source of hope in a hopeless world, consolation in the face of unrelenting failure.
So, that is one reason why DM-supporters reject the pessimistic observations mentioned above.
[On this topic in general, along with a range of excuses DM-theorists offer as to why their theory is so spectacularly unsuccessful, see Essay Ten Part One.]
However, it is my contention that this theory is part of the reason why Dialectical Marxism is now almost synonymous with long-term failure, corruption and regular debilitating bouts of sectarian in-fighting.
[Notice the use of the word "Dialectical", here. I am not claiming that Marxism is unsuccessful, or has been refuted -- the non-dialectical version hasn't been road-tested yet. Notice, too, the use of the phrase "part of" highlighted in bold.]
Clearly, such long-term lack of success suggests that DM might not be quite as sound as its supporters would have us believe.
No surprise then that that is precisely what we find.
Quantity Into Quality [Q«Q]
Engels asserted the following:
...[T]he transformation of quantity into quality and vice versa. For our purpose, we could express this by saying that in nature, in a manner exactly fixed for each individual case, qualitative changes can only occur by the quantitative addition or subtraction of matter or motion (so-called energy)…. Hence it is impossible to alter the quality of a body without addition or subtraction of matter or motion, i.e. without quantitative alteration of the body concerned. [Engels (1954), p.63. Bold emphases alone added.]
As we have seen, these changes are neither smooth nor gradual:
It will be understood without difficulty by anyone who is in the least capable of dialectical thinking...[that] quantitative changes, accumulating gradually, lead in the end to changes of quality, and that these changes of quality represent leaps, interruptions in gradualness…. That is how all Nature acts…. [Plekhanov (1974), p.613. Bold emphasis alone added.]
But, there are many things in nature that change (in quality) smoothly and without a single "leap" anywhere in sight; think of melting metal, rock, glass, plastic, butter, resin, tar, toffee and chocolate. In such cases, change in quality from solid to liquid is gradual and not at all sudden. When heated, metals, for instance, gradually soften and slowly become liquid/molten; there is no sudden "leap" from solid to liquid in this instance. Sure, many things do change in "leaps", but many others do not. So, the "nodal" aspect of this law is defective.
[Several comrades have objected to this line-of-argument. For my response, see here.]
Admittedly, some dialecticians appeal to the exact melting point of solids or the exact boiling point of liquids as clear examples of a dialectical "leap"; however, this is what we read about the so-called "amorphous solids" (such as glasses, gels, and plastics):
Amorphous solids do not have a sharp melting point; they are softened in a range of temperature. [Quoted from here; accessed 03/05/2015. Bold emphasis added.]
Amorphous solids tend to soften slowly over a wide temperature range rather than having a well-defined melting point like a crystalline solid. [Quoted from here; accessed 08/04/2015. Bold emphasis added.]
Almost any substance can solidify in amorphous form if the liquid phase is cooled rapidly enough.... [Ibid.]
This must mean that "almost any substance" can become amorphous and hence lack a melting point if it has been cooled in the above manner. In turn, this implies that there are countless non-'nodal' (non-"leap"-like) changes in nature.
[Again: I am not arguing that there are no sudden changes, only that not everything behaves this way. As should seem obvious, this is an empirical question, to be settled by evidence, not by an appeal to the dogmatic, non-scientific pronouncements of that Christian Mystic, Hegel.]
Unfortunately, that means this law can't be used to argue that the transformation from capitalism to socialism must be 'nodal' (i.e., sudden), for we have no idea whether or not this particular transformation will be one of its many exceptions. Plainly, we could only appeal to this law here if it had no exceptions whatsoever.
This in turn means that the whole point of adopting Engels's first law has now vanished.
[It is important to add that I certainly do not believe that the revolutionary transformation of society will be gradual -- but then I don't accept this 'law'!]
What about the 'quantity into quality' aspect? As we saw, DM-theorists tell us that material objects and processes change qualitatively as a result of the addition or subtraction of matter and/or energy.
But, not all qualitative differences are caused this way, so this 'law' can't be a law. For example, the order in which events take place can effect quality, too. To see this, try crossing a busy main road first and looking second. Now, try it the other way round. If you survive, you might notice the difference! [Of course, don't try this!] Furthermore, anyone (not wearing protective gloves and clothing) who pours half a litre of water slowly into a litre of concentrated sulphuric acid will face a long and painful stay in hospital, whereas the reverse action is perfectly safe.
When confronted with examples like these, or even those mentioned below, DM-fans generally respond in one of two ways:
(a) They point out that Engels's Law only applies to developing bodies, processes or systems, which rules these counter-examples out. I have dealt with that response here and here.
(b) They simply ignore them!
Be this as it may, it turns out that this Law is so vaguely worded that dialecticians can (and do!) use it in whichever way they please. Should anyone find that allegation difficult to believe, try the following two experiments:
(a) Ask the very next dialectician you meet (in person or on the Internet) precisely how long a "nodal point" is supposed to last. You will receive no answer! But, if no one knows, then anything from a Geological Age to an instantaneous quantum leap could be "nodal"! Is a "qualitative" change lasting ten thousand years really all that "sudden"?
Plainly, this introduces a fundamental element of arbitrariness, or subjectivity, into what is supposed to be an objective law.
[I have responded to several objections to the above argument, here.]
And, it really isn't good enough for dialecticians to dismiss this as mere "pedantry" (which some have done). Can you imagine a genuine scientist refusing to say how long a crucially important time period in her theory is supposed to last, accusing you of "pedantry" for even thinking to ask?
(b) Next, enquire precisely what a "quality" is meant to be. If your respondent knows his/her theory, you might be told that it is a property the change of which alters a process or object into something novel, a "new kind of thing". But, more often than not you will be fobbed off -- or just ignored -- once more.
Nevertheless, here is how the Glossary over at the Marxist Internet Archive defines this term:
Quality is an aspect of something by which it is what it is and not something else and reflects that which is stable amidst variation. Quantity is an aspect of something which may change (become more or less) without the thing thereby becoming something else. Thus, if something changes to an extent that it is no longer the same kind of thing, this is a 'qualitative change'.... [Quoted from here; bold emphases added. Paragraphs merged.]
Unfortunately, given this 'definition', many of the examples DM-theorists themselves use to illustrate this 'law' actually fail to do so.
For instance, their most overused example is water turning to ice or steam when cooled or heated. But, given the above definition this wouldn't in fact be an example of 'qualitative' change, since water as a solid (ice!), liquid, or gas (steam!) is still H2O -- no "new kind of thing" has emerged. Quantitative addition or subtraction of energy doesn't result in a qualitative change of the required sort; nothing substantially new has arisen. This substance remains H2O throughout.
Indeed, when heated beyond its melting point, iron remains iron, even as a liquid. The same goes for all the other elements. Liquid nitrogen is no less nitrogen than its gaseous or solid forms are. Sulphur is still Sulphur as a liquid and a solid. Nothing substantially new has emerged.
Furthermore, countless substances exist in a solid, liquid, or gaseous state, so that can't be what makes each of them "what it is and not something else". What makes lead, for instance, "what it is and not something else" is its atomic structure, and that remains the same whether or not it exists in solid or liquid form. As such, this element remains "the same kind of thing" throughout.
Faced with this, dialecticians might be tempted to relax the definition of "quality" so that, in solid, liquid or gaseous form, substances like those above can still be said to exhibit different 'qualities' when heated or cooled.
Unfortunately, while this might rescue the above examples, it sinks the theory. If we relax "quality" to such an extent that it applies to any qualitative difference (and is no longer restricted to those qualitative changes that create "new kinds of things"), then we would have to include the relational properties of bodies (that is, those properties objects possess in relation to other objects, such as relative size or hardness). In that case, we could easily have qualitative change with no extra matter or energy being added to the system.
For instance, consider three animals in a row: a mouse, a pony, and an elephant. In relation to the mouse, the pony is big, but in relation to the elephant it is small. Here, there is change in quality (but, note, only if we are tempted to relax definition of "quality" in the above manner), even though no matter or energy has been added or subtracted.
[When confronted with this particular counter-example, some dialecticians object that it is a ridiculous argument. Indeed it is, but it is a direct consequence of relaxing the definition of "quality" in the above manner. I have responded to such critics at length here, here, and here.]
Finally, there are substances studied in Chemistry called Isomers. These are molecules with exactly the same number and type of atoms, but their geometrical configurations are different, which lends to each their different properties. So, here we have change in 'quality' caused by a change in geometry, but with the addition of no new matter or energy -- contradicting Engels:1a
[Q]ualitative changes can only occur by the quantitative addition or subtraction of matter or motion (so-called energy)…. Hence it is impossible to alter the quality of a body without addition or subtraction of matter or motion, i.e. without quantitative alteration of the body concerned. [Engels (1954), p.63. Bold emphases alone added.]
Hence, at best, this 'Law' is merely a quaint rule of thumb (rather like: "A stitch in time saves nine"), which seems to work sometimes (but only because it has been left terminally vague -- or it has been applied subjectively). At worst, it is like a stopped clock: totally useless, even if twice a day it seems to tell 'the right time'.
So, Engels's First 'Law' is, at best, seriously flawed, at worst hopelessly vague and confused.
Hence it is of no use in developing revolutionary theory, and so it has no role to play in helping change society.
The Unity And Interpenetration Of Opposites [UO]
This is perhaps the most important of these laws (as, indeed, Lenin indicated), since it encapsulates the principle of change coupled with continuity and temporary stability. If this law turns out to be seriously defective then DM will be fatally wounded -- but that is what we are about to find out.
From what they have written, it turns out that DM-theorists are entirely unclear whether objects and processes:
(i) Change because of a "struggle" between their "internal opposites",
(ii) Change into these "opposites",
or whether they,
(iii) Create these "opposites" as and when they change.
Here, for example, is Lenin:
[Among the elements of dialectics are the following:] [I]nternally contradictory tendencies…in [a thing]…as the sum and unity of opposites…. [This involves] not only the unity of opposites, but the transitions of every determination, quality, feature, side, property into every other [into its opposite?]….
The identity of opposites…is the recognition…of the contradictory, mutually exclusive, opposite tendencies in all phenomena and processes of nature…. The condition for the knowledge of all processes of the world in their 'self-movement', in their spontaneous development, in their real life, is the knowledge of them as a unity of opposites. Development is the 'struggle' of opposites…. [This] alone furnishes the key to the self-movement of everything existing….
The unity…of opposites is conditional, temporary, transitory, relative. The struggle of mutually exclusive opposites is absolute, just as development and motion are absolute…. [Lenin (1961), pp.221-22, 357-58. Emphases in the original.]
Here, too, is Plekhanov:
And so every phenomenon, by the action of those same forces which condition its existence, sooner or later, but inevitably, is transformed into its own opposite…. [Plekhanov (1956), p.77. Bold emphases alone added.]
And here is Mao:
Why is it that "...the human mind should take these opposites not as dead, rigid, but as living, conditional, mobile, transforming themselves into one another"? [Mao is here quoting Lenin -- RL.] Because that is just how things are in objective reality. The fact is that the unity or identity of opposites in objective things is not dead or rigid, but is living, conditional, mobile, temporary and relative; in given conditions, every contradictory aspect transforms itself into its opposite....
In speaking of the identity of opposites in given conditions, what we are referring to is real and concrete opposites and the real and concrete transformations of opposites into one another....
All processes have a beginning and an end, all processes transform themselves into their opposites. The constancy of all processes is relative, but the mutability manifested in the transformation of one process into another is absolute. [Mao (1961b), pp.340-42. Bold emphases added.]
[Dozens of quotations taken from the dialectical-classics and 'lesser' DM-theorists, all of which say the same sort of thing, have been posted here.]
Notice that according to the above theorists:
(a) All change is the result of a "struggle of opposites;
(b) All objects change into their "opposites", and hence,
(c) Objects and processes change into that with which they have "struggled"!
But, that would leave change a complete mystery.
In order to see this, let us suppose that (i) object/process A is composed of two internal "opposites" (or "opposite tendencies"), O* and O**, and that (ii) It changes as a result of the "struggle" between them.2
However, the DM-classics also tell us that O* "inevitably" changes into O**, its "opposite". But, O* can't change into O** since O** already exists! If O** didn't already exist, according to this theory, O* wouldn't be able to change, for there would be no "opposite" with which it could "struggle" in order to bring about that change! These "opposites" have to coexist or they couldn't "struggle" with each other.
[In what follows, in order to cut down on needless complexity, I will drop the quotation marks around "struggle", etc.]
And, it is no good propelling O** into the future so that it becomes what O* will change into, since O* will do no such thing unless O** is already there to make that happen!
Of course, this is quite apart from the fact that many things just do not change into their opposites. When was the last time you saw a male cat turn into a female cat? Or a male (sperm) cell into a female (egg) cell? Your left hand into your right? An electron into a proton? Or even a material object into an immaterial object?
And, are we really supposed to believe that the proletariat will turn into the capitalist class, and vice versa? Did the medieval peasantry turn into the aristocracy, and vice versa?
But, if everything "inevitably" changes into its opposite, as we were told they must (by the DM-classics), such things would happen all the time.
Naturally, this doesn't mean that change can't happen, only that DM can't account for it.
Alternatively: if DM were true, change would be impossible!
In which case, it is now clear that the second 'Law' is worse than useless.
[I have responded to several obvious objections to the above argument (as well as a few that aren't quite so obvious), here.]
Finally, It is also worth adding that DM-theorists invariably confuse a spatial sense of "internal" with its logical sense. The latter is illustrated -- so we are told -- by the relation between capitalists and workers. As noted above, the existence one of these implies the existence of the other; there is therefore a logical connection between them. On the other hand, "spatially-internal" applies to opposites that are merely inside another object or process. No logical connection is necessarily implied by that relation. So, although both your appendix and your brain are internal to you, there doesn't appear to be any logical connection between them -- if there were, you couldn't ever have your appendix removed without your brain also ceasing to exist. In that case, it isn't easy to see how, say, the alleged UO between electrons and protons (or is it positrons?) inside the atom is logical as opposed to it being merely spatial. Plainly, electrons can exist without protons, and vice versa. And, if that is the case, there can be no 'dialectical' connection between them. This means that one of the most important examples in the DM-repertoire that supposedly illustrates this 'Law' isn't in fact an example of it!
[However, there are even more serious problems than these that can't be entered into in this Summary. Readers are directed here, here and here for more details.]
As noted earlier, the seriously defective nature of this law means that DM itself is now fatally wounded. The theory of universal change can't in fact explain it, and, if true, would make change impossible.
The Negation Of The Negation [NON]
This 'Law' is just an extension to, and elaboration of, the previous 'Law'. In that case, the NON suffers from all the latter's defects, and is, therefore, equally useless.
Even so, the example Rob Sewell retailed earlier is rather unfortunate in itself:
Engels gives a[n]...example from the insect world. "Butterflies, for example, spring from the egg through a negation of the egg, they pass through certain transformations until they reach sexual maturity, they pair and are in turn negated, dying as soon as the pairing process has been completed and the female has laid its numerous eggs." [Quoted from here.]
In fact, butterflies and moths go through the following stages:
There are four stages here, not three, as Engels and Sewell seem to believe. Which is the negation of which? Which is the NON?
Consider, too, the thoroughly reactionary life-form Myxomycota (The Slime Mould), which belongs neither to the plant nor the animal kingdom, but to the Protoctista. Its life-cycle is surprisingly complex and involves the following four stages: a giant amoebal form, followed by a slug-like existence that morphs into a fungal-like fruiting body, which then releases spores. The cycle then repeats.
Now, it might be that this organism is so primitive that it doesn't really 'understand' dialectics and hasn't quite figured out which of these four stages is the 'negation', and which is the NON -- let alone which stage 'sublates' what -- especially since the first phase of its life-cycle involves a protracted union of cells, a 'dialectical tautology', if you will!
["Sublate" is an Hegelian term that has been appropriated by dialecticians; it roughly means to "negate and to transcend". It emphasises the creative and preservative, but not so much the destructive, aspects of 'dialectical negation', development and change.]
What about organisms that reproduce simply by splitting, such as amoebae or bacteria? In any such division, which half is the negation and which is the NON? What about vegetative (asexual) reproduction in general, where there are no opposites (i.e., no gametes)?
There are many other examples of organisms and processes in the natural world that defy this 'Law', which means, of course, that nature is reassuringly non-dialectical.
Unfortunately, as noted above, DM-fans totally ignore these 'awkward' cases -- rather like Creationists, who turn a blind eye to the many examples of dysteleology (lack of design) there are in the universe. After all, their belief system provides them with a source of consolation, too!
We have just seen that if DM were true, change would be impossible. So, far from DM being the theory of change, it is in fact the theory of universal stasis.
This is quite apart from the fact that in every microgram of matter, there are countless trillion changeless objects -- namely protons. Protons have an estimated half-life in excess of 1032 years (i.e., one followed by thirty-two zeros!), which is approximately 1018 (that is, a million trillion) times longer than the currently accepted age of the Universe. During that time protons don't change unless acted upon (as far as we know), and as such they are surely 'equal to themselves' for unimaginably long periods of time.
Moreover, the huge number cited above is a theoretical prediction -- indeed, proton decay hasn't yet been observed anywhere:
Along with neutrons, protons make up the nucleus, held together by the strong force. The proton is a baryon and is considered to be composed of two up quarks and one down quark. It has long been considered to be a stable particle, but recent developments of grand unification models have suggested that it might decay with a half-life of about 1032 years. Experiments are underway to see if such decays can be detected. Decay of the proton would violate the conservation of baryon number, and in doing so would be the only known process in nature which does so. [Quoted from here.]
And, it isn't just protons that are highly stable and unchanging; here are the comments of theoretical physicist, Matthew Strassler :
The only known stable particles in nature are the electron (and anti-electron), the lightest of the three types of neutrinos (and its anti-particle), and the photon and (presumed) graviton (which are their own anti-particles). The presumed graviton, too, is stable. The other neutrinos, the proton, and many atomic nuclei (and their anti-particles.... I'm going to stop mentioning the anti-stuff, it goes without saying) are probably not stable but are very, very, very long-lived. Protons, for instance, are so long-lived that at most a minuscule fraction of them have decayed since the Big Bang, so for all practical purposes they are probably stable. The other rather long-lived particle is the neutron, which when on its own, outside an atomic nucleus, lives just 15 minutes or so. But neutrons inside many atomic nuclei can live far longer than the age of the universe; such nuclei provide them with a stable home. [Matthew Strassler, quoted from here; accessed 19/02/2014. Spelling altered to conform with UK English; several links added. Italic emphases in the original.]
This shouldn't surprise us. To state the obvious: science has advanced greatly since the days when the musings of an Ancient Greek Mystic (for that is what Heraclitus was), or a Christian Hermeticist (like Hegel), were taken seriously.
[I have said more about Heraclitus, here.]
Finally, it is worth adding that the denial of universal change doesn't imply the truth of its opposite, that nothing changes. In fact, it amounts to the claim that while some things change, others (perhaps most) don't. Again, this is an empirical matter that shouldn't be left to mystics like Hegel and Heraclitus to pontificate about.
[In fact, I neither assert nor deny universal change; I leave such questions to science.]
Formal Logic [FL]
As we saw earlier, dialecticians often say things like the following:
The old logic has fallen into Verachtung [disrepute]. It requires transformation.... The old, formal logic is exactly like a child's game, making pictures out of jig-saw pieces....In the old logic there is no transition, development (of concept and thought), there is not "eines inneren, notwen-digen Zusammenhangs" [an inner, necessary connection] of all the parts and "Übergang" [transition] of some parts into others. [Lenin (1961), pp.96-97. Paragraphs merged.]
Formal logic regards things as fixed and motionless. [Rob Sewell.]
Formal categories, putting things in labelled boxes, will always be an inadequate way of looking at change and development…because a static definition cannot cope with the way in which a new content emerges from old conditions. [Rees (1998), p.59.]
However, when asked to provide evidence in support of bold assertions like these, DM-fans fall mysteriously silent.
And, it isn't hard to see why: they are completely false. They weren't even true of AFL, and they are less true of MFL. It is in fact quite easy to show that AFL (and even more so, MFL) can cope with change. [Follow the link below for more details.]
[AFL = Aristotelian Formal Logic; MFL = Modern Formal Logic.]
Unfortunately, FL is a highly technical subject, so I will say no more about it in this Essay; I have, however, said much more, here.
Nevertheless, it is worth adding that those who promote a theory that can't itself account for change (i.e., dialecticians -- we saw that earlier) are in no position to make wild accusations about FL and change, especially if they have yet to produce any evidence that FL is quite as handicapped as they imagine it to be.
Marx famously claimed that:
The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas, i.e. the class which is the ruling material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force. The class which has the means of material production at its disposal, has control at the same time over the means of mental production, so that thereby, generally speaking, the ideas of those who lack the means of mental production are subject to it. The ruling ideas are nothing more than the ideal expression of the dominant material relationships, the dominant material relationships grasped as ideas; hence of the relationships which make the one class the ruling one, therefore, the ideas of its dominance. The individuals composing the ruling class possess among other things consciousness, and therefore think. Insofar, therefore, as they rule as a class and determine the extent and compass of an epoch, it is self-evident that they do this in its whole range, hence among other things rule also as thinkers, as producers of ideas, and regulate the production and distribution of the ideas of their age: thus their ideas are the ruling ideas of the epoch. [The German Ideology, quoted from here. Bold emphases added.]
Now, as is relatively easy to show, Hegel lifted many of his ideas from earlier mystics and ruling-class hacks; those ideas formed an integral part of the philosophical traditions concocted by ruling-class thinkers from ancient times until today. In that case, the only conclusion possible is that DM must form one part, or aspect of the "ruling ideas" Marx was speaking about -- whether he himself thought so or not.
This accusation isn't easy for Dialectical Marxists to accept since it seems to implicate the founders of our movement in the deliberate importation of ruling-class ideas into Marxism. Surprisingly, though, this is something Lenin actually boasted about:
"The history of philosophy and the history of social science show with perfect clarity that there is nothing resembling 'sectarianism' in Marxism, in the sense of its being a hidebound, petrified doctrine, a doctrine which arose away from the high road of the development of world civilisation. On the contrary, the genius of Marx consists precisely in his having furnished answers to questions already raised by the foremost minds of mankind. His doctrine emerged as the direct and immediate continuation of the teachings of the greatest representatives of philosophy, political economy and socialism. The Marxist doctrine is omnipotent because it is true. It is comprehensive and harmonious, and provides men with an integral world outlook irreconcilable with any form of superstition, reaction, or defence of bourgeois oppression. It is the legitimate successor to the best that man produced in the nineteenth century, as represented by German philosophy, English political economy and French socialism." [Lenin, Three Sources and Component Parts of Marxism. Bold emphases alone added. Paragraphs merged.]
[Lenin wasn't alone; other DM-theorists have said more-or-less the same -- on that, see here.]
To be sure, dialecticians say they have stripped away the Idealist and mystical elements of Hegel's dialectic (or, rather, they tell us they have put Hegel's system back "on its feet", preserving its "rational kernel"), but since it is plain that the remaining husk has been imposed on the world (not 'read from' it) in sound Idealist fashion, that claim is itself misguided. As George Novack reminded us:
A consistent materialism cannot proceed from principles which are validated by appeal to abstract reason, intuition, self-evidence or some other subjective or purely theoretical source. Idealisms may do this. But the materialist philosophy has to be based upon evidence taken from objective material sources and verified by demonstration in practice.... [Novack (1965), p.17. Bold emphasis added.]
[Some might be tempted to argue that not only has DM not been imposed on nature, it is based on evidence. Those ideas have been well and truly batted out of the park in Essays Two through Thirteen at my site -- but more specifically here and here.]
Nevertheless, the founders of our movement weren't workers; they came from a class that educated their children in religion, the classics and philosophy. Almost from day one they were spoon-fed ruling-class attitudes and ideas. The latter were in turn an integral part of an ancient tradition which taught that behind appearances there lies a hidden (often 'spiritual') world, accessible to thought alone, which is more real than the material universe we see around us.
Ruling-class ideologues concocted this world-view because,
if you belong to, benefit from, or help run a society that is based on gross
inequality, oppression and exploitation, you can keep 'order' in one or more of
the following ways:
The first and most obvious way is through violence. That will work for a time, but it is not only fraught with danger, it is costly and stifles innovation (among other things).
Another way is to win over the majority -- or, at least, a significant proportion of "opinion formers"/"influencers" (i.e., bureaucrats, judges, bishops, generals, 'intellectuals', philosophers, editors, teachers, administrators, etc., etc.) -- to the view that the 'present order' either (i) Works for their benefit, (ii) Preserves and protects 'civilised values', (iii) Is ordained of the 'gods', or (iv) Is 'natural' and thus can't successfully be fought against or reformed.
Hence, a world-view that helps rationalise one or more of the above is necessary for a ruling-class to carry on ruling "in the same old way". While the content of this tradition may have evolved in line with each change in the mode of production, its form has remained largely the same for at least two-and-a-half thousand years: Ultimate Truth about this 'hidden world' underlying appearances -- often called "Being", or a world of 'essences' -- may be accessed by thought alone, and hence can be imposed on reality dogmatically and aprioristically.
["Aprioristically" means that the supposed truth of
certain propositions or theories may be
inferred in advance of -- or, indeed, without -- any supporting evidence. A genuine a priori idea might
be, for example, the
following: despite the fact that you will never have experienced this, and never
will, you know
that ten billion marbles added to twenty billion marbles will total thirty
marbles (although, I prefer to call this inference the application of a rule). A bogus
a priori idea might involve, for instance, an endeavour to prove the existence
of 'god' from
'his' definition (as
tried to do). Yet another might involve an attempt to show that everything in
'reality' is governed by 'contradictions' -- a dogma that was based solely
on a verbal trick
So, the non-worker founders of our movement -- who had been educated from childhood to believe there was just such a hidden world underlying appearances, and which governed everything in existence --, when they became revolutionaries looked for 'logical' principles in that abstract world that told them change was inevitable and part of the 'cosmic order'. Enter dialectics, courtesy of the dogmatic musings of that ruling-class mystic, Hegel. The dialectical classicists latched onto this theory and were happy to impose it on the world (upside down or the "right way up"), since -- because of their early education -- it seemed to them quite natural and uncontroversial to do this. After all, that is what 'genuine' philosophers are supposed to do -- or, so they had been socialised to believe.
Of course, if the facts end up contradicting DM, they can safely be ignored (indeed, as we have seen), since this hidden world of invisible 'essences' not only "contradicts" appearances (or, so DM-theorists tell us), it is 'more real' than anything genuinely material.
[In fact, dialecticians themselves are quite happy to inform us that matter itself is an "abstraction" -- and, would you believe(!), that they prefer "intelligent Idealists"!]
That is why DM-fans bury their heads in the sand, ignoring anything and everything that contradicts their theory.
Just like the more open and honest religious mystics who fill the churches, gospel halls, and mosques around the world, DM-fans' faith lies in this invisible world and the promises it holds out -- the dialectical equivalent of 'pie-in-the-sky'.
That shouldn't surprise us; DM is based on the ramblings of a Christian Mystic!
Some might object to the above assertion that certain philosophical ideas have remained the same for thousands of years, across different modes of production, since that runs counter to core ideas expressed in HM.
But, we don't argue the same in relation to religious belief. Marx put no time stamp on the following, for example:
The foundation of irreligious criticism is: Man makes religion, religion does not make man. Religion is, indeed, the self-consciousness and self-esteem of man who has either not yet won through to himself, or has already lost himself again. But man is no abstract being squatting outside the world. Man is the world of man -- state, society. This state and this society produce religion, which is an inverted consciousness of the world, because they are an inverted world. Religion is the general theory of this world, its encyclopaedic compendium, its logic in popular form, its spiritual point d'honneur, its enthusiasm, its moral sanction, its solemn complement, and its universal basis of consolation and justification. It is the fantastic realization of the human essence since the human essence has not acquired any true reality. The struggle against religion is, therefore, indirectly the struggle against that world whose spiritual aroma is religion. Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people. [Marx (1975c), p.244. Italic emphases in the original. Paragraphs merged.]
The above comments applied back in Ancient Babylon and Egypt, just as they did in China and India, in Greece and Rome, and they have done so right across the planet ever since. The same is true of the core thought-forms that run through all of Traditional Philosophy -- that there exists an invisible, 'abstract' world, accessible to thought alone, which is more real than the world we see around us -- especially since Marx also argued that:
[P]hilosophy is nothing else but religion rendered into thought and expounded by thought, i.e., another form and manner of existence of the estrangement of the essence of man; hence equally to be condemned.... [Marx (1975b), p.381. Bold added.]
[O]ne fact is common to all past ages, viz., the exploitation of one part of society by the other. No wonder, then, that the social consciousness of past ages, despite all the multiplicity and variety it displays, moves within certain common forms, or general ideas, which cannot completely vanish except with the total disappearance of class antagonisms. [The Communist Manifesto, Chapter Two. Bold added.]
This, of course, helps explain why Marx also thought that this entire discipline (Philosophy) was based on distorted language and contained little other than empty abstractions and alienated thought-forms -- and, indeed, why he turned his back on it from the late 1840s onward. [On that, see here.]
However, what has changed over the centuries is the content of this world-view. That is, even though countless metaphysical theories have been concocted down the ages, they all give voice to the above over-arching idea, expressed in, and by, different forms of Idealism -- as Hegel himself noted:
Every philosophy is essentially an idealism or at least has idealism for its principle, and the question then is only how far this principle is carried out. [Hegel (1999), pp.154-55; §316. I explain why Hegel was right to assert this, here.]
Finally, the 'founding fathers' of Dialectical Marxism imported this ruling-class theory/'method' ["dialectics''] into Marxism unwittingly. They knew no better; their petty-bourgeois being 'determined' their petty-bourgeois 'consciousness'.
[Some claim the above allegation is an example of 'crude reductionism'. I have responded to that allegation, here.]
But, as should seem obvious (not least because of the long-term failure of Dialectical Marxism itself), that importation now has to be reversed.
Otherwise, comrades, we can look forward to another 150 years of glorious failure!
1. For the purposes of this Essay, I will ignore the difference between DM and MD. Much of what I have to say applies to both, anyway.
1a. Again, it could be objected that the isomers example isn't relevant to Engels's First Law since there is no development here. In fact, Engels himself appeals to isomers to illustrate his own 'Law'! So, those wishing to defend Engels can hardly complain when molecules like this are used against him. [On that, see here.]
2. I have avoided calling these opposites A* and A**, since that would involve the use of three items, A, A* and A**, complicating things unnecessarily. Of course, these complications can be re-introduced at a later stage and taken to their logical conclusion. [That has been done, for example, here.]
Engels, F. (1888), Ludwig Feuerbach And The End Of Classical German Philosophy, reprinted in Marx and Engels (1968), pp.584-622.
--------,(1954), Dialectics Of Nature (Progress Publishers).
--------, (1976), Anti-Dühring (Foreign Languages Press).
Hegel, G. (1999), Science Of Logic (Humanity Books).
Lenin, V. (1961), Collected Works Volume 38 (Progress Publishers).
Marx, K. (1975a), Early Writings (Penguin Books).
--------, (1975b), Economical And Philosophical Manuscripts, in Marx (1975a), pp.279-400.
--------, (1975c), A Contribution To The Critique Of Hegel's Philosophy Of Right, in Marx (1975a), pp.243-57.
Marx, K., and Engels, F. (1968), Selected Works In One Volume (Lawrence & Wishart).
Mao Tse-Tung (1961a), Selected Works Of Mao Tse-Tung, Volume One (Foreign Languages Press).
--------, (1961b), On Contradiction, in Mao (1961a), pp.311-47.
Novack, G. (1965), The Origins Of Materialism (Pathfinder Press).
Plekhanov, G. (1956), The Development Of The Monist View Of History (Progress Publishers). [This is reprinted in Plekhanov (1974), pp.480-737.]
--------, (1974), Selected Philosophical Works, Volume One (Progress Publishers, 2nd ed.).
Rees, J. (1998), The Algebra Of Revolution (Routledge). [This links to a PDF.]
Trotsky, L. (1971), In Defense Of Marxism (New Park Publications).
Woods, A., and Grant, T. (1995), Reason In Revolt. Marxism And Modern Science (Wellred Publications).
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