The Point Is To Ignore The Fatal Defects In Dialectical Materialism

 

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As is the case with all my work, nothing here should be read as an attack either on Historical Materialism [HM] -- a scientific 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 years ago.

 

The difference between Dialectical Materialism [DM] and HM, as I see it, is explained here.

 

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Summary Of My Main Objections To Dialectical Materialism

 

Abbreviations Used At This Site

 

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Below are two slightly edited versions of letters sent to the editors of Socialist Review and Socialist Worker by a supporter of this site. For some reason they chose not to publish either of them.

 

Dear Comrades,

 

While Rebecca Short, in her review John Molyneux’s book -- The Point Is To Change It -- (Socialist Review 371, July/August 2012, pp.27-28), was right to underline John's uncompromising commitment to revolutionary socialism, her uncritical acceptance of the many errors and misrepresentations the book contains (in its discussion of philosophy, and particularly logic) was rather disappointing. In the space available I can only cover a handful of examples.

 

For instance, on page 43, John repeats several hackneyed allegations about Aristotelian Logic -- which he substantiated with not one single quotation from Aristotle -- the most egregious of which is that one of the basic principles of Aristotle's Logic is the so-called 'Law of Identity' [LOI]. But, this 'law' was a Medieval invention. It appears nowhere in Aristotle's work, and what few comments he makes about identity are rather dismissive.

 

Furthermore, and despite what John and other dialecticians imagine to be the case, identity is no enemy of change, for if an object changes then anything identical with it will change equally quickly, otherwise they weren't identical. Moreover, if an object is no longer identical to its former self, then it will have changed. So, far from being an enemy of change, our use of words for identity allows us to decide if and when it has occurred.

 

John then proceeds to quote Trotsky's rather disappointing argument against a concrete application of this 'law'. Alas, it, too, contains many errors which I can't enter into here, but it is quite clear from what Trotsky says that he has confused equality with identity.

 

It could be countered that identity and equality are in fact identical, but anyone tempted to argue along those lines will have already conceded that the LOI applies at least here, undermining Trotsky's entire argument. Of course, anyone who now admits that they aren't identical will also have conceded (at least implicitly) that Trotsky attacked the wrong target!

 

Moreover, it won't do to claim that these two notions are approximately identical. Approximations only make sense when we know with what it is we are approximating, but if John and Trotsky are right, we can't know this.

 

And it's no use either claiming that these are abstractions, since abstract equality and abstract identity are different, too. For example, if 2x + 1 = 5, then x = 2, but no one supposes that x is identical with 2, since if it were it would be unable to take on a different value, which it does, in say 3x – 4 = 11.

 

[Incidentally, Trotsky's 'lens argument' would be useless here. The left and right hand sides of these equations don't even look similar.]

 

John then says the following about the 'Law of Non-Contradiction' [LOC]:

 

[This law states] that A cannot be equal to non-A, i.e., it makes no sense to say that an ounce of gold is not an ounce of gold….

 

John will struggle long and hard and to no avail to find a single logic book that defines the LOC this way. Like far too many other comrades, who attempt to define this 'law', I suspect John has simply copied it from other dialecticians without bothering to check.

 

The LOC in fact concerns the truth-functional link (i.e., it expresses a connection pertaining to the truth or falsehood of a set of propositions linked by connectives such as "and", or "if…then", etc.) between a proposition and its negation, such that they can't both be true and they can't both be false. It says nothing about the alleged identity or non-identity of objects and processes (and nor can it be made to say anything about them, either).

 

This isn't a minor, 'academic' point. On page 36, John says the following:

 

Marxist materialism is repeatedly attacked by the method of oversimplifying and caricaturing it to the point where it is obviously false.…

 

But, this is precisely what John and other dialecticians do! Anyone trained in logic, who reads material like this, will conclude that comrades like John are woefully ignorant. In turn, this will reflect badly on Marxism itself, suggesting that, just like the Creationists, Marxists are a deplorably uninformed bunch.

 

This point was in fact made to John several years ago, so one can only assume that he doesn't mind if our enemies reject Marxism because they can see we are quite happy to parade our ignorance in public.

 

On page 48, John appeals to the highly clichéd example of water turning into steam (when it is heated) as a way of illustrating the 'law of the transformation of quantity into quality', but he neglected to say what he meant by "quality". Again, this isn't a minor point, since this failure to be clear allows comrades like him to see this 'law' operating when and where they please -- in an entirely subjective manner --, and then ignore the many cases where it just doesn't work, or doesn't apply.

 

If we accept Hegel's definition:

 

Quality is, in the first place, the character identical with being: so identical that a thing ceases to be what it is, if it loses its quality. (Shorter Logic, p.124.)

 

then the change of water into steam can't be an example of this 'law', since water, as a solid, liquid or gas, 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 as a solid. Nothing substantially new has arisen.

 

Furthermore, countless substances exist in solid, liquid, or gaseous states, so this can't be what makes each of them "what it is and not something else". What makes lead, for instance, lead is its atomic structure, and that remains the same whether or not it exists in solid or liquid form. As such, it remains "the same kind of thing."

 

Finally, John lays great emphasis on practice, which is rather odd given the fact that Dialectical Marxism has been, and still is, such an abject and long-term failure. [Notice, I have used the phrase "Dialectical Marxism", here, not "Marxism"; the non-dialectical version just hasn't been tried yet.]

 

In view of this, John would be well advised to stop appealing to practice as proof that dialectical materialism is correct; practice has in fact refuted this theory. Either that, or truth isn't tested in practice.

 

There are many more mistakes and misrepresentations in John's chapter on dialectics, more in fact than there are paragraphs. Had I the space, I would cover these, too. Nevertheless, all of them have been discussed at length, their errors exposed, at a site that I, along with several others, help run, the most relevant pages of which are the following:

 

http://anti-dialectics.co.uk/page%2007.htm

 

http://anti-dialectics.co.uk/page%20010_01.htm

 

In solidarity,

 

Nemesis

 

[Name and address supplied.]

 

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This is the second of the unpublished letters (again, slightly edited):

 

 

Dear Comrades,

 

John Molyneux argues as follows (Socialist Worker 07/09/12, p.10):

 

The basis of Marx's 'dialectics' is that everything is in a process of change, and that this change occurs through the struggle of opposed forces.

 

Marx’s view has been completely confirmed by modern science -- everything from subatomic particles to human society is in a process of coming into being and passing out of being.

 

However, John failed to tell us where Marx said anything even remotely like this (i.e., that "everything" changes in the way he alleges), and it isn't hard to see why -- Marx never said it!

 

Moreover, it is factually incorrect, too. There are countless trillion particles that don't come "into being and [pass] out of being" in every gram of matter, namely protons and electrons. So, modern science fails confirm what John says.

 

He then tells us the following:

 

Marx’s philosophy of 'dialectical materialism' is the philosophy of working class struggle.

 

But, Marx knew nothing of dialectical materialism. To be sure, in his book, John tries once again to saddle Marx with this theory, but the evidence is very thin. For example, he claims that Marx read Anti-Dühring, but he cites no evidence in support. In fact, after Marx's death, Engels claimed he had read it to Marx. Can you imagine how long that would have taken? And why read it to Marx? Was Marx's eyesight that bad? And we can't claim either that Marx agreed with its content, since the book contains many ridiculous claims -- for instance, about mathematics. Marx was a competent mathematician, Engels wasn't. We can only successfully argue that Marx agreed with the content of Anti-Dühring if we are also prepared to accept that Marx was as incompetent as Engels in this area.

 

There are many other things John says which are no less mistaken. I can cover only a few.

 

For instance, on page 43, John repeats several hackneyed allegations about Aristotelian Logic -- which he substantiated with not one single quotation from Aristotle -- the most egregious of which is that one of the basic principles of Aristotle's Logic is the so-called 'Law of Identity' [LOI]. But, this 'law' was a Medieval invention. It appears nowhere in Aristotle's work, and what few comments he makes about identity are rather dismissive.

 

Furthermore, and despite what John and other dialecticians imagine to be the case, identity is no enemy of change, for if an object changes then anything identical with it will change equally quickly, otherwise they weren't identical. Moreover, if an object is no longer identical to its former self, then it will have changed. So, far from being an enemy of change, our use of words for identity allows us to decide if and when it has occurred.

 

John then proceeds to quote Trotsky's rather disappointing argument against a concrete application of this 'law'. Alas, it, too, contains many errors which I can't enter into here, but it is quite clear from what Trotsky says that he has confused equality with identity.

 

It could be countered that identity and equality are in fact identical, but anyone tempted to argue along those lines will have already conceded that the LOI applies at least here, undermining Trotsky's entire argument. Of course, anyone who now admits that they aren't identical will also have conceded (at least implicitly) that Trotsky attacked the wrong target!

 

Moreover, it won't do to claim that these two notions are approximately identical. Approximations only make sense when we know with what it is we are approximating, but if John and Trotsky are right, we can't know this.

 

And it's no use either claiming that these are abstractions, since abstract equality and abstract identity are different, too. For example, if 2x + 1 = 5, then x = 2, but no one supposes that x is identical with 2, since if it were it would be unable to take on a different value, which it does, in say 3x – 4 = 11.

 

[Incidentally, Trotsky's 'lens argument' would be useless here. The left and right hand sides of these equations don't even look similar.]

 

John then says the following about the 'Law of Non-Contradiction' [LOC]:

 

[This law states] that A cannot be equal to non-A, i.e., it makes no sense to say that an ounce of gold is not an ounce of gold….

 

John will struggle long and hard and to no avail to find a single logic book that defines the LOC this way. Like far too many other comrades, who attempt to define this 'law', I suspect John has simply copied it from other dialecticians without bothering to check.

 

The LOC in fact concerns the truth-functional link (i.e., it expresses a connection pertaining to the truth or falsehood of a set of propositions linked by connectives such as "and", or "if…then", etc.) between a proposition and its negation, such that they can't both be true and they can't both be false. It says nothing about the alleged identity or non-identity of objects and processes (and nor can it be made to say anything about them, either).

 

This isn't a minor, 'academic' point, either. On page 36, John says the following:

 

Marxist materialism is repeatedly attacked by the method of oversimplifying and caricaturing it to the point where it is obviously false.…

 

But, this is precisely what John and other dialecticians do! Anyone trained in logic, who reads material like this, will conclude that comrades like John are woefully ignorant. In turn, this will reflect badly on Marxism itself, suggesting that, just like the Creationists, Marxists are a deplorably uninformed bunch.

 

This point was in fact made to John several years ago, so one can only assume that he doesn't mind if our enemies reject Marxism because they can see we are quite happy to parade our ignorance in public.

 

On page 48, John appeals to the highly clichéd example of water turning into steam (when it is heated) as a way of illustrating the 'law of the transformation of quantity into quality', but he neglected to say what he meant by "quality". Again, this isn't a minor point, since this failure to be clear allows comrades like him to see this 'law' operating when and where they please -- in an entirely subjective manner --, and then ignore the many cases where it just doesn't work, or doesn't apply.

 

If we accept Hegel's definition:

 

Quality is, in the first place, the character identical with being: so identical that a thing ceases to be what it is, if it loses its quality. (Shorter Logic, p.124.)

 

then the change of water into steam can't be an example of this 'law', since water, as a solid, liquid or gas, 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 as a solid. Nothing substantially new has arisen.

 

Furthermore, countless substances exist in solid, liquid, or gaseous states, so this can't be what makes each of them "what it is and not something else". What makes lead, for instance, lead is its atomic structure, and that remains the same whether or not it exists in solid or liquid form. As such, it remains "the same kind of thing."

 

Finally, John lays great emphasis on practice, which is rather odd given the fact that Dialectical Marxism has been, and still is, such an abject and long-term failure. [Notice, I have used the phrase "Dialectical Marxism", here, not "Marxism"; the non-dialectical version just hasn't been tried yet.]

 

In view of this, John would be well advised to stop appealing to practice as proof that dialectical materialism is correct; practice has in fact refuted this theory. Either that, or truth isn't tested in practice.

 

There are many more mistakes and misrepresentations in the chapter on dialectics, more in fact than there are paragraphs. Had I the space, I would cover these, too. Nevertheless, all of them have been discussed at length, their errors exposed, at a site that I, along with several others, help run, the most relevant pages of which are the following:

 

http://anti-dialectics.co.uk/page%2007.htm

 

http://anti-dialectics.co.uk/page%20010_01.htm

 

In solidarity,

 

Nemesis

 

[Name and address supplied.]

 

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