Reviewed by Vesa Oittinen
Engels’ Dialectics of Nature is one of the most controversial classics of Marxism. It is even questionable whether the collection of manuscripts in which Engels dealt with problems of the natural sciences was intended by him to add up to a coherent volume. In this respect, the Dialectics of Nature is like the German Ideology by Marx and Engels, which also consists of disparate texts which were united into one work only by its editors.
Kaan Kangal’s new analysis of the creation and reception of Engels’ researches in the natural sciences is welcome. It helps to settle the most obvious misconceptions and false interpretations which have arisen around this posthumous work of Engels. The book consist of six chapters which are only loosely connected, in fact they are almost independent essays. After an introductory part, the author discusses the origins of the “Engels debate”, that is, the question whether there exists a “dialectics of nature”, Engels’ motives in undertaking this project, and the forms of dialectical reasoning in Engels’ work.
According to Kangal, the debates so far show that “scholars have failed to distinguish Engels’ purposes, goals, desires, motivations, intentions and procedures” (3). A main fault has been that the incomplete character of Engels’ work has not received due attention. The central question has been whether processes taking place in nature are “dialectical”. Most famously this was denied by the young Lukács in History and Class Consciousness in 1923. He claimed that since dialectics presupposes a human subject, one cannot speak of dialectics in nonhuman nature. Lukács has always been accused of Hegelianism, but in this case he deviated radically from Hegel, who in his Logic dealt expressly with dialectical forms in physics, chemistry and biology. Later, Lukács denounced his “juvenile sins”, but his previous position has many followers, for example among the representatives of the Frankfurt school. One of them, Alfred Schmidt, even asserted that there exists a direct connection between Engelsian Naturdialektik and Stalinism (21). One of the main results of Kangal’s book is that he manages to show convincingly that it is not possible to separate Marx and Engels using their positions on the dialectics of nature as a criterion. There are many statements by Marx approving of Engels’ project, and he collaborated with Engels when the latter wrote Anti-Dühring, a work which closely adheres to the Engelsian project of a dialectics of nature.
Kangal, however, tries to do justice to the young Lukács by assuming that behind his position may have been the wish to distance himself from the mechanistic Marxism of Bukharin. As Gramsci noted, Lukács and Bukharin represented “opposite ends” on the question of the dialectics of nature (54ff). Gramsci himself seems to have accepted the idea of the dialecticity of nonhuman nature.
Furthermore, according to Kangal, the novelty of Lukács’ claim is overrated, since the origins of the “Engels debate” lie deeper in history – they go back to the critique of Hegel by Trendelenburg, presented already in the 1840s, and to Eduard von Hartmann. They were soon followed by Eugen Dühring, who accused Marx of following Hegel’s mistaken dialectical ideas. Eduard Bernstein later joined the chorus, claiming that “the great things which Marx and Engels achieved, they accomplished in spite of, not because of Hegel’s dialectics” (49). It is intriguing to find that Dühring attempted to create an alternative to the Marxian method; he dubbed it “natural dialectics” (natürliche Dialektik), which, however, had nothing in common with Engels’ project and which today has fallen into oblivion. It is a pity that Kangal does not discuss this Dühringian project (and its failure) more.
The editing history of Dialectics of Nature is described rather briefly by Kangal. In Engels’ Nachlass there were 197 manuscript fragments on the subject, divided into four folders. These were published for the first time in the Soviet Union in 1925 in the Marx-Engels-Gesamtausgabe (MEGA) edition. Further editions followed in 1927 and a new MEGA version in 1935, which was to serve as the textual basis for all subsequent editions. The number of texts included in these different editions varied.
The publication of Engels’ manuscript had a big impact on the emerging Soviet philosophy. In the 1920s a journal with the title Dialektika v prirode (Dialectics in Nature) was even published for a short time. These discussions ceased in the 1930s when Stalin’s regime became stabilized, but some of Engels’ formulations concerning the dialectical method found their way into Stalin’s article “On Dialectical and Historical Materialism”, which became an obligatory guideline for Soviet Marxism. Unfortunately, Kangal does not follow the later, post-Stalin, Soviet discussions on dialectics of nature, although it would have rounded up the picture he gives in an essential manner. He mentions a couple of times Bonifati Kedrov (1903-1985), a historian of science, who wrote important studies on Engels’ work, but does not describe their content. Kedrov’s analyses, especially O metode izlozheniya dialektiki (On the Presentation Method of Dialectics), published in 1983, show many similarities with Kangal’s work and I think Kangal would have profited if he had taken them into account.
According to Kangal, the discussion of Engels’ project has hitherto failed to answer the question of “why Engels had undertaken such a gigantic task as Dialectics of Nature” (71). Why was a materialist-dialectical account of philosophy of nature and natural sciences so important for him, and for Marx? I believe Kangal is on the right track when he insists that the project of a dialectics of nature “arose from a need for establishing proletarian ‘counter-hegemony’ not only politically, but also philosophically” (97). The role of intellectuals was here crucial. On February 11, 1870, Marx wrote to Engels, noting that the “supply of heads that were brought over to the proletariat from other classes up until ’48 seems to have totally dried up”. What Marx meant was that after the failure of the 1848 revolutions, the intellectuals had increasingly turned away from their previous radicalism and accepted the status quo of the bourgeois order. This created a problem, since, as Engels wrote in another context, “the emancipation of the working class needs […] doctors, engineers, chemists, agronomists and other experts; for we are faced with taking over the running not only of the political machine, but of all social production”. In short, not only material production, but even its intellectual counterpart, the sciences, had to be recast to match the demands of a new, socialist society. One cannot but agree with Kangal, when he stresses the role of philosophy in fulfilling this task: “If theory is a practical tool of explanation and anticipation in use, it is rationally controlled and critically examined through a more fundamental framework that enables theory to function as a ‘guide to action’ […] In short, philosophy is a ‘guide to theory’” (104).
The fifth chapter of the book, which deals with Engels’ idea of dialectics, is to my mind somewhat problematic. The author claims that a comparison of Hegel’s and Engels’ positions shows that “there is no obvious divergence between materialism and idealism” (194). In other words, “Engels’ ‘materialism’ and ‘dialectics’ are in full conformity with Hegel’s ‘idealism’ and ‘metaphysics’”. Engels in fact only “reversed” Hegel’s idealism, he did not eliminate it (165). Kangal comes to this conclusion, because he seems to accept Hegel’s definition of idealism. According to this definition, the finite is but an “idealization” and does not truly exist if there is not an infinite totality of which it is a part (155, 194). From this definition it follows that materialist philosophies that assert universal substances, such as “matter”, are, from the viewpoint of Hegel, actually idealistic. In other words, Hegel claims that his objective idealism is in fact a form of philosophical realism. Now, it is true that many Marxists have noted Hegel’s “closeness” to materialism (for example, Lenin discusses this in his Philosophical Notebooks). But this closeness appears only in the details of the conceptual development, not on the level of the philosophical system. It is utterly improbable, that Engels, who has the merit of formulating the famous “basic question of philosophy”, would adhere to Hegel’s definition of idealism.
The fifth chapter also contains a discussion of the idea of dialectics that Engels uses. Kangal notes that for Engels, the most important part of Hegel’s logic is the Doctrine of Essence (the so-called Wesenslogik), which according to Engels forms “the genuine core of the whole teaching” (146). Already this remark shows that Engels is drawing on Hegel’s logic very selectively. Engels sees “contradiction” as a central concept of dialectics, but he does not discuss the more subtle problems which are inherent in Hegel’s idea of a dialectical contradiction. Already Trendelenburg accused Hegel of transforming contradictory (i.e. logical) opposites into contrary (i.e., real) ones, but Engels does not seem to reflect on this. In chapter five, Kangal scrutinizes in detail the concepts of contradiction and opposition in Aristotle, Kant and Hegel, but the presentation of the issues is rather disorganized. It seems that Engels simply thought that nature is dialectical, because there are real, material contradictions in nature, and that these physical contradictions are the source of movement. From the inherent contradictions of matter it follows that all matter is in movement. Engels’ dialectics of nature is actually a theory of movement, and the above mentioned Kedrov analyzes Engels’ project expressly as an attempt to single out different levels of movement of matter (physical, chemical, biological, social matter), which, in turn, would give clues for a respective classification of the sciences. Like Engels, Kedrov only notes the role of contradiction as the source of movement, but does not dwell on it further. Kangal’s analysis of Engels’ project would have profited if he had looked at the question of classification of different forms of movement.
A final comment on Engels’ relation to Kant. Kangal correctly notes Engels’ rather hostile view of Kant (144ff). We can only guess at the reasons for Engels’ attitude, but probably he confused Kant’s own views with those of Neo-Kantianism, a current which began to emerge in the 1860s. The Neo-Kantians attempted to remove the idea of “things-in-themselves” from the conceptual corpus of Kant’s philosophy and so they gave to it an interpretation which tended towards subjective idealism. Kangal discusses such aspects of Kantianism as the concept of transcendental dialectics and the question of logical versus real contradictions, but he bypasses a circumstance which to my mind is of the utmost important here, namely the methodological significance of Kant’s “Copernican turn”. Kant famously asserted that before we can begin to make statements about the world (the reality surrounding us), we must investigate our cognitive abilities, in order to be sure that we are capable of obtaining reliable knowledge. Thus, Kant stressed that a theory of cognition has priority over ontology (the doctrine of Being). From a Kantian point of view, we cannot make an unfounded ontological claim such as that Being or nature is “dialectical”; all we can say is that we can cognize nature by using the categories of dialectics. This is a distinction which makes good sense from the viewpoint of the everyday practice of science: the scientific theories about the character of nature or matter continuously change, and it would be dogmatic to assert that, for example, Newtonian mechanics is the final and ultimate truth about the essence of nature. In fact, it is a theory which our mind projects onto matter, and can in the future be replaced or expanded by a new theory which describes the reality in a more adequate manner.
Now, it seems to me that Engels has to pay for his anti-Kantianism. He does not take notice of the distinction between ontological and epistemological claims, which leads to a constant confusion in his project of a dialectics of nature. Sometimes he writes that “there could be no question of building the laws of dialectics into nature, but of discovering them in it and evolving them from it” (127) – this is a an epistemological claim. On other occasions, he writes that “dialectical laws are real laws of development of nature, and therefore are valid also for theoretical natural science” (131) – this is clearly an ontological statement.
So, the question posed by Lukács in 1923 arises again: is there dialectics in nature, or not? I think that the “Solomonic” answer Lucien Sève (2004, 567) gave is the best one:
Strictly speaking, there are no dialectical contradictions in nature, any more than there are numerical relations, topological properties, causal sequences or any other rational elaborations through which our cognitive activities are grasped. The dialecticity of nature consists in this that its relations and processes cannot be grasped objectively nor rationally expressed in logical terms except in those of dialectical thought. It is only in this epistemologically mindful sense that one can rightly describe nature as objectively dialectical.
15 December 2020
- 2014 Penser avec Marx aujourd’hui, III: ”La philosophie”? (Paris: La Dispute)