On the role of the classical heritage in the development of categories of materialist dialectics

E.V. Ilyenkov, translation by Vitaliy Pershin and Peter Yitzhakovich
On the role of the classical heritage in the development of categories of materialist dialectics
[speech at the “Conference on contemporary problems of materialist dialectics” (1965)]
Source: http://caute.ru/ilyenkov/texts/phc/classics.html]

I would like to support the thoughts expressed by B.M. Kedrov, P.V. Kopnin and A. Kasimzhanov. They spoke, in my opinion, about what is the most important and painful.

If we complain about the natural scientists who allegedly do not want to listen to us, then this is happening not only because we do not know natural sciences, but also because, first of all, of the fact that we do not stand at the proper height in our own field. What we lack most often is not the natural sciences, but the very philosophical and logical culture of the level at which Marx was reasoning in “Das Kapital”, and Lenin – in his theoretical works.

Therefore, I am a little worried here about the widespread conversations of the kind that “everything in the world is developing, and why should dialectics be an exception? Let’s develop the dialectics, let’s throw out some categories, introduce others, replace others with cybernetic categories or some other categories”.

At first glance, it sounds good. But isn’t it too hasty? Before developing the categories of logic, one has to provide convincing evidence that he or she already owns these categories at least at the level at which Marx owned them when he wrote “Das Kapital”. When you prove this and show that they are insufficient, then do develop them.

Otherwise, it may turn out that you need to develop not the categories of dialectics, but only your own ideas about these categories.

What often happens is the following: the very people in philosophy who were reasoning at the level of the “Fourth Chapter” [1] not so long ago – that is, at the popular level – they rushed to “supplement” their philosophical baggage by the uncritically assimilated, philosophically undigested concepts of mathematics, cybernetics, mathematical logic – anything but real philosophy. They began to look for solutions on the so-called “generalization of the successes of natural sciences” path, and not on the path of restoring genuinely Leninist, truly Marxist norms, principles and tools of work in the field of philosophy, in the field of dialectics as the logic and theory of knowledge of Marxism.

And on this path, nothing could come out except combining the wisdom of the fourth chapter of the “Brief Course” with buzzwords like “information”, “feedback”, “algorithm”, and so on.
The story of cybernetics is very typical in this respect … Cybernetics is a wonderful thing, which communism needs. But why turn cybernetics into another corn campaign [2]?

We have too little respect for our own science, for its own theoretical baggage, for its own specific role in the development of knowledge, for its own methods of analysis, for its historically formed arsenal of concepts. We value all this too little. Therefore, we often propagandize ourselves the absurd notion that good philosophy lags behind natural sciences and says “yes” to all the statements made by the authoritative natural scientists; this “yes-saying” is called a “generalization of the successes of natural sciences”.

I really did not like the note that sounded here in the speech by I.S. Narsky when he, trying to argue against Rosenthal – who is certainly right – disparaged Hegel. “Why reckon with the man who did not know mathematics and even despised it?”

Forget about the fact that, judging by the published works, Hegel knew mathematics better than Narsky does. But, unlike Narsky, he did not pray for her as a revelation, but tried to analyze her concepts from the point of view of the categories of logic, and therefore he looked at the well-known mathematical concepts differently than the mathematicians themselves. Where he is right, and where he is wrong – this still must be carefully understood. But according to Narsky, it turns out that in the case of a disagreement between a philosopher and a mathematician, the mathematician is always right, and the philosopher’s argumentation is not even worth consideration in this case.

As long as we look at philosophy as a servant of natural sciences, and not as an equal comrade of natural sciences, there will be no respect for it on the part of natural scientists.

Comrade Svidersky also said that [the category of] “quality” today cannot be understood in the old way, but it must be understood “in a new way.” How exactly it was understood “in the old way”,- i.e. in classical dialectics, including Marx and Lenin, – he did not find it necessary to explain. But, trying to explain the “new” understanding, he made an expressive gesture with his hands, trying to cover as much air as possible with them, and explained that this is both “structure” and “the relation of the structure to its elements” and so on.

Is this the “development” of the categories of dialectics?

What happens in reality is the following. A good old category is simply thrown away together with its clearly developed meaning; the category associated with the formula of the most important law of dialectical logic, with the criticism of the mechanistic worldview and method, and with many other very serious things. And instead of it, completely different concepts are smuggled in (by the way, the ones that are not unknown to philosophy, yet – different). The category of “quality” is not “developed” or “enriched” here. It simply disappeared, and other categories, which have nothing to do with “quality” and look more like purely quantitative definitions, concepts of modern mathematics, have replaced it.

In the end, only the word, the name remains of “quality”, while the meaning given to it is quite the opposite. Now, try to fight the mechanistic approach by using this “new” definition of “quality”! I think that Stepanov-Skvortsov, or Sarabyanov, or all those immoderate fans of cybernetics who see the same “structures”, “relationships of elements”, and other things everywhere – expressed fully in terms of numbers and equations – would be very happy with such a “development” of the category of “quality”.

One can not toss categories so easily! The meaning of “quality” – as it was understood and used in “Das Kapital”, in the analysis of the forms of value by Marx – retains its methodological significance to this day. And let’s be more careful.

I would like to say the same with regard to comrade Kronrod. He too hastily “develops” the categories of “Das Kapital” and, moreover, refers to the “practice of socialist construction.”

He believes that “the experience of building socialism in our country” testifies against Marx’s thesis that only products of private, e.g. independent of each other, jobs could turn into commodities at all, and that therefore the product’s coming out in the shape of value and the directly social character of labor are incompatible things. Kronrod wants to declare the commodity form “an immanent form of directly socialized production” at all cost. It is for this purpose that he “corrects” Marx.

And the whole point is that for some time Kronrod, like some other economists, has started to view socialism not as the first phase of communism, – not as “immature communism”, in which the forms of directly socialized labor get intertwined with the previous forms of organization of labor and interact with them dialectically in a contradictory manner, – but as a special and self-contained formation.

To maintain this view, Kronrod is forced to use very bad logic. From the fact that our production has already been socialized as a whole in its general scales and contours, he concludes that the character of each individual link of our economic organism is directly social, and that there is no longer any independence of individual private works; nor there are any centripetal forces of parochialism and of similar phenomena; and therefore, instead of a real analysis of the real contradictions of our development towards communism (including those between the forms of socialized labor and the forms of non-socialized labor), he tries to draw an ideal non-contradictory “structure of socialism”: idealizes reality instead of exploring it.

So it results in the situation that, instead of using the categories of materialistic dialectics as the sharply-honed tools of critical analysis of reality and of the way reality is being reflected in science, we begin to simply adapt these categories, adapt – like a dress to fit a shape – to some empirical facts and to the views of certain modern natural scientists or other figures.

Some naturalists, perhaps, like this, for it flatters their self-esteem. I think that until we do our specialized job, i.e. until we completely restore the classical theoretical heritage of dialectics with all the real wealth of its logical categories, any our attempt to interfere with the development of natural sciences will remain an attempt with unsuitable means.

And the widest possible edition of the classics of world philosophy, which was artificially interrupted in 1938, is something very important to take care of. Our people deserve to have all the treasures of the world philosophical classics in their native language. This is very important for raising the level of theoretical culture not only of the philosophers, but also of the broadest circles of our party.

Source: http://caute.ru/ilyenkov/texts/phc/classics.html

Translator’s notes

  1. The 4th Chapter of the “Brief Course of the History of VKP(b), which deals with dialectical and historical materialism, is claimed to be written personally by Stalin.
  2. The ill-famous campaign by N. Khruschev to plant corn all over the USSR as part of his broader campaign “to outcompete the U.S. in terms of per-capita consumption of meat and milk”.
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