What is the significance of dialectical materialism for science?

Marxist philosophy is not a science above other sciences; it is an instrument of scientific investigation.

The following speech was delivered by a member of the central committee in a personal capacity during the party’s eighth congress in September.

The speaker wished to amend a phrase that was contained in a motion on education, which referred to “materialist philosophy of science”, so that the two concepts were separated and the final version would read: “materialist philosophy, science”.

The amendment was carried unanimously, as was the amended motion, which now ends with the words: “Changes in the syllabuses and teaching methods should reflect the scientific, historical and artistic needs and interests of working-class people, including the teaching of materialist philosophy, science and working-class history and politics.”

We reproduce the amendment-mover’s excellent speech below as a contribution towards the wider understanding of Marxist science, as well as to encourage its further study by our readers.

Comrades, I wholeheartedly support this motion and commend the author for a well-written, concise motion and set of demands. My amendment is concerned with only a small but not insignificant line concerning the “materialist philosophy of science”.

I raise this because it is incorrect to talk about a ‘materialist philosophy of science’, and obscures to the general reader the revolutionary significance of Marxist philosophy. Since many new students of Marxism are in our ranks today and still more will read our resolutions, it is incumbent upon us to be especially clear in questions of science and philosophy.

The sentence as it currently stands confuses Marxist philosophical materialism with the development of the natural sciences. Science has furnished no philosophy of its own, and no philosophy is independent from social life; there is no ‘materialist philosophy of science’.

The history of the development of the natural sciences demonstrates that they broke from the ancient philosophical stranglehold and developed independently, specialising in their respective fields. This process took centuries.

The natural sciences were forced to do this as the philosophical world outlook of ancient society was a fetter on their development, and thus a fetter upon the productive forces.

It is not hard to imagine what the fate of biological science would have been if it had not broken with the notion that illnesses were ‘divine punishment’ and that healing was a ‘gift from the gods’.

The breach between philosophy and science had ramifications for the historical development of philosophy, not least its centuries-long flirtation with idealism, and an ivory tower existence enforced by feudalism.

With the development of the various branches of natural science as independent special subjects – physics, chemistry, biology etc – discoveries were based on empirical evidence gathered from observation and experimentation.

We all know the general development of these sciences – the progressive, ascending development of man’s knowledge of the surrounding world and the impact this has had upon the productive forces and man himself. These discoveries were not the result of a ‘materialist philosophy of science’ – in many cases, and as can still be seen today, the natural sciences remained enmeshed in the tangled weeds of idealism.

Despite this, man’s knowledge of the surrounding world continues to advance from the lower to the higher plane. For philosophy, as a distinct science of its own, the significance of the development of the natural sciences lies in the fact that they furnished proof that nature’s processes are dialectical.

Engels wrote: “Nature is the test of dialectics and it must be said for modern natural science that it has furnished extremely rich and daily increasing materials for this test, and has thus proved that in the last analysis nature’s process is dialectical and not metaphysical.” (Socialism: Utopian and Scientific, 1880, Chapter 2)

“The materialistic outlook on nature,” wrote Engels, “means no more than simply conceiving nature just as it exists, without any foreign admixture.” (Dialectics of Nature, 1883)

The foreign admixture to which Engels refers is contained in the various philosophical fancies of man, and these have been many and varied until the natural sciences furnished proof of the validity of the dialectical materialist world outlook, causing Lenin to remark:

“Dialectical materialism no longer needs any philosophy standing above the other sciences. Of former philosophy there remains the science of thought and its laws – formal logic and dialectics. And dialectics, as understood by Marx, and in conformity with Hegel, includes what is now called epistemology, which, too, must regard its subject matter historically, studying and generalising the origin and development of knowledge, the transition from non-knowledge to knowledge.” (Karl Marx by VI Lenin, 1914)

In the words of Stalin: “Dialectical materialism is the world outlook of the Marxist-Leninist party. It is called dialectical materialism because its approach to the phenomena of nature, its method of studying and apprehending them, is dialectical, while its interpretation of the phenomena of nature, its conception of these phenomena, its theory, is materialistic.” (Dialectical and historical materialism, 1938)

In propaganda dealing with philosophy and science, it is important that we make clear that Marxist philosophy is not a science above other sciences; it is an instrument of scientific investigation. Furthermore, science can furnish no philosophy of its own, since philosophy cannot be independent of social life.

Therefore there is no ‘materialist philosophy of science’; there is only Marxist philosophical materialism.

Our world outlook, dialectical materialism, must be studied so as to ensure that it is not used as an incantation to be invoked by philistines to justify their fancies, habits or tastes, especially those that run counter to nature, and for that reason I propose the amended form of words to this motion, and wholeheartedly endorse the proposals outlined today.