National Scientific and Technical Research Council (CONICET), Argentina
Kaan Kangal, (2020) Friedrich Engels and the Dialectics of Nature, London: Palgrave Macmillan.
In his book Anti-Dühring, Engels argued that, with Hegel, philosophy has come to an end, and that for philosophy, which had been expelled from nature and history by the natural and social sciences, ‘there remains only the realm of pure thought, so far as it is left: the theory of the laws of the thought process itself, logic and dialectics.’ Engels listed three ‘laws of dialectics’ in Dialectics of Nature: (1) ‘The law of the transformation of quantity into quality and vice versa’, (2) ‘The law of the interpenetration of opposites’ and (3) ‘The law of the negation of the negation’ (p. 168). This may sound a bit intimidating, but actually the basic ideas of dialectics are not hard to grasp.
Let us consider for a moment those mysterious dialectical laws. As good materialists, we postulate that in the beginning there was objective reality, the material world. But then, after 13.8 billion years of evolution, the universe gave birth not just to life but to a species like homo sapiens, with the untapped potential to sort of think a little bit. We thus have to postulate the existence of something separate from and opposite to (but at the same time part of) objective reality, namely a potentially intelligent subject, which in philosophical jargon is called a determination or negation of the first postulate, subject-free objective reality. But in the process of trying to make sense of the outside world in order to survive and develop, that subject in turn negates this negation, producing a subjective representation of objective reality, which is in itself contradictory and subject to change with the changing circumstances of both object and subject. This knowledge, in turn, is arrived at and stored in his brain, which presupposes the existence of physical, chemical and biological laws but is not reducible to them, any more than Shakespeare’s sonnets might be reducible to English grammar –, in other words, of a series of qualitative leaps.
It is, of course, one thing to understand the basic concepts of dialectics and an entirely different kettle of fish to plod through Hegel’s writings, namely Phänomenologie des Geistes, Wissenschaft der Logik and Enzyklopädie der philosophischen Wissenschaften – hopefully in the German original, since the transition from one category to the other in his system is often done through German word-play. Then the dark night of the soul sets in. In a letter to Engels dated 16 January 1858, Marx argued that ‘if ever the time comes when such work is again possible’ he intended to explain the dialectical method, ‘which Hegel not only discovered but also mystified’, in a brochure of 50 pages. Marx, however, found a more productive use for his time, engaging in a 200-page-long polemic with someone called Vogt, so now we have to enter that particular Treehouse of Horror in the hope of somehow coming out alive, sane and in possession of those 50 pages of wisdom.
All hope is not lost, however. We can see the dialectical method at work in the social sciences in Marx’s Capital, where it guides his analysis of the dynamics of capitalist society, from the most abstract categories of political economy (the dual character of commodity-producing labour) to the most concrete (the class struggle over surplus-value). And then there are Engels’s writings, particularly his unfinished attempt to reveal the laws of dialectics at play in the natural sciences. The origin, reception and exegesis of this series of manuscripts, collected together in a single volume under the title Dialectics of Nature, are the subject of Kangal’s book. He provides the relevant quotes from Engels regarding the nature of the enterprise he was undertaking, namely ‘the work of extracting from the Hegelian logic the kernel containing Hegel’s real discoveries in this field, and of establishing the dialectical method, divested of its idealist wrappings, in the simple form in which it becomes the only correct mode of the development of thought.’ (p. 107.) The kernel is the edible substance in a nut; anyone who has gone through the experience of chewing the Hegelian nutshell knows how thankful we must be to Engels for even trying to undertake that enterprise.
Kangal is an erudite scholar who can read German, Russian, Chinese, English, Turkish and a host of other languages, and he provides an extremely knowledgeable account of the debates around Hegel’s dialectics both before and immediately after Engels’s manuscripts were written (1873–86), as well as of the successive editions of Dialectics of Nature and the debates surrounding it since its initial publication in 1925. Thus, we learn, for instance, about Trendelenburg’s, Hartmann’s and Paul Barth’s takes on Hegelian dialectics, as well as of the early socialist debates on the topic involving Dühring, Friedrich Albert Lange, the Russian S.R. Khaim Zhitlovskii, Eduard Bernstein, Karl Kautsky, Max Adler and, above all, Plekhanov, of whom Kautsky said in 1896: ‘He is our philosopher, certainly the only one among us who studied Hegel.’ (p. 51.) We also learn about the controversy around Lukács, who first rejected the idea that dialectics apply to the natural sciences and then rejected his rejection, and, more significantly, about the Soviet debates on Engels in the 1920s and 1930s in journals such as Pod Znamenem Marksizma (‘Under the Banner of Marxism’), Vestnik Kommunisticheskoi Akademii (‘Bulletin of the Communist Academy’), Bolshevik and Dialektika v Prirode (‘Dialectics in Nature’), particularly the debates between Abram Deborin (a former Menshevik and disciple of Plekhanov) and his disciples and the ‘mechanist school’ (pp. 60–7). Among other interesting things, Kangal recalls that, ‘In 1924 Bernstein asked Albert Einstein’s opinion. Einstein believed that the manuscripts had no merit from the perspective of contemporary physics, but that they gave interesting insights into Engels’ intellectual biography.’ (p. 57; Einstein’s ‘Opinion on Engels’ “Dialectics of Nature”’ is available online at <https://einsteinpapers.press.princeton.edu/vol14-trans/295>.)
An excursus on the relationship between politics and philosophy, and particularly on the function of theory and the role of intellectuals in the working-class movement, also contains many interesting observations, as well as this revealing quote from Engels: ‘The bourgeois revolutions of the past asked nothing of the universities but lawyers, as the best raw material for their politicians; the emancipation of the working class needs, in addition, 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, and in that case what will be needed is not fine words but well-grounded knowledge’ (pp. 101–2).
The theoretically most dense part of Kangal’s book is the fifth and final chapter devoted to the exegesis of ‘Dialectics in Dialectics of Nature’, where Kangal discusses Engels’s contraposition of materialism to idealism, and of dialectics to metaphysics, through a detailed analysis of Aristotle’s, Kant’s and Hegel’s writings on these topics. The first thing that makes it hard for contemporary readers to find their way in these debates is the terminology, which does not coincide with the everyday meaning of those terms. In his work Metaphysics, Aristotle wrote: ‘There is a principle in existing things about which we cannot make a mistake; of which, on the contrary, we must always realize the truth – viz. that the same thing cannot at one and the same time be and not be, nor admit of any other similar pair of opposites.’ Marx and Engels never claimed that this ‘principle of non-contradiction’, or the law of identity from which it is derived (A=A), are absolutely false, but that they have only relative validity. An illustrative example from physics in this connection might be phase transition, when a substance changes from a solid, liquid, or gas state to a different state: every substance can transition from one phase to another at a specific combination of temperature and pressure, but preserves a given state as long as it remains within those parameters. The same goes for the social sciences: a socialist politician, even one with strongly opportunist tendencies like Kamenev, remains a socialist politician, until he or she goes over to the class enemy to become a bourgeois minister like Millerand or a fascist like Mussolini.
In other words, it was never dialectics’ purpose to discard metaphysics as utterly false, but rather to show that it is valid only within certain parameters, as well as the wider framework within which it operates – much like Einstein’s theory of relativity did not regard Newton’s law of gravity as nonsense but as valid only within certain boundaries, beyond which it breaks down and has to be integrated into a new and wider theoretical framework. Once again Kangal provides the relevant quotes from Engels, who, contrary to Feuerbach’s attempt to simply discard Hegel, argued that ‘a philosophy is not done away with by merely asserting it be false’, but that it has ‘to be “sublated” [aufgehoben] in its own terms, that is, in the sense that its form is to be critically annihilated, while the new content which is obtained through [that form] is rescued’ (p. 113). This process, from a materialist perspective, is not just driven by the ‘self-development’ of thought, but, in Engels’s words, by ‘the influence of the activity of human being on its thinking’: ‘it is precisely the alteration of nature by men, not solely nature as such, which is the most essential and immediate basis of human thought, and it is in the measure that human being has learned to change nature that his intelligence has increased’ (p. 172).
It would take a reviewer much more versed in the history of philosophy to do justice to Kangal’s arguments, particularly to what he terms ‘Engels’ philosophical ambiguities’ (p. 125), and to determine to what extent these alleged problems were the reason that prevented Engels from ever finishing and publishing his Naturdialektik. Maybe the task he set himself simply exceeded the possibilities of any one individual. Marx took upon himself the task of dialectically criticising a single science, political economy, in order to discover the ‘law of movement’ (i.e., of the development and decadence) of capitalism. In order to do that he had to write a three-volume history of the discipline (Theories of Surplus Value) and, even then, he was unable to bring the project to completion and left to Engels the task of editing the second and third volumes of Capital. It is hard to see how the deduction of the laws of dialectics from the history of the natural sciences can be carried out by anything other than a team of working scientists in the fields of physics, chemistry, biology, mathematics, etc. sufficiently acquainted with the history of philosophy as well as of their own disciplines – not to speak of the fact that, since we are talking about science and not religion, it is not simply a question of confirming that the laws of dialectics apply in the natural world, but of critically going over them and determining to what extent they should be modified or replaced in the light of advances in the natural sciences.
As far as a layman can tell, contemporary natural sciences are rife with idealist views of physical theories, from the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics, which attributes the collapse of the wave function to the intervention of a conscious observer, to creationist views of the big bang, while more materialist-inspired alternatives such as Roger Penrose’s ‘gravitization of quantum mechanics’ and his ‘conformal cyclic cosmology’ model, which attempts to explain what went on before the big bang, are given short shrift. But we have strayed too far away from our territorial waters, the social sciences and philosophy, where the whiff of idealism becomes a stench. Not long before Engels began work on his unfinished project, Darwin had drawn inspiration from political economy to explain evolution by natural selection – never mind that he chose a particularly wretched branch of that science to do it. Nowadays, no natural scientist in his or her right mind would look for inspiration in that toxic brand of bourgeois apologetics known as economics, and most social scientists have internalised this state of affairs to the extent of not even realising that their disciplines, as soon as they attempt to rise above the level of a monograph, have been all but obliterated by capitalist decadence. An acquaintance with the debates recounted in Kangal’s work would have a beneficial influence on both.