dialectic of nature



Commentary on the forthcoming book by Friedrich Engels

The end of the 1840s promoted decisive transformations in the history of Europe and significant changes in the political and personal life of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. After the political and military defeat of the 1848 Revolution in Germany, both – persecuted in their native country because of their revolutionary activities – took refuge in England.

Engels arrives in London in 1850. He is initially engaged in attempts to unify the different defeated factions, as well as in support and financial assistance to exiles from all parts of the continent. The expectation of a resumption of the insurrection in Europe is, however, unfounded. The Communist League itself – in which Engels and Marx were members of the steering committee – went through a process of fragmentation that culminated in its dissolution, proposed by Marx, in 1852.

In order to survive, Engels chose to resume his job as an employee of Ermen & Engels, a position he had already held in 1842-1843 (when he collected material for the writing of The situation of the working class in England). To that end, he was forced to rekindle relations with his father, one of the partners in the textile factory, with whom he had been broken since 1844. In November 1850 Engels moved to Manchester, the company's headquarters, a city he hated, where, however, he would stay for almost 20 years.

In 1860, with the death of his father, Engels' economic situation underwent a relevant change. As a result of family negotiations about the inheritance, he was left with, in addition to a sum of money, his father's share in the partnership with the Ermen brothers, a situation that was only regularized in 1864. The financial relief is, however, counterbalanced by the increase in tasks and of responsibility in the conduct of the industry. Only in 1869 was he able to sell his share in the factory and free himself from business activities forever. He reports that he felt at that moment taken by a sense of manumission.

In this period, between the ages of 30 and 49, Engels, in his spare time, wrote – in addition to a voluminous, almost daily correspondence with Marx – hundreds of newspaper articles; a few published without mentioning his name in the columns of North American newspapers in which Marx was a headliner. The vast majority of these texts are comments on political or economic events in the field of international relations. Qualified in general as articles of circumstance, if not as efforts for economic survival, they occupied a smaller place in the reception of the work of the founders of historical materialism. Today, however, new studies make it clear that Marx and Engels' systematic reflection on questions of geopolitics underlies the set.

He wrote, during the year 1852, a series of articles on the events of the late 1840s collected in the book Revolution and Counter-Revolution in Germany and also – spaced in time – numerous essays on the “military question”. In 1867, Marx publishes the first volume of The capital. Engels takes on the task of contributing to the dissemination of the book. He then publishes numerous reviews in newspapers and periodicals from different countries and from different political tendencies. In this effort he even wrote a summary of The capital.

In 1870, Engels settled permanently in London. Only then, stripped of his status as an industrialist, did he become part of the International Workers' Association – founded in 1864 and led, to a large extent, by Karl Marx –, having been elected a member of its General Council. In this post, he followed France's defeat in the Franco-German War (January 1871) and the events of the Paris Commune (March 18–May 28, 1871). The massacre of Commune participants and the persecution of political activists throughout Europe contributed to the approval, at the 1872 Congress, of Marx and Engels' proposal to transfer the headquarters of the International to New York. Differences between the followers of Karl Marx and the group led by Mikhail Bakunin over working-class tactics and strategies led to the dissolution of the Association in 1876.

Even though he was constantly involved in political life – especially after the founding of the German Social-Democratic Workers' Party in Eisenach, in August 1869 – Engels found time to resume his intellectual production. His first major work after moving to London, the book On the housing issue, published in June 1872, resumes questions and reflections little developed in his initial work The situation of the working class in England (1845)

His intellectual project, however, was moving in another direction. It was exposed for the first time, in May 1873, in a letter to Marx, in the form of a sketch of a work of monumental dimensions to be entitled dialectic of nature. Engels thus chose as a priority field for his investigations two areas of knowledge intertwined at the time of German Idealism, in particular in the work of GWF Hegel, “philosophy” and “natural sciences”, but which had long since been dissociated in practice.

Gustav Mayer, the main biographer of Friedrich Engels, says that he began his systematic studies of the natural sciences in 1858, still during his stay in Manchester.

In the early 1840s, Engels had devoted himself to philosophy. In 1841 and 1842, doing military service in Berlin, he attended classes in this discipline at the local University and became close to the circle of Young Hegelians, even having published articles against the then professor Friedrich Schelling. His collaboration with Marx in the Brussels period was mainly in this field. In 1845 they published The Holy Family: or the critique of Critical Criticism: against Bruno Bauer and Consorts and then wrote the manuscripts – only published in 1926 – of the german ideology, considered by many as the founding mark of historical materialism. Marx, in a celebrated text of 1859, described the undertaking as a “reckoning with our ancient philosophical conscience. The purpose took shape in the form of a critique of post-Hegelian philosophy [...] We abandoned the manuscript to the gnawing critique of rats, all the more at ease as we had already reached the main goal: self-understanding”.

The issues involved in the planned dialectic of nature they were far from the topics put on the agenda by the Young Hegelians: critique of religion, politics and the State, suppression of philosophy, place and role of conscience, etc. The purpose of the book, as the title indicates, was to examine the issue of method of investigation and exposition and its relationship – two-way – to recent discoveries in the natural sciences.

Engels himself would justify, years later, this new direction as resulting from the “transformation of philosophy”. According to him, after 1848, German Idealism left the scene, overshadowed by the impressive development of the natural sciences, a movement driven (but also a determining factor in this process) by the vertiginous growth of industrial production in Germany. What was read and discussed then were no longer the works of Kant and Hegel, but the strand of materialism – which Engels described as “vulgar” – whose exponents were Ludwig Büchner and Karl Vogt.

The relationship between philosophy and the natural sciences was discussed during the XNUMXth century, among others, by Hegel and August Comte. Engels rejects in Hegel the thesis that nature, eternal repetition, was not susceptible to a historical unfolding, an exclusive attribute, in the idealist system, of the Idea or of the life of the spirit. He disagrees, in turn, with the essentially classificatory purpose of Comte's positive philosophy, in which he also identifies the consideration of the sciences and of nature itself as static.

Following the principles of historical materialism, Engels begins the investigation by outlining the genesis of modern dialectics, in a journey that begins in Greece and advances to the recent discoveries of the natural sciences.

In this panorama, to better highlight the form and content of the dialectic, Engels opposes it to “metaphysics”, the nomenclature by which he designates the rival and competitor philosophical method of the dialectic. For the follower of this methodology, things and their images in thought, concepts, are isolated objects of investigation; fixed, immovable objects, observed one after the other, each in itself, as permanent beings.

The attribution of rigidity to the object, the precise description of its contours, the determination of the world as a set of finished and immutable things, the strict observation of the principle of non-contradiction, the irreversible connection of cause and effect owe their plausibility, in large part measure, to its proximity to common sense. However, warns Engels, despite being useful within the four walls of a house, common sense proves to be inappropriate when it is considered a scientific method.

When consciously applied in scientific research, the “metaphysical method” clearly reveals its limitations. Unilateral and abstract, this procedure is entangled, according to Engels, in insoluble contradictions: attentive to concrete objects, he cannot see the relationships; frozen in the present moment, he does not conceive of genesis and expiry, concentrated on the stability of conditions, he does not perceive dynamics, “obsessed with the trees, he cannot see the forest”.

The dialectic, in this dichotomous presentation, appears, almost point by point, as the symmetrical opposite of the metaphysical method. It does not delimit objects in an isolated way, nor does it take them as something fixed and finished, on the contrary, it investigates the processes, the origin and development of things and inserts them into a complex web of concatenations and mutual influences, where nothing remains what it was. it is, nor in the way it existed. In it, the two poles of an antithesis, despite their antagonism, complete and articulate each other reciprocally. The cause and the effect, in force in a concrete, particular case, are diluted in a universal network of reciprocal actions, where the causes and the effects constantly change places and what, before, was cause, acquires, soon after, the role of effect and vice versa. Nor does the principle of non-contradiction prevail, because at least in the organic world, “being is itself, what it is, and another”.

This methodological bipartition is presented, similarly to the model tested by Hegel in phenomenology of the spirit, as stages and results – or better, as “figures” – of a progression that is both logical and historical.

In the panel unfolded by Engels, a primitive and still simplistic intuition of dialectics – the consideration of the world as pervaded by an infinite web of concatenations where nothing remains – would have prevailed among the ancient Greek philosophers (especially in Heraclitus). But despite being congruent with the truth of things, this view, incapable of explaining the isolated elements that make up the world, logically had to give way to a conception that detached the elements from their historical or natural trunk, investigating them separately, each for itself, in its structure, causes and effects.

Historically, this new procedure was only fully established from the second half of the XNUMXth century onwards, with the birth of modern natural sciences. The methods of these sciences, in particular, the analysis of nature in its different parts, the classification of various natural phenomena and objects into certain categories, the internal investigation of organic bodies according to their different anatomical structure migrated, with Francis Bacon and John Locke, for philosophy.

With rare exceptions, displaced from the main axis of the prevailing philosophical current (Rameau's Nephew, by Diderot; Discourse on the origin and foundations of inequality among men, by Rousseau), modern philosophy, according to Engels, including the French thinkers of the XNUMXth century, allowed itself to be contaminated by “metaphysical speculation”.

The restoration in a superior, synthetic form of the dialectic benefited, however, according to Engels, from the path of the natural sciences. Both the pace of its development, characterized by the incessant accumulation of data, and the growing awareness (despite the confusion that still thrives among scientists) that in the metaphysical method the phenomena of nature are not seen dynamically, but statically, are not considered. as substantially variable situations, but as fixed data, which are, in short, dissected as dead material and not apprehended as living objects.

Transmuted into an “experimental”, “scientific” method, the dialectic as understood by Engels considers nature as a “touchstone”. The movement that elevates the observation of nature to the condition of a privileged object of study for understanding the materialist dialectic does not, however, signal a disqualification of other domains. Far from it, the emphasis undoubtedly stems from the need to establish a position and ground that has not yet been settled. In Engels, human history and the spiritual activity connected to it – objects of most of his work – are also valued as fertile fields for understanding and explaining the “laws” of dialectics.

Between May 1873 and May 1876, Engels devoted himself to the collection and preparation of research material, preliminary worked in the form of notes and fragments. Most of the 169 short texts grouped in the posthumous volume published only in 1925 in the Soviet Union date from this period – in the original version in German and in a translation into Russian. Only one of the ten articles that made up the book was written at this time, the essay called “Introduction”.

the wording of dialectic of nature was interrupted when Engels accepted an invitation from William Liebknecht, editor of the newspaper of the German Social Democratic Party (SPD), to scientifically and politically refute the ideas of Eugen Dühring, a self-declared socialist professor of philosophy who was gaining adherents within the party and fascinating even even faithful followers of Marx. Although he considered Düring's positions devoid of interest - a socialism derived from Proudhon, a political economy based on Carey and a positivist and anti-dialectic philosophy -, Engels took the opportunity to expose to a wide audience, in the form of controversy, the theory developed for him and for Marx.

Certainly the factor that weighed most heavily in this decision was the approval of the SPD foundation program at the Gotha Congress in August 1875. The SPD resulted from the unification of the two main socialist parties, the Social Democratic Workers' Party of Germany, commanded by August Bebel and Guilherme Liebknecht – two activists very close to Marx and Engels – and the General Association of German Workers, led by Ferdinand Lassalle. Both Marx and Engels complained indignantly, in letters to their followers, of the suppression in the Gotha Program of decisive points of historical materialism and of the concessions, according to them, exaggerated, to the positions of Lassalle.

After becoming familiar with the work of Eugen Dühring, Engels chose to carry out an immanent critique of the philosophy course, a book published in five volumes. In reading Engels, Dühring had presented his socialist doctrine as the last practical consequence of a “new, bitter and enormous” philosophical system. Engels saw in the punctual criticism of Dühring the opportunity both to take a stand on controversial topics of the time, current issues of scientific and practical interest, and to promote an expansion of the frontiers of historical materialism.

In this effort to complement and expand the configurations delimited until then by the set of texts published by him and by Marx – in which he stood out The Communist Manifesto e The capital –, Engels followed, to a certain extent, the prevailing trends in the intellectual environment of the time, doubly marked by advances in science and by the scientistic desire to organize them in an encyclopedic way. along the Anti-Duhring historical materialism thus presents itself as a system, as a kind of unitary theory of man and nature.

The articles about Dühring were published in the newspaper Forward between January 1877 and July 1878. Soon afterwards they were published in book form by Dietz publishing house. The volume organizes the texts into three parts called “Philosophy”, “Political Economy” and “Socialism”. In the first, the most sustained of them, Engels made intense use of the material and studies of his programmed dialectic of nature, since Dühring's philosophical thought prioritized ontology and the philosophy of nature.

The impact of Anti-Düring about the project of dialectic of nature it was ambivalent. On the one hand, Engels could consider himself glad for the opportunity to set forth, even before full developments, the results of his studies on dialectics, the philosophy of nature and the recent discoveries of the natural sciences. Even more, when one takes into account the public success and esteem of the Anti-Duhring. The condensed version of this book – favoring positive exposition and devoid of the polemical format – entitled From utopian socialism to scientific socialism, achieved unprecedented success. The booklet, whose flagship consisted of exposing the laws of dialectics, was published in Switzerland in 1882 and then translated into more than a dozen languages. It quickly became, along with the Communist Manifesto, one of the two most widespread presentations of historical materialism, responsible for the formation of an entire generation of Marxists.

On the other hand, the favorable and interested reception of his critique of Dühring's philosophy encouraged Engels to continue carrying out work on the dialectic of nature. Bearing in mind that many contents had already come to light over the course of Anti-Duhring, Engels formulated, in a more restricted key, in 1880, a second version of the general outline of the book. In the resumption of investigations, begun in the second half of 1878, he wrote nine of the ten “complete” articles that make up the posthumous volume.

In 1883, work was stopped. After Marx's death, which occurred in March of this year, Engels reorganized his tasks, following an assessment that did not consider the completion of the dialectic of nature nor the partial publication of material already written. He decided that henceforth he would preferentially dedicate himself to three occupations: (a) organizing for publication the manuscripts left by Marx relating to Books II and III of The capital; (b) follow, and when possible lead, the international struggle of the working class, on the rise with the ongoing structuring of mass parties; (c) disseminate and disseminate historical materialism through new editions and translations of Marx's works, for which he wrote important introductions.

in the course of dialectic of nature, Engels addresses, at various times, the question of the relationship between his theory and Hegelian philosophy. When he accuses Hegel's thought of idealism and a systematic spirit, for example, he does not fail to point to the difficulties inherent in attempts to transplant this work and its method by a knowledge that claims, right from the name, “materialist ”. The rescue of the Hegelian dialectic depends, therefore, on its conversion from a procedure proper to idealism into a method of materialism.

Engels considers that the movement, which he considers revolutionary, of “suppression of philosophy” is enough to trigger and complete this transposition, to some extent facilitated by the anti-dogmatic character of Hegel's method. Engels understands the “end of philosophy” – a trend pointed out by Hegel himself – as “the way out of the labyrinth of systems towards positive and real knowledge of the world”. Relying on the dissociation, unveiled by the German debate in the 1830s and 1840s, between method and system in Hegel's thought, he deems it feasible to critically destroy the form, conserving, however, the content of Hegelian philosophy, thus incorporating not only the dialectic, but also the encyclopedic richness of the system.

The task of making system and method compatible within a materialist perspective thus becomes a responsibility of specific disciplines focused on understanding nature and history. The condition for this coming together of scientificity and dialectics or, in Engels's vocabulary, for the transformation of metaphysical sciences into dialectical sciences – absent both in French materialism of the eighteenth century and in German philosophy of nature – was the development, in the course of the nineteenth century , of a historical conception of nature.

The ability to think of nature as a process, attested by the example of cutting-edge sciences, then newly founded, such as physiology, embryology and geology, by itself, would indicate the pertinence of a program that aimed to emphasize the weight or even even the preponderance of dialectics in the constitution of a materialist perspective on nature.

That said, the dialectical method becomes decisive for understanding and establishing the general “laws” of movement, the first basis for clarifying the objectively dialectical content of nature. In order to demonstrate the veracity and universality of such “laws”, Engels, given the inductive-deductive character of his undertaking, opted for an exhaustive follow-up, that is, for the almost endless procedure of deciphering, case by case, the most important discoveries of science. science of its time.

Engels also presents the dialectic as essential in the task of ordering the chaos of new scientific discoveries, which follow one after the other. The effort to establish a concatenation between contingent discoveries, since they are exclusively empirical, in addition to highlighting the dialectical character of particular phenomena, is inserted – by strengthening the dissolution of the rigidity of the clear lines of demarcation that contributed to grant the natural sciences “their shyness” metaphysical character” – in a larger project of replacing collecting sciences (“sciences of finished objects”) by coordinating sciences (“sciences that study the processes, origin and development of things”).

Such progress, given by the possibility of a systematic study of the modifications of nature, does not, however, according to Engels, exhaust the stock of consequences to be extracted from this chain of scientific facts. The dialectical synthesis also allows, this is the decisive thing, the articulation of a “system of nature”. It is not a matter of resuming the universal and compact system in which Hegel intended to frame the sciences of nature and history, shaped according to the idealist postulate of “definitive solutions” and “eternal truths”. It is, however, a chain that, despite being open, does not fail to provide an overall view similar to that previously in charge of the philosophy of nature. Dialectical concatenation rescues, through an internal articulation, the joint vision of natural processes as a great whole.

the reception of dialectic of nature deserves a separate chapter. Sparse excerpts and some of the book's theses were incorporated as part of the official ideology of the Soviet state and to some extent the theory – termed Marxism-Leninism – embraced by most parties of the Third International.

In reaction to this, many authors of the so-called “Western Marxism”, mainly after 1945, dedicated themselves to the refutation of the Engelsian dialectic. In this series, it is worth highlighting the articles “Marxism and Philosophy”, by Maurice Merleau-Ponty (in Sens et non-sens) and “Matérialisme et Révolution” [Materialism and Revolution], by Jean-Paul Sartre (in Situations, III), as well as the books soviet marxism, by Herbert Marcuse; Critique of Dialectical Reasonby Sartre and Der Begriff de Natur in der Lehre von Marx, [The concept of nature in Marx's doctrine], by Alfred Schmidt.

Regardless of value judgments and positions within the lineages of Marxism, monitoring the controversy requires and recommends a careful reading of dialectic of nature.

*Ricardo Musse He is a professor in the Department of Sociology at USP. author of Émile Durkheim: Social fact and division of labor (Rile up).



Friedrich Engels. dialectic of nature. Sao Paulo, Boitempo, 2020.


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