Currently reading

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Fascism and Big Business by Daniel Guerin

Thursday, November 12, 2009

November is dialectical materialism month - 2

Why has the history of materialism been so neglected and distorted? The materialist philosophy was born in opposition to the archaic religious outlook of an agricultural aristocracy by the new forces of a commercial slave society. It has had to contend for "living space" against conservative master classes ever since.

In Greece, not only materialism but the mere exercise of methodical reasoning, directed as it had to be against old religious ideas and sanctified customs and institutions, was dangerous. Many Greek philosophers suffered persecution, were expelled from their communities, and even put to death for their teachings. In the Athens of Pericles, Anaxagoras was condemned for irreligion and forced to flee for having said that the sun was a "glowing mass of stone" and the moon was of earthly nature. Didn’t the priesthood teach that the sun and the moon were divine beings and wasn’t religion one of the means for holding the masses in check?

It was even more perilous to profess materialist ideas in the Middle Ages under penalty of being condemned for heresy like Roger Bacon, excommunicated from the Church or killed. Such was the fate inflicted on Giordano Bruno as late as the 17th century.

Materialist-minded thinkers were hounded and their ideas anathematized throughout the bourgeois epoch. Hundreds of cases could be cited from the expulsion of Descartes from France through Spinoza’s excommunication from the Jewish community of Amsterdam to the attacks upon Hobbes and Joseph Priestley in England. Not all of these persecuted philosophers were thoroughgoing materialists. But there was enough of a materialist bent in their criticisms of the prevailing religious and idealist doctrines to render them suspect of unorthodoxy and susceptible to punishment.

Motive force for scientific progress

Up to our time materialist thinkers and their adherents have almost always and everywhere been in a minority. Some have been forced to lead a hole-and-corner existence and often to withhold the full implications of their ideas. They have been the oppressed tendency in the field of philosophy. However extensive its influence has been at times in certain departments, the materialist outlook has never yet ruled society or the intellectual world as a whole. Nevertheless, the ideas of the materialist scholars and scientists have been among the greatest motive forces of ideological and scientific progress. They have inspired epoch-making achievements in natural science from the broaching of the atomic hypothesis by the Greeks to Darwin’s theory of organic evolution.

Despite all this, the materialist viewpoint is still unpopular throughout the Western world, and not least in the United States. Materialism is disfavored not only because it is the principal theoretical weapon against supernaturalism, spiritualism and obscurantism of all kinds. It is so vehemently fought nowadays because the materialist philosophy has become so closely associated with the Socialist movement and Marxism, with the struggles of the workers for liberation from capitalism, with political opposition to the established order.

The struggle between materialism and its opponents which began over 2,500 years ago is still being waged around us. The defenders of capitalism from the universities and churches to the agencies of mass propaganda exert persistent efforts to ward off the penetration of materialist thinking. Here is one typical instance.

The Luce publication, Life, the most widely circulated magazine in the United States, is one of the most vigilant participants in the anti-materialist crusade. In 1956 it published a series on The Epic of Man which presented the latest findings of science on the origins of civilization. It was impossible to make such a report without undermining, at least by implication, orthodox Christianity. If, as the theory of evolution undeniably demonstrates, mankind rose up out of the animal kingdom, then what credence can be given to Adam and Eve and similar fables of man’s divine parentage?

The editors hastened to steer their readers away from any materialist heresy. "The materialist cosmogony," they wrote, "has proven just as unsatisfactory as a literal reading of Genesis, or as Ptolemy’s earth-centered welkin, or as the clock-work universe of Newton. And the secret of man’s origin and purpose on this planet remains no more and no less mysterious than before." All the conclusions of science, that is to say, tell us nothing more than the Israelite tribes knew about the development of the world and the destiny of mankind!

Eternal morality counterposed to science

Having thus disposed of "the materialist cosmogony"--and obliterated the results of science in the bargain--the editors point to the emergence and activity of "conscience" as the decisive proof of man’s divine nature. They counterpose eternal morality to the conclusions of modern science based upon the method of materialism. The theoretical arguments of these apologists for the existence of God are as weak as their financial resources and influence are immense.

But one thing is plain. These defenders of religion and capitalism regard materialism as the main ideological enemy to be overcome even at the cost of scientific suicide. These brains at work in skyscrapers fall into line with the adversaries of materialism in ancient Greece, the heresy-hunters of Catholic Europe, and the Baptist bumpkins who tried to ban the teachings of Darwinism in Tennessee decades ago.

The issues between the materialists and anti-materialists have immense practical importance and are far from being settled in real life. This gives our theoretical study its social and political purpose.

In this prolonged and unfinished contest for supremacy between materialism and anti-materialism, science and religion, enlightenment and obscurantism, there is no doubt which will eventually be victorious. Although materialism does not command the field in philosophy or in everyday affairs, on the historical scale it has been gaining and consolidating its ground. It has rich traditions, an ever-growing content and the most diversified applications. It operates today upon much firmer foundations than in the past and has far keener weapons with which to combat its adversaries and solve the problems of science and society.

Materialism receives constant confirmation from the onward march and verified results of technology, the sciences and the developments of industry. It is further fortified by the progress of the class struggle and the successes of the international workers movement. It derives the most powerful social support and fresh sources of replenishment from the activities of the masses in their quest for a better life.

But its biggest battles lie ahead. As in its infancy, materialism has still to contend for its rightful place as the outlook of emancipated humanity. Its definitive triumph in the domain of thought is still to come. May this introduction to its early history help bring that conquest closer.