Wednesday, July 16, 2014

George Novack in defense of Marxism: reading notes from Polemics in Marxist Philosophy

Polemics in Marxist Philosophy can be purchased here.

Ideas have their own power, and the way to power is guided by ideas.  But they are products and parts of the total process of social development.  Dialectical materialist consider them to be conceptual reflections - and projections - of the conditions of the natural and social environment in which people act.


16. the clash of doctrines speeds progress.

25.  Marxism - Growth of productive forces is the prime motive power.Propels humanity forward, saved from stagnation.

Qualitative leaps to more efficient modes of production
=object criterion to placing one social formation
on higher rung than other.

Working class is agency whose functions enabled it to 
bring about transition: 
capitalism to socialism= human advancement.

historical materialism = sociology of knowledge

Study of history linked to political practice.

Study the past in order to make contemporary history more consciously and effectively.

E.H Carr: "Historiography is a progressive science in the sense that it seeks to provide constantly expanding and deepening insights into a course of events which is itself progressive."


Led to historical materialist understanding of interplay of its objective and subjective sides
Humans could be passive sufferers or progressive agents
Outcome of collective efforts often exceeds or diverges widely widely from intention or expectation.
Progress in class society has ironic and antagonistic character.

29.Only revolutionary action by the masses has originated, extended, or safeguarded peoples liberties against repressive and reactionary types of rule.

30.Productive capacities developed under capitalism mean the material prerequisites for socialism for socialism  already exist.
Very few of the subjective factors have ripened: 
-no labor party in U&.S.
-little or no class consciousness in the U.S.

35. "Praxis" interpreters of Marxism
-reject universal scope of Marxist thought;
-reject scientific character of Marxism;
reject dialectics of nature.

"Polemics" defined:
Philosophy is by its very nature an enterprise of criticism.
Polemic: a militant reply using reasoned arguments upon a position or proposition worthy of defense.
Have pros and cons of question been set forth so issues at stake are clarified by confrontation of opposing views?

-in philosophy - materialism
-in logic - dialectics
- in sociology/economics - aligned with working class and anti-capitalist struggles.

Anti-Marxists always deny their own philosophical ideas are disposed in favor of aims, operations, and outlook of any particular social class.  This is deception and delusion and is an impossible stance to adhere to.

Supreme merit of Marxism as living philosophy and a philosophy of life consists in conscious fusion of its theory with practical efforts that involve and effect broad masses in action.

46.Marxism must be a flexible instrument of critical analysis to deal with the development of contradictory elements in all things.

The logical explanation for progressive nature of evolution is that dramatic revolutionary point where the new replaces the old and lifts things to a higher stage.

57. TROTSKY - Politics is the culture of the proletariat on the road to power.

52.  Marxist philosophy gains assent by its concordance with the facts of experience, the insight of its analysis, and the truth of of its conclusions.

53.  There is a class bias and there are class political implications in every shade of philosophy.

Frankfurt School philosophers maintain they must by the very nature of their activity be hostile to society and state regardless of its content and direction because their reason for existence [as philosophers] is to be critical of that which exists.  Philosophy is eternal and unchangeable adversary of all institutions.  This is ahistorical idealism and intellectual anarchism cut loose from any class morality.

59.  To philosophize is to criticize.
Motive force of human progress is discontent.
Dialectical method is vigorously critical.


91. Materialism

Matter in motion [NATURE] has self-sufficient existence.
Everything in human life is derived from and dependent on the OBJECTIVE world.
[idealism = nature dependent on Spirit]
Hegel - nature is schematized reflection of logical process.
MARX - on Hegel's idealism - the same as saying "the son begets the mother."

91.  Humanist exponents of PRAXIS say neither nature or thinking, but human activity , is the essence of reality.  Leaves aside question of whether mind or matter, the subjective or the objective take priority in existence.

Idealism = No object without subject.
Object a shadow "reflective moment" cast by the subject.
Over time the subject has been called: god, mind, spirit, nous, the word, et cetera.

92.  Frankfurt School: objective world is result of human activity.  Object can only be said to exist via mediation of human subject.

92.  Materialism: [as against Frankfurt school]
Nature has objective reality before and apart from the human subject.
All sciences confirm this.
The earth and its lower organisms had a prolonged history, before humanity came on the scene with its distinctive productive activities.

Practice = motive force of SOCIAL history
But no the BASIS of material being.

Lukacs, History and Class Consciousness:
"Existence is the product of human activity"
"Nature is a societal category"

George Novack: the CONCEPT of nature is a socio-historical category, but NATURE ITSELF is not.
The world is not a human product.

93. Dialectical materialism not only deals with what is specifically human, but with ALL REALITY.
Marxism does not limit itself to social experience, although social experience is where most of its attention rightly rests.
Anthropocentric notion:  that nature only exists as a product of human activity, a societal category.

Nature is independent of the human mind and human activity.  Nature operates independently and in accord with its own laws.

OBJECT-SUBJECT relation is a balance:
productive activity is interaction of object and subject.

Nature is objective to the human subject: object-subject relationship develops as nature converted to social use by labor.

Progressive modification of nature by productive activity by humankind;
and in the correlative transformation of humankind itself as the powers of production grow.



What is subjective [ human ] - governed by objective realities, laws, and necessities.

Social being determines social consciousness.

The subjective factor can be very important - depending on material circumstances of the moment.
This is what necessitates the building of a revolutionary party.
The subject is afforded ample room to act by the reciprocal interplay pf objective-subjective.
Physical organism is object.
Social being is a subject with a psychological/intellectual inner life.

HUMAN =  physical organism
           social being

Praxis Marxists exaggerate the subjective element and underestimate predominance of real objective conditions.  This is conductive to voluntarism, ultra-leftism, and adventurism in politics.

Humans alter their habits, form and transform social realities, redirect the course of events through deliberate interventions, but
under historically-created conditions that have lawfully determined the nature, direction, and scope of said transformative powers.

96.   Extreme subjectivism in politics can turn into capitulation,
Subjectivity in the extreme leaves no room for objective analysis of situations so that campaigns/struggles can be corrected.

99. Social phenomenon are not all directly the result of economics
economic conditions are ultimately decisive in historical developments.

All political/social elements play their role amid
an endless host of ACCIDENTS [ political element, legal element, philosophical element, religious element]
but the ECONOMIC element finally does assert itself.


97.  Marxist philosophical tenets

a. Independent existence of material reality;
b. primacy of objective conditions;
c. objectivity of knowledge.

Theory of knowledge: capacity of human mind to reflect surrounding world more-or-less accurately.

Properties and relations of things that we sense, perceive, and handle are conceptualized via the abstractive and generalizing powers of logical thought.

The content of our ideas corresponds with and more and more approximates what objectively exists.

98.  Marx: "With me the ideal is nothing but the material world reflected in the mind of man, and translated into forms of thought.


Social character of human reason.

Active, productive subject [people] works out generalizations, ideal modes, and categories which when tested in social practice disclose their correspondence with or variance from essential features of things.

Human beings are not passive receptors or spectators in their environment.

They are doers, enquirers, and strugglers who engage in labor and other practical activities directed by their ideas,
and who develop conceptual equipment in accord with changing circumstances and social relations.

If our sensations, perceptions, and ideas did not truly reflect events occurring outside us and give reliable confirmation about the phenomena, conditions, and laws of reality, cognition would be worse than useless, it would have no practical value orienting us to what is happening or in dealing with difficult situations and CHANGING them.

100.   Marxism is a scientific theory based upon correct knowledge of objective reality in the same sense as the natural sciences/

Human affairs and physical phenomena are governed by lawfulness, which is fundamental to scientific method.

There is no opposition between objective truth pf science and interests of the proletariat.  They are inseparable.

104.  Dialectics & contradiction

Natural evolution passed over into dialectics of social evolution.
From material root in nature, this was the precondition and necessary basis for social evolution.

Dialectics of nature = precede dialectics of subject/object

Nature comes before and creates preconditions for subject/object.

Law of transformation of quantity into quality. 

105.  Natural science: foundation of all knowledge
Unitary nature and universal scope of Marxist theory, which reflects material unity amidst qualitative of external world .

Dialectics of nature precedes on its own, long precedes human existence, perception, and action and gives birth to them.

Nature is dialectical and a knowledge of nature [which flows from it] is dialectical.

106.  Specific domains of science have specific laws: astronomy, chemistry, electronics.  

More general laws of motion intermingle with and arise from specific laws in these specific fields of knowledge.

A. Nature
B, Society
C. Thought Process

Laws of dialectics of nature [laws of motion] operate throughout all three divisions of being [nature, society, mind].
a. transformation of quantity into quality
b. conversion of possibility through probability
to categorical necessity.

107.  Marxism is the scientific explanation of reality [ nature, society, mind]
Materialist dialectics applies to natural phenomena and human history.
Marxism: a body of doctrines derived from scientific analysis of nature, society, and human thought.

[Struggle for socialism is not a voluntary selection among different options by conscious proletariat - it is a result of progressive class struggle against imperialism, anchored by work of a Marxist party to allow working class to achieve class consciousness & consciousness of its historic struggle.]

Marxism would not be "realistic" unless based on true knowledge of objective reality.  It is so because Marxism is a science of nature not just society.

110. Marxism is a theory of revolutionary action because first and foremost it is a scientific doctrine based upon true knowledge of the material conditions of development-> 
because these determine the nature, scope and effectiveness of social change and political activity.

Law of progressive development.
The new replaces the old at a higher level as the outcome of the conflict of opposing forces.

232. Dialectical materialism true for all sectors of reality which enter into into human experience: nature/society/thought.

Dialectical materialism arose out of the study of universal processes of
a. becoming
b. modes of being

Each level of being has its own specific laws.  These laws merge with the general laws covering all spheres of existence and development.

Existence +development = context and method of dialectical materialism.

253.  Foundations/hallmarks of dialectical materialism"
a. all reality consists of matter in motion;
b. social life and intellectuality are the highest manifestations of the development of matter.

[idealism: essence of reality see in spirit, ideas, supernatural, personae]

The basis of all life, of all human action and thought, and the object of knowledge, was the being and becoming of the independently existing material world.

Material nature's universal evolutionary process is dialectical in character.  Proceeded through conflict of antagonistic forces.

Antagonistic forces slowly accumulate changes, which eventually explode old formations, creating cataclysmic upset [or, revolution].

272.  Objective reality is the root, not heaven or "free will."

a. Consciousness grew from unconsciousness
b. psychology from physiology
c. solar system from nebulae

Accumulation of quantitative changes transform into qualitative changes.

Dialectical thinking grows out of dialectics of nature: our thought is one form of expression of changing matter.

273.  Various aspects of social activity are an integral whole, historically evolving in accord with the development of productive forces and interacting with one-another in a living process where material conditions of life are ULTIMATELY DECISIVE.

277. Human history: a succession of various economic systems each operating in accordance of its own laws.

Growth of productive forces determines transition from one system to another:
a. technique
b. organization of labor

Changes in social order come when matured productive FORCES can no longer be held in check inside old FORMS of property.

Action and reaction of one class upon another propels this historical process.  

At stake: acquisition and distribution of surplus.

Class struggle:  struggle for surplus product.


a. What classes are struggling in a country?
b. What are their interrelations?
c. How and in what direction are these relations being transformed?
d. what are the objective tasks dictated by historical necessity?
e. On shoulders of what class does the solution of these tasks rest?
f. With what methods can they be solved?

279.  FOUNDATIONS OF SOCIETY: material substructure
Property forms
Relations of production [slave, serf, wage]

Only in the long run does economics take precedence over politics.

Regimes, institutions, parties, and leaders are defined by the role they play in upholding or changing existing relations of productions .  

ROLE OF INDIVIDUALS depends on broader historical facts.  Social and political power is a function of relations between people and ultimately between classes.

Prominent personages wield power not solely on their own account but on behalf of social forces greater than themselves.

Every leader represents material interests of a specific class or combination of classes.


Social -----> individual
General -----> particular
Whole-----> part
Material -----> intellectual


Power is not a personal possession that can be transported at will like any commodity from one owner to another.

Intelligent individuals with correct ideas and strategy are still subordinated to historical tides of their time and prevailing relations of class forces.


Personality: a living reality grown out of definite social conditions and reacting upon them.

a. Kerensky, Lenin, Trotsky, Stalin represented and incarnated a different correlation of social forces both national and international; 
b. a different degree of determination by the working classes; 
c. a different stage in the development of the Russian Revolution, and the state and society which issued from it.


Priority of matter and nature
human will & human activity

319. Marxist epistemology

Sense perceptions are doorway to more or less accurate reflection of actual material world.

Humans ACTIVELY interpret sense data, they are not simply PASSIVE receptors.

Marxist epistemology rejects existence of innate sense categories proposed by Kant.




  1. "Material nature's universal evolutionary process is dialectical in character. Proceeded through conflict of antagonistic forces."

    I do wonder whether this is true at the level of physics. (Electromagnetic phenomena exhibit the conflict of the opposite positive and negative charges, but the other three basic physical forces seem to lack opposites.)

    1. Thank you for your comment. I am certainly not qualified to discuss it, but clearly also Novack thought so.