Materialism

   As the principal terms and labels for Karl Marx’s central theory and approach suggest (“the materialist conception of history,” “historical materialism,” “dialectical materialism”), materialism lies at the heart of Marxism. Marx developed his materialist approach in opposition to philosophical idealism, and in particular to the idealism of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel and his followers. There is much debate among Marxists as to the exact nature of Marx’s materialism, but six main materialist theses can be discerned in his thought.
   First, there is the thesis that there exists a world independent of our perception of it, that material objects exist separately and independently of thought/mind/spirit. Secondly, Marx embraces a primacy of matter thesis which holds that matter is primary in that it can exist without mind, and it is primary in that mind emerges from matter. Thirdly, Marx espouses a naturalism thesis, meaning the natural world constitutes the entirety of reality, and nature is not derived from or dependent upon any supernatural entity. These first three theses may be described as Marx’s philosophical materialism. The fourth thesis to which Marx subscribes is embodied in his historical materialism and in essence states that social production determines or conditions the existence of human beings and of society in general. It ascribes causal primacy to the mode of production over ideas/the ideological sphere in social life. Fifthly, there is what may be termed the praxis thesis which asserts the constitutive role of human practice in changing nature, society, social being, and social consciousness, and also asserts the unity of theory and practice. Finally, there is what may be called the materialist methodology thesis which consists in a method of inquiry that takes as its starting point concrete determinate forms of life, the empirical rather than abstractions or a priori categories. These last three theses represent the more distinctive aspects of Marx’s materialism and convey the differences between his materialism and what he saw as the reductionist, abstract, passive, contemplative and nondialectical old materialism that preceded his innovations.
   Friedrich Engels in Anti-Dühring (1878) and Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classical German Philosophy (1886) explored materialism as a cosmology, ontology and philosophical world outlook and was enormously influential on theorists of the Second International, such as Eduard Bernstein, Karl Kautsky and Georgii Plekhanov, and on Soviet Marxism. Engels’ materialism formed the basis for what became known as dialectical materialism, a comprehensive though rather dogmatic and narrow philosophical outlook espoused particularly by Soviet ideologists. Vladimir Ilich Lenin also wrote about materialism in his Materialism and the Empirico-Criticism (1908), again asserting its centrality to Marxism, although focusing more on epistemology rather than ontology. Other Marxists have stressed materialism much less, Antonio Gramsci, for example, suggesting that the emphasis should be put on “historical” in historical materialism rather than on “materialism,” and Jean-Paul Sartre arguing that “no materialism of any kind can ever explain [freedom].”

Historical dictionary of Marxism. . 2014.

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