On Materialist Understanding of History


Screen Shot 2013-10-09 at 11.19.07 AMI was reading a very odd small book from 1931 this morning – Toward the Struggle for the Materialist Dialectics in Mathematics – one of those volumes from early Stalinist period that called on science to get with the socialist construction program. It was the sign of times to make sure that all the scientists were doing their science from “Marxist-Leninist” (and later “Stalinist”) point of view. This one is odd because it is about mathematics, one objective science that, one would think, be impossible to bend into any philosophical direction.

The interesting part is the preface where the Marxist understanding of the relationship between society and science is stated and then almost immediately forgotten (by interpreting it away). The issue was that from Marxist point of view the development of science is determined by the development of forces and relations of production. The collection states that and then immediately moves to say that we, proletarian scientists, must change the science in order to make sure it conforms with the tasks of the socialist construction.

So which one is it then? Do the changes in the economic “base” bring about changes in science (and philosophy) or do the changes in science (and philosophy) simply reflect the changes that already took place? This is one challenge of Soviet understanding of the way history works “materialistically-dialectically” – most of the time the confusion is obvious because there is a sense of passivity when it comes to overall changes in forces and relations of production then influencing “superstructure” of science, but the active tasks of molding the new country into something different would not really allow for such (Marxist) passivity.

The second issue is the role of individuals and ideas – Soviet philosophy was of course notorious for taking Marx-Lenin-Stalin as revolutionary heroes who could potentially be wrong but who were sort of super-thinkers and their ideas molded reality around them. Take your usual discussion of Lenin: without his correction understanding of Marxism (and his constant fights against deviations) there would not have been a coherent theory of socialist revolution and therefore there would not have been a revolution. It’s as simple as that – ideas determine reality. Of course, Soviet writers were able to say things like “but Lenin’s theory came as a result of the experience of the masses and the correct perception of the changes in material reality” but still the issue remained. Great men and their ideas determined history, not, as Marx seemed to have suggested, changes in material conditions determined ideas…

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