Adventures in the Dialectic Part 2: Philosophy and Politics

In the last post, I tried to show how both Lenin and Fichte came to similar conclusions regarding the primary term in ontology, although they reached their conclusions from opposite sides of the issue. Namely, they both came to the conclusion that one’s ontological commitment is grounded in one’s interest

Fichte’s interest is in bourgeois freedom, the freedom to think freely. He argued that a materialist outlook entails a mechanistic relation between the world and thought. If all that exists is matter, then everything must abide by the laws of nature, and thus everything (including thought) is a link on the chain of a deterministic causal series.

This conception of materialism is, of course, rejected by Marxists as idealistic. What Marx contributed to the theory of materialism was the dialectic, which didn’t conceive of nature in purely mechanistic terms. This nuance is not something that can be gone into detail here, but is worth keeping in mind.

Like Fichte, Lenin, too, considered one’s philosophical outlook to be rooted in one’s interest. However, while Fichte was writing during the Enlightenment’s attempt to overcome the yoke of church censorship, Lenin was firmly rooted in the proletarian struggle for revolution. His interests were not in the freedom to think how one chooses, but to transform the material conditions of a society premised on the exploitation of one class by another.

From this analysis, we cannot come to the conclusion that there are two ontologies that co-exist: the ontology of the bourgeois and the ontology of the proletariat. This would be to fall into a perspectivism that neither side in this debate would accept. Rather, to Fichte, the materialist is wrong; likewise, to Lenin, the idealist is wrong. However, as they both admit, neither can ultimately prove the validity of their own position. There is no ultimate proof that can decide once and for all if either materialism or idealism is correct since both terms, matter and ideas, are the foundational terms upon which any theory of knowledge is premised.

For this reason, one’s ontological commitments are not ultimately epistemological but political. According to Lenin, the question of the primacy of matter or ideas is an abstraction that only has import within the context of philosophical discussion. It has no scientific value. One cannot understand matter without ideas, nor can one understand ideas without matter. To put it colloquially, there is only confusion about the primacy of the chicken or the egg if one contemplates them as isolated objects, instead two objects whose co-existence is intertwined in an ongoing process of evolutionary development. 

Likewise, matter and ideas are inextricably linked, evolving reciprocally on a path that spirals upwards. What mediates between the two terms is practice. So, what is the practice of a bourgeois professor versus the practice of a proletarian revolutionary? The bourgeois professor contemplates the world starting from pre-existing concepts and principles of logic. The proletarian revolutionary manipulates matter to create the visible world. The professor walks into a grocery store and finds the produce section to be a virtual cornucopia of fresh fruits and vegetables. The proletarian, by growing the produce, picking it, packaging it, driving it, and stocking it, labours in the noumenal shadows to create the phenomenal spectacle of the commodity. 

The result of an idealist philosophy has grave political consequences. If we only think smarter, if only those with power could understand the irrationality of their actions, then we can have a more equitable and just society. This political position is prominent in today’s political discourse. Comedians hosting political commentary programs joke that political leaders are stupid or incompetent; academics, activitsts and non-profit workers give presentations to city councils hoping to demonstrate that more efficient management of homelessness, addiction, climate change, etc. will cost less in the long run.

What these views fail to take into account is the material reality of class. If one thinks of ideas as the prime mover of social change, rather than material conditions, they will never understand the seemingly illogical decisions of those in power. Yes, of course, the government could ensure housing for everyone, make public transit free and respect Indigenous sovereignty over their lands. But then how would landlords, oil executives and mining companies continue to make profits?

People think according to their interests. They view the world according to the ideology that rationalizes their position in society. It is only the revolutionary that attempts to view things scientifically, because all things must change and by understanding the world in its flux, perhaps we can one day consciously create a society that benefits all of us rather than the few. 

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