August 31, 2014
Materialism in the 19th century materialism came in many forms and guises. Already, we’ve reviewed several of them already in our series of blogs on Richard Olson’s book Science and Scientism in Nineteenth Century.
Perhaps the most famous – and certainly the most notorious – of those 19th century materialisms is what later came to be called dialectical materialism. Developed by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, it became the basis for communism and systems of government around the globe. Like the scientific materialism of Vogt, Moleschott, and Buchner that we reviewed last week, dialectical materialism portrayed itself as based on a true scientific understanding of reality. In actuality, like scientific materialism, it was based on French ideas about socialism and on positivist thinking, on 19th century German philosophical arguments of Hegel and Feuerbach, and on various other social and intellectual developments of the time.
Before looking in more detail at the mid-nineteenth century origins of Marxist materialism, let’s first look at the death toll inflected by 20th communist governments on their own populations – a rough indicator of the social impact of this so-called “scientific” materialism. We also review the Baha’i perspective on communism.
The Black Book of Communism
Wikipedia has two sites that look at mass killings exacted by communist regimes on their populations in the name of dialectical materialism - Mass Killings Under Communist Regimes and The Black Book of Communism. The estimate typically given as to the numbers of people killed by such regimes is between 85 to 100 million. The usual reference is the 1997 book on the topic called The Black Book of Communism: Crimes, Terror, Repression written on the basis of studies by a number of European academics.
Here are the estimates in the Black Book by country:
- 65 million in the People’s Republic of China
- 20 million in the Soviet Union
- 2 million in Cambodia
- 2 million in North Korea
- 1.7 million in Africa
- 1.5 million in Afghanistan
- 1 million in the Communist states of Eastern Europe
- 1 million in Vietnam
- 150,000 in Latin America (mainly Cuba)
- 10,000 deaths “resulting from actions of the international Communist movement and Communist parties not in power.”
Notice that these numbers are very large, dwarfing the numbers of those killed by religious wars (reference: List of wars and anthropogenic disasters by death toll.) For example, the Catholic Crusades led to 2 to 4 million deaths, the 30 Years War between Protestants and Catholics in the 17th century led to 3 to 12 million deaths, the French wars of religion in the 16th century led to 2 to 4 million deaths, and the notorious Catholic Inquisition led to 2,000 deaths. Also notice that in contrast to 20th century mass killings, the wars of religion were as much political as they were ideological.
Marxism has meant bloody terrorism, deadly purges, lethal prison camps and murderous forced labor, fatal deportations, man-made famines, extrajudicial executions and fraudulent show trials, outright mass murder and genocide. [Construction of a Marxist utopia was] a war on poverty, exploitation, imperialism and inequality – and, as in a real war, noncombatants would unfortunately get caught in the battle. There would be necessary enemy casualties: the clergy, bourgeoisie, capitalists, ‘wreckers’, intellectuals, counterrevolutionaries, rightists, tyrants, the rich and landlords. As in a war, millions might die, but these deaths would be justified by the end, as in the defeat of Hitler in World War II. To the ruling Marxists, the goal of a communist utopia was enough to justify all the deaths.
But note that capitalism has had its share of mass killings – one need only think of the horrific European and North and South American institutions of slavery or the corporate over-lordships of the the British East India Company, the Dutch East India Company, and other colonial exploitations (for example, the brutal exploitation and 2 to 15 million deaths in the Congo by King Leopold II of Belgium.)
Some Baha’i Views on Communism
The Baha’i Faith condemns all forms of materialism, including communism, and calls on them to give an accounting of their successes and failures. The Universal House of Justice in The Promise of World Peace writes:
The time has come when those who preach the dogmas of materialism, whether of the east or the west, whether of capitalism or socialism, must give account of the moral stewardship they have presumed to exercise. Where is the “new world” promised by these ideologies? Where is the international peace to whose ideals they proclaim their devotion? …
Most particularly, it is in the glorification of material pursuits, at once the progenitor and common feature of all such ideologies, that we find the roots which nourish the falsehood that human beings are incorrigibly selfish and aggressive. It is here that the ground must be cleared for the building of a new world fit for our descendants.
Only communism is singled-out for direct mention.The Century of Light, written on behalf of the Universal House of Justice, says the following:
Alone among these would-be agents of violent change one broadly based movement was proceeding systematically and with ruthless clarity of purpose towards the goal of world revolution. The Communist Party, deriving both its intellectual thrust and an unshakeable confidence in its ultimate triumph from the writings of the nineteenth century ideologue Karl Marx, had succeeded in establishing groups of committed supporters throughout Europe and various other countries.
Convinced that the genius of its master had demonstrated beyond question the essentially material nature of the forces that had given rise to both human consciousness and social organization, the Communist movement dismissed the validity of both religion and “bourgeois” moral standards. In its view, faith in God was a neurotic weakness indulged in by the human race, a weakness that had merely permitted successive ruling classes to manipulate superstition as an instrument for enslaving the masses.
Shoghi Effendi, the Guardian of the Baha’i Faith, describes communism as one of mankind’s three false Gods:
God Himself has indeed been dethroned from the hearts of men, and an idolatrous world passionately and clamorously hails and worships the false gods which its own idle fancies have fatuously created, and its misguided hands so impiously exalted. The chief idols in the desecrated temple of mankind are none other than the triple gods of Nationalism, Racialism and Communism, at whose altars governments and peoples, whether democratic or totalitarian, at peace or at war, of the East or of the West, Christian or Islamic, are, in various forms and in different degrees, now worshiping. (Shoghi Effendi, The Promised Day is Come, p. 112)
Karl Marx (1818–1883) and Friedrich Engels (1820-1895) were both from wealthy middle-class German families. Marx was schooled at the University of Bonn and then the University of Berlin. There, he joined a group of radical thinkers known as the Young Hegelians that included David Strauss and Ludwig Feuerbach, two of the main thinkers responsible for laying the groundwork for German materialism. Engels initially avoided school but ended up in Berlin as an artillery officer – and also a member of the Young Hegelians. Both were active writing newspaper articles exposing social injustice. They met and became close friends in Paris 1844, both having become materialists and socialists.
… the Communists everywhere support every revolutionary movement against the existing social and political order of things. … The Communists disdain to conceal their views and aims. They openly declare that their ends can be attained only by the forcible overthrow of all existing social conditions. Let the ruling classes tremble at a Communistic revolution. The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win.
Working Men of All Countries, Unite!
Over the next 35 year, Marx and Engels worked together in England to buttress, augment, expand on and explain their reasonings (and to maneuver their theory into the leading radical analysis of 19th century European society).
At its core, their approach relies on a Feuerbachian materialistic analysis of religion and society augmented by Hegelian add-ons. Feuerbach argued that human beings created God in their own image and therefore awareness of God is a false consciousness. Marx agrees, but argues further that human ideas about all aspects of reality – all of our forms of consciousness – are in similar way created by our “materialistic modes of production.” (If is sound a bit convoluted, it’s because it is.)
Here is how the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy describes Marx approach to religion – and then to materialism in general:
With regard to religion, Marx fully accepted Feuerbach’s claim in opposition to traditional theology that human beings had created God in their own image [but] criticizes Feuerbach on the grounds that he has failed to understand why people fall into religious alienation and so is unable to explain how it can be transcended. Marx’s explanation is that religion is a response to alienation in material life, and therefore cannot be removed until human material life is emancipated, at which point religion will wither away.
(Alienation, in Marxist theory, means “estrangement of people from aspects of their human nature” and is derived from Feuerbach’s theory of religion.}
The Encyclopedia continues. Marx and Engel’s “premises of the materialist method” are that
… human beings are essentially productive, in that they must produce their means of subsistence in order to satisfy their material needs. The satisfaction of needs engenders new needs of both a material and social kind, and forms of society arise corresponding to the state of development of human productive forces. Material life determines, or at least ‘conditions’ social life, and so the primary direction of social explanation is from material production to social forms, and thence to forms of consciousness.
As the material means of production develop, ‘modes of co-operation’ or economic structures rise and fall, and eventually communism will become a real possibility once the plight of the workers and their awareness of an alternative motivates them sufficiently to become revolutionaries.
When the false consciousness produced by alienation falls away – when the workers are no longer exploited by class enemies – then a communist society will emerge, according to the Marxist vision of the future. Such a society is one that is “classless and stateless, based upon common ownership of the means of production with free access to articles of consumption, and therefore the end of economic exploitation. … economic relations no longer would determine the society. Scarcity would be eliminated in all possible aspects. Alienated labor would cease, as people would be free to pursue their individual goals.”
But is this scientific?
But how much of this is scientific? Given that it’s a highly theoretical construct mainly unsupported by empirical arguments, probably its better to say it is “scientistic”. Olson summarizes how he sees it as follows:
There is no doubt that Marxism was a scientistic movement. That is, it openly sought to extend methods derived from mathematics and the natural sciences to deal with social phenomena.
But suppose we were to conclude it was scientific? Then
… even if we were to agree that Marxism was and is indeed scientific, that would not justify the most important inference that Marx, Engels, and subsequent Marxists have wished to draw: That it was therefore also correct in all of its claims.
Next week, we move to England, Victorian culture, and its changes of attitude towards science.
This is the 13th in a series of blogs on the modern science and religion literature. The author, Stephen Friberg, is a Bahá’í living in Mountain View, California. A research physicist by training, he wrote Religion and Evolution Reconciled: ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s Comments on Evolution with Courosh Mehanian. He worked in Japan for 10 years before joining the semiconductor industry in Silicon Valley.