Wednesday, February 24, 2010


Thomas Riggins
(Engels and Philosophy V)

Engels discusses this topic in Chapter X, Part I of Anti-Dühring (Morality and Law. Equality). Engels discusses Dühring's method of analysis. Dühring thinks you break a subject down to its most simple components and then, using mathematical axioms, you can logically deduce what its true nature is. Engels calls this the A PRIORI method. In this method you logically deduce the nature of the object from its concept not from from the object itself. Then you reverse the process. You take your refurbished concept of the object and then judge the nature of the object by means of it instead of just studying the object itself. This is the garbage in, garbage out method.

In discussing "equality", Herr Dühring deduces the nature of society by logic "instead of from the real social relations of the people around him." He says the simplest form of society consists of just two people. Here you have two human wills and at this stage the two are ENTIRELY EQUAL to one another. From this Dühring says we can deduce "the development of the fundamental concepts of right." These two persons, by the way, are men.

Engels calls these two equal men "phantoms" because to be entirely equal they have to be free from any real life distinctions, including sexual distinctions and experiences, and thus become just abstract creations of Dühring's brain not real people at all.

Now what would justify one person becoming subordinate to another if they are entirely equal? Well if one of the two wills was, Engels explains, "afflicted with inadequate self-determination" then Dühring allows for its subordination. In other words the entirely equal wills are not entirely equal after all. Engels gives two more examples from Dühring in which "equality" will be replaced by inequality and subordination: they are "when two persons are 'morally unequal'" and when they are unequal mentally. Of course it is Herr Dühring and his followers who decide the moral and mental qualifications.

All this goes to show, Engels concludes, that Dühring has a shallow and botched outlook regarding the notion of equality. But this does not mean the idea of equality does not play "an important agitational role in the socialist movement of almost every country." The issue of Human Rights is the contemporary version of this debate. Following Engels, I will say that the "scientific content" of Human Rights will "determine its value for proletarian agitation."

The scientific content will be established by studying the history of the idea of Human Rights (AKA "equality.") It took thousands of years to get from the ideas about equality in the ancient world to those that the socialist movement holds, or should hold today. In the classical world of Greece and Rome inequality was as important as equality (slaves versus Roman citizenship for example).

Christianity recognized a form of equality-- all were equally subject to original sin. There was also, early on, the equality of the ELECT. But these were really bogus forms of equality as far as THIS world was concerned. Then, when the Germans overran the Roman Empire the ideals of human equality were set back for a thousand years due to the entrenchment of the FEUDAL ORDER.

Nevertheless, within that order a class was growing that would "become the standard- bearer of the modern demand for equality: the bourgeoisie." As a result of the maritime discoveries of the fifteenth century (da Gama, Columbus, etc.,) markets began to grow and the handicraft industries of the middle ages expanded into manufacturing concerns. This economic revolution took place within the political structure of feudalism. The bourgeoisie began to champion the notion of human rights and equality because human labor qua labor was seen as of equal value, a fact recognized in bourgeoisie political economy as the law of value "according to which," Engels writes, "the value of a commodity is measured by the socially necessary labour embodied in it." This connection was first brought to light by Marx in Das Kapital, Engels says.

The social contradiction between the new economic order of capitalism and the feudal political order brought about the great revolutions of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Engels explains that "where economic relations required freedom and equality of rights, the political system opposed them at every step." It is interesting to note that the bourgeoisie was able to wrest power from the feudalists and is to day's dominant ruling class. The same contradiction on a higher level, this time between the working classes and the bourgeoisie, has not been resolved. But only a revolutionary transfer of political power to the workers can overcome the economic problems, as well as the social questions of war and imperialism, that mark the present period of bourgeoisie decline.

Engels points out that with the decline of the Roman Empire and the development of independent states each claiming the same rights to nationhood as the others, and being, in the bourgeois world at least, on similar levels of development, the notion of equality gave way to to that of universal human rights. That "universal human rights" are basically bourgeois rights is illustrated by the fact that "the American constitution, the first to recognize the rights of man, in the same breath confirms the slavery of the coloured races existing in America: class privileges are proscribed, race privileges sanctioned."

The logical extension of the call for the abolition of class privileges by the bourgeoisie is the working class' call for the abolition of classes themselves. There are two aspects to the demand for equally made by the working people. The first is a protest against the poverty and oppression of the workers as compared to the wealth and power of the rich. This first aspect is spontaneous and "is simply an expression of the revolutionary instinct" of oppressed people. The second aspect is derived from the bourgeoisie's own ideals and demand for equality in face of the feudal order and is put forth "in order to stir up the workers against the capitalists with the aid of the capitalists' own assertions." In both cases, according to Engels, the real demand of the workers is not class equality but the ABOLITION OF CLASSES. Any demand beyond [i.e., other than] that, he says, "passes into absurdity."

What Engels has tried to show is that our modern notions of human rights and of human equality are not eternal verities good for every time and clime. Both the bourgeois and proletarian versions are historical products. So are the views of the Taliban, for example, on the treatment of women and the rights of non Islamic people or those of some South Africans on the number of wives a man can have. These views as well as those we call "modern", by which we mean 'Western" in their capitalist or working class incarnations developed as a result of "definite historical conditions that in turn themselves presuppose a long previous history."

Those values, therefore, WE take for granted are the product of a specific historical trajectory in which they functioned to bring about and stabilize the world capitalist system. Engels says, quoting Marx, if the modern notion of human rights "already possesses the fixity of a popular prejudice" this is due to the continuing influence of the Enlightenment on our times. The task of socialists today is to agitate for truly effective universal human rights-- and these include the right to a living income, to health, to food, housing, education, and to live in a world at peace-- attainable once and for all through the abolition of classes.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010


Thomas Riggins

Engels discusses this topic in chapter IX of Anti-Dühring (Morality and Law. Eternal Truths). He begins as usual by calling Dühring's statements on this topic BALDERDASH: and well he might since the good Herr begins by saying, "He who can think only by means of language has never yet learnt what is meant by ABSTRACT and PURE thought. "Indeed! Thinking without language? This prompts Engels to say then the "animals are the most abstract and purest thinkers." This quip is reminiscent of Hegel's response to the theologian Schleiermacher who said the essence of Christianity was unquestioning faith in your Lord. Hegel said then "the dog makes the best Christian."

Dühring is not a relativist on the subject of laws and morals. There is only one true moral law, not only for humans but creatures form outer space as well. He says, morals "must occur in concordant fashion among all extra-human beings whose active reason has to deal with the conscious ordering of life impulses in the form of instincts." By "extra-human beings" he means those living "on other celestial bodies." "Rational beings" would be (following Kant) a better term I think.

Dühring is quite insistent about this sort of thing, writing, "GENUINE TRUTHS ARE ABSOLUTELY IMMUTABLE ... so that it is altogether stupid to think that the correctness of knowledge is something that can be affected by time and changes in reality." What he is claiming is that human knowledge can attain, as Engels says, "sovereign validity and an unconditional claim to truth."

Well, is that true? "Is human thought sovereign?" Engels asks us to consider the following (it is very instructive for those who accuse Marxists of being DOGMATIC): "... in all probability we are just at the beginning of human history [not at the End of History as some pundits declared tr], and the generations which will put US right are likely to be far more numerous than those whose knowledge we --- often enough with a considerable degree of contempt --- have the opportunity to correct." This is to ward off Herr Dühring and his absolutely immutable balderdash. With some exceptions Engels has held up fairly well I think (with some refurbishing along the way.)

As for human knowledge being sovereign, Engels says it is "in its disposition, its vocation, its possibilities and its historical ultimate goal; it is not sovereign and it is limited in its individual realization and in reality at any particular moment." As for "eternal truths," Herr Dühring's conception is too idealistic and not of much use in the actual practice of science. Reason would arrive at the point where the intellectual world would be completely at a stand still if we had only Dühring's immutable truths to work with. But this does not mean that there are NO eternal truths at all.

Well there are some such as 2+2=4, water is H2O, Caesar was assassinated in 44 BC. Simple mathematical, chemical, historical truths, etc., but certainly no BIG eternal truths such as Dühring has in mind-- laws of history or of politics.

Especially when we are dealing with social phenomena are we not going to find eternal laws. This type of knowledge is always limited and relative and, as Engels points out , these kinds of law "exist only in a particular epoch and among particular peoples and are by their very nature transitory." And as for the dogmatism of Marxists-- Engels wants to stress that NO "individual whatsoever is in a position to deliver the final and ultimate truth." One can imagine what he would have thought of the Cult of Personality.

Outside of trivial truths we cannot have much faith that absolutely immutable truth is going to be available to us in the physical and social sciences with respect to truth and error, but what about morality and the knowledge of good and evil? Well, throughout history and all over the world we find different moralities and moral outlooks and some "are in direct contradiction to each other."

In the West we have two versions of Christian feudal morality, Catholic and Protestant, and many subdivisions of these as well. No morality is "true" in the sense of ultimate reality. Different classes have different values. There is a bourgeois morality and a working class morality. Engels thinks the morality of the future is, for us, truer than that which represents the past. The working class represents the future of humanity, for Engels, and so as far as "truth" is concerned it is working class morality that is "true" for us. It has been over a hundred and thirty years since Engels wrote Anti-Dühring and we have seen two large scale experiments in working class control-- the Chinese and Soviet experiments. It would be interesting to compare the morality taught in these two dispensations with Western bourgeois notions of morality. The following reference is a place to start [The Role of Morality in Communist Production by GeorgLukács1919 ]

Engels says the three classes of modern society are the feudal aristocracy, the the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. I think by now only the last two have any relevance in the major parts of the world. These two have different moral ideals, although many strata of the proletariat have been contaminated by bourgeois values. But the fact of these two different moral outlooks shows "that men, consciously or unconsciously, derive their ethical ideas in the last resort from the practical relations on which their class position is based--- from the economic relations in which they carry on production and exchange."

If there are areas of agreement between differing moralities, Engels says, this is because they have shared a common historical development and thus overlapping is to be expected. Engels rejects any attempt to impose eternal truths of morality since they are the products of historical conditioning. He also thinks there has been progress in moral ideas as in other fields (science, medicine, industry, etc.) and this is due to the class struggle, the struggle of people to free themselves from exploitation and poverty, which has led to moral reforms. But a truly human morality that rests on foundations independent of class struggle "becomes possible only at a stage of society which has not only overcome class antagonisms but has even forgotten them in practical life."

Next we will look at notions of "equality."
[Engels & Philosophy IV: A-D 6]