The Big Reason Mises Rejected Marx's Dialectical Materialism
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Most people have never heard of dialectical materialism. The term looks so obtuse that you’d be forgiven for thinking that only pretentious students loitering outside the philosophy department smoking hand-rolled cigarettes could imagine that it has anything to do with real life. It certainly can’t exert much influence in the world if only a small number of radical Marxists could even tell you what it means.
On the contrary, writes Mises, dialectical materialism dominates the ideas of more people than you think. It has been absorbed by those who do not call themselves Marxists and even by people who consider themselves anticommunist.
When Mises released his book Theory and History: An Interpretation of Social and Economic Evolution in 1957, dialectical materialism was still the official philosophy of the Soviet Union and the Berlin Wall was still a good thirty years from coming down. However, Mises’s critique (found in chapter 7) is still relevant. The ideas that dialectical materialism represents have not fallen out of favor and may even be on the rise.
But what the heck is dialectical materialism?
Well, I’m glad you asked.
Dual Origins: Hegelian Spiritualism and Materialism
Marx theorized that human history is best viewed as a series of class struggles between social forces that have contradictory interests. For example, the class struggles between slaves and their masters, between feudal lords and their subjects, and—in his day—the class struggle between capitalists and their workers. He believed that seeing history as the history of class struggle had better explanatory power than viewing it through other lenses, such as the history of ideas, technological innovations, or military conflicts.
In fact, properly viewed through the lens of class struggle, history would naturally subsume those other ways of seeing the world and illuminate the context in which they unfolded, particularly when it came to technological innovation, which Marx thought would ultimately determine the struggle of the age. He wrote, “The hand-mill gives you society with the feudal lord; the steam-mill society with the industrial capitalist.”1 Mises (1957, p. 72) summarizes Marx's view as follows: “These forces are the driving power producing all historical facts and changes.”
The weird thing about dialectical materialism, Mises notes, is that Marx seemed to cobble it together from pieces of two existing philosophies that contradicted each other. These two philosophies were Hegelian spiritualism (after the influential German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel) and materialism. Marx believed that he was building upon them, but Mises believed they were incompatible.
The Prussian government and the intellectuals of Prussian universities preferred Hegelian spiritualism, because it essentially said that history was guided by the world spirit, or weltgeist, which acted through the great men of history and government to bring about its will. Hegelian spiritualism justified their privileged position by giving them a pretext for ruling over the plebs, since the weltgeist had conveniently picked them out for the task.
The materialists, on the other hand, thought that reality was just “what you see is what you get,” and as such didn’t think that the Prussian aristocracy had any right to rule—even less a divine one granted by some elitist specter. They wanted to overthrow the state—by violent revolution if necessary—and see those pampered high hats to hell.
Hopefully you are beginning to see how Marxism combines these two theories.
Marx Tweaks the Hegelian Dialectic
Now, Hegel is as perplexing a philosopher to understand as you’ll find and notoriously difficult to read even for bookish academic types. Despite his impregnable style he did pass on one very famous idea which I think is quite useful and does actually have the power to demystify the world sometimes, if you interpret it generously. It was also adapted and repurposed by Marx. It’s called the Hegelian dialectic and goes something like this: in a society you have a prevailing doctrine which is widely accepted and taken for granted by most people—but this cannot remain indefinitely so. At some time, a movement comes along proposing to challenge and overturn the prevailing wisdom, saying that it is nonsensical and should be repudiated only to be replaced with a new one.
Hegelians call the first doctrine the thesis and the opposing doctrine the antithesis. But here’s where it gets interesting. The antithesis never successfully overturns the thesis and throws it out the window completely. Instead the two doctrines begin to fuse together creating a synthesis, which combines elements of both. This third doctrine becomes the dominant thesis of a new era. But no sooner has this process completed than the whole damn thing is poised to start again. This new prevailing wisdom, combining elements of the old movement and the one which opposed it, will soon come to be opposed by a new antithesis which opposes that. Hegel believed that this process was a law that governed history but that it also mirrored the thinking process and described the logic by which people come to understand the world itself.
Marx extracted the dialectic and fused it into his own philosophy, hoping to prove that socialism was bound to come about “with the inexorability of a law of nature” by a dialectical process of class struggle in which the workers eventually threw off the chains of their capitalist overlords to create a classless society in which everyone would be equal and work for the common good.
Dialectical Materialism in a Nutshell
This philosophy is dialectical materialism:
1) Everything that exists is material. There are no gods, no souls, no spirits to call up at a séance, or any of that eerie supernatural stuff. Weltgeists are completely out of the question. What you see is what you get. Our thoughts and ideas are only reflections of material phenomena in our physical brains. This is materialism.
2) Everything that exists is in contradiction and conflict with something else, like magnetic poles, Republicans and Democrats, or your in-laws arguing furiously over who burnt the turkey at Thanksgiving. They duke it out, and from their struggle emerges something new. This is dialectics.
According to Marx, at a certain stage in their development the existing material productive forces of society come into contradiction with the existing production relations, or the established social system of property laws. This leads to an epoch of social revolution during which the superstructure transforms itself. This is the application of the Hegelian dialectic in Marxism.
The Misesian Critique of Dialectical Materialism
In Theory and History, Mises strives to highlight how Hegelianism stands in stark contradiction to materialism and that no rational fusion of the two is possible. For one thing, Hegelians believed that the ultimate basis of the universe was mind (which they called “spirit” or “geist”), while the materialists believed that it was matter.
For Hegel, the dialectical process of thinking mirrors the creation process. Via logic the mind acquires knowledge of reality. Matter does not have its own substance but arises from the mind of God (in a manner of speaking), named geist.
Mises says that this worldview is completely incompatible with any kind of materialism. In philosophical terms, Hegel is what is called a spiritual idealist—meaning that he thinks the universe is made of something spiritual rather than material. Mises contends that it was “nonsensical” to take dialectics out of its idealistic grounds and transplant it to a system that was empirical, because Hegelianism viewed what we commonly call empirical reality as “ein Faules” (something rotten or inert). Although it seemed real, it was not real at all apart from the way that reason apprehended it. Its true source was divine action—the ultimate truth.
Friedrich Engels, in trying to prove dialectical materialism, studied the natural world and was wowed to find examples of dialectical processes in full bloom wherever he looked. The whole of geology is a series of negated negations, he wrote. A butterfly comes into existence from an egg through negation of the egg, and then is negated again as it dies. The barleycorn is negated by the barley plant, which produces another barleycorn but in several times the quantity. Mises strongly suggests that this is not actually some ground-shaking revelation but just a silly word game. He points out that it is just as sensible to call a butterfly the “self-assertion” of the egg as the negation of it—the maturing of its inherent purpose and fulfillment of its ultimate potential. Engels was only substituting the word negation for the word change.
Although Marx and Engels boasted of putting the philosophy of Hegel on its feet, Mises concluded that the two simply wanted to latch onto him because his philosophy was dominant in their time. Perhaps it would look better, from their point of view, to propose a philosophy claiming to build upon a great master rather than to repudiate him.2
- 1. Karl Marx, The Poverty of Philosophy (1847).
- 2. For more, see Theory and History: An Interpretation of Social and Economic Evolution (1957; repr., Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Fund, 2005), particularly pages 69–71. I have taken the liberty of providing the necessary historical context and interpretation of Hegel and Marx necessary for a layperson to understand Mises’s ideas.