Alan Woods’ book on the history of philosophy takes a unique look at the development of philosophical thinking from the Ancient Greeks, through the Renaissance and beyond, until the final emergence of dialectical materialism, the philosophical outlook of Marxism, all from an openly Marxist standpoint.
Alan is a renowned Marxist theoretician, who has been an active participant in the revolutionary movement for over 60 years. He has written extensively on many subjects, from Bolshevism: The Road to Revolution, to his response to latter-day revisionism in Reformism or Revolution. He has also written several books on specific historical processes, from the transition from the Franco dictatorship in Spain, to the national question in Ireland, to the history of the United States, and much more.
When considering this latest work, one might ask the question: Is it really necessary to study philosophy to understand the world?
As society has evolved over time, science has advanced human knowledge. As that storehouse of knowledge has grown, it has become abundantly clear that the philosophical approach we adopt can either assist us in achieving greater clarity and understanding, or else it can obfuscate reality.
As Alan Woods explains, philosophy in the true sense of the word really began with the Greeks. It was an attempt to break free from the superstition and myth that had gripped the minds of primitive human beings, and to understand the world as it really is.
Ever since that epoch, philosophers have been divided into roughly two camps. On the one hand there were the materialists. The early Greek philosophers all adhered to this outlook. Materialism takes as its point of departure the view that there is a material reality independent of the human mind: a reality that can be known and analysed. Later there emerged those adhering, on the contrary, to an idealist outlook. They viewed the material world as unreal and only a product of the mind – ultimately the mind of God – which gives existence to everything else. As the book explains:
“Materialism rejects the notion that mind and consciousness is something separate from matter. Thought is merely the mode of existence of the brain, which, like life itself, is only matter organised in a certain way. Mind is what we call the sum total of the activity of the brain and the nervous system. But dialectically, the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. This view corresponds closely to the discoveries of science, which is gradually uncovering the workings of the brain and revealing its secrets.
“By contrast, idealism persists in presenting consciousness as a ‘mystery’, something that we cannot comprehend. It mystifies the physical and causal link between the thinking mind and the human body. This so-called mind-body problem arises because of the fact that mental phenomena appear to be qualitatively different from the physical bodies on which they appear to depend. Consistent materialism, however, maintains that mind and body are of one substance.”
In his book, Alan Woods analyses the different currents within both the materialist and the idealist trends. The ancient Greek materialists made some amazing discoveries thanks to their philosophical approach: from the idea that all matter is made up of atoms, to the fact that the world is a globe, that our planet orbits the sun, and so on.
All this knowledge was lost and forgotten following the collapse of the ancient civilisations. In the medieval epoch, Europe made very little progress under the domination of the Catholic Church and the extreme idealism it preached.
During this period, the far more advanced ideas of the Ancient Greek materialists were preserved in the Islamic world, from whence they later re-emerged, providing the ideas which contributed to a rebirth in Europe. With the Renaissance and later the Enlightenment, there was a break with mysticism, and a return to a genuinely scientific outlook, which allowed for immense progress in science and technique.
This book also explains the development of the dialectical approach to reality. Dialectics explains that the world is in constant change and movement. This was an approach already present among some of the Ancient Greek philosophers, later re-emerging in the works of Hegel. It would become a key element in the development of Marxism.
But as Alan Woods explains, the problem with Hegel was his idealist approach. For him, dialectics appeared as a characteristic of human thought. Finally, it was with Marx and Engels that the conclusion that dialectical development is a fundamental characteristic of matter, was reached. Dialectics was thus combined with materialism – which up until then had a mechanical, static, approach to understanding reality – producing what became known as “dialectical materialism”: the philosophy of Marxism.
The chapters of this book were originally intended to be part of another book, Reason in Revolt: Marxist Philosophy and Modern Science, written by Alan Woods and Ted Grant and published in 1995. It was decided, however, that this would make the book excessively long, the subject of the history of philosophy meriting a separate text.
After a long wait, we are now publishing those chapters as a book in its own right. Through its pages are explained how over 2,000 years of human thinking of various philosophical schools finally produced the Marxist outlook. Marx and Engels took the best of the works of past generations of great thinkers, producing a method that allows Marxists to look beyond the immediate reality in front of us. It is a method that allows us to look at how things were, how they have become and how they are most likely to develop in the future.
Marxists do not study history as a series of isolated events: as lists of kings and popes, of wars and revolutions, disconnected from each other. Rather, we look at each development as part of a long historical process. This process began with early, primitive humans, and their struggle for survival. It proceeded through the emergence of class societies. Passing from one form to the other, in the course of the development of class society, humanity has developed an increasingly detailed knowledge of the world in which we live. Finally, this long historical process has created the material prerequisites for ending class society itself. The potential now exists to unleash the flowering of a new society, where humans will achieve true freedom, where no human will exploit another, and no human will oppress another.
Down to the time of Marx and Engels, the history of philosophy represented a genuine seeking after a scientific, rational approach to the development of human understanding. Since Marx and Engels’ day, bourgeois philosophy has dedicated all its energies to denying the final conclusions of thousands of years of human thought. This inevitably entails a denial of rational thought and its replacement with unscientific thought. Its task is to deny the very idea that human society moves forward in a progressive manner.
That is how one explains the emergence of ‘postmodernism’. Adherents of this so-called philosophy try to present it as something new. In reality, it merely contains a rehash of all the old ideas of the idealist camp. A genuinely scientific approach to the development of society inevitably leads to the conclusion that capitalism is not the final goal of history but merely one phase which must give way to a superior form, socialism. For this reason, all latter-day bourgeois philosophy is dedicated to denying rational thinking. It is this that explains the growth of the school of postmodernism, with all its variants such as poststructuralism, postcolonialism, queer theory, and a whole host of so-called theories based on identity politics.
Desperate to disguise its real content and to appear original – which it is not – it uses all kinds of incomprehensible, convoluted, and intentionally ambiguous language. In reality, postmodernism is a bourgeois philosophy that reflects the dead-end of the capitalist system itself. In seeking to justify its own existence, the bourgeoisie of today is forced to abandon the philosophical outlook of its own revolutionary past, turning against the best traditions of the Enlightenment.
In the hands of the modern bourgeoisie, philosophy cannot answer any of the profound questions facing humanity, and neither is that its intention. Its sole purpose is to entangle, confuse and demoralise the thinking youth in order to deter them from taking the road of revolution. Dialectical materialism, on the contrary, provides a method that allows us to achieve clarity, drawing out the connections between events and facts in order that we might intervene in history decisively to alter its course and liberate humanity. Unlike the bourgeois professors whose incomprehensible language is deliberately designed to daunt the reader, Alan Woods writes in a clear, accessible style to theoretically arm revolutionaries with these marvellous ideas. The resulting book is a sharp weapon for cutting through postmodern, academic rubbish – a weapon with which every class-conscious worker and young person should arm themselves.
Attend the book launch!
To celebrate the release of this book, Wellred Books invites you to join Alan Woods for an online book launch on 26 September at 16.00 British Summer Time.
The launch will feature an introduction from the author, who will also explain how philosophy is an indispensable tool in the struggle for the revolutionary transformation of society. There will also be plenty of time for questions and answers.
The event will be free to attend, but we welcome donations. Participants also have the option to pre-order the book with their ticket and have it sent straight to your door as soon as it is ready.