Materialism is the usually monistic philosophical conception according to which the only reality that can truly be said to exist is the matter and all that derives from its continuous transformation. This is to say that, fundamentally and substantially, all things have a material nature; that is, the foundation and substance of reality are material. See also: Empiricism vs Sensationalism vs Materialism
Strictly speaking we can define materialistic systems only those that make matter rise to a metaphysical principle, in an attempt to explain “the form by means of the content, things by means of materials”. In the modern scientific thought instead materialism is a working hypothesis to explain the unification of sensible data out of presupposed spiritual activities, for which the concept of matter would be valid as able to unify all phenomena. It follows that the physical hypothesis is not materialistic because, wanting to unify all sensitive data, it must resort to the abstract power of the mind, even if it looks at the result as something external to it.
The criticism of materialism focuses on these two problems: matter and all the other postulates of materialism are reduced in the last analysis to the concept, that is, they are mental values, and the mind, consequently, is not destroyed, but remains, even according to materialism, in the fullness of its functions; materialism has as its foundation an absolute datum, immediately grasped by the mind, while experience is presented in disordered and constantly changing impressions. The answer given by materialism to these objections is as follows: the act of knowing has a subjective aspect that is always active and an objective aspect that remains passive; materialism wants to grasp only the passive aspect of this act, in full autonomy from any activity.
In the history of philosophy, materialism is not manifested as a continuous and regular movement, but at times and discontinuously: at the beginning of philosophical speculation, the search is directed to the fundamental matter of the cosmos; Epicureanism entrusts the formation of matter to the random association of atoms, thus emphasizing the absence in this operation of any reality transcending the world; the end of life is pleasure and death is only the dissolution of the atoms (united by chance) that formed an entity.
In the Renaissance, Hobbes brought materialism into political life and asserted that only an absolute power could restrain men who ran, each on his own, in pursuit of pleasure. The French Enlightenment was permeated with materialism in the thought of La Mettrie, for whom human actions, virtues, society are all based on the pleasure of the senses, and d’Holbach, who saw nature as matter and movement, in which man is placed as a physical being.
Materialists were also the evolutionists of the nineteenth century: E. Vogt defined thought as a “secretion of the brain”; L. Buchner identified consciousness and thought with the force that matter releases from the animal body; J. Moleschott asserted that consciousness and thought are the result of the action of matter. Moleschott asserted that thought and consciousness are the product of matter, which the bloodstream leads to the brain; the greatest of them, E. Haeckel, reduced the phenomena of nature to transformations of matter, including living matter, so the thought is a character of matter and as such is found in all things.
It is a doctrine that reduces all of reality to matter and to the movement and combinations to which it gives rise: metaphysical materialism was informed in antiquity by the atomism of Democritus, of which Epicurus and the Latin poet Lucretius were convinced assertors (De rerum natura). Condemned by the spiritualistic vision of Christianity, metaphysical materialism reappeared in the eighteenth century with Diderot, Helvetius, d’Holbach, La Mettrie, Cabanis, assuming a mechanistic meaning; Vogt, Buchner, Moleschott and Haeckel put in the heart of matter the concept of force and as such was accepted and propagated by German positivism.
This is the canon of interpretation of human history elaborated by Marx and Engels in its theoretical principles and then developed and applied by Marxist thought and practice. The fundamental thesis of historical materialism is that “the mode of production of material life conditions the process of social, political and spiritual life. It is not already man’s consciousness that determines his being, but, on the contrary, his social being that determines his consciousness” (Marx, “Preface” to For the Critique of Political Economy, 1859).
The mode of production is the structure of society, the basis to which adhere the life and struggle of the social classes, according to whose interests and social practice arises a coercive, legal-state and ideological superstructure: moral, religious, philosophical, scientific and artistic-cultural. The mode of production of the material means of society is constituted by the unity between productive forces and relations of production. The productive forces of a given society are the set of production tools and technical-productive capabilities of workers. The relations of production have their basis in the ownership of the means of production, and also include: the relations between men and between men and tools in production (organization of work); the relations between men in exchange; the way the product is distributed.
The fundamental law of development of history lies in the contradiction between productive forces and relations of production: when the latter compress the growth of productive forces, and thus prevent the satisfaction of the ever-increasing needs of the population, an epoch of social revolution opens up, through which the power of the class that holds the ability to expand production emerges. Thus, through incessant class struggles, between the exploiting and working classes, new dominant classes and new modes of production are gradually established: the primitive economic form, based on the communal property of the gens, while expanding and reproducing in the Asian mode of production, quickly dissolves in the Greco-Roman world, giving rise to the slave economy, in turn overwhelmed by feudalism, which is first corroded and then destroyed by the modern capitalism of the bourgeoisie. This represents the last antagonistic form of the production process, whose overthrow, by the proletariat, will be followed by the socialist mode of production and finally communism.
Within the framework of Marxism-Leninism, whose cardinal line of development consists of the work of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Mao, dialectical materialism aims to identify the most general laws of becoming, common to the processes of nature, society and thought. Therefore, dialectical materialism is the ontological, gnoseological and methodological foundation of the theoretical principles of the “world conception of the proletariat”, principles that aim to transform and integrate the totality of sciences and culture, but which concern above all the scientific vision of history, the structure of society and the economy and the ideology for the realization of communism.
According to dialectical materialism, matter in motion exists from eternity and leads to a very late and high stage of evolution, in the animal man, the spirit. Matter is therefore independent from consciousness; but it is knowable and transformable by man, who, starting from his needs and from the practice oriented according to them, selectively perceives through the organs of sense the superficial characters and effects (appearance) of objectivity, and then elaborates explanatory theories to try to grasp the deepest and most circumstantial objective connections that, going beyond the phenomenon, approach the essence of things.
The truth, always approximate, of each theory is tested by experiments, which still involve an advance in the heart of the object. Thus, in knowledge and action, a continuous dialectic takes place between experience or sensitive practice and theory, between implementation and project. In the search for the specific laws that regulate events and objective relations, scientific investigation has always been guided by general visions on the universal form of the connections between things and their becoming. Thus Aristotelian finalism, deterministic mechanism and casual empiricism have succeeded one another and intertwined.
Dialectical materialism wants to preserve the merits of these traditional ways of thinking by overcoming their one-sidedness and closures in a conception of becoming that has its fulcrum in the contrast, in the contradiction or struggle between united and opposite bipolar tendencies, which gives rise (through the so-called “negation of negation”) to new synthesis, to new results always provisional: To the “devouring” of one of the two poles by the other, or to the overcoming of the differences between the previously contradictory aspects, or to a new balance between the two polarities, according to the type (antagonistic or integrative or complementary) of the contradiction. The passage from quantitative change to qualitative leap expresses the evolutionary logic of matter as it is constrained in the dialectical structure of contradiction.