Dialectics I: Maurice Cornforth on Communism and Philosophy

by K. Wilson

The subject of ‘dialectics’ is a common sticking point for students of Marxism. I thought I would start writing a series of short articles for people who are approaching this subject for the first time, and also for people who have been reading and talking about dialectics for ages but still feel unsure of what it’s all really about. I have been in both of these categories at one time or another (and sometimes I still feel like I’m in the latter), so I hope that what I have to say can help others come to grips with a difficult subject more quickly than I did. This first article is basically a book recommendation and an introduction to a great but little-known Marxist, Maurice Cornforth.


The subject of ‘dialectics’ is sort of like the quicksand of Marxist theory: many unsuspecting travelers who wander into it never come out again. There are several reasons for this. One is that the meaning of the term ‘dialectics’ has changed through the history of philosophy: when Marx uses the word (which he did not do often), he doesn’t mean exactly what Hegel, the Medieval theologians, Aristotle, or Plato meant by it. So some of the confusion is created by the failure to understand how and why this concept developed as it did (and this itself is a failure to think ‘dialectically’!).

Another and more significant source of confusion is that so many influential Marxists after Marx have royally messed up with this subject. On the whole, Marxist theory passed from open-ended science into set-in-stone doctrine. Soviet ideologists eventually turned ‘dialectical materialism’ into a rigid philosophical system to underpin their bastardized version of Marxism. In the West, partly in reaction to Soviet dogmatism, many Marxists delved back into Hegel with hopes of recovering the ‘true essence’ of Marxian dialectics, and in so doing got stuck in the very same convoluted philosophical morass that Marx had been trying to climb out of.

It is therefore difficult, when first approaching the subject of dialectics, to know where to start or whom to trust. I believe that students of Marxism who want to understand ‘dialectics’ – as well as ‘dialectical method’, ‘materialism’, ‘dialectical materialism’, ‘historical materialism’, all the loaded phrases that are sometimes carelessly tossed about by Marxists – can do no better than to begin by reading the book Communism and Philosophy: Contemporary Dogmas and Revisions of Marxism (1980), by the British Marxist philosopher Maurice Cornforth. Since Cornforth has been largely and unfortunately forgotten, a short introduction is in order.

Maurice Cornforth was born in 1909 and was educated in the British tradition of logical-analytical philosophy at Cambridge, where he studied under such influential philosophers as G. E. Moore and Ludwig Wittgenstein. During this time, in 1931, he joined the Communist Party of Great Britain, and remained a member throughout his life. In his early books, some of which were written for the Party, Cornforth “took it as gospel…that Marx, Engels and Lenin were undoubtedly right in everything they taught, and that whatever they said (especially when they said it at least three times) must be true.” Over the course of his career, however, he arrived at a much more critical attitude toward the ‘Marxist Classics’, even as he was engaged in critiquing ‘bourgeois’ ideologies from a Marxist standpoint. His books Marxism and the Linguistic Philosophy (1965) and The Open Philosophy and the Open Society: A Reply to Dr. Karl Popper’s Refutations of Marxism (1968) are both still well worth reading.

Communism and Philosophy, Cornforth’s final published work, is thus the product of a lifetime spent grappling with Marxist orthodoxy from inside the ‘church’. This remarkable – and, for Marxists, I believe indispensible – book definitively cuts through a long century of confusion in Marxist philosophy. It is particularly valuable for its treatment of one common misconception about ‘materialism’ and ‘dialectics’, which grew out of some ambiguous (and sometimes just plain wrong) formulations of Marx, Engels, and Lenin that were seized upon and canonized by their followers. Simply put, this is the idea that ‘materialism’, in Marxist theory, states that the universe is ultimately composed of ‘matter’ rather than ‘spirit’ (as was supposedly held by ‘idealists’ like Hegel); and that ‘dialectics’ is an expression of the fundamental ‘laws of motion’ that govern this material universe.

Cornforth methodically and decisively lays this misconception to rest, putting in its place an emphasis on the empirical nature of Marx’s theory and method. He argues that Marx’s (and Engels’) central achievement in the realm of theory lay in “their having established in ‘historical materialism’ the fundamentals for the science of mankind and human society”. Marx’s method may accurately be called ‘dialectical’, but ‘dialectics’ does not give us any special wisdom as to what the world around us is like: we always have to discover this empirically. Cornforth sums up in a passage that is worth quoting at length:

“Materialism” in Marxist theory is not, then, a doctrine that “nature is primary”, or that “matter” is the ultimate substance. It consists in the practice of research and theory-making which seeks always to conceive of things “in their own and not in a fantastic connection” .

And as to “dialectics”, this is not “the science of the general laws of motion both of the external world and human thought” – a pseudo-science of motion-in-general tacked on to the genuine sciences. If we try to “conceive of the facts in their own and not in a fantastic connection”, then we have to try to take into account all the relationships, the motions and connections, in their concrete and many-sided development. And that is “dialectics”, which goes inseparably with “materialism”.

It was Lenin (in remarks he made on dialectics in the course of a speech “Once more on the trade unions” dealing with the Soviet trade union controversy in 1921) who provided Marxists with a working definition of “dialectics”. It consists, he said, in “the all-sided consideration of relationships in their concrete development”. In the theoretical practice of dialectics we “pass from empty abstractions to the concrete” in “the concrete study of the given controversy, of the given question, of the given approach to it, etc.”

If, then, “dialectical materialism”, taken as a complete philosophical doctrine or set of first principles about the primacy of matter in the universe and the general laws of motion of the external world and of human thought, is an anomaly produced merely from confusions in the development of the philosophy of communism, that does not mean that the Marxist theoretical outlook and approach is wrongly called “dialectical” and “materialist”.

It means only that the principles of materialism and dialectics are not established independently by Marxist philosophy, for application in all theory about nature and society and for the guidance of revolutionary practice. Rather, they are arrived at in the practice of seeking to comprehend the human condition by scientific procedures of ascertaining facts and formulating theories.

Starting from the scientifically-based account which Marxism renders of human life and society we do arrive, as Marx himself first concluded, at a materialist outlook and a general conception of the dialectic in material processes and in their comprehension by ourselves. And that being so, it follows that the theory of mankind and society may itself be rated as the exposition of the materialist view of mankind and of the dialectic of human relations and human consciousness.

Indeed, all things, all processes, all relations may be said to exhibit their “dialectic” – so that one may talk, for example, about “the dialectics of nature”, or more properly about the dialectic of various natural processes, equally with that exhibited in human affairs.

But in every case the “dialectic” has to be sought for and discovered not deduced from “laws” of “dialectics” laid down by philosophy.*

* I have reserved a discussion in detail of “dialectics” – in what it consists and of various mistaken or confused accounts of it – for a separate book on logic and dialectic. In my opinion, one should reserve any detailed discussion of “dialectics” until one has already discussed various questions about science, of how we produce our information about ourselves and the world we inhabit, and about language and logic. The habit of rushing in with pronouncements about “dialectics” as though one must first have a clear conception of “dialectics” before one is in a position to discuss anything else is, I would suggest, one major reason why such abstract discussions as would-be Marxists engage in about “dialectics” are usually so confused and inconclusive. In particular, “dialectics” is often spoken of as though it superseded “logic”, or as though we needed a special “dialectical logic”. But it is my contention that one must have a grasp of logic before one can make much sense of “dialectics”.

(Communism and Philosophy, pgs. 58-9)

[The phrases "nature is primary" and "conceive of the facts in their own and not in a fantastic connection" are both from Engels' Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classical German Philosophy; "the science of the general laws of motion both of the external world and human thought" is from Lenin.]

Cornforth never published his “book on logic and dialectic”, nor any of the rest of the series of books that he promised would follow Communism and Philosophy and which were, as he wrote in the preface, “most of them already finished as the first is published”. He died that same year at the age of 71, leaving us to wonder what more he had to say (and where all those lost manuscripts got to!). I will endeavor to develop this series of articles on dialectics and related topics in the spirit of Cornforth’s work. The next article will focus on human beings’ knowledge of the natural world.

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One Response to Dialectics I: Maurice Cornforth on Communism and Philosophy

  1. Scott says:

    The contribution of Cornforth cannot be overstated. After almost a century of confusion within Marxism about the relationship between the science of ‘historical materialism’ and the philosophy of ‘dialectical materialism’, he finally got down to the bedrock of the issue, and rebuilt the whole edifice on a proper foundation.

    Cornforth was not satisfied with bleating out established dogmas, and had the courage to take to task Lenin, Engels, and even Marx for their lack of clarity on these subjects.

    If you read only one work on Marxian philosophy, it should be this one. Unless you have wrestled with the questions Cornforth raises, it is impossible to truly understand the relation of Marxism to philosophy — and to materialism, logic, dialectics, etc. You are liable to be very confused.

    Highly recommended!

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