Joseph Dietzgen - Radical Chains

The historic split between anarchism and socialism has had a debilitating effect on the workers movement, and Joseph Dietzgen was one of those individuals who sought to lessen the opposition of these tendencies. What he promoted was not an abstract reconciliation which failed to recognise real differences, although he held that these were in any case exaggerated, but a real reconciliation based on the transcending of opposition through the transformation and supersession of existing standpoints. From Radical Chains no.3

Submitted by sgel on June 17, 2011

radical chains

Joseph Dietzgen died in mid-sentence. It was a pleasant Sunday afternoon, June 15, 1888 1 , and after sharing a bottle of wine and a good dinner, Dietzgen was vivaciously expounding his views on the labour movement and the imminent collapse of capitalism to an acquaintance of his son. To the end, Dietzgen remained a class-conscious communist, an opponent of all conventional understandings, whose appeal for currents and tendencies of the workers movement that rebelled against orthodoxy will be readily understood.

It was Dietzgen and not Plekhanov who coined the term 'dialectical materialism', first using it in his articles for the socialist press in the 1870s, several years before Plekhanov had identified publicly as a marxist. This is the man who Marx introduced to the 1872 conference of the IWMA at the Hague as 'our philosopher' and who Engels accredited with having discovered dialectics 'in a remarkable manner and utterly independent of us and even of Hegel'. Yet, in the 1920s and 1930s he was systematically written out of the history of the working class movement.

Dietzgen was born in Blankenberg, near Cologne on December 9, 1828, the eldest son of a well-to-do master tanner. Having taught himself to speak and read fluent French at an early age, he became attracted to socialism by a study of the French economists. On reading the Communist Manifesto in 1851, however, his socialism acquired a class basis. During the 1848 revolutions he had already played the role of agitator, addressing peasants from a chair standing in the main street of his village, but in 1849 political reaction drove him to emigrate to America. He stayed there for two years working as a journeyman tanner, a painter, a teacher, and just tramping across America, acquiring the English language as he went.

By 1851, however, he had returned to work in his father's shop in Uckerath and in 1853 he married a devout Roman Catholic. Over the next three decades he lived and worked in Germany, America and Russia and despite his success in business devoted only half of each day to material gain, spending the rest in diligent study. From 1869 to 1881 Dietzgen was active in the socialist movement in Germany, contributing a large number of articles to the social democratic press in that country and elsewhere. His son, Eugen, emigrated to America in 1880 and Joseph followed in June 1884, settling there permanently.

This move might have been at least partially influenced by the same considerations that had led Marx to move the headquarters of the International to New York in 1872 as is indicated by a passage from a letter Joseph wrote to his son in 1881: The United States will in my opinion remain the land of the future, within bourgeois society. By means of the competition of the New World, the oppressive atmosphere of Europe will be cleared'. Shortly after his arrival in America, Dietzgen accepted editorship of Der Sozialist, the organ of the Socialist Labour Party in New York, but in 1886 moved to Chicago. From Chicago Dietzgen was to write reports on the local situation for Der Sozialist in New York.

1886 marked the high point of the struggle for the eight hour day in America and the struggle was particularly intense in Chicago. May 1 1886 was set as the date on which the eight hour day would be imposed and on that and following days there took place large workers' demonstrations which, in Chicago, were particularly impressive. On May 4 a bomb was thrown at police officers in Haymarket Square, Chicago, and this was used as a pretext for mass arrests. Amongst others the editors of the Chicagoer Arbeiterzeitung, were arrested, charged with instigating riot and throwing the bomb, condemned to death and hanged.

Responding to these events, the National Committee of the American Socialist Labour Party repudiated all connection with anarchism and anarchists. Joseph Dietzgen, however, immediately offered his services to the anarchists and even began to identify publicly as an anarchist, although, not without important qualification. The Administration Board of the Socialist Publishing Society accepted his offer and he was unanimously elected chief editor of its three papers - the Arbeiterzeitung, Fackel, and Vorbote. When his report on the Haymarket events was rejected by Der Sozialist because it contradicted the official line of the National Committee of the SLP, Dietzgen attacked both in a number of articles in the Chicagoer Arbeiterzeitung. His position as chief editor, was only temporary but he continued to contribute to the Arbeiterzeitung until his death in 1888. Fittingly, he was buried in the same grave as the Haymarket martyrs.

The historic split between anarchism and socialism has had a debilitating effect on the workers movement, and Joseph Dietzgen was one of those individuals who sought to lessen the opposition of these tendencies. What he promoted was not an abstract reconciliation which failed to recognise real differences, although he held that these were in any case exaggerated, but a real reconciliation based on the transcending of opposition through the transformation and supersession of existing standpoints. This is hinted at in a letter he wrote to a friend on April 20, 1886: 'For my part, I lay very little weight on the distinction, whether a man is an anarchist or a socialist, because it seems to me that too much is made of this difference. If the anarchists have mad and brainless individuals in their ranks, the socialists are blessed with cowards. For this reason I care as much for the one as for the other. The majority in both camps are still in great need of education, which will of itself bring about a reconciliation'.

This approach flowed from Dietzgen's understanding of transition as a discontinuous process and was rooted in his particular conception of dialectics. According to Dietzgen: 'we shall not arrive at the new society without serious struggles. I even think that we shall not get along without disorderly uproar, without "anarchy". I believe in "anarchy" as a stage in transition. Dyed in the wool anarchists pretend that anarchism is the final stage of society. To that extent they are madcaps, who think they are the most radical people. But we are the real radicals who work for the communist order. The final aim is socialist order, not anarchist disorder' (Letter, June 9, 1886).

Dietzgen's politics flowed from his conception of dialectics. Here we will look only at some of those aspects of his thought that exerted an influence over the development of proletarian theory. Our principle concern here is Dietzgen's insistence on the real and material nature of ideas and his recognition of the need for the proletariat to formulate its own autonomous understandings.

To properly understand Dietzgen's philosophy it is necessary to consider the social and ideological context to which it was a response. This was significantly different from the one from which communist theory originally emerged. In the 1840s Marx had, in the context of the revolutionary movement of the young European proletariat, confronted a particular ideological milieu, of which post-hegelian idealism and classical political economy were the dominant intellectual expressions. To the extent that Marx dealt overtly with philosophy, therefore, he tended to concentrate his fire on idealism and said little of his differences with 18th century materialism. In the period after 1850 the revolutionary initiative of the proletariat had subsided. The proletariat appeared to be passive, subjugated by its material conditions of existence. At the same time, the enormous development of the natural sciences, and especially of evolutionary theory, had led to a resurgence of reductive materialism as the basis of bourgeois ideology. Conditions were ripe for the penetration of bourgeois materialism into communist theory.

Marx's critique of idealism was appropriated in a one-sided fashion, and his stress on the material basis of thought appropriated in such a way as to relegate ideas and consciousness to the status of mere epiphenomena. The apparent domination of the proletariat by its conditions of existence explained the absence of revolution. It also formed the basis for the domination of intellectuals within the movement and the reproduction of the division of mental and manual labour.

Against this background, the importance of Dietzgen's philosophy to certain sections of the labour movement can be readily understood. For Dietzgen, ideas and thoughts were every bit as real and material as physical matter. As he put it in The Nature of Human Brainwork (1969): 'We make the distinction between thinking and being. We distinguish between the object of sense perception and its mental image. Nevertheless the intangible object is also material and real'. As Anton Pannekoek noted in his 'Introduction' to the 1902 edition of The Positive Outcome of Philosophy, Dietzgen had extended the concept of matter to include 'everything that exists and furnishes material for thought, including thoughts and imaginations'.

What Pannekoek and others derived from Dietzgen was an appreciation of the material nature of ideology and the importance of theoretical struggle, not conceived abstractly, but as an integral part of the transition process (B.Shepherd, Radical Chains 2). Pannekoek's appropriation of Dietzgen thus supported a conception of transition as an interrupted process in which conscious struggle overthrows ideological encumbrances as part of a developing totality of class confrontation and class formation. The appropriation of Dietzgen by Pannekoek and others exerted a strong influence over the development of communist theory in Holland. What the Dutch marxists found in Dietzgen was an essential corrective to the mechanical materialism that dominated the socialist movement of the time and a way to recover the original spirit of the historical materialist method. It not only permitted a critical orientation towards Kautsky in the period before 1914, but underwrote the opposition of sections of the communist left, in particular the German KAPD, to the Comintern in the '20s and '30s.

Partly as a result of a popularisation campaign in which Pannekoek played an important role, Dietzgens philosophy came to be appropriated by working class activists in 'several countries in the period before the First World War. This process of dissemination was furthered by the publication in English of a large portion of Dietzgen's work in two volumes - The Positive Outcome of Philosophy and Philosophical Essays - by Charles Kerr & Co of Chicago in 1906.

In America, the appropriation of Dietzgen was associated specifically with the IWW, while in Britain it became part of the long tradition of independent proletarian self-education. Sometimes dogmatic in character, and in some respects also elitist, this current, with its clear recognition of the organic connection of knowledge and power, was a militant response to the bourgeois appropriation of thought. Indeed, in Dietzgen, the working class militant found an injunction 'not to acquiesce in this appropriation any longer, not to submit any more to the harangues of public opinion, but to resume thinking for ourselves. (TNOHB). Workers who aspired to class knowledge and class power could only be inspired by Dietzgen's assault on the division of intellectual and manual labour.

It should be no surprise that Dietzgen's works constituted the principal texts for courses in philosophy at the autonomous labour colleges that emerged from the split of the Plebs League from Ruskin College and the WEA in 1909 (See Binns and Officer in Radical Chains 1). Dietzgen's works had a wide readership. Maurice Dobb, reminiscing on his experiences as a labour college lecturer, was later to observe in his patronising way: 'if one stayed overnight ... in a South Wales miner's household, there were his works ... in a prominent place and treated with reverence as a sacred text' (MacIntyre, A Proletarian Science, Cambridge University Press, 1981).

In his important study of British marxism in the period after the October Revolution, Stuart MacIntyre has tried to explain the popularity of Dietzgen's work in terms of what he calls 'the absence of any more authoritative alternative based on the writings of Marx and Engels'. Dietzgen was not, however, superseded in any natural and inevitable way by the appearance of the early philosophical writings of Marx or even those of Engels. Rather, dietzgenism was purposely destroyed by the intervention of bright young university men into the labour college movement under the new conditions of consciousness imposed by the October Revolution and by the stalinisation of the CPGB in the aftermath of its failure. We see here not a natural progression to a higher truth but the conscious suppression of proletarian self-education.

The entry of bourgeois intellectuals like Dobb, Postgate and Phillips Price into the Plebs League brought with it an assault on dialectics in general and Dietzgen in particular. Like Pannekoek, but from a different class perspective, Dobb and others recognised in Dietzgen a firm basis for resistance to the penetration of middle class materialism into proletarian theory. Hence their opposition. Thus in 1923 Dobb was to -urge students to 'get away from mid-19th century philosophy and academic dissertations about the absolute, and get just a few clear and essential notions about the scientific method and modem science'. In this he was supported by Postgate who suggested that 'we abandon Dietzgen teaching altogether and respectfully, but firmly, put old Joseph on the shelf (MacIntyre).

Within the CPGB, the publication in English of Lenin's Materialism and Empirio-Criticism in 1927 also fuelled an attack upon dietzgenism. In this text Lenin had taken issue with some of Dietzgen's arguments which he believed had led Dietzgen to find favour with such 'reactionary philosophers' as Mach and Avenarius. Although not entirely hostile to the totality of Dietzgen's thought, Lenin thought that Dietzgen's insistence on the real and material existence of ideas was 'a muddle' and, worse, an idealistic deviation. To the extent that Lenin's views on materialism became CPGB orthodoxy, so dietzgenism became regarded as heresy. Partly due to Lenin's own ambivalence towards Dietzgen, the attack did not lead to the wholesale vilification of Dietzgen himself, but despite some audacious fence-sitting in relation to Dietzgen's views, his followers were hounded. These included Fred Casey, a lecturer at the Manchester Labour College, and author of Beginning with the Beginner, (Plebs, 1920; reprinted in Capital and Class 7) and Thinking (1922). In his Dialectics (1936), for example, T A Jackson attacked the 'idealistic bemuddlement' of Fred Casey whom he termed the 'High Priest of neo-Dietzgenism'. Some of Casey's ideas may have been eccentric, but no more so than those of his detractors. If his intellectual and personal eccentricities increased over the years, this is in large part due to his isolation and the refusal of dialogue imposed by the CPGB, and in this respect Casey's life parallels that of another self-educated worker radical of the period, Guy Aldred..

What prompted the resistance of the dietzgenites to the imposition of 'soviet marxism' was not what Stuart MacIntyre describes as a reluctance of 'disciples' to 'accept their master's relegation to a relatively minor role in the Marxist pantheon'. It flowed, rather, from a healthy aversion to the reimposition of the division of intellectual and manual labour through subordination to orthodoxy, a process whose consequences for the workers movement have been unambiguously disastrous.


  • 1 libcom note: this is an error, he actually died on April 15, 1888