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Practical materialism: a paradigm open to debate

By Wang Nanshi | 2014-11-03
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)
A portrait of Marx reading a book in the British Museum, London (file)
Since the implementation of the reform and opening up, “practical materialism” has become one of the most influential concepts in the academia of Chinese philosophy. A never-ending tide of debates has been stirred up by this emerging notion. An examination of practical materialism after more than 30 years of its development would offer us a better perspective for understanding materialist philosophy.
Broad notion
“Practical materialism” could be regarded as a broad notion with extended connotations.
Though the earliest form of the concept emerged in the 1960s, it was considered more in terms of its distinction from dialectical materialism and historical materialism and was only sometimes mentioned in the articles. About 10 years later, as the criteria of the truth increasingly became the subject of intense debate, practical materialism developed into a guiding principle as the paradigm. A substantial number of articles with “practical materialism” in the titles were published.
At the same time, many similar notions were also found in newspapers, periodicals and journals. Despite the subtle nuances of each article, the basic tenet that unified these concepts all centered on the criticism of traditional textbooks, which tended to ignore the subjective nature of mankind. At the core of these ideas was a reinterpretation of Marxist philosophy from the perspective of practice. The term “practical materialism” appeared frequently among the concepts, indicating that it was the most widely accepted.
At that time, some other names of Marxist philosophy, such as historical materialism, practical philosophy, existentialism and practical existentialism, generally fall into the same category because they are closely connected with practical materialism in terms of their fundamental theoretical basis. Therefore, it is rational to classify all these notions into “practical materialism,” which is helpful in terms of examining the concept in a holistic way from an evolutionary perspective.
More importantly, if we thoroughly examine the main theoretical content of China’s particular brand of Marxist philosophy, it is not difficult to find that a core gist of all these notions is that they not only value the concept of “practice” as the conceptual basis of Marxist philosophy but also stress its materialist nature. In this regard, the term “practical materialism” best encapsulates these two concepts. It can be said that practice plus materialism, or subjectivity plus objectivity equals practical materialism.
The reason why the proposal of this concept was so influential partly owed to the theoretical task that the uniquely Chinese Marxist philosophy faced in the New Period. The task was to emphasize the subjectivity of mankind, which had been previously overlooked in the textbooks, therefore introducing the concept of “practice”—the physical activity through which the world could be changed—into the realm of philosophy.
Historical vs. practical materialism
However, if “practice” is merely interpreted into the attribute, property or the interrelations between the subjects and the objects rather than the “existence” in a real sense, it would fail to make up the void of “subjectivity” in philosophy without ontological basis. Therefore, the way that we comprehend the concept of “practice” is of paramount importance. Definitely, it is not easy to combine the concept of objective “materialism” and the subjective “practice.”
Starting in the 1990s, scholars increasingly began to “re-read the classics” and “review Marxism” as Marxist scholarship gained more attention. Through careful reading of Marxist classics, people found that ontological issues are rarely discussed in Marxist texts. The questions they truly explore are the evolution, function and downfall of capitalism. This is precisely the core of historical materialism. Thus, the conclusion can be drawn that historical materialism is what “Marxist philosophy” means. Actually, a similar statement was made as early as the 1980s, and the proposition that “practical materialism is historical materialism” was further raised in the 1990s.
With the term “historical materialism” gradually becoming the focal point of Marxist philosophy, some scholars argued that to manifest the essence of Marxist philosophy, the concept of “practical materialism” is far from being sufficient, and only historical materialism can truly reflect the revolutionary transformation that Marx brought to philosophy. Some other scholars, however, opposed such an assertion. The debate revolving whether historical materialism can be used to represent Marxist philosophy still persists till today.
But it should be admitted that summing up Marxist philosophy as historical materialism will bring one positive effect: the unification of objectivity and subjectivity, the two conceptions involved in discussing practical materialism, could possibly be realized. The root of history, in terms of historical materialism, is the practice—that is, the production and labor of human beings. This is perhaps why the discourse revolving around historical materialism gained momentum in the recent decade.
Objectivity and subjectivity
Undoubtedly, to interpret Marxist philosophy as historical materialism does have positive effects in striking a balance between objectivity and subjectivity, the two major factors of practical materialism. But the key is how the balance and unification between the two opposites could be reached.
Altogether, there are three rationales for the way in which Marxist philosophy can be defined in terms of objectivity and subjectivity:
The first rationale is to stick to the principle of objectivity, which is to view the evolution of history as a natural process, in which the initiative of humanity developed according to objective laws. This type of approach to interpreting Marxist philosophy was adopted by the textbook system of the Second International and Soviet Union. One of the merits for such framework of thinking is that Marxist philosophy can be described as determinism, a scientific idea that every event is necessitated by antecedent events and conditions together with the laws of nature. In this way, any possibility of an idealism-oriented rationale is excluded. However, the defect can be obviously seen—there is not any potential space for the initiative and subjectivity of human beings. According to the aforementioned deterministic theory, any natural and historical event depends on pre-conditions, which decides that any change in the world is either impossible or meaningless. This clearly runs contrary to Marx’s philosophical view—that the world should be changed.
The second rationale is to perceive the world evolution as the history of human activity. Unlike to the first option, this philosophical approach takes the practice and activities of human beings as the cardinal line, socializing and historicizing the nature. In this case, the mind of the subjects is emphasized, which also provides the rationale for ontology. But the problem is, the objectivity of the historical process is inexplicable and thus void from the approach. And to justify the rationale, particular occult or dialectics should be adopted.
The third rationale is to acknowledge that subjectivity and objectivity are the corollaries of man’s limited but rational lives, requiring just one reasonable solution to not only balance the two but also to counterpose them. In this aspect, Kant was the pioneer in the history of philosophy, who tried to interpret the natural and moral world through the lens of both theoretical and practical reasonability.
Marx, in some sense, followed Kant’s ideas and criticized Hegel’s absolute idealism. In the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 (also referred to as The Paris Manuscripts), a series of notes written by Marx, the scientific and humanistic logics are disjunctive from each other. But in his later works The German Ideology and Das Kapital, a far more rigorous logic of “historical science” is developed—human history especially the emergence, development, and downfall of capitalism is interpreted through determinism. In The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte and Civil War in France, on the other hand, the logic of subjectivity is developed and the potential of individuals as drivers of history is vividly expounded upon. Moreover, in Das Kapital and also Critique of the Gotha Programme, Marx lays the foundation for the normative theory of political philosophy and moral philosophy.
In academia, the third rationale for the way in which Marxist philosophy is defined in terms of objectivity and subjectivity has seldom been the focus of research. At the same time, many problems arising from the research in this area still continue to perplex scholars. Therefore, continuously exploring the notions of subjectivity and objectivity and studying them as the corollaries of human lives and history may be a solution to developing Marxist philosophy.
Wang Nanshi is from the Faculty of Philosophy at Nankai University.
The Chinese version appeared in Chinese Social Sciences Today, No.650, September 24, 2014.
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Edited and translated by Bai Le