Transcendentalism and Marxism
The Struggle of Seemingly Opposing Ideas
In the 19th century, two philosophical views took hold; Transcendentalism and Marxism. Transcendentalism started in the United States while the country was in the throes of expansion into Indian Territory and before the civil war. Marxism began in one of the most turbulent periods of European history. The dust of the French Revolution was still settling and France and Prussia (now roughly Germany) were at war. England was busy extending and maintaining its imperial empire around the globe including its continuing meddling in American affairs in a bid to reverse the American Revolution. Belgium was caught in the middle of the three struggling bourgeois titans. Transcendentalism looked toward the intuitive, ideal and creative as an answer to the problems of life, whereas Marxism took a materialist, empirical and pragmatic approach. Transcendentalism took a spiritual - religious approach and Marx strictly a materialist, scientific, economic, philosophical, anti-religious approach. Thus the world became divided between the ethereal and the real. The question is "can two seemingly diametrically opposed philosophies ever come together?" Transcendentalism was a move away from the doctrines of the church to a more inspired and ideal approach. Marxism was an idea of a new world economic view and order of society around a proletarian core that did not require the church of the priests and the capitalist economics of the bourgeois state. Neither saw the answers to life’s problems in the established church and the state. Yet, both seem to be poles apart and irreconcilable. But do they have to be?
Transcendentalism began as a protest against the general state of culture and society within the United States of America. The objection and protest was in particular, the state of intellectualism at Harvard University and the doctrine of the Unitarian church taught at Harvard Divinity School. Among transcendentalists' core beliefs was an ideal spiritual state that 'transcends' the physical and empirical view of the world and is only realized through the individual's intuition, rather than through the doctrines of established religions. This intuition serves as the basis of all insights, art and creativity. Prominent transcendentalists included great thinkers such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Orestes Brownson, William Henry Channing, and many others.
The word Transcendentalism came from the ideas of the philosopher Immanuel Kant, who called "all knowledge transcendental which is concerned not with objects but with our mode of knowing objects." It is a philosophy based on his statement that some ideas such as space-time, morality, and divinity cannot be directly experienced or measured, yet they still influence us and can still add to empirical knowledge. These ideas are transcendental in that they have an alternative; some say higher; order of existence than what we experience directly in the physical world. Transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson stated "We will walk on our own feet; we will work with our own hands; we will speak our own minds. A nation of men will for the first time exist because each believes himself inspired by the Divine Soul which also inspires all men." Transcendentalists throughout history have been known as people who have attempted to correct what they saw as misperceptions within societies that were caused by religion, politics, and misunderstanding of science.
Enter modern physics that has revealed such things as the structure of the atom and electromagnetic interactions. Analysis using atomic science has revealed that matter as we know it is mostly just empty space permeated by electromagnetic fields. Quantum physics has given us perplexing experiments such as the double-slit experiment in its many variations. Cosmology has shown us states of matter such as black holes and anti-matter. Einstein even stated at one time that the cosmos appears more like a thought than something solid. He saw organization at every level and thought is was no accident. Though he virtually invented quantum mechanics, he fought against it, stating "God does not play dice with the cosmos". Quantum mechanics has proven the particle pairs manifest out of the void. Here is a modern conundrum that surely pits transcendentalism against materialism.
As we stand at this point in history, there is a divide between transcendentalists and Marxists. Both responded, albeit differently, to a common cause, the corruption within religion and the oppression of the state. Both sought solutions. Marxists see transcendentalism as being akin to mysticism, which they see as a religious agenda of obscurantism that serves to confuse people with superstition while ignoring the real social concerns of the masses. Transcendentalism is viewed as escapist ideology bound to the bourgeois system of capitalism and a bid to reform the state and church. Transcendentalists, on the other hand, see Marxists as too grossly materialistic and intolerant in their bid to rid the world of mysticism, religion and smashing the existing states. Yet, the two base themselves on ideals that have similar origins and can be brought together.
Marxism has its foundation within the struggles of the classes in Europe during the 19th century. Europe was in upheaval with revolts in several countries in the 1840s Marx as a German citizen found himself in the thick of these struggles that were going on primarily in Germany, Belgium, England, and France. Working conditions were deplorable in Europe and both Marx and Engels among others noticed this, wrote about it and in the case of Marx’s, and got directly involved in the struggle of the Paris Commune. Marxism as a result of this became materialist in its philosophical approach. Marxism has a strong foundation in Hegel’s philosophy, but Marx declared in his voluminous writings that he stood Hegel on his head. Hegel was considered to be an idealist in philosophical expression. Marx wanted to bring him down to Earth.
Marx took the dialectics of Hegel and fused it with the materialism of Feuerbach and wrote on dialectics and materialism. Materialism became the core of empiricist thought as "that matter is the only thing that can be proven to exist". Everything was thought to be the result of material interactions including consciousness in contrast to the concepts of idealism. This became the foundation of materialist thinking of Marxists after Karl Marx, based on Marx's philosophical thought. Plekhanov, the father of Russian Marxism, later introduced the term dialectical materialism to Marxist literature. Prior to this, Engels further exposed the "materialist dialectic"; not "dialectical materialism" as is popularly thought. This was a process of evolution after the failed 1848 revolutions in Europe. The term wasn't invented by Marx himself, and it refers to the combination of dialectics and materialism in Marx's thinking as material forces were seen as causing social and economic changes. This is vindicated in history during catastrophes, invasions, and social upheavals. Dialectical Materialism is the evolved philosophy of Karl Marx which he formulated by taking the dialectic of Hegel and joining it to the Materialism of Feuerbach, extracting from it a concept of progress in terms of the contradictory, interacting forces called the thesis and the antithesis, culminating at a critical evolutionary and/or historical point where one overthrows or sometimes fuses with the other, giving rise to the synthesis, something new and different and combining the best features of both. He applied it to the history of social development and deriving there from an essentially revolutionary concept of social change. This thinking was carried to the formulation of the Communist Manifesto, which was an attempt to bring an orderly change.
Immanuel Kant Has a Profound Influence on Philosophy
However, change often occurs at flashpoints, like in the February 1917 Russia where a revolution exploded spontaneously without the presence of the Marxists. Women who had been fired on by the Czar's troops as a result of asking for bread in one of the coldest winters in a long time, revolted and were soon joined by anarchists. Several provisional governments followed. It was more of an intuitive expression of creativity than a planned event. A planned 1905 revolution in Russia had failed. After the successful 1917 revolution, the Marxists joined later in Oct. Julian; Nov. Gregorian with the assistance of the Germans who wanted Russia out of the war and thus began the era of Soviet Communism under the vanguard of Lenin, Trotsky, Stalin and the rest of the Comminturn that headed the new Proletarian society. True to their promise, the new Soviet leadership took Russia out of WWI to the relief of the Germans. This gave new hope to the Russian people as well. But the following years were to be grueling, putting everyone's ideals to the supreme test; a test with materialist foundations called War Communism. This arose in 1918 at the end of WWI when the bourgeois states saw a threat to themselves from the fledgling Soviet Union and encircled them on all sides in an extended war; a fact downplayed in history. These facts changed the course of the 20th century.
To understand the inspiration behind both transcendentalism and Marxism, you need to be familiar with the three laws of dialectics. These are the law of opposites, the law of negation and the law of transformation.
Considering the law of opposites, Marx and Engels started with the observation that everything in existence is a unity of opposites. One example is electricity which is characterized by a positive and negative charge. With the advent of the knowledge of atoms, we found that they consist of protons and electrons which are unified but ultimately contradictory forces. A star only exists due to gravity pulling massive numbers of atoms towards the center, and radiative heat pushes them away from the center. If either force succeeds over the other, the star ceases to be. If heat wins it explodes into a supernova and if gravity wins it implodes into a neutron star or a black hole depending on the size. Sometimes an explosion and implosion follow one after the other as neutron stars have been found at the heart of recent super novas. Living things strive to balance internal and external forces to maintain homeostasis, which is simply a balance of opposing forces such as acidity and alkalinity. It has been said of life with the new understanding of complexity, that it exists in a state far from equilibrium and this allows life to be a dynamic process in constant change from moment to moment. Life oscillates between limits in order to continue its function.
From the law of opposites, Marx concludes that everything "contains mutually incompatible and exclusive but nevertheless equally essential and indispensable parts or aspects." This unity of opposites is what makes each entity a dynamic process and provides a constant motivation for movement and change. This idea was borrowed from Hegel who said: "Contradiction in nature is the root of all motion and of all life." According to Marx, some opposites are antagonistic as in the competition between capitalists and laborers, employers and employees. Factory owners offer the lowest wages they can get away with, while workers seek the highest wages possible. Sometimes, this antagonism sparks strikes or lockouts. It is also behind off shore investments that seek to increase profits while reducing costs in one action.
The law of negation was created from the inspiration of observing nature to account for the tendency in nature to constantly increase the number of all things. Marx and Engels demonstrated that entities tend to negate themselves in order to advance or reproduce a higher quantity of beings like themselves in offspring. This means that the nature of opposition, which causes conflict in each element, giving it motion, also tends to negate the thing itself. This dynamic process of birth, growth, maturation, reproduction and individual destruction is what causes entities as a species to advance. This law is commonly simplified as the cycle of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis.
In the context of nature, Engels often cited the case of the barley seed which, in its natural state, germinates and out of its own death or negation produces a plant. The plant in turn grows to maturity, and is itself negated after bearing many barley seeds in the act of reproduction. Thus, all nature is constantly expanding through cycles. This idea even exists in the Bible, where Jesus states, that the seed falling to the ground must die in order for the plant to be born and in how plants yield seed and die. This is found in the Gospels in his parables. Engels and Marx noted that in society, we have the case of classes. For example, the aristocracy was negated by the bourgeoisie. The bourgeoisie then created the proletariat that will one day negate them according to the dialectic law of negation. This illustrates that the cycle of negation is eternal, as each class creates its "grave-digger", its successor, as soon as it finishes burying its creator. The bourgeoisie has managed to hold on for centuries, but the limits of capitalist profiting have been reached.
The third law states that continuous quantitative development results in qualitative leaps in nature whereby a completely new form or entity is produced. This is how quantitative development, sometimes over a long time becomes qualitative change that can occur in an instant. Today we have a branch of science called catastrophe theory that deals with such transformations. Transformation also allows the reverse process, where quality affects quantity. This theory draws many parallels to the Theory of Evolution as developed by Darwin. Marxist philosophers concluded that entities, through quantitative accumulations, are also inherently capable of leaps to new forms and levels of reality. Today, we often use the term "a quantum leap" to indicate a sudden change in quality. The law illustrates that during a long period of time, through a process of small, almost irrelevant accumulations, nature develops noticeable changes in direction. Sometimes it can come all at once. In nature, this can be illustrated by the eruption of a volcano which is caused by years of pressure buildup suddenly finding catastrophic release. The volcano may no longer be a mountain but when its lava cools and ash settles; it will become fertile land where previously there was none. In society, it can be illustrated by a revolution which is caused by years of tensions between opposing factions. The law also occurs in reverse, an example of which is that by introducing better tools to industry, the tools will help to increase the production. The industrial revolution was all about this and continues to this day of robotics.
Interestingly, elements of Hegel can be found in both transcendentalism and Marxism. The basic premise of Hegel is that the cosmos functions through three fundamental laws. Engels detailed them in "Dialectics of Nature". These laws cover the breadth of phenomena in the cosmos. In summary of the original work, Engels stated that the three laws of dialectics are;
- The change of quantity into quality and visa versa.
- The interpenetration of opposites.
- The negation of the negation.
Within the view of the physical manifestation of the cosmos, we can see the operation of the laws of dialectics in operation. The first law is found within the context of quantum mechanics, the elements of chemistry, the molecules of various substances and phase state changes within single elements, both at the quantum level and atomic level. The second law covers the experiences of Newtonian and Einsteinian mechanics of cosmology. The third law is most clearly demonstrated within the context of evolutionary development, particularly in life, but not excluding non-organic matter.
None of these laws operate completely in isolation of the others, but in fact operate in unison, with one seemingly to predominate. This is how dialectic process functions in a synchronous fashion in the visible cosmos through the manifestations of cause and effect. It is this combination of several parts operating together on continual developmental synthesis that makes dialectics so dynamic.
Both transcendentalist and Marxists seek an ideal world, free of the fetters of established religion and the restrictions of the state and class. One sought it through intuition and creativity and the other through class struggle, materialism and empiricism. There is a curious divide working between the philosophies of idealism and empiricism that need not be divided, for people are both idealistic and pragmatic at the same time. Thus, a Marxist can have an unrealized vision of an ideal society, free of class division, where all people have the benefits of their actions and are equally responsible. A transcendentalist who is true to their intellect, recognize that visions of idealism exist because the real situation they find themselves in is far from ideal and improvement can be made. Marxism arose out of earlier visions; ideas concerning utopian societies. Some of these were variations of Christianity seeking to escape from the oppression of established religious groups and the Catholic and Protestant churches. Out of these roots, transcendentalism was born. It can be said that Marxism and transcendentalism came from the same roots.
Human beings contain both the physical and the intellectual sides of their nature. The physical side is necessary in order for the ideas and intuition that come from the mind. The body and mind, material and intuitive are united in one dynamic process, the physical and thinking human being. In order to have concepts of an ideal, one has to satisfy the real. This is another way of saying that in order to have freedom, necessity has to be fulfilled. This is where transcendentalism and Marxism has to fuse. The idea the necessity must be fulfilled in order to achieve freedom is central in Hegelian philosophy and this is at the root of both transcendentalism and Marxism. Transcendentalists took the ideal path of intuition and creative, whereas the Marxism took the path of materialism and empiricism. In reality, the two must work together. To be separate the two makes a non realizable transcendentalism and a dull and narrow materialism. It is ideas that act as a guide to visions of a better material and creative condition.