July 25, 2018

Mechanistic Materialism

Materialism and the Dialectical Method
Maurice Cornforth

3. Mechanistic Materialism 

The type of materialism produced in the past by the revolutionary bourgeoisie was mechanistic materialism. This took over the ancient materialist conception that the world consisted of unchanging material particles (atoms), whose interactions produced all the phenomena of nature, and further strove to understand the workings of nature on the model of the workings of a machine. 

It was in its time a progressive and revolutionary doctrine. But it has three grave weaknesses. (1) It requires the conception of a Supreme Being who started the world up; (2) it seeks to reduce all processes to the same cycle of mechanistic interactions and so cannot account for development, for the emergence of new qualities, new types of processes in nature; (3) it cannot account for social development, can give no account of human social activity and leads to an abstract conception of human nature. 

The Changing World and How to Understand It 

Before Marx, materialism was predominantly mechanistic. 

We often hear people complain that the materialists seek to reduce everything in the world, including life and mind, to a system of soulless mechanism, to a mere mechanical interaction of bodies. This refers to mechanistic materialism. Marxist materialism is, however, not mechanistic but dialectical. To understand what this means we need first to understand something about mechanistic materialism itself. 

We can approach this problem by asking how materialists have sought to understand the various processes of change which are observed everywhere in the world. 

The world is full of change. Night follows day and day night; the seasons succeed each other; people are born, grow old and die. Every philosophy recognizes that change is an omnipresent fact. The question is: how are we to understand the change which we observe everywhere? 

Change may be understood, in the first place, in an idealist way or in a materialist way. 

Idealism traces back all change to some idea or intention—if not human, then divine. Thus for idealism, changes in the material world are, in the last analysis, initiated and brought about by something outside matter, not material, not subject to the laws of the material world. 

But materialism traces back all change to material causes. In other words, it seeks to explain what happens in the material world from the material world itself. 

But while the occurrence of change has been recognized by everyone, since none can ignore it, philosophers have nevertheless sought to find something which does not change—something permanent, something changeless, behind or within the change. 

This is generally an essential part of the ideology of an exploiting class. They are afraid of change, because they are afraid that they, too, may be swept away. So they always seek for something fixed and stable, not subject to change. They try to hitch themselves on to this, as it were. 

The earlier materialists, too, sought for this. Behind all the changing appearances they looked for something which never changes. But while idealists looked for the eternal and changeless in the realm of spirit, these materialists looked for it in the material world itself. And they found it in the ultimate material particle—the eternal and indestructible atom. (“Atom” is a Greek word meaning “unbreakable.”) 

For such materialists, then, all changes were produced by the movement and interaction of unchanging atoms. 

This is a very ancient theory, put forward over two thousand years ago in Greece, and earlier still in India. 

In its day it was a very progressive theory, a great weapon against idealism and superstition. The Roman poet Lucretius, for example, explained in his philosophical poem On the Nature of Things that the purpose of the atomistic theory of the Greek philosopher Epicurus was to demonstrate “what are the elements out of which everything is formed, and how everything comes to pass without the intervention of the gods.” 

Thus there was born a materialism which saw the world as consisting of hard, impenetrable material particles, and which understood all change as arising from nothing but the motion and interaction of such particles. 

This theory was revived in modern times. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries philosophers and scientists turned to it in their fight against feudal, Catholic philosophy. But this modern materialism proved to be much richer in content than the ancient. For it tried to work out what were the laws of interaction of material particles, and so to present a picture of how all phenomena, from merely physical changes to the life of man, resulted from the motion and interaction of the separate parts of matter. In this way, by the eighteenth century, there had appeared the characteristic modern theories of mechanistic materialism. 

A Bourgeois Philosophy 

Mechanistic materialism was in essence an ideology, a mode of theorizing, of the rising bourgeoisie. In order to understand it we must understand, first of all, that it arose and developed in opposition to feudal ideology—that its critical edge was directed against feudal ideas, that it was in fact the most radical of all bourgeois forms of opposition against the feudal outlook. 
In the period of the rise of the bourgeoisie, the feudal social relations were shattered, and so were the feudal ideas, embodied in the Catholic philosophy, in which those social relations were enshrined. 

The feudal system, whose economic basis lay in the exploitation of the serfs by the feudal proprietors, involved complex social relationships of dependence, subordination and allegiance. All this was reflected, not only in social and political philosophy, but also in the philosophy of nature. 

It was typical of the natural philosophy of the feudal period that everything in nature was explained in terms of its proper place in the system of the universe, in terms of its supposed position of dependence and subordination in that system, and of the end or purpose which it existed to serve. 

The bourgeois philosophers and scientists destroyed these feudal ideas about nature. They regarded nature as a system of bodies in interaction, and, rejecting all the feudal dogmas, they called for the investigation of nature in order to discover how nature really worked. 

The investigation of nature advanced hand in hand with the geographical discoveries, the development of trade and transport, the improvement of machinery and manufactures. The greatest strides were made in the mechanical sciences, closely connected as they were with the needs of technology. So it came about that materialist theory was enriched as the result of the scientific investigation of nature, and in particular by the mechanical sciences. 

This determined at once the strength and the weakness, the achievement and the limitation, of the materialist theory. 

What pushed that theory forward was, so Engels writes, “the powerful and ever more rapidly onrushing progress of science and industry.” But it remained “predominantly mechanical,” because only the mechanical sciences had attained any high degree of development. Its “specific, but at that time inevitable limitation” was its “exclusive application of the standards of mechanics.”[19]

The mechanistic way of understanding nature did not arise, however, simply from the fact that at that time it was only the mechanical sciences which had made any great progress. It was deeply rooted in the class outlook of the most progressive bourgeois philosophers, and this led to their turning exclusively to the mechanical sciences for their inspiration. 

Just as the bourgeoisie, overthrowing feudal society, stood for individual liberty, equality and the development of a free market, so the most progressive philosophers of the bourgeoisie—the materialists—overthrowing the feudal ideas, proclaimed that the world consisted of separate material particles interacting with one another in accordance with the laws of mechanics. 

This theory of nature reflected bourgeois social relations no less than the theories it replaced had reflected feudal social relations. But just as the new bourgeois social relations broke the feudal fetters and enabled a great new development of the forces of production to begin, so the corresponding bourgeois theory of nature broke down the barriers which feudal ideas had placed in the way of scientific research and enabled a great new development of scientific research to begin. 

The philosophical outlook seemed to find its confirmation in science, and science provided materials for the development and working out in detail of the philosophical outlook. 

The World and the Machine 

The world—so thought the mechanistic materialists—consists of nothing but particles of matter in interaction. Each particle has an existence separate and distinct from every other; in their totality they form the world; the totality of their interactions forms the totality of everything that happens in the world; and these interactions are of the mechanical type, that is to say, they consist simply of the external influence of one particle upon another. 

Such a theory is equivalent to regarding the whole world as nothing but a complex piece of machinery, a mechanism. 

From this standpoint, the question always posed about any part of nature is the question we ask about a machine: what is its mechanism, how does it work? 

This was exemplified in Newton’s account of the solar system. Newton adopted the same general view as the Greek materialist, Epicurus, inasmuch as he thought that the material world consisted of particles moving about in empty space. But faced with any particular natural phenomenon, such as the movements of the sun and planets, Epicurus was not in the least concerned to give any exact account of it. With regard to the apparent movement of the sun across the heavens from east to west, for example, Epicurus said that the important thing was to understand that the sun was not a god but was simply a collection of atoms: no account of the actual machinery of its motions was necessary. Perhaps, he said, the sun goes round and round the earth; but perhaps it disintegrates and its atoms separate every night, so that it is “a new sun” which we see the next morning: to him such questions were simply unimportant. Newton, on the other hand, was concerned to show exactly how the solar system worked, to demonstrate the mechanics of it, in terms of gravity and mechanical forces. 

But just as Epicurus was not interested in how the solar system worked, so Newton was not interested in how it originated and developed. He took it for granted as a stable piece of machinery—created, presumably, by God. Not how it originated, not how it developed, but how it worked, was the question which he dealt with. 

The same mechanistic approach was manifested in Harvey’s discovery of the circulation of the blood. The essence of his discovery was that he demonstrated the mechanism of circulation, regarding the heart as a pump, which pumps the blood out along the arteries so that it flows back through the veins, the whole system being regulated by a series of valves. 


To understand the mechanistic outlook better, let us ask: what is a mechanism? what is characteristic of a mechanism? 

(a) A mechanism consists of permanent parts, which fit together. 

(b) It requires a motive force to set it going. 

(c) Once set going, the parts interact and results are produced according to laws which can be exactly stated. 

Consider, for example, such a mechanism as a watch. (a) It consists of a number of different parts—cogs, levers and so on—fitted neatly together. (b) It has to be wound up. (c) Then, as the spring uncoils, the parts interact according to laws exactly known to watchmakers, resulting in the regular movements of the hands on the dial. 

Further, to know how a mechanism, such as a watch, works, you must take it to bits, find out what its parts are, how they fit together and how, by their interactions, once the mechanism is set in motion by the application of the required motive force, they produce the total motion characteristic of the mechanism in working order. 

This is just how the mechanistic materialists regarded nature. They sought to take nature to bits, to find its ultimate component parts, how they fitted together and how their interactions produced all the changes we perceive, all the phenomena of the world. And moreover, finding out how the mechanism worked, they sought to find out how to repair it, how to improve it, how to change it and to make it produce new results corresponding lo the requirements of man. 


The Strength and Achievement of Mechanistic Materialism 

Mechanistic materialism was an important milestone in our understanding of nature. And it was a great progressive step of bourgeois thinkers, a blow against idealism. 

The mechanists were thorough-going in their materialism. For they waged a progressive fight against idealism and clericalism by trying to extend to the realm of mind and society the same mechanistic conceptions which were used in the scientific investigation of nature. They sought to include man and all his spiritual activities in the mechanistic system of the natural world. 

The most radical mechanists regarded not merely physical processes, and not merely plant and animal life, but man himself as a machine. Already in the seventeenth century the great French philosopher Descartes had said that all animals were complicated machines—automata: but man was different, since he had a soul. But in the eighteenth century a follower of Descartes, the physician LaMettrie, wrote a book with the provocative title Man a Machine. Men, too, were machines, he said, though very complicated ones. 

This doctrine was looked upon as exceptionally shocking, and as a terrible insult to human nature, not to mention God. Yet it was in its time a progressive view of man. The view that men are machines was an advance in the understanding of human nature as compared with the view that they are wretched pieces of clay inhabited by immortal souls. And it was, comparatively speaking, a more humane view. 

For example, the great English materialist and utopian socialist Robert Owen told the pious industrialists of his time: 

“Experience has shown you the difference of the results between mechanism which is neat, clean, well-arranged and always in a high state of repair, and that which is allowed to be dirty, in disorder, and which therefore becomes much out of repair.... If, then, due care as to the state of your inanimate machines can produce such beneficial results, what may not be expected if you devote equal attention to your vital machines, which are far more wonderfully constructed?”[20]

This humanitarianism was, however, at the best bourgeois humanitarianism. Like all mechanistic materialism, it was rooted in the class outlook of the bourgeoisie. The view that man is a machine is rooted in the view that in production man is a mere appendage of the machine. And if on the one hand this implies that the human machine ought to be well tended and kept in good condition, on the other hand it equally implies that no more should be expended for this purpose than is strictly necessary to keep the human machine in bare working order. 

The Weakness and Limitations of Mechanistic Materialism 

Mechanistic materialism had grave weaknesses. 

(1) It could not sustain the materialist standpoint consistently and all the way. 

For if the world is like a machine, who made it, who started it up? There was necessary, in any system of mechanistic materialism, a “Supreme Being,” outside the material world—even if he no longer continuously interfered in the world and kept things moving, but did no more than start things up and then watch what happened. 

Such a “Supreme Being” was postulated by nearly all the mechanistic materialists; for example, by Voltaire and Tom Paine. But this opens the door to idealism. 

(2) Mechanistic materialism sees change everywhere. Yet because it always tries to reduce all phenomena to the same system of mechanical interactions, it sees this change as nothing but the eternal repetition of the same kinds of mechanical processes, an eternal cycle of the same changes. 

This limitation is inseparable from the view of the world as a machine. For just as a machine has to be started up, so it can never do anything except what it was made to do. It cannot change itself or produce anything radically new. Mechanistic theory, therefore, always breaks down when it is a question of accounting for the emergence of new quality. It sees change everywhere—but nothing new, no development. 

The various processes of nature—chemical processes and the processes of living matter, for example—cannot in fact be all reduced to one and the same kind of mechanical interaction of material particles. 

Chemical interactions differ from mechanical interactions inasmuch as the changes which take place as a result of chemical Interaction involve a change of quality. For example, if we consider the mechanical interaction of two particles which collide, then their qualitative characteristics are irrelevant and the result is expressed as a change in the quantity and direction of motion of each. But if two chemical substances come together and combine chemically, then there results a new substance qualitatively different from either. Similarly, from the point of view of mechanics heat is nothing but an increase in the quantity of motion of the particles of matter. But in chemistry, the application of heat leads to qualitative changes. 

Nor do the processes of nature consist in the repetition of the same cycle of mechanical interactions, but in nature there is continual development and evolution, producing ever new forms of the existence or, what is the same thing, motion of matter. Hence the more widely and consistently the mechanistic categories are applied in the interpretation of nature, the more is their essential limitation exposed. 

(3) Still less can mechanistic materialism explain social development. 

Mechanistic materialism expresses the radical bourgeois conception of society as consisting of social atoms, interacting together. The real economic and social causes of the development of society cannot be discovered from this point of view. And so great social changes seem to spring from quite accidental causes. Human activity itself appears to be either the mechanical result of external causes, or else it is treated—and here mechanistic materialism collapses into idealism—as purely spontaneous and uncaused. 

In a word, mechanistic materialism cannot give an account of men’s social activity. 

Mechanistic Materialism and Utopian Socialism 

The mechanistic view treated men quite abstractly, each man being regarded as a social atom endowed by nature with certain inherent properties, attributes and rights. 

This was expressed in the bourgeois conception of “the rights of man,” and in the bourgeois revolutionary slogan: “All men are equal.” 


But the conception of human rights cannot be deduced from the abstract nature of man, but is determined by the stage of society in which men are living. Nor are men what they are “by nature,” but they become what they are, and change, as a result of their social activity. Nor are all men “by nature” equal. In opposition to the bourgeois conception of abstract equality, which amounted to mere formal equality of rights as citizens, equality before the law, Marx and Engels declared: 

“The real content of the proletarian demand for equality is the demand for the abolition of classes. Any demand for equality which goes beyond that of necessity passes into absurdity.”[21]

Adopting their abstract, mechanistic view of men as social atoms, the progressive mechanists tried to work out, in an abstract way, what form of society would be best for mankind—what would best suit abstract human nature, as they conceived of it. 

This way of thinking was taken over by the socialist thinkers who immediately preceded Marx, the utopian socialists. The utopian socialists were mechanistic materialists. They put forward socialism as an ideal society. They did not see it as necessitated by the development of the contradictions of capitalism—it could have been put forward and realized at any time, if only men had had the wit to do so. They did not see it as having to be won by working-class struggle against capitalism—it would be realized when everyone was convinced that it was just and best adapted to the requirements of human nature. (For this reason Robert Owen appealed to both the Archbishop of Canterbury and Queen Victoria to support his socialist program.) 

Again, the mechanistic materialists—and this applied above all to the utopian socialists—thought that what a man was, his character and his activities, was determined by his environment and education. Therefore they proclaimed that to make men better, happier and more rational it was simply necessary to place them in better conditions and to give them a better education. 

But to this Marx replied: 

“The materialist doctrine that men are products of circumstances and upbringing and that, therefore, changed men are produced by changed circumstances and changed upbringing, forgets that circumstances are changed precisely by men and that the educator must himself be educated.”[22]

If men are simply the products of circumstances, then they are at the mercy of circumstances. But on the contrary, men can themselves change their circumstances. And men themselves are changed, not as a mechanical result of changed circumstances, but in the course of and as a result of their own activity in changing their circumstances. 

So what are the real material social causes at work in human society, which give rise to new activities, new ideas and therefore to changed circumstances and changed men? 

Mechanistic materialism could not answer this question. It could not explain the laws of social development nor show how to change society. 

Therefore while it was a progressive and revolutionary doctrine in its time, it could not serve to guide the struggle of the working class in striving to change society. 

[19] Engels, Ludwig Feuerbach, Chapter II.


[20] Robert Owen, New View of Society.


[21] Frederick Engels, Anti-Dühring, Part I, Chapter X, N. Y., 1939.


[22] Engels, Ludwig Feuerbach, Appendices, Marx, “Theses on Feuerbach, III.