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The Problem of “Levelling Down”

Prepared by the Leningrad Institute of Philosophy under the Direction of 
M. Shirokov 1941 

In the struggle of the different tendencies in science which we touched on in our previous exposition, the question of the connection of quantity and quality plays an important role. The fierce controversies on this question have by no means been confined to philosophy. They penetrate into the special forms of science and may even become the methodological basis of direct political conflict.

Discussions on the relation of quantity to quality both in objective actuality and in knowledge are in large measure concentrated around the problem of reduction or analysis. In what direction must the knowledge of each phenomenon of nature and society proceed – along the line of the study of it as a complete whole, possessing a specific quality that determines all its features and properties and is expressed in them – or along the line of the analysis of it into its component parts and properties, of the reduction of the whole to the relations of its simple parts and properties?

The second alternative is one of the basic principles of mechanism. The mechanists think that a phenomenon is explained if we succeed in reducing it, in levelling it down to its simple elements and their external mechanical relations. In the whole there emerges nothing new in principle as compared with what was in its particular parts. Each thing only seems to be something indivisible, something unique, seems so from a superficial, subjective approach to it. The wholeness of a thing exists only as its secondary property. The task of science is to leave this superficial appearance and to probe deeper, to analyse the thing into its components. In this and this alone do mechanists see the task of knowledge.

Society is made up of people. To understand it one must learn the nature of man as such, his character and his desires. When these are known it will be easy to understand society as a whole. But a particular man torn out of his social connection is an animal organism and that is all. Therefore to understand society we must study man as a biological being. We must study his brain, his instincts, the physiological mechanism of the formation of the conditioned reflexes, etc. Moreover we must reduce the conduct of man to the simpler phenomena which we observe in the conduct of animals biologically lower than man. Certain physiologists following Pavlov are profoundly persuaded that those reflexes which they study in dogs can explain all wars and revolutions, all class conflicts and the subordination of one set of people to another.

But if society is reduced to a simple aggregate of animals of the species “man,” then it becomes possible to explain social phenomena on the basis of the Darwinian theory. Every man carries on a struggle for existence. In this struggle the biologically stronger and better survive – the worse and weaker are doomed to extinction. This selection of the best also operates in the social process. If the weaker workers are doomed to extinction, especially in time of unemployment, then all the better for the human race. If the rich and noble are “on top,” it must be because natural selection has raised them there as the strongest and best. The reactionary role of such theories is perfectly evident. By ascribing social effects to purely biological causes they are able to prove that the class order of society is the product of biological forces that inalienably belong to the human race. The reduction of sociology to biology is one of the philosophical instruments of the bourgeoisie. It is not surprising to find that “social Darwinism” is used for the justification of fascist dictatorship. And our mechanists, by defending the theory of reduction, are, whether they like it or net, pouring water on the fascist mill-wheel.

However, the reduction of sociology to biology is by no means the final point, it is only an intermediate station on the road of the mechanistic explanation of nature. An animal or vegetable organism is such a whole as must be explained by the physio-chemical processes that make it up. An animal is a machine, proclaim the mechanists. True the machine is more complex than any motor, but yet there is no qualitative difference between a man and a Diesel engine. The task of biology lies in the analysis of vital processes into their physio-chemical parts, in analysis and only in analysis, in levelling down. Biology is preserved as a particular science only because there has been as yet no successful analysis of all the biological processes that seem to be independent phenomena. In their turn chemical processes are ultimately physical and physical processes are at bottom the mechanical relations of “final,” unanalysable, simple, identical particles of quality-less “matter as such.” A few decades ago mechanists declared this “final” particle to be the atom. To-day, after still further reducing the atom they declare it to be the electron. But, as in the past, so now, this straining after something “final,” eternal, immutable, simple, is the unmistakable characteristic of the metaphysical method.

Their dream is to reduce all sciences to one, to a final science concerned solely with the mechanical movements of the simplest parts. If Marx in Capital speaks of economic phenomena and of their peculiar laws, it is only in accordance with the imperfection of the science of his time. In the future, no doubt, we shall come to transpose the categories of Capital into those of electrons, and to explain the October Revolution as a definite form of electronic motion. This, then, is the final truth!

According to this there exist in nature no qualitative differences; all differences between things are ascribable to the number and distribution in space of quality-less particles, i.e. all differences are only quantitative differences. The differences of qualities are only a subjective appearance which we must accept until we reach the real explanation. Our mechanists have used the phrases “the untying of qualitative knots,” “the elimination of all qualitative aspects.” It is easy to recognize in these phrases the philosophy of the most commonplace bourgeois evolutionism. Qualitative knots and, consequently, “leaps” are only “subjective appearance.” Mechanism of this type is obviously one of the forms of gradualism, the first of those theories of development examined by Lenin, the one which ascribes all changes to simple increase and decrease of magnitude. In essence such a theory of “development” is a negation of all actual development, a negation of the possibility of emergence of the new.

Our mechanists love to stress the fact that their views are strictly material. Yet the metaphysical nature of their views, independently of their wishes, takes them far away from logical materialism. All aspects of the mechanistic theory lead by one way or another to idealism and superstition. The impossibility of finding any real way of accounting for the world as we know it by attributing all phenomena to mechanical motion brings them to the subjective view-point, forces them more and more to admit the impossibility of getting beyond “secondary,” “subjective” properties, leads more and more to the subjective-idealistic attitude to knowledge. By ascribing every form of definiteness to quantity they are led in the end to a Pythagorean numerical mysticism which is only another road from mechanism to idealism. In fact what is there to say about the particles of “mechanized” matter? Only “how many”? “how they are distributed”? and “how large and whither directed are the forces that connect them”? In this way all matter is reduced to geometrical and arithmetical relations. “The essence of the world is number.” The mechanist Zeitlin, tried to “trim” Marx to the shape of a mechanist, and demonstrating (as well as he could) that Marx sought in Capital to ascribe all and sundry to quantitative differences, wrote: “When we asserted that Marx’s Capital is mathematical in its internal content, we meant only that Marx’s qualitative analysis is strictly materialistic.” So according to Zeitlin, materialism is identical with mathematism; the more completely we reduce theory to mathematics, the greater the materialism.
As Hegel has shown already, this view, this ‘one-sided mathematical view-point,’ according to which matter is determinable only quantitatively and has been qualitatively the same from time immemorial, is a return to Pythagoras who long ago regarded number, quantitative definiteness, as the essence of things.”* Engels, second note to Anti-Dühring.
The most logical mechanists do not attempt to conceal this. One of the leaders of the mechanists, E. E. Stepanov, wrote:
“Must we not actually conclude that the electronic theory of the structure of matter brings us back to Pythagoras, who saw the essence of things in number, in quantitative definiteness? If, indeed, it brings us back, then it is on the basis of all the scientific attainments of the great period that follows on after Pythagoras.”
“On the basis of all scientific attainments” modern physico-idealists return to Pythagoras; it is inevitable that everyone who denies the objective existence of qualities will ultimately find himself doing likewise. And so as we see, the different aspects of the mechanistic world-outlook reveal in the theory of reduction their unity as aspects of one and the same metaphysical philosophy, one and the same route to idealism.

The time has long gone by since mechanistic materialism, by its conflict with the mediaeval metaphysic of properties, by its investigations of the simplest mechanical movements, by its exposure of the grossest forms of superstitions, played an historically progressive role. Mechanism in our day is essentially bourgeois and has become the weapon of bourgeois reaction both in science and in political practice. On the mechanistic theory of “levelling down” are based reactionary views as to gradual world progress by means of partial changes of the whole, are based all sorts of other bourgeois ideas that serve as a cover for the counter-revolutionary action of the modern “healers of the capitalist system” – the social reformists.

In our conditions this form of metaphysic with its abstract mathematical approach, with its “deeply philosophical” basis of gradualism and drift, has become the methodological basis of kulak ideology and its spokesmen – the Right-opportunists. Opportunistic narrow practicality that forgets about the complex connections of all the tasks of socialist construction (not seeing the wood for the trees) has as its own basis the same mechanistic reduction of the whole to the parts.

The lamentably celebrated theory of Bukharin on the peaceful transition of all the different phases of our economy into socialism substitutes for the contradictory process of a class struggle that is passing through a number of qualitatively unique stages, an even and continuous quantitative growth. On the basis of a purely quantitative approach, Bukharin has set on the same plane our socialist farms and the kulak estates.

Similarly, Frumkin asserted that we needed such and such a quantity of wheat, regardless of the sectors in which it was produced. Here was the same reduction of qualitative differences to pure quantity.

Bukharin, not without serious significance, bade us transpose the “language of Hegelian dialectic to the language of modern mechanics. This Right-opportunist practice was the logical realization of his mechanistic philosophic views.

And so mechanism, by reducing the whole to the parts, vulgarly distorts the tasks of knowledge and practice, arrives at an absolute monotony of nature and opens the door to subjective idealism.

However, in bourgeois ideology there exists yet one more resolution of the problem of the whole and the parts, a resolution which at the first glance seems absolutely opposed to mechanism. It is the stand-point of objective idealism, which rests on the wholeness of phenomena and turns this into an absolute. The upholders of this view observe the weak spots in the mechanistic theory of reduction. It is really out of their criticisms of mechanistic materialism that they construct their own philosophy of science. They point out that an organic whole is always more than the simple sum of its parts. A living organism is something more than an aggregate of physico-chemical processes; similarly the development of society is accomplished on quite a different principle from that which operates in the world of animals and plants; a man’s thought is something quite other than the motion of the particles of his brain. The task of knowledge is not to analyse a whole into its parts, but to note the characteristic features of the entire phenomenon as a whole. Biology, they say, must study that which belongs only to the organism, it must confine itself to that which distinguishes a living organism from inorganic processes – the organic relations proper to the living body, nourishment, growth, reproduction, adaptability to its environment, the process of restoring destroyed tissues, etc. This strict regard for the whole is in flat opposition to the crudities of mechanism, yet it can fall into an even worse crudity itself.

This abstract concentration upon the wholeness of living processes tends to separate an organism from inorganic nature and to create a gulf between the living and the non-living, between “spirit” and matter. Indeed, if life is only something peculiar to the whole, then how is one to explain the emergence of life from physico-chemical processes that originate on the earth’s surface? The theory of absolute wholeness excludes the development of nature.

But the transition from the non-living to the living proceeds in a certain sense all the time. An organism is fed and grows. In this process it is all the time assimilating non-living substance, and turning non-living matter into living. It is easy to say that an organism possesses an “aptitude” for growth, but it is necessary to disclose how this growth proceeds. It is easy to say that an organism is capable of restoring destroyed tissues and fighting against disease, but it is necessary to investigate how these specific properties of the living organism arose in matter and how they actually developed. Moreover, in actuality the organic principle is by no means always realized. The wholeness of a living organism exists in conflict, replacement and destruction and is by no means absolutely harmonious. It becomes clear that the theory of absolute wholeness is a different aspect of the theory of “pre-established harmony,” and, like it, closes its eyes to the sharp breaks, the destruction of the old, the conflicts, that take place in development. Thus to account for an evolved whole that is now in a static condition it is necessary to invoke some kind of miraculous intervention.

An organism is a teleologically constructed whole. There is none of this teleology in the particular physico-chemical processes that go on inside the organism, therefore – the upholder of “wholeness” concludes – the teleology of vital processes is a manifestation of a special beginning, of a special force, which exists outside the particular parts, which subordinates them to itself and joins them into a single whole. Since it is purposeful and is separate from inorganic nature, it appears essentially as a spiritual force. This is the “élan vital” (vis vitalis), whence in biology this theory bears the name of vitalism. This theory of absolute wholeness is obviously a profoundly idealistic doctrine.

It is easy to recognize in this doctrine the old, long familiar features of the medieval metaphysic of properties. That theory too acknowledged the reality of a whole as a special property that existed along with the properties of the particular parts. It also explained life by citing a life force. In just the same way in the “latest” idealistic doctrine separate qualities exist side by side as absolutely independent forces.

In criticizing the mechanists the upholders of absolute wholeness themselves arrive at another, a still grosser form of metaphysics; they expound undisguised superstition. The vitalists criticize the mechanists, the mechanists criticize the vitalists; each of these doctrines makes capital out of criticism of the other. And therefore they both exist in unbroken unity, each one possesses in the other “its other.” In their conflict is disclosed their internal kinship.

The philosophy of absolute wholeness does not exist in biology alone. In the course of recent years it has made great strides in all the fields of bourgeois ideology. A nation is a whole, say the fascist philosophers, the life of a people is determined by its “national idea,” its “national spirit,” “its spirit of wholeness and of desire for power.” This “idea” is higher than the interests of separate classes; workers and peasants must bow before this “idea,” in its name they must abandon their demands and humbly submit themselves to Mussolini and Hitler. The direct coercion exerted by bourgeois dictatorship over the workers – the majority – is justified by the bourgeois philosophers with their idealistic theory of an absolute whole realized in the “national spirit.” They depict the bourgeois State not as a cudgel in the hands of the ruling class but as an expression of the idea of a whole. Resurrecting the Hegelian idealism, the Hegelian teaching on the unity of absolute spirit, modern bourgeois philosophy creates the ideological weapon of fascism. We see a tendency to move in this direction among certain reformist theoreticians also.

The Menshevist idealism of the Deborin school took essentially the same line when it uncritically took over and began to use the whole of Hegel’s idealistic dialectic. Especially in Deborin’s treatment of the problem of quality do we find a distinct manifestation of an idealistic deviation. Deborin contends against idealism, he keeps aloof from vitalist superstition. But in criticizing the mechanistic theory of reduction he proceeds from abstract conceptions and therefore reaches a conception of quality as something isolated in its uniqueness. Whence his kinship with a number of semi-vitalist and sometimes even purely vitalist currents of thought.

The tendency of Menshevist idealists to understand a leap as an independent act shows that they too separate qualities from each other and fail to understand the mutual penetration of continuity and discontinuity, the internal unity of quantitative and qualitative changes.

And so objective idealism propounds, instead of the continuity of the purely quantitative changes of the mechanists, a break between qualities, a conversion of them into isolated, absolutely whole systems, separating qualitative changes from quantitative. Both forms of metaphysics are two mutually amplifying methods of the ideological struggle of the bourgeois for supremacy. Both currents, though proceeding from opposite directions, deny actual development, distort the tasks of knowledge, hinder the disclosure of the contradictions of bourgeois actuality; both encourage superstition.

The idealistic philosophy of a break between qualities is very often used by fascists for the purpose of setting one nation in opposition to another; by reformist theoreticians to buttress a purely fascist view of the State; and even by the heroes of the “Left” as the basis of the idealistic doctrine of a leap from the “kingdom of necessity to the kingdom of freedom.” In the methodology of Trotskyism, which is distinguished by its extreme eclecticism and ambiguity, mechanistic reduction exists alongside an idealistic emphasis on the absoluteness of qualitative differences.

The idealistic philosophy of absolute wholeness serves Trotskyism as a basis for its “Left” talk of “permanent revolution,” to be accomplished at one stroke on a planetary tale. It is not mere chance that Trotsky echoes the Hegelian, Lassalle. The theory of the absolute isolation of the proletariat, which all other classes, including the peasantry, confront as a “united reactionary mass,” the theory of revolution which arrives suddenly at the end of an epoch and signifies the victory of the working class – these theories of Lassalle were based on the idealistic doctrine of absolute breaks between qualities. It is easy to recognize in the permanent revolution of Trotsky these same Lasallian features.

At the first stage of N.E.P., when socialist planning had not as yet got its hands upon all the levers of the popular economy, Trotsky came out with a grand, all-embracing, all-accomplishing economic plan. In his abstract idealistic approach the whole was seen to be separated from its parts; it was therefore quite unreal. But when faced with practical difficulties Trotsky drew up a defeatist mechanistic programme of reducing the whole plan to the level of the weakest sections of the national economy. Because of the backwardness of metallurgy (upon which the work of the machine building factories depended) Trotsky, in his speech at the Twelfth Party Congress, proposed the closing of a number of our largest industrial plants, including the famous Putilov works.

A clear example of his philosophy of absolute breaks is seen in his attitude to the collectivization of the rural economy. Waxing ironical on the question of our collective farm construction he wrote that it was as impossible to construct a collective-farm out of the sum of peasant farms as it was to build a steamer out of a collection of little boats. Both Trotsky’s comparison and his irony miss their mark. In spite of his metaphysics our rural economy is developing dialectically, quantitative change is leading to change of quality, and the new quality is creating a new quantity, a new tempo of growth.

Furthermore, in actuality the new never emerges ready-made and finished. Breaks are never absolute. We have entered into the period of socialism although a developed socialist society has not yet been created and we have not yet emerged from the transition period. It is this contradiction of living development that has never been grasped by Trotsky, and is responsible for his errors.

And so both mechanistic “levelling down” and the idealism of absolute wholeness are in their class-roots and their metaphysical approach quite close to each other, and though they proceed from different directions are all the time moving to the same conclusions. It is clear from our enquiry that it is impossible to separate the whole and the parts. They mutually penetrate each other. But in order to understand their real unity we must examine them not externally, not metaphysically, but in living contradictionary development. Independent qualities do not exist; all things are connected by a unity of development. The complex emerges out of the simple – but unity of development does not denote the identity of all things.

A living organism is something that arose out of inorganic matter. In it there is no “vital force.” If we subject it to a purely external analysis into its elements we shall find nothing except physico-chemical processes. But this by no means denotes that life amounts to a simple aggregate of these physico-chemical elements. The particular physico-chemical processes are connected in the organism by a new form of movement, and it is in this that the quality of the living thing lies. The new in a living organism, not being attributable to physics or chemistry, arises as a result of the new synthesis, of the new connection of physical and chemical movements. This synthetic process whereby out of the old we proceed to the emergence of the new is understood neither by the mechanists nor by the vitalists.

The task of each particular science is to study the unique forms of movement of a particular degree of the development of matter. Social science studies the emergence and development of social formation, studies the development of productive forces and the relations of production, the class struggle and the changing of social forms. The production of tools and machines comprises the qualitative distinction of social man from animals and because of this qualitative distinction the development of society is accomplished not according to the laws of natural selection but according to laws that belong only to society.

Just as specific is the subject of biology. Biological sciences investigate the connection of different processes in the life of an organism, the laws of heredity and variation, the adaptability of the organism to the environment, development on the basis of natural selection, etc. All these processes are qualitatively unique, and attempts to reduce them to more simple laws can lead only to the distortion of the actual problems of knowledge.

How so? the mechanists will object; the complex is made up of the simple; life is wholly analysable into physico-chemical processes. Our mechanists do not understand that by subjecting the organic whole to external mechanical analysis this whole is destroyed. By analysing an organism we get instead of the living, a non-living thing, i.e. we destroy the very thing we set out to study.

Of course a more complex quality includes in itself elements of the simpler. Social man cannot exist without the physiological process of the exchange of substances, just as also there is no organic life without determined physico-chemical processes. But here is the point, the elements of the old, by being subordinated to the new system, by entering into the new synthesis, themselves become something new. Physico-chemical processes within an organism undergo a radical change; they cease in essence to be directly “dependent on” physics and chemistry.

The unique conditions of every chemical process within an organism are such that this process reaches results that under inorganic conditions are impossible.
Albumen is the most unstable carbon compound that we know. It decomposes as soon as it loses the ability to fulfil its proper functions which we call life.” Engels, Dialectic of Nature.
Outside an organism albumen decomposes, within an organism it possesses a certain stability. However, this stability depends upon the constant renewal and. the ceaseless change of various substances. “Life is the form of existence of albuminous bodies, whose essential moment is the constant exchange of substances with the physical environment; when this exchange ceases, the form too ceases and the decomposition of albumen ensues.”* As we see, albumen within the conditions of an organism becomes qualitatively other.

* Loc. cit.

But, some mechanist may object, exchange of substances is by no means proper only to organisms; we also meet with exchange in chemical reactions. No doubt, but the exchange of substances in an organism is qualitatively different from the exchange of the substances of inorganic nature and leads to directly opposite results. “The difference is this; in the case of inorganic bodies exchange of substances destroys them, in the case of organic bodies it is the necessary condition of their existence.”*

* Loc. cit.

Burning, i.e. the combination of carbon with oxygen, destroys bodies of nonorganic structure, but the same process, in the form of the breathing going on within an organism, is the necessary condition of its preservation and development. It is the same process and yet at the same time quite another.

Quality, as the special system of a given whole, as the unique form of movement, lays its imprint on those elements from which it emerged itself.

As we see, in the reality of organic wholes, in their qualitative uniqueness, there is nothing mysterious and unknowable as vitalists and others declare. Wholeness is a qualitatively unique form of movement which, since it proceeds from previous stages of the development of matter, includes in itself elements of the old and refashions them in a new system which contains new contradictions.

The task of knowledge does not lie in reducing a whole to the parts, nor in studying a whole as such, but in the disclosure of the relations peculiar to each quality in its emergence and development.

Mechanists simply rejected the synthetic task of knowledge and reduced it to external mechanical analysis. The vitalists rejected analysis by converting synthesis into a previously given teleological force external to the particular parts. Neither these nor others understood development as the contradictory self-movement of matter. Actual scientific analysis has very little in common with mechanistic reduction. Of course in the study of an organism it is very important to know that the albumen of which the living tissue is made is a special type of carbon compound, that in the breathing process carbon dioxide is formed, that the hand acts on the principle of lever, etc., etc. But the main problem for the physiologist in his analytic work is by no means what physico-chemical processes proceed in the organism, but what aspects, properties, features of each separate physical-chemical process make its specific role in the life of the organism possible. As we showed above, every physico-chemical process acquires in biological conditions a special significance and leads to results other than those found outside the organism. This specific thing in the chemical elements of life must also be sought for by the physiologist when he subjects the living being to analysis. Otherwise he will be not a physiologist but a chemist, he will have changed the subject matter of his investigation, and instead of studying the elements of the organism will be studying chemical processes as such. The mistake of certain physiologists who have constructed physical models of living cells is due to just such a change of their subject matter. In the movement of an amoeba a certain role is played by surface tension, but a drop of oil with its surface tension is only an external, remote analogy to the amoeba. In their acceptance of physical and chemical processes as removed from their organic connection as elements of life, physical mechanists have blundered badly.

Engels, disclosing the connection of different sciences with each other, wrote:
By calling physics the mechanics of molecules, chemistry the physics of atoms, biology the chemistry of albumens, I wish to express the transition of each one of these sciences into the other and therefore the connection, the continuity and also the distinction, the break between the two fields. Biology does not in this way amount to chemistry yet at the same time is not something absolutely separated from it. In our analysis of life we find definite chemical processes. But these latter are now not chemical in the proper sense of the word; to understand them there must be a transition from ordinary chemical action to the chemistry of albumens, which we call, life.” Engels, second note to Anti-Dühring.
Even in greater measure is it necessary to mark the qualitative uniqueness of the particular elements of human society. Society consists of people. It is true that people possess certain physiological needs and properties – they need food, they must secure shelter from cold, they multiply, etc. Without procreation there can be no social development. But only Parson Malthus and his followers (they include Karl Kautsky) have the effrontery to declare that unemployment under capitalism depends on the immoderate multiplication of the workers, has in fact a biological basis, whereas in actuality multiplication of social man is not his biological property, it is wholly subordinate to the specific law-system of the social whole. The growth of population is subordinate to social law-governance; the law of population, as Marx shows, is historical, it changes along with each form of society, is specific for each class, for each concrete situation.

And so the analysis of a qualitatively definite whole is not by any means its external mechanical dissection, is not by any means its reduction to such parts as have another, simpler qualitative definiteness. The particular parts always express in themselves the nature of the whole, and their separation from the whole is necessary only to Malthus, Kautsky, and other “priests” of the capitalist system, who use them as arbitrary logical figments and not as guides to an actual knowledge of capitalism. Thus in the contradictory unity of quality and its final limits, of qualitative and quantitative changes, of continuity and discontinuity, of the new and the old, is accomplished the eternal development of matter.
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