Materialism and spiritualism are not two opposed abstract theories about the nature of the world, of small concern to ordinary practical folk. But they are opposed ways of interpreting and understanding every question, and consequently, they express opposite approaches in practice and lead to very different conclusions in terms of practical activity. Before trying to define materialism and spiritualism in general terms, let us consider how these two ways of understanding things are expressed in relation to certain simple and familiar questions. This will help us to grasp the significance of the distinction between a materialist and a spiritualist interpretation.
First let us consider a very familiar natural phenomenon – a thunderstorm. What causes thunderstorms? A spiritualist way of answering this question is to say that thunderstorms are due to anger of god. Being angry he arranges for lightning and thunderbolts to descend upon mankind. The materialist way of understanding thunderstorms is opposed to this. The materialist will try to explain and understand thunderstorms as being solely due to what we call natural forces e.g. ancient materialists suggested that far from thunderstorms being due to the anger of gods, they were caused by material particles in the clouds banging against each other. That this particular explanation was wrong is not the point. The point is that it was an attempt at materialist as opposed to spiritualist explanation. Nowadays a great deal more is known about thunderstorms arising from the scientific investigation of the natural forces involved. Knowledge remains very incomplete but at all events enough is known to make it quite clear that the explanation must be on materialist lines, so that the spiritualist explanation has become thoroughly discredited. It will be seen that while the spiritualist explanation tries to relate the phenomenon to be explained to some spiritual cause – in this case the anger of god – the materialist explanation relates to material causes. In this example, most educated people today would agree in accepting the materialist interpretation. This is because they generally accept the scientific explanation of natural phenomena and every advance of natural science is an advance in the materialist understanding of nature.
Let us take a second example, this time one arising from social life. For instance, why are there rich and poor? This is a question many people ask, especially the poor. The most straightforward spiritualist answer to this question is to say – it is because god made them so. It is the will of god that some should be rich and others poor. Those who favour this type of explanation say that it is all due to eternal “human nature”. The materialist, on the other hand, seeks the reason in the material, economic conditions of social life. If society is divided into rich and poor it is because the production of material means of life is so ordered that some have the possession of the land and other means of production while the rest have to work for them. On such questions therefore the difference between a materialist and spiritualist conception can be very important not merely in a theoretical but in a practical sense. A materialist concept of thunderstorms for example helps us to take precautions against them, such as fitting buildings with lightning conductors. But if our explanation of thunderstorms is spiritualist then all we do is watch and pray.
Spiritualism and Supernatural
Spiritualism is the way of interpreting things which regards the spiritual as prior to the material, where as materialism regards the material as prior. Spiritualism supposes that everything material is dependent on and determined by something spiritual, where as materialism recognises that everything spiritual is dependent on and determined by something material. And this difference manifests itself both in general and philosophical conceptions of the world as a whole, and in conceptions of particular things and events.
At the bottom, spiritualism is religion, theology. All spiritualism is the continuation of the religious approach to questions, even though particular spiritualist theories have shed their religious skin. Spiritualism is inseparable from superstition, belief in the supernatural, the mysterious and unknowable. The roots of the spiritualist conception of things are then the same as those of religion. Materialism on the other hand seeks for explanation in terms belonging to the material world, in terms of factors which we can verify understand and control.
Conceptions of the supernatural and religious ideas in general owe their origin first of all to the helplessness and ignorance of men in face of the forces of nature. Forces, which men cannot understand, are personified – they are represented as manifestations of the activity of spirits. From the most primitive times men personified natural forces in this way. With the birth of the class society when men were impelled to act by the social relations which dominated them and which they did not understand, they further invented supernatural agencies doubling, as it were, the state of society. The gods were invented superior to mankind just as kings and lords were superior to the common people. All religion, and all spiritualism, has at its heart this kind of doubling of the world. It is spiritualistic and invents a dominating ideal or supernatural world over against the real mankind.
Very characteristic of spiritualism are such antitheses as soul – body, god –man, heavenly kingdom – earthly kingdom; the forms and idea of things grasped by the intellect and the world of material reality, perceptible by the senses. For spiritualism there is always a higher, more real, more material world – which is prior to the existing material world, is its ultimate source and cause and to which the material world is subject. For materialism, on the other hand, there is one world, the material world.
For nearly 300 years there has been put forward a variety of philosophy known as “subjective spiritualism”. This teaches that the material world does not exist at all. Nothing exists but the sensations and ideas in our minds, and there is no external material reality corresponding to them. And then again this subjective spiritualism is put forward in the form of a doctrine concerning knowledge: it denies that we can know anything about objective reality outside ourselves, and says that we can have knowledge of appearances only and not of “things in themselves”. This sort of spiritualism has become very fashionable today. It even parades as extremely “scientific”. They say that the real world is unknowable, the area of mysterious forces which pass our comprehension. It is not difficult to see that the fashion for such doctrines is just a symptom of the decay of society.
Materialism and Spiritualism in Practise
Spiritualists tell us not to place “too much” reliance on science. They tell us that most important truths are beyond the reach of science. Hence they encourage us not to believe things on the basis of evidence, experience, and practise but to take them on trust from those who pretend to know better and to have some higher source of information. Spiritualism tells us that what is most important is the inner life of soul. They tell us that we shall never solve our human problems except by some inner regeneration. Spiritualism has very deep roots in our ways of thinking, and so men often clothe their thoughts and aspirations in spiritualist dress. But the spiritualist form is always an impediment, a hindrance in the expression of truth- a source of confusion and error.
On every issue we should be followers of materialism against spiritualism. This is because we know that it is in the light of materialist theory, which studies things as they are, without spiritualist fantasies about them, that we can understand the forces of nature and society so as to be able to transform society and to master the forces of nature. And because of this too, materialism teaches us to have confidence in ourselves- in people. It teaches us that there are no mysteries beyond our understanding, that we need not accept that which is as being the will of god, that we should contemptuously reject the “authoritative” teachings of those who set up to be our masters, and that we can ourselves understand nature and society so as to be able to change them. We should hate spiritualism, because under cover of high- sounding words it preaches subjection of man to man, belittles the power of humanity, which was expressed by Maxim Gorky when he wrote:
“For me, there are no ideas beyond man; for me, man and only man is the miracle worker and future master of all forces of nature. The most beautiful things in this world are the things made by labour, made by skilled human hands, and all our ideas are born out of the process of labour.
“And if it is thought necessary to speak of sacred things, then the one sacred thing is the dissatisfaction of man with himself and his striving to be better than he is; sacred is his hatred of all the trivial rubbish which he himself has created; sacred is his desire to do away with greed, envy, crime, disease, war all enmity between men on earth; and sacred is his labour”