A different Outlook: Marxist Philosophy
An Introduction to Dialectical Materialism
by Robin Clapp
Why have a Philosophy?
“The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is, however, to change it.” (Marx:‘Theses on Feuerbach’)
AT THE dawn of the 21st century, one-fifth of the world’s population lives in absolute poverty on one US dollar a day or less, while the assets of the 200 richest people are larger than the combined income of the poorest 2.4 billion on the planet.
Yet material prosperity has increased by more in the past 100 years than in all the rest of human history. Thus the basis already exists potentially for undreamed-of progress of human society, provided the contradictions created by capitalism itself can be swept away by the world’s working class.
The capitalists through their control of the judiciary, the military, education and the media are always seeking to prevent workers and youth from drawing the conclusion that capitalism can be changed.
In the popular press, commentators occasionally rail against this or that symptom of the system’s sickness while drumming home the mantra that market economics represents the only show in town.
At the same time more serious justifications for capitalism are produced. The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989-1992 gave a massive boost to this branch of literary lies, allowing bourgeois philosophers to claim that capitalism had emerged triumphant in its historic struggle with socialism.
Every ruling class throughout history has sought to give its regime the stamp of permanence. Never mind that there have been many forms of class rule including slavery and feudalism, today’s smug apologists for capitalism believe their way of running society is best and represents the Everest of achievement.
Tony Blair has sneeringly denounced Marxism as “an outmoded sectarian dogma.” His sole contribution to philosophy has been to bestow credit on Anthony Gidden’s Third Way theory – the very old and discredited idea that there can be a middle way between the market and a planned economy. Most capitalist leaders believe they don’t require a philosophy. Making money is all that matters and they embrace the idea that if it works, it’s good. They are largely empirical in their approach, responding pragmatically to new challenges and rarely bothering to understand the relationship and connections between policies and events, cause and effect. In the spheres of politics and economics, theirs is the complacent philosophy of thinking that what has gone on before will continue largely unchanged into the future.
In the 1990s they were sure the dotcom boom would just keep on growing. When it crashed they were astonished, but learning nothing, scratched their heads, said they’d predicted it all along, then went back to the comfort-blanket of believing capitalism would get better again.
This pamphlet will show that having a philosophy that correctly interprets the world and provides a compass for changing it is indispensable.
Dialectical materialism, the basis of Marxist philosophy is still the most modern method of thought that exists.
As Leon Trotsky observed in Marxism in our Time: “…if the theory correctly estimates the course of development and foresees the future better than other theories, it remains the most advanced theory of our time, be it even scores of years old.”
Marxism is the science of perspectives – looking forward to anticipate how society will develop – using its method of dialectical materialism to unravel the complex processes of historical development.
It endeavors to teach the working class to know itself and be conscious of itself as a class. Dialectical Materialism – the science of the general laws of motion and development of nature, human society and thought – was and remains a revolutionary philosophy, challenging capitalism in every sphere and substituting science for dreams and prejudice.
Materialism versus Idealism.
“It is not consciousness that determines existence, but social existence that determines consciousness.” (Marx & Engels: ‘The German ideology.’)
People have always sought to understand the world they lived in through observing nature and generalising their day-to-day experiences. The history of philosophy shows a division into two camps – Idealism and Materialism. The Idealists argue that thought (consciousness) is paramount and that people’s actions stem from abstract thought, devoid of history and material conditions.
It was Marx and Engels who first fully challenged this conception, explaining that an understanding of the world has to start not from the ideas which exist in people’s heads in any particular historical period, but from the real, material conditions in which these ideas arise.
Nature is historical at every level. No aspect of nature simply exists; it has a history, comes into being, changes and develops, is transformed, and, finally ceases to exist. Aspects of nature may appear to be fixed, stable, in a state of equilibrium for a shorter or longer time, but none is permanently so. For Trotsky: “Consciousness grew out of the unconscious, psychology out of physiology, the organic world out of the inorganic, the solar system out of the nebulae.”
Marx and Engels based their materialism upon the ideas and practice of the great materialist philosophers of the 18th century. The ‘renaissance’ in the 16th century with its spread of cultural and scientific enquiry was both a cause of and an effect of the early growth of capitalism. InEngels’ words: “Science rebelled against the Church; the bourgeoisie could not do without science, and therefore had to join the rebellion.”
Astronomy, mechanics, physics, anatomy and physiology were feverishly developed as separate disciplines, with the consequence that age-old beliefs in an inviolable god were rocked. Galileo for instance began to discover some of the physical properties of the universe and revealed that the planets revolved around the sun. Later, Newton’s theories of gravity and laws of physical motion uncovered the mysteries of movement and mechanics.
The philosopher Hobbes declared that it was impossible to separate thought from matter that thinks. Marx observed that this ‘enlightenment’ had “cleared men’s minds” for the great French revolution and the age of reason.
But Engels added that “The specific limitation of this materialism lay in its inability to comprehend the universe as a process, as matter undergoing uninterrupted development.”
He and Marx were to fuse the brilliant scientific advances of materialism with dialectical thought, creating the most revolutionary and far-reaching theory for explaining and changing our world.
The German philosopher Hegel, who resurrected dialectics from ancient Greek learning in the early 19th century, was a proponent of the Idealist approach. To him the thoughts within his brain were not the more or less abstract images of actual things and processes, but on the contrary, things and their development were only the realised images of the Idea/God existing somewhere from eternity before the world existed.
Marx turned this confusion on its head. “To me the idea is nothing else than the material world reflected in the human mind.”
Marxism therefore bases itself upon a materialist view of history. The material world is real and develops through its own natural laws. Thought is a product of matter, without which there are no separate ideas.
Flowing from this it is clear that Marxism must reject universal truths, religions and spirits. All theories are relative, grasping one side of reality. Initially they are assumed to possess universal validity and application. But at a certain point, deficiencies in the theory are found. These have to be explained and at a certain point new theories are developed which can account for the exceptions. But the new theories not only supercede the old, but also incorporate them in a new form.
For example, in the field of biological evolution, Marxists are neither biological nor cultural determinists. There is a dialectical interaction between our genes and our environment.
Recently the ‘human genome project’ has enabled the complete mapping out of the structure of the genes which are passed on from one human generation to the next. Some biologists have asserted that this would reveal individual genes shaping behaviour patterns ranging from sexual preference to criminality and even political preference!
A consequence would be that a person’s position in society would be largely pre-determined and unalterable.
However, any attempt to ‘tag’ individual genes for ‘intelligence’ has failed and the attempt to define social position as genetically determined has been exposed as a pure consequence of the ideology of the biologists involved.
A breakthrough that has revolutionised our understanding of human behaviour, scientists recently discovered we possess far fewer genes than previously thought, revealing that environmental influences must be vastly more powerful in shaping the way humans act.
What is dialectical thinking?
” Men thought dialectically long before they knew what dialectics was, just as they spoke prose long before the term prose existed.” (Engels: ‘Anti-Duhring’.)
Dialectics is the philosophy of motion. The dialectical method of analysis enables us to study natural phenomena, the evolution of society and thought itself, as processes of development based upon motion and contradiction.
Everything is in a constant state of flux and change; all reality is matter in motion.
The roots of dialectical thought can be traced back to the ancient Greeks who, just because their civilisation was not yet advanced enough to dissect and analyse nature in its separate parts, viewed nature as a whole, in its connections, dialectically. Nothing in life is static. In the words of the ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus: “All things flow, all change.”
Around us in the natural world are illustrations of the dialectical development of our Earth and space itself. Astronomers are transfixed as super-telescopes allow us to witness the birth and death of distant stars, while no geologist or vulcanologist can function without having an understanding of the basic and interlinked laws of the dialectic – the law of quantity into quality, the interpenetration of opposites and the negation of the negation.
In mathematics a dialectical approach is indispensable. In everyday life we often need to distinguish between curved and straight lines. But mathematically a straight line is merely a special sort of curve. Both can be treated using a single general mathematical equation.
We also learn how at a specific temperature, solid ice changes to liquid water then at a higher temperature to steam – a gas – and that the three apparently different substances are actually different manifestations of the motion of the same water molecules.
But though capitalist or bourgeois society uses the dialectical method in its pursuit of scientific advance, in the fields of philosophy and economy it stubbornly seeks to refute dialectics, clothing itself in the straightjacket of metaphysics (formal logic). Metaphysics translated into politics becomes a justification for the status quo, the idea that evolution proceeds unchangingly at a snail’s pace.
It is not hard to see why. Explained in a Marxist manner, the development of all past and present forms of society would show that at certain periods in history when the mode of production has come into acute conflict with the mode of exchange, wars and revolutionary movements have followed. The forms of class struggle have changed through different historical epochs, but the fundamental struggle over the division of the surplus value between exploiter and exploited forms a continuous line from the early slave societies to the present day.
The capitalist class or bourgeoisie (as Marx described it) must therefore hide the materialist conception of history from us, extolling instead the acts of great men (and occasionally women!) who it is claimed have changed history. Great social revolutions are attributed not to the struggle between classes, but to the mistakes of tyrant kings and tsars and the bloodthirsty ambitions of ruthless men like Cromwell, Robespierre and Lenin to name three of their special bete noirs.
Metaphysical thought is often described as the science of things, not of motion. Basing itself upon rigid classification techniques and seeing things as static entities, it is a useful tool in our day to day lives, but does not let us see things in their connections.
The formal logician operates within the limitation of three laws:
The Law of Identity – where A is equal to A
The Law of Contradiction – where A cannot be equal to non-A
The Law of Excluded Middle – where A must be equal to A, or must not be equal to A.
Formal logic sees cause and effect as opposites, but for Marxists the two categories merge, mix and melt into each other all the time.
Trotsky compared formal logic to dialectics using the analogy of a photograph and a moving film. The former has its uses, but as soon as we go into complex questions formal logic proves inadequate.
For instance we can say ours is a capitalist society and all will agree.
But viewing it dialectically as a bourgeois society in an advanced stage of development, we have to add that it still possesses remnants of feudalism, while more importantly it contains in its technological potential, the seeds for a Socialist planned economy. This example is not abstract.
Marxists use the dialectical method in order to clarify perspectives. All realities have more than one side to them.
What stage has British capitalism reached, what character will the recession have, how powerful is the working class, what is the role of New Labour, where and when do we expect big industrial struggles to break out… all these questions and many more can only be answered by analysing society dialectically.
The laws of the dialectic
“Dialectics is nothing more than the science of the general laws of motion and development of nature, human society and thought.” (Engels: ‘Anti-Duhring.’)
BASED UPON the laws of motion, dialectics enables us to see things in their connection. Our bodies and our thoughts are continually changing. From conception to death there is never a moment when our physical development is still. Neither are our thoughts and mental growth. We are always evolving our ideas.
But how specifically do dialectics apply in relation to a study of society? What are the general laws of dialectical materialism beyond the primary idea that everything changes? If dialectics is the theoretical toolkit of Marxists, what do the tools look like and how do they assist us in challenging capitalism and changing society?
Marx and Engels elaborated three broad and interconnected laws of dialectics, each of which is continually at work and give us the insight into how society develops and what theoretical and practical tasks confront us as revolutionaries seeking to build the forces to overthrow capitalism.
The law of quantity and quality
Just as a scientist is familiar with the concept of things altering their quality at certain quantitative points (water into steam at boiling point), so too an observation of the evolution of class societies illustrates the same law.
Society does not develop in a slow, evolutionary manner. The friction between the classes can and does create episodic periods of sharpened struggle leading to political and social crises, wars and revolutions. For a whole period the class struggle may appear to be at a low-ebb, low levels of industrial action, apparent disinterest in political struggle, etc.
Marxists however view events in an all-sided manner. On the surface there can be apparent stability, but a quantitative build-up of frustration and antagonism towards capitalism can break out suddenly, creating entirely new conditions for struggle and catching the bosses and their New Labour echoes completely by surprise. This law is vulgarly recognised by even some bourgeois philosophers who, usually after the event, refer sadly to “the straw that broke the camel’s back.”
It has enormous consequences for Marxists. We analyse the build-up of class conflict and at all times intervene in the workers’ movement to build the ideas of Socialism to take advantage of these sudden changes and sharp turns.
The law does not always denote a progression of course. For many years we characterised the Stalinist bureaucracy in the former Soviet Union as a relative fetter upon the growth of the planned economy. By this we meant that despite the waste and corruption of the bureaucrats, there was still a potential for the planned economy to grow, albeit less efficiently than had the working class been in charge. By the 1960s command-style rule from the Kremlin was struggling to cope with the fresh challenges of a more technically advanced form of economy. Trotsky’s maxim that a planned economy needs workers’ control as a body needs oxygen became more relevant than ever. We observed this change and concluded that the bureaucracy had gone from being a relative fetter to an absolute fetter. Quantity had turned into quality.
From a study of all the declining economic statistics coming out of the USSR we began to draw theoretical rounded-out conclusions.
A society in economic, political and social crisis where the bureaucratic caste has become absolutely incapable of further playing any progressive role cannot stay in absolute stasis. A point was being rapidly reached where either the working class would have to overthrow the incubus of bureaucracy and carry through a political revolution, or there would occur a social counter-revolution leading to the restoration of capitalism; this possibility was predicted by Trotsky over 50 years earlier. The triumph of the latter with Yeltsin undoing all the remaining gains of the 1917 revolution marked a qualitative defeat for the working class in Russia and everywhere else.
The Interpenetration of Opposites
Dialectics applied to the class struggle does not have the same degree of precision as it does in the science laboratory. The role of individuals, political parties and social movements is not scientifically pre-ordained. A trade union leader might be a repected left-winger, but may capitulate when faced with a determined onslaught from the bosses. A moderate trade union leader may surprise himself or herself however and become much more “militant” than intended, when faced with mass pressure from below.
There are no absolutes in the class struggle! We often stress for instance that boom and slump are not antithetical categories as crude GCSE textbooks proclaim. Within every economic growth of capitalism are the seeds of future recession and vice versa. It is not slump alone, which causes workers to rebel against the class system. The very opposite may be the case, with workers feeling intimidated by the threat of widespread unemployment.
In a boom, workers can go on the offensive not only in order to recapture past gains that have been lost, but to win new victories around pay and conditions.
Trotsky illustrated this law in his analysis of the forces which made the Russian Revolution in 1917: “In order to realise the Soviet State, there was required a drawing together and mutual penetration of two factors belonging to completely different economic species; a peasant war – that is, a movement characteristic of the dawn of bourgeois development – and a proletarian insurrection, the movement signaling its decline. That is the essence of 1917”. (History of the Russian Revolution.)
This “combined and uneven development” illustrates the complex manner in which societies develop. Application of the law of interpenetrating opposites is crucial in our clarification of the stage at which capitalism has reached, its future direction and our responses.
The Negation of the Negation
Described by Engels as “an extremely general, and for this very reason extremely far-reaching and important, law of development of nature, history and thought”, the negation of the negation deals with development through contradictions which appear to annul, or negate a previous fact, theory, or form of existence, only to later become negated in its turn.
Capitalism’s economic cycle illustrates this law. Great wealth is created in the boom, only to become partially destroyed by episodic crises of over-production. These in turn create afresh the conditions for new booms, which assimilate and build upon previously acquired methods of production, before once again coming into contact and being partially negated by the limits of the market economy.
Everything, which exists, does so out of necessity. But everything perishes, only to be transformed into something else. Thus what is ‘necessary’ in one time and place becomes ‘unnecessary’ in another. Everything creates its opposite, which is destined to overcome and negate it.
The first human societies were classless societies based on the co-operation of the tribe. These were negated by the emergence of class societies basing themselves upon the developing material levels of wealth. Modern private ownership of the means of production and the nation state, which are the basic features of class society and originally marked a great step forward, now serve only to fetter and undermine the productive forces and threaten all the previous gains of human development.
The material basis exists now to replace the bosses’ system with socialism, the embryo of which is already contained in class society, but can never be realised until the working class negates capitalism.
Dialectical Materialism as a revolutionary theory
“Dialectics, so-called objective dialectics, prevails throughout nature..” (Engels: ‘Dialectics of Nature.’)
In the realm of science, explicitly or implicitly, the dialectical method continues to vindicate itself as a vital tool for progress. Apparently unrelated scientific disciplines have come to share visions and methodologies reflecting the real connectedness of our living universe.
Even the idealist philosopher Kant, writing before the time of Marx and Engels and who believed in a supreme being, was forced by experience to arrive unconsciously at a dialectical position. He argued that if the earth was something that had come into being, then its present geological, geographical and climatic states, its plants and animals too, must be something that had come into being. If this was the case, then earth must have had a history not only of co-existence in space but also a succession in time.
In particular, Darwin’s theory of evolution, the revolutionary significance of which was immediately understood by Marx and Engels, has itself become enriched and a more profound confirmation of dialectics of nature as a result of further study and practice.
Darwin demonstrated how evolution develops through natural selection, creating outrage among those for whom “God” determined all. But while he argued that “nature does not make a leap”, the debates now raging among neo-Darwinists are about whether or not leaps take place and the nature of them.
Incorporating the science of genetics, new concepts such as MUTATION (the spontaneous formation of new variations in genetic make-up), GENE FLOW (the introduction of new genes into a population by immigration of breeding individuals) and GENETIC DRIFT (random gene changes in a population due to its limited size) as well as natural selection, have begun to be studied.
In a brilliant endorsement of dialectics as the science of sharp turns and sudden changes as opposed to gradualist development, it is now widely accepted that rate of evolutionary change can vary enormously. The theory of PUNCTUATED EQUILIBRIA takes this idea a stage forward, maintaining that the development or appearance of a new species can be, in terms of geological time, instantaneous breaking an apprarently stable equilibrium.
This theory deals with rapid and sudden speciation and mass extinction of species, in the same way as Darwin spoke of the struggle for existence of individual varieties within a single species.
Modern scientific theories rest on a dialectic view of nature. Quantum mechanics, the theory on which all modern technology is based, rests on a unification of the two classical (apparently contradictory) concepts of wave motion and particle motion to produce a new deeper understanding of the nature of reality.
Theories of fundamental particles find themselves working on concepts which bridge the contradiction between matter and the space-time in which matter moves.
Towards a Socialist World.
” …the final causes of all social changes and political revolutions are to be sought, not in men’s brains, not in man’s better insight into eternal truth and justice, but in changes in the modes of production and exchange.
They are to be sought not in the philosophy, but in the economics of each particular epoch.” (Engels: ‘Socialism: Utopian & Scientific.’)
DIALECTICAL MATERIALISM is not a dull theory to be pondered over by erudite academics in their studies. It is a guide to action. For young workers and students seeking to understand capitalism and more importantly change it, it is an indispensable tool.
The so-called New World Order is daily proving to be less harmonious than the old one. Of the six billion people on Earth, almost 3.6 billion have neither cash nor credit to buy much of anything. A majority of people on the planet remain, at best, window shoppers. Although the development of giant corporations straddling continents and the existence of computer technologies underline the potential for the world planning of production and trade, capitalism remains a system based on wasteful competition between nation states where rival multinationals fight to improve market share, productivity and profit at our expense.
Great social revolutions in the past have been carried out by emerging minorities who best articulated the new economic and political needs of the rising class. History is made by conscious men and women, each driven by definite motives and desires. The struggle for Socialism is qualitatively different as it involves the conscious participation of the majority – the world’s working class and oppressed masses. Standing in our way is diseased capitalism.
Our task is to harness the indefatigable energy of the workers worldwide to throw off our exploitation, through the building of a mighty Socialist force. The dialectical method applied to every stage of the class struggle, illuminates our path, assists us in turning our ideas into a material force and brings closer the day when men and women can pass over from the realm of necessity into the realm of human freedom.
The following works are recommended, the first four being most accessible.
1. The ABC of Materialist Dialectics (15/12/1939) from “A Bourgeois Opposition in the Socialist Workers’ Party” and An Open Letter to Comrade Burnham (07/01/1940) both included in Trotsky’s collection ” In Defence of Marxism.”
2. “On the question of Dialectics” – Lenin.
3. “An introduction to the Logic of Marxism” – George Novack.
4. “The part played by Labour in the transition from ape to man” – Engels.
5. “Anti-Duhring” – Engels.
6. “Materialism and Empirio-Criticism” – Lenin.
7. “Dialectics of Nature” – Engels.
8. “Fundamental Problems of Marxism” – Plekhanov