The most fundamental question in philosophy is about the connection between human beings and the universe in which we exist, between reality and our understanding of it, between our being and our consciousness.
For Marxism, this connection is especially important because we want thinking, acting human beings to change material reality … to create a world free from exploitation and all forms of oppression.
The first issue we have to consider, therefore, is whether such a connection exists between consciousness and being, between thought and existence, which would enable us to change the conditions of our existence in a profound, revolutionary way.
Can we create a future broadly in accordance with aspirations, ideas and plans that we have thought up in advance?
Not necessarily or at all, if there is another force which is more powerful than human thought and action. Such a force might be a god, or a spirit of good or evil, or it may be called karma or ‘fate’. Although such forces are said to exert influence within the material universe, they are usually held by believers to be superior to the universe, to exist independently of it. In some belief systems, they actually created the material universe or – in some mysterious way – are inside ‘nature’ itself. Yet, perhaps oddly, when ideas, feelings or values are attributed to such a force, they are invariably and recognisably human ones.
A modern version of this outlook is that something called ‘human nature’ substantially determines – and in particular depresses – the conditions and potentials of human society. This so-called human nature is usually presented as something unchanging, unchangeable and almost entirely negative: that as a species we are prejudiced, selfish and greedy due to something (which is never precisely identified) inside us. Yet such a pessimistic, defeatist theory of human behaviour is disproved every day across the planet by a billion acts of friendship, thoughtfulness and generosity. It also flies in the face of the evidence that the vast majority (99%) of known human societies have been communal and classless, where selfishness and greed were clearly seen as detrimental to survival.
What we have been looking at are different schools of idealist philosophy, although not ‘idealist’ in the everyday sense of the word i.e. to want everything to be perfect. They are idealist because those who propagate them believe that ideas – their own or those of some supernatural force which they have created in their imagination – are superior to the material universe. These fixed ideas are imposed on an ever-changing material reality as if they were an eternal truth – even though these ideas only actually represent the prejudices and assumptions of just one particular time and one particular class.
For instance, the notion that ‘human beings are selfish’ matches the need for capitalism to individualise workers. Any trade unionist knows how these ideas are used in the workplace to undermine collective organisation, solidarity and mutual support. As a philosophical outlook, ‘idealism’ prevents us analysing the world as it actually is, concretely and objectively.
The materialist outlook, on the other hand, asserts that the material universe is primary. The universe existed before our consciousness of it did, and today continues to exist independent of our consciousness of it. (Again we are not using a word in its everyday sense, where ‘materialism’ means an obsession with material possessions.)
Indeed, materialism goes further and points out that our consciousness, our thoughts and ideas, are themselves the product of matter. They have been manufactured by the human central nervous system – a highly complex form of matter which is located in our material body – which receives sensations from the material world around us (including the ideas received from other human beings and through our own sensory images, experiences and so on).
Materialism holds that there is nothing in the material world which should forever remain a mystery to us. Through science and reason, we have developed knowledge and understanding of gravity, electricity, weather, the seasons – all of which once fed superstitious beliefs in gods and spirits. Despite all our deficiencies, mistakes and regressions, the history of human society has largely been one of material and intellectual progress, at least up until now. Furthermore, we continue to enlarge our knowledge of the material universe and to exert – not always for the best – our control over aspects of it.
We have no evidence that some supernatural force or other created the material universe, or guides or determines its course of development. When pressed about the supposed existence of such a force, about its origins in particular, idealists invite us into the realm of mysticism. They often tell us that we can never know the origins of such and such a force, or why it acts as it does. Ultimately, we are implored to have ‘faith’.
So why are so many people devoutly religious in what is supposed to be the age of reason? Marx once described religion as ‘the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world’ – more famously as ‘the opium of the people’ (although he probably meant opium in the sense of a pain-killer rather than an addictive drug). For Lenin, religious faith was a form of’ false consciousness’, just as today we might regard the spiritual content of nationalism as being so.
Thus we return to the question: can human beings change social reality and hence determine the future in accordance with some kind of plan, if only an outline one? What are the possibilities and how can they be realised? What are the dangers, and how can they be minimised if not eliminated?
As a materialist philosophy, Marxism takes the material world as its starting point.
To begin with, therefore, we have to be conscious of the material basis of our consciousness. In other words, we have to recognise and take full account of our own thought processes – and in particular of the fact that our own beliefs and ideas are formed through sensory input from the material world. This means that our beliefs, ideas and values can be partial, self-centred, distorted by our own experiences etc. – but also that they can be enriched by drawing more fully upon the evidence provided by the material world and its development.
Secondly, we reject the notion that human beings are restricted in what they can achieve by any mysterious external or superior force.
Thirdly, Marxism argues that in order to change reality, we first have to understand it – including all the forces at work in society. Which forces can be harnessed, strengthened and directed for progressive and revolutionary change? Which ones oppose such change and thus have to be marginalised, weakened and deflected? We have to make what Lenin called ‘a concrete analysis of the concrete situation’.
But Marxism is not merely materialism. There are other philosophical outlooks which analyse the world in terms of its material reality – but which conclude that nothing much can be changed, at least not by human beings in a conscious, planned way.
That is why Marx proclaimed: ‘The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point, however, is to change it’.
Marxist materialism is not mechanical at all. Central to Marx’s materialism is dialectics – a way of thinking which explains how things develop and change. The laws of dialectical materialism can be summarised as follows:
- Everything is part of the whole, interconnected, an element in the material unity of the universe. So we should not be partial, blinkered or narrow in our outlook and analysis.
- Everything is in flux, in motion, in the process of changing. Movement or change may be dramatic, sudden, obvious – or small, gradual, virtually invisible. Although on the surface nothing appears to be happening, underneath elements are growing or declining, moods are changing – sometimes through connections with things happening elsewhere. So nothing is unchanging and forever: no form of human society is infinite and unchangeable.
- Movement and change occur through the clash of opposites. Within any particular structure or body, there are rival tendencies – between what sustains it and what changes it. Where the contradiction between them is fundamental, they cannot co-exist in the same unity permanently. Eventually, that contradiction sharpens to the point where one force has to vanquish the other. The old unity is broken, and a new unity has to be constructed under the leadership of the victorious force.
- In the process of struggle, the opposing forces have an impact on one another, changing each other to a greater or lesser degree. This is what Marxism calls the ‘interpenetration of opposites’. At the conclusion of the struggle, the victorious force is not the same as it was at the beginning. It may, for example, have absorbed some elements of the contrary force, transforming them in the process. For instance, the magnet, or even any part of a magnet, has two opposite poles which are mutually exclusive and at the very same time interconnected.
- Similarly, positively and negatively charged atomic particles are at the same time mutually exclusive and interconnected. In living matter, the opposing processes of assimilation and dissimilation constitute the process of metabolism. And while heredity attempts to preserve specific characteristics, adaptability enables organisms to develop new characteristics in response to changing conditions; these new characteristics may then become hereditary.
- Changes of degree – of quantity – will at some point produce a fundamental change in the quality of something i.e., a change in its essence or character. For instance, a workplace may begin with just a few workers in a trade union. But as unionisation proceeds and the employer is compelled to negotiate collective terms and conditions, so the whole character of industrial relations in that workplace will change. Recruitment to the union multiplies – an example of qualitative change in turn producing quantitative change. The same processes can come to embrace whole industrial sectors and whole national economies.
- Finally, fundamental change involves what Engels called the “negation of the negation”. That which negates something in the process of revolutionary change can itself come to be negated by a new contradictory force which arises in opposition to it. But the result is not the restoration of the old previously-defeated force or institution or idea, but its restoration in a new form and at a higher level.
Marx and Engels applied dialectical materialism historically to what was known in the 19th century about the development of human society. This enabled them to define more precisely the different stages of development and to explain how and why societies have changed from one type to another.
They began by asking how each type of society produced and reproduced the material conditions of its own existence. Which groups or classes of people did the producing? Who commanded the forces of production – the material resources, the technology and the labour power? And what were the relations between these different classes involved in the production process?
Marx and Engels argued that understanding the economic basis of a society – its mode of production – was essential to understanding the institutions, ideas, laws and customs which rested upon those economic foundations. Thus they identified the different types of human society – or ‘modes of production’ – which had existed since the beginning of recorded history. These were, in order of their appearance:
I. PRIMITIVE COMMUNISM in which the means of production such as the land, animals, traps and fires were owned in common by kinship groups.
II. SLAVE SOCIETY which arose as technological advance made possible a social surplus of food, weapons, shelter etc., where tribes clashed over scarce resources and surpluses thereby creating classes of warriors and slaves – the former later to turn the latter into their own private property. It was during the first, patriarchal stage of slavery that women lost out in the division of labour, in the ownership and inheritance of property and therefore in social status. Hence they suffered what Engels called the ‘world-historic defeat of women’. Some societies did not progress to the more advanced, urbanised second stage of slavery (ancient or classical society as in the Roman Empire), but went directly from patriarchal slavery to the next mode of production:
III. FEUDALISM, which emerged out of the collapse and overthrow of slave societies, at first as a largely rural mode of production in which ownership and control of land – the chief means of production – and of the emancipated slaves and serfs who worked it determined power, wealth and status. Some societies, notably in Asia, combined aspects of slavery with aspects of feudalism rather than abolishing slavery altogether. As the feudal system stagnated and decayed, a new, more dynamic mode of production developed within it:
IV. CAPITALISM, as more and more agricultural, cottage and workshop production was carried out by hired labour for the market place and organised by capitalist farmers, merchants and manufactory masters. These employers of labour required a ‘free’ labour market, not the tied serfs of feudalism, in order to generate profit.
What are the common characteristics of all societies since primitive communism?
Firstly, they all germinated within the womb of the preceding mode of production. Thus for example the serfdom of early feudalism – where peasants were still under the direct legal jurisdiction of their lord and master – bore the birthmarks of slavery.
Secondly, they have all been class-divided societies, in which one major class does most of the producing while another owns the chief means of production (except in the Asiatic mode) and commands the forces of production. The relations between different classes in society’s production processes are therefore based on inequality and exploitation backed up by social institutions, laws, customs and ultimately by force.
Thirdly, each society has been characterised by struggle between the main social classes – between slave owners and slaves (and between slave owners and the independent producers, artisans and plebeians), between landowners and peasants and then between landowners and the rising capitalist class.
Fourthly, there comes a point in each society when the relations of production act to hold back society’s potential to produce vastly more.
Under feudalism, for example, patterns of land ownership, traditional ties to the land, institutions, laws, customs, religious teachings and the rest restricted the freedom of capitalist landowners, merchants and workshop masters to expand production, to found new enterprises, to lend and borrow money at interest for investment, and to attract labour from feudal estates into the new capitalist workforce. Feudalism’s relations of production, whereby the owners of land commanded society’s labour and wealth, were restricting the further development of society’s productive forces.
Consequently, not only did those relations of production – the basis of the feudal class system – have to be abolished. The whole superstructure of institutions, laws and ideas which reinforced and perpetuated feudalism had to be swept away. It was the struggle between the rising capitalist class and the old feudal aristocracy which gave rise to the English civil war in the 1640s and the French Revolution of the 1790s – even though the conflict was fought with slogans about kings and parliaments, about rights and freedoms (including religious ones), using the concepts and terms that had developed up to that time.
The new capitalist order was presented as something which would benefit society as a whole, not merely the capitalist strata.
So the capitalist class or bourgeoisie (from the French for the town burghers who were mostly merchants and manufacturers) achieved political power as a revolutionary class, overthrowing the old order, leading a coalition of the exploited and oppressed. In Britain unlike in France, the transfer of power was only a partial one – the monarchy was later restored and the aristocracy retained much of its wealth and status. The British capitalist class did not acquire full political power – notably control over the state apparatus – until the 19th century, having first been enriched and strengthened by slavery abroad and the Industrial Revolution at home.
So what is the most important lesson we can learn from this dialectical materialist – this Marxist – conception of history? That class struggle is the motor which drives fundamental social change and progress. This struggle is primarily between the existing ruling class – which needs to preserve the existing relations of production as the basis of its economic wealth and political power – and the class which needs to abolish those relations in order to liberate both itself and society’s developing forces of production. As discussed more thoroughly in our third class, it is this working class struggle rooted in changing material conditions that produces the two modes of production identified by Marx and Engels as on the historical agenda of human emancipation – Socialism and Communism.
Where time and numbers permit, discuss the following questions in groups and then select a person from each group to report your views to the rest of the class:
- What did you find most informative, interesting or surprising about the opening statement for this session?
- Think of a current issue or event of political importance. How would a dialectical materialist approach to it deepen our understanding and enable us to make a more significant contribution to the political struggle around it?
- Identify some idealist (in the philosophical sense) notions or ideas which limit the struggle for progressive change today. How might they be challenged or overcome?
- In your view, how should Marxists approach the question of working politically with – or against – those who have strongly-held religious views?
- When did the Canadian capitalist class secure full control of the Canadian state?
- Which parts of the introduction do you still have difficulty understanding?