The philosophy of Marxism

01 February 1999

The Marxist method is based on materialism. It rejects idealism.

The Russian Marxist Georgi Plekhanov gave the following definition of these terms: ‘Materialism is the direct opposite of idealism. Idealism strives to explain also the phenomena of nature, all the qualities of matter, by these or those qualities of the spirit. Materialism acts in exactly the opposite way. It tries to explain psychic phenomena by these or those qualities of matter, by this or that organisation of the human, or, in more general terms, of the animal body’.

Materialism and idealism give opposite answers to what Engels called ‘the great basic question of all philosophy … the relation of thinking and being’, or the question of which came first, mind or matter, spirit or nature.

Materialism was of course anathema to the theologians fo the medieval world. The conceiver and creator of the universe was God. His representatives on earth were the Roman Church, the kings and the feudal landowners. God was constantly overriding the laws of nature (miracles) just as the Pope and the kings were not bound by the laws which applied to the masses.

The rise of the merchant and capitalist classes in late 16th and early 17th century Europe unleashed a wave of scientific investigation,the discovery of the world and the universe and developments in technology. The printing press, navigational instruments, the telescope revealed and spread knowledge of a natural world greatly at variance with the church’s teaching. This forced philosophers to think again—especially those no longer employed by the Roman Church.

As scientists like Gallileo and Newton identified fundamental laws that governed the motion of the physical universe, philosophers like Hobbes in England and Descartes in France began to create mechanical models for understanding both matter and mind. The old miracle-working deity had to be evicted from nature in order for natural laws and scientific method to proceed in a rational fashion.

Most philosophers turned God into a celestial watchmaker who created and wound up the universe at the beginning of time and left it to run by itself. The French materialists—Holbach, Helvetius, Diderot—however, found no evidence for God whatsoever and bravely said so!

These mechanical materialist ideas, with their stress on scientific research and practical knowledge instead of religious dogma, represented a tremendous step forward for human thought. But they eventually ran up against serious limitations.

In their eagerness to drive out the mystical and the immaterial they reduced human thinking itself to a passive role within nature. Diderot described the brain as being like a wax drum bearing the imprint of the outside world. But if this was so, how did one explain human history as a continual process of change—of the environment, of social life, of human nature.

The materialist philosophers had to confront the fact that the emergence of capitalism was punctuated by great risings, civil wars and revolutions. If humans were, to a greater or lesser degree, automata which are determined by fixed natural stimuli, then how could they desire change, let alone effect it? And what was the driving force of this constant change? The eighteenth century materialists were unable to solve this.

The young Karl Marx recognised this ‘chief defect of all hitherto existing materialism’. He observed that ‘it happened that the active side, in contradisctinction to materialism, was developed by idealism’.

In fact it was the great German idealist philosopher Georg Hegel who addressed the problem of the evolutionary and revolutionary development of history. He saw it as a series of transformations in human thought which themselves originated in an ‘Absolute (unlimited) Mind’—or God in lay terms. But Hegel’s Absolute Mind was not a force outside nature who set it going like a watchmaker, nor like the medieval God a being who constantly intervened, making nonsense of natural law. ‘It’ was the constantly changing, contradictory development both of physical nature and its comprehension within human thought.

Hegel registered all sorts of development and change, he saw that different sorts of society had existed, he even saw that revolutionary economic developments were related to political ones. But he never budged from the idea that the driving force in history was mind—and not even individual human minds but an abstract general mind progressively realising itself in history.

Marx and Engels rejected Hegel’s upside-down view—based as it was on the thought process as simply preceding practise. But they also rejected the mechanical materialists’ failure to understand human activity as part of reality—able to shape and change it and not just a passive element responding to the forces of nature.

They focused their attention on the role of labour. They showed how humanity is a part of and product of nature not of God or the absolute mind. But through labour it can and does react back on nature and change it. Just as our social and natural environment shapes us as human beings so humans constantly reshape their social and natural environments. In doing so they also change their ideas, their worldview.

However, Marxism does insist that the activity of man pursuing his aims is not a process that takes place outside of the constraints of the real world. The motives that determine the conditions under which individuals act are ultimately economic, by which is meant not the dry book-keeping of present-day financial analysts, but ‘the production and reproduction of human life’. Before humans can write poetry, create great art and study philosophy, they must first find food and shelter and secure the necessities of life.

How was it that Marx and Engels were able to overcome the limitations of earlier forms of materialism and explain social change without giving way to idealist philosophy? The key was the way in which they incorporated into materialist thinking one powerful insight developed by Hegel, the greatest of the German idealist philosophers.

Hegel argued that change and motion are the products of internal contradictions within all things. On the basis of this he developed a new, advanced theory of logic. This theory—dialectics—has often been attacked as mystical and obscure. And indeed, Hegel himself, as an idealist, believed that matter was only a stage of the development of something he called the Absolute Spirit.

But Marx and Engels rescued his real insights from their outlandish idealistic trappings. In doing so, they were able to solve the problem that had eluded the mechanical materialists. They showed how the impetus towards development and change in human society was provided not by some divine or spiritual force external to nature, but by the contradictions and conflicts within nature and within human society. This allowed Marx and Engels to give a powerful explanation of how the new capitalist system had arisen out of feudal societies in Europe. The rise of great cities concentrating a new class based on trade, manufacturing and new forms of finance led eventually to large scale industry and mass production. The rising class of capitalists was eventually brought into inevitable conflict with the old dominant class of feudal landowners.

Ultimately—in England, America and France—they rebelled and overthrew the feudal system and its superstructure of absolute monarchical rule. Society was developing—through both gradual change and sharp revolutionary breaks—as a result of its own internal contradictions.

Far from being mystical or confusing, dialectical materialism is an easily comprehensible set of laws governing the logic of processes that are in motion. As Engels wrote, in his book Anti-Duhring, the dialectic is:

‘The great basic thought that the world is not to be comprehended as a complex of ready-made things, but as a complex of processes, in which [things] … go through an uninterrupted change of coming into being and passing away.’ He added that: ‘For dialectical philosophy nothing is sacred. It reveals the transitory character of everything and in everything; nothing can endure before it except the uninterrupted process of becoming and of passing away.’

All things have to be understood in their interconnections and their development, not as fixed, eternal objects isolated from one another. To achieve this, the dialectic sets out new logical laws. The three major laws of the dialectic are:

As an example of this we can look at any modern nation. ‘Britain’ is not just an ‘idea’—it exists as a territorial, political and economy reality. In this sense ‘Britain’ is a unity. But as such it is nevertheless composed of different classes, which have antagonistic interests. The struggle between these two contending features of the nation’s essence will determine the fate of Britain. In every nation, the victory of the working class over the capitalists as a result of the unfolding of this contradiction would result in the abolition of the nation state itself, and the absorption of its positive achievements into an international human culture.

In politics, the British Labour Party provides an example. By moving its polices to the right, criticising its links with the unions and building closer alliances with the Liberal Democrats, Blair has attempted to break the party’s links with the organised working class movement. Each political change (e.g. the reduction of the block vote, the abolition of clause four) represents a quantitative step towards his goal. But a qualitative transformation, radically redefining the nature of the party, stands as yet in the future. It would involve severing the party’s organised relationship with the trade unions and their millions of working class members. Quantity has not yet been transformed into quality.

Thus capitalism can be overthrown by the working class. Yet in abolishing or negating capitalism, the working class will also negate and transform itself, by establishing a society without classes: socialism. The negation is itself negated.

Marxism, therefore, unashamedly seeks to apply a scientific methodology to politics and the science of social change. Of course, dialectical materialism has attracted bitter opposition from the defenders of capitalism, but the theory itself can account for this and regards it as inevitable for as long as society remains divided into classes. As Lenin wrote: ‘If the laws of geometry affected human interests, attempts would be made to refute them.’

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