Introduction to dialectical materialism – The foundation of revolutionary theory

Marx and Engels 2by Shaun Arendse


Part I – Why do we need theory?

Part II – The method of Marxism – dialectical materialism

Part III – The tools of dialectical thought

Part IV – The historical development of Marxism

Part V – Summary

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Marxism is the revolutionary theory of the working class. It is sometimes called a “philosophy”. The word philosophy comes from the Ancient Greek language and means ‘love of wisdom’. A philosophy is a system of ideas used to try and understand the world. But today, ‘theory’ is a clearer description for Marxism.

The working class has every reason to strive to understand the world. We want to understand our lot in life. We want to understand why there is poverty, inequality, racism, war and all the other things that make life a struggle for us. As a class in capitalist society we have no vested interests to protect. We do not live by the exploitation of others. In fact we are robbed every day of the wealth we create in the workplace. We have everything to gain and nothing to lose from understanding why this is the case.

But the understanding that Marxism gives us is not simply the ‘point of view’ of the working class. For example, from the point of view of the working class, bosses are “unfair” and “greedy” for paying low wages when they are making profits; from the point of view of the bosses they “deserve” their profits as they have “fairly” paid their workers the going wage. They tell the workers that they are “ungrateful” to complain and “lucky” to have the privilege of working for them at all! It can appear that society is made up of lots of different ‘points of view’ with none more ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ than any other. If Marxism simply put forward the ‘point of view’ of the working class it would be no better than an opinion. We would say it is subjective.

But Marxism helps to give us an objective understanding of the world, especially of society. It arms us with a method to train our thoughts to understand the world as accurately as possible. For example, by explaining the objective relationship between wages and profits that exists independently of anyone’s ‘point of view’, Marxism can explain why the working class and the capitalist class have these different ‘points of view’ in the first place. Objectively, profit is simply the unpaid labour of the working class. This is disguised by the payment of hourly wages or monthly salaries which make it look like workers are paid for all of their labour. Correctly sensing this, the working class’s point of view is closer to reality than the bosses!

The search for objective explanations is also the basis of modern science. Science, by asking ‘why?’ about everything in nature looks for objective explanations all the way back to the beginning of the universe – and beyond! Science allowed us to understand that everything in nature has a history that can be explained.

Karl Marx’s breakthrough was to use a scientific approach to explain society. He uncovered the objective processes which explain how society develops. He found these in the development of the productive forces and the class struggle this gives rise to. In other words, Marx showed that the machinery and techniques used to keep society running (the productive forces) and the way people are then organised around them (the relations of production) give rise to different classes of people. These classes have different relationships to the productive forces and to each other. For example, today the capitalist class owns the economy; the working class does not. The working class lives by receiving a wage from the capitalists for their labour; the capitalist class lives by the exploitation of the labour of their workers. This gives the working class and the capitalist class their different ‘points of view’ about different ideas, including what is “fair”.

This basic structure of society exists independently of anyone’s ‘point of view’; it is an objective foundation for explaining society and as Marx said can be, “determined with the precision of natural science”. Upon this “real foundation” Marx explained, “arises a legal and political superstructure … to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness. The mode of production of material life conditions the general process of social, political and intellectual life”. Marxism, by placing the understanding of society on scientific foundations allows us to develop accurate explanations for ‘why?’ things in society are the way that they are. Lenin, alongside Leon Trotsky the leader of the workers’ 1917 Russian Revolution, explained that:

Marx … extended the cognition [understanding] of nature to include the cognition of human society. His historical materialism [placing the understanding of society on scientific foundations] was a great achievement in scientific thinking. The chaos and arbitrariness that had previously reigned in views on history and politics were replaced by a strikingly integral and harmonious scientific theory, which shows how, in consequence of the growth of productive forces, out of one system of social life another and higher system develops—how capitalism, for instance, grows out of feudalism [the form of society that came before capitalism in Europe].

Just as man’s knowledge reflects nature … which exists independently of him, so man’s social knowledge (i.e., his various views and doctrines—philosophical, religious, political and so forth) reflects the economic system of society. Political institutions are a superstructure on the economic foundation. We see, for example, that the various political forms of the modern European states serve to strengthen the domination of the bourgeoisie [capitalist class] over the proletariat [working class].

Marx’s philosophy … has provided mankind, and especially the working class, with powerful instruments of knowledge.

The Three Sources and Three Component Parts of Marxism, 1895

This is why Marxism is also called scientific socialism. Like any science Marxism has its own method of analysis that teaches us where to look for objective explanations. This method is called dialectical materialism. Once on the scene of objective explanations, Marxism provides us with ‘tools’ of dialectical thought that help us examine the things we find. These ‘tools’ are the laws of dialectics. (Both will be explained in Parts II and III.)

There is a further consequence arising from the extension of scientific principles to society. In Socialism: Utopian & Scientific Engels said, “that which still survives of all earlier philosophy is the science of thought and its laws – formal logic and dialectics [explained in Part III]. Everything else is subsumed in the positive science of Nature and history.” In other words, Engels is saying that the only area of human knowledge left for philosophy is the examination of how we think about the world. All other knowledge of the world, including society, must be furnished by a scientific approach that looks for objective explanations.


In what way is Marxism scientific?

The basis of science is to collect observations. In some branches of science observations can be made more detailed and precise with experiments in a laboratory. Theories are then developed that connect and explain observations. As our knowledge of the world develops on this basis, theories in turn guide observations by allowing predictions to be made to test them.

Marxism takes the same approach. But Marxism’s laboratory is the experience of the working class throughout history. These experiences are the ‘observations’ of scientific socialism. In that sense, Marxism is nothing more than a generalisation of the experiences of the working class. When we talk about a “generalisation” we mean that if we see the same thing happening again and again we can make a rule about it. For example, if we repeatedly see that people who run on the factory floor fall over and hurt themselves, the next time we see someone run we do not wonder what will happen, we simply say “don’t run!”

It is the same in history. If we see the working class facing the same challenges again and again in their struggles we can predict that similar challenges will face us today. Likewise, if workers tried certain solutions to those challenges and those solutions failed we must learn from those failures and not repeat them. For example, in every revolutionary situation where the working class has tried to take power, the capitalists have used the state (the police, the army, the courts etc.) to defend their system. When the workers were not prepared for this they were defeated. By applying the Marxist method of analysis to this experience we have created the ‘Marxist theory of the state’ to explain why this is the case – that the state is not a ‘neutral’ structure above society, but a state of the ruling class. So in revolutionary situations today we do not wonder what the state will do to us. We organise to defend ourselves. Theory guides our actions and our past experiences allowed us to develop that theory.

Those who say we do not need theory because “you cannot eat theory” are saying that they have nothing to learn from over 200 years of working class sacrifice and struggle. Because what else can we mean by “theory” except this sacrifice and struggle? Those who say “you cannot eat theory” are either arrogant, ignorant or both!


Why is it only Marxists who understand society scientifically?

For the working class, achieving a scientific understanding of society is not an academic exercise or a trick to be mastered so we can sound clever in front of our friends. We want to understand ‘why?’ in order to change the world. It is Marx’s scientific analysis of history, and especially capitalism, that arms the working class with an understanding of how society can be re-organised to meet the needs of the vast majority instead of the profits of a few. For the working class Marxism is a guide to action in the struggle to create a socialist society. As Marx said, “the philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it”.

Socialism is not an idea plucked out of the air. It is a prediction based upon an understanding of the limits of the existing capitalist economy. Socialism would replace capitalist private ownership of the banks, the mines, the commercial farms, the big factories and other big businesses with social ownership. On this basis production for social need could replace production for profit. In place of the chaos and competition of the capitalist market, socialism would organise a democratic plan of production. This plan would of necessity be international. Upon this economic foundation living standards could be raised enormously laying the basis for society to go forward and develop education, science and culture.

This threat to their class rule is reason enough for the capitalist class to oppose and resist Marxism’s scientific understanding of society. But at first glance this still seems strange. After all, the capitalist class are able to accept the breakthroughs in modern science that explain nature. Not least of all because they can use them to make profits in industry, pharmaceuticals, agriculture etc. They even accept that individuals can be understood scientifically with modern psychology and neuro-science.

But the capitalist’s class position prevents them from admitting that society can be understood scientifically. They are threatened by ideas like Marxism which can explain the basis of their rule in private ownership of the economy and the source of their profits in the exploitation of the working class. Even more threateningly for them, it follows that once you explain capitalism as part of a process of historical development there is no need to think that history has stopped with capitalism – society will continue to change; capitalism will not last forever.

But we are not talking about a simple act of deception on the part of the capitalists – that they know the truth and are hiding it. Whilst the best strategists of capitalism have some understanding of the nature of their system, which they use to defend it, in general we are talking about a far more subtle process.

The capitalist class are like a person climbing a mountain without enough rope to reach the top. They convince themselves that they are on the only mountain in the world simply because they cannot get to the top and see that beyond their mountain others stretch on as far as the eye can see. Their position on the mountain blinds them to reality. Like the climber stranded below the top of the mountain, the capitalists’ position in society means they cannot admit that their way of organising society is just that – their way of organising society. So many different philosophical, religious, economic and political theories develop to explain why capitalist society is ‘normal’, ‘natural’ and even ‘inevitable’.


Confusing the issue

In our everyday lives, the capitalist’s ‘point of view’ is put forward as ‘common sense’. The mainstream media is full of its sloppy thinking. Just turn on any talk radio or television chat show to hear it. You’ll quickly hear that people are rich because they “worked hard”; not because they exploited the labour of the working class. You’ll hear someone say that “human nature is greedy” to explain inequality; not that there is inequality because of the division of society into one class that owns the economy and one class that owns nothing, forcing them to work for the owners. Elsewhere, people look towards ‘entrepreneurialism’ and other self-help lifestyle philosophies around motivational speaking and ‘leadership’. Ultimately, they all teach an accommodation with society as it is, to not attempt to reach the top of the mountain and see the real horizon.

Some of capitalism’s ideological armour is more sophisticated. Capitalist governments must have a certain understanding of society if they are to run a modern economy. Statistics on economic growth, population change, imports and exports, the functioning of different industrial sectors etc. are collected. So too are statistics on poverty, inequality and unemployment. At no point in history have so many social ‘observations’ been collected! So it is at the level of theory that the defenders of capitalism must place their armour. They must stop theory from connecting and explaining observations which lead to the objective conclusion that capitalism is a disaster for the vast majority of humanity.

Impossible to avoid entirely, Marxism is presented as ‘just another theory’. The university sociology departments (that study society) are crammed full of half-baked confused theories presented like sweets in a pick ‘n’ mix. You can choose the theory that tastes sweetest to you regardless of its ability to accurately explain society. The clear voice of Marxism in drowned in a wall of noise; connections made by Marx are disconnected. When ideas and theories are treated in this way we call it an eclectic approach. This approach is standard in the social sciences of capitalist society. Those few academics who do claim to support Marxism more often than not sterilise it by ignoring the revolutionary conclusions that flow from it.

But in capitalist society it is only in the social ‘sciences’ that eclecticism is allowed to dominate. It is self-evident that certain scientific theories explain nature more accurately than others. The theories best able to explain nature are made standard whilst those less able to are discarded. For example, both a sangoma and a medical doctor can explain a fever in their patient with reference to “their theory”. The sangoma will likely explain the fever as caused by evil spirits; the medical doctor a bacterial infection.

Dr & SangomaBut the medical doctor’s theory accurately explains what is happening. A correct explanation allows a precise and effective treatment – antibiotics in this example. The sangoma might have accidently discovered a treatment through generations of trial and error, for example by finding a plant which contains the same active ingredient from which the antibiotic is made. Indeed, the medical doctor likely discovered the active ingredient by examining plants traditionally used by the sangoma. But the sangoma would still not understand why the plant worked without an understanding of its chemical composition; he would only know that it does. One theory is far less accurate at explaining the world than the other. What holds good for science and medicine holds good in society too. Marxism can explain society more accurately than other social ‘theories’.

But this is not to say that science is immune to the influence of social conditions – it is not. For example, black slavery in the Americas was rationalized from the seventeenth century by pseudo-scientific theories of race which today are entirely discredited. In failing to understand that any feature of society, such as the existence of exclusively black slaves, required an objective explanation that could only be found in social conditions, scientists attempted to use the theories they were developing to explain nature to explain society. The placing of animals in a hierarchy from ‘lower’ to ‘higher’ forms was transplanted to society with black people at the bottom of the ‘social hierarchy’ and white people at the top.

This wrong method continues to this day in the works of many otherwise excellent scientists. But this does not invalidate the scientific method in general as some would argue. It simply demonstrates that a half-hearted search for objective explanations that stops at the door of society will lead to errors.

Another way to dismiss Marxism is to say that because it is old it surely cannot cope with the complexities of society in the twenty-first century. But age cannot be the criteria for determining usefulness! For example, Newtonian physics, which pre-dates Marxism by a century, is still the basis of all modern physics. Leon Trotsky said that, “the criterion for replying to that question is simple: 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.”


A ‘European’ theory?

Some crude Africanists dismiss Marxism because it was ‘invented’ in Europe by a white man. They forget that many of the Africanists they look up to, especially leaders of the liberation struggles of the 1950s and 1960s, at least partially based their ideas on Marxism. But Marxism is not an ‘invention’. Marxism is a description of the processes by which society develops just as different scientific theories describe the processes by which nature develops. Those processes exist whether we give them a name or not and regardless of who first described them. Africanists will not be saved from the effects of gravity if they jump from the top of Mount Kilimanjaro just because the theory of gravity was first put forward in Europe!

It is true that it was the social conditions of nineteenth century Europe and the emergence of the revolutionary working class that allowed Karl Marx to develop his ideas. But certain ideas and inventions are the property of the entire human race regardless of their origin. Writing was originally invented in Africa. But since its invention it has been adapted to represent the many different languages of the world. Whilst Chinese letters are radically different to Arabic letters or English letters, the underlying method of representing the words and sounds of human speech with symbols is the same. Equally, the method of Marxism can be applied to understand very different societies in different stages of development. It can be applied to understand pre-colonial, colonial and neo-colonial African society just as Marx applied it to understand the different phases of European society.

In reality, the class position of the aspiring black elite that put forward these ideas means they too are stuck below the top of the mountain. Marx’s European origins are just their particular excuse to dismiss the revolutionary conclusions of Marxism that threaten their interests in capitalist society.


The Stalinist distortion of Marxism

But this excuse was served-up on a plate by the Stalinist distortion of Marxism that tried to impose Marx’s description of the development of European class society onto African society. Because Europe had developed from Ancient slave society, through the feudal society of kings, landlords and peasants to capitalism before the working class struggle for socialism began, the Stalinists argued that Africa would ‘inevitably’ have to follow the same stages before socialism was even thinkable. But the simple fact that European capitalism and pre-capitalist African societies interacted in centuries of slavery, colonialism, exploitation and oppression, interrupted whatever path of development might have been travelled by Africa had that interaction not happened. Africa is now part of the global capitalist system.

This distortion of Marxism was necessary for the dictatorial Stalinist bureaucracy. Their betrayal of the workers’ 1917 Russian Revolution led them to fear successful socialist revolutions elsewhere. If genuine socialism based on workers’ democracy emerged anywhere else, the Russian working class would be inspired to overthrow them. The idea that a period of capitalism was necessary in the colonial and neo-colonial world became an important part of Stalinist foreign policy to derail revolutionary movements. The South African Communist Party’s theory of the National Democratic Revolution gives a ‘theoretical’ justification for the accommodation the SACP has made with capitalism. Stalinist distortions of Marxism are another way to explain why there is only one mountain. They allow ‘Communist’ ministers to collect huge salaries, live in mansions and drive BMWs.

The Stalinist method of creating theories first and then demanding that society conform to them is totally alien to genuine Marxism. Leon Trotsky, exiled and murdered by the Stalinist bureaucracy for his defence of the genuine method of Marxism, developed the theory of Permanent Revolution that showed that the path of European development was not ‘destined’ to be followed by the rest of the world. By starting from the important Marxist principle that truth is concrete, Trotsky examined the colonial and semi-colonial countries and showed that the economic development that had taken place under the leadership of the capitalist class in Europe would have to be undertaken by the working class in the leadership of the peasantry in the colonial world. This was nowhere more the case than in Russia itself much to the later inconvenience of the Stalinists!


Working class theory can pierce capitalism’s ideological armour

Once ideas that defend capitalism are in existence the capitalist class uses their control of society, through ownership of the media, control of education etc., to try and impose these ideas on society as a whole. Such ideas become part of capitalism’s ideological armour. As Marx observed, “the ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas”.

But none of capitalism’s ideological defences can ever fully succeed in putting the working class to sleep. Reality constantly forces us to confront the gap between what we are told about society and our daily experiences that contradict it. The experience of our own exploitation and poverty when we can see the huge wealth capable of alleviating it disproves the idea that “all is as it should be”. Marxism teaches the working class to make the awareness of this gap, that suspicion that all is not as it should be, fully conscious. Marxism teaches us to train our way of thinking to penetrate through the fog of confusion that capitalist common sense relies upon and understand how to change society.

But everything in capitalist society tries to prevent workers from doing this. Even the most basic education is denied to many. But then, even the most advanced university education will not teach us how to see through the confused ideas of capitalist society. For that we must look to our own revolutionary organisations to train and educate ourselves. Using the Marxist method of analysis any worker can not only equal, but surpass the level of understanding of any entrepreneur, religious preacher, captain of industry or capitalist politician.