THE HISTORICAL DEVELOPMENT OF MARXISM
In Parts II and III Marxism was explained largely as a reasoned (or abstract!) argument. This was done to simplify the ideas in order to introduce them. But Marxism, like all ideas, is a product of historical development. The breakthroughs in thinking that culminated in Marxism were achieved under the impact of changing social conditions.
The earliest attempts to try and explain the world took the form of primitive religions with the belief that spirits controlled nature. To make sense of dreams, primitive people developed the idea of a ‘soul’ that left the body. With no knowledge of the brain or the unconscious, this explained why they would always wake-up in the same place even if they dreamed they had travelled the world. Dreams of dead relatives led to the idea that everyone must have an immortal ‘soul’ (i.e. that cannot die). From this developed the idea that other ‘souls’, hidden to us when we are awake, are behind all the unexplainable things in the world. This was the origin of the idea of gods and then one god who like all souls was eternal (had always existed).
The development of the idea of one eternal god shoved a huge rock between the scissor handles of human understanding. To view the world with the idea of ‘eternity’ means it is unnecessary to look for objective explanations. If something has always existed then there is no need to explain it. But ‘eternity’ is an abstract idea. You can’t find ‘eternity’ existing anywhere in the world. The idea is nothing but a product of social conditions. But abstract ideas like this were elevated above society as an unchallengeable question of ‘faith’. The effect for entire epochs was to prevent the development of even the idea that it was possible to find objective explanations for nature and society.
All religions are therefore a form of idealism. They all say that objective explanations are limited because there is something ‘beyond’ the world, whether this is an afterlife, a soul, or some form of god. Rather than being understood as a product of society, society is said to be a product of a god, which is nothing but a human idea. Marx explained that:
Man makes religion, religion does not make man. Religion is, indeed, the self-consciousness and self-esteem of man who has either not yet won through to himself, or has already lost himself again. But man is no abstract being squatting outside the world. Man is the world of man – state, society. This state and this society produce religion, which is an inverted consciousness of the world…
Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, 1843
But this was unavoidable in primitive societies with very little knowledge or understanding of the world. That religion still exists in an age of science and Marxism can only be explained if we look for an objective explanation in today’s social conditions. Today, people are still trying to make sense of their lives. In capitalist society this means trying to understand why some have so much and others so little. Without a scientific understanding of society, which the capitalist’s ideological armour ferociously defends against, this is presented as a case of ‘good luck’ or ‘bad luck’. For the capitalist class religion explains their ‘good luck’ as a result of them being “blessed”. For the working class, religion explains their ‘bad luck’ as a “test of faith” or “part of God’s plan” which they must endure. Any slight improvement in their ‘luck’ is attributed to God rather than the efforts of working class struggle. Marx explained that:
Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.
The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions. The criticism of religion is, therefore, in embryo, the criticism of that vale of tears of which religion is the halo.
Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, 1843
The criticisms of capitalism made by some religious leaders with working class congregations are of course relatively progressive. But ultimately, the entire philosophical framework of religion and its idea of an ‘eternal’ God, maintains amongst the working class and poor an “illusion about their conditions”. It prevents the working class and poor from coming to a real understanding of the causes of their suffering which can only be discovered in the objective social conditions of capitalist society. And it is only on this basis that a real understanding of what is necessary to change society can be made.
Over 2,500 years ago, as society grew more complex with the development of the Ancient city-states of Greece and the Mediterranean Sea area, most of the basic philosophical ideas that would reappear in different forms up to the present day, were first put forward. Formal logic arose in the Ancient world, developed by the philosopher Aristotle.
The revolutionary upheavals that took place in Miletus (modern day Turkey) suggested that enormous change was possible with causes that could be discovered. This allowed anticipations of modern materialism and modern dialectics to emerge. These anticipations were extremely limited due to the social conditions of the time and the level of knowledge of nature and society. For example, they were never brought together. But these ideas were nevertheless able to make their first appearance and push at the boundaries of society’s ways of thinking.
However, the eventual collapse of Ancient society led to these ideas being lost for centuries. The new Christian Catholic religion, which dominated Europe from the fourth century, limited attempts to understand the world in the feudal society that emerged.
In the twelfth century the works of the Ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle were rediscovered. Many of his works were potentially very useful and were winning followers. Aristotle was a pioneer of a proto-scientific method. He collected observations, albeit flawed and superficial observations, to inform his theories. This was seen as a threat to Catholicism because it suggested knowledge could be acquired other than by divine revelation – not to mention Aristotle was a pantheist (a believer in many gods)! The Italian feudal lord and Catholic ideologue Thomas Aquinas ‘Christianized’ Aristotle’s ideas in the philosophy called scholasticism. This was based on a mixture of religious idealism and the static labels of formal logic and became an important ideological weapon in legitimizing and defending the feudal ruling class of kings and landowners.
With Aristotle’s ‘first cause’ reinterpreted as the Catholic God, Scholasticism taught that it was necessary to work things out not to find things out. Through Christian scripture all was revealed. Therefore a comfortable seat in an ivory tower was the only ‘tool’ needed to understand the world. If the world outside the ivory tower contradicted what the scholastics had ‘worked out’ through the study of scripture and contemplation of God it was simply ignored – it was the world that was ‘wrong’. This is similar to someone today who argues that “human nature is greedy” and continues to insist on this view even when shown hundreds of examples of generosity and solidarity. The relationship between the world and our thoughts remained upside down.
The Scientific Revolution
The seventeenth century Scientific Revolution in Europe began to challenge this way of thinking about the world. Just as in Miletus thousands of years before, seventeenth century Europe was going through a period of social upheaval. The proto-capitalist class of merchants was emerging as a powerful force in society but were coming into conflict with the feudal ruling class of kings and lords. The seventeenth century saw revolution and counter-revolution between these classes disguised as religious conflicts in the English Civil War and the European Thirty Years War.
Already, the proto-capitalist class had re-invented Christianity in the new Protestant religion which challenged the Catholic Church and its philosophical defence of the feudal ruling class as ‘divinely ordained’. In its place Protestantism put forward the possibility of a personal relationship with God unmediated by the Catholic hierarchy. This breach in the ideological defences of feudal society suggested that everything that was taught by the Catholic Church should be looked at anew. Whilst the thinkers of the Scientific Revolution never challenged the idea of a God, albeit a reinvented God, they no longer accepted the Catholic dogma which taught Scholasticism as the only way to understand the world.
Materialism re-emerged in the Scientific Revolution but with the new idea that observation could tell us important things about the world around us that could not be ‘worked out’ from an ivory tower. The invention of the telescope and the microscope and other scientific instruments allowed more detailed and precise observations of nature. The place of the Earth within the solar system was explained and microbes, the tiny animals that cause illnesses, were discovered.
All of the proto-scientists who made these discoveries were of necessity also philosophers. In the seventeenth century, still dominated by the formal logic of Scholasticism, the new observations could not be explained by the old ways of thinking. Unless they were to be dismissed as ‘wrong’, the proto-scientists had to put forward ideas on the very nature of knowledge and human understanding. This is not dissimilar to the situation faced by Marxism today described in Part I.
However, the materialism that emerged from the Scientific Revolution, whilst a breakthrough, remained limited. It kept some of the limitations of the old ways of thinking. For example, it was a point of pride of the early scientists that they rejected theory. They did not think it was possible to try and connect their new observations in a larger theoretical framework. They studied things and not their connections.
This early materialism established that objective explanations for nature could be discovered. But it could still not really account for the processes of change in the world. That things changed on a basic level was not in question. But change was seen as mechanical. For example a model of the solar system was developed that explained that the sun, planets and moons worked like the cogs and wheels of a clock. It was not yet understood that the solar system was formed at a definite point in time billions of years ago out of the condensation of gases orbiting the sun. Nor was it understood that the solar system would cease to exist at a definite point in time billions of years in the future when the sun exhausts its fuel. This mechanical materialism allowed change in space but not in time and therefore only described the most superficial forms of change.
There was still space for God in the new mechanical materialism. God was now the ‘great designer’. Once the world was set in motion it was left to run according to God’s ‘plan’. Modern versions of mechanical materialism include the ‘intelligent design’ argument that wrongly says God guided evolution to produce humans. But the materialism established in the scientific revolution, limited as it remained, had revolutionary implications.
It was in the next century, as the power and strength of the capitalist class grew that the new ways of thinking about nature were applied to society in the capitalist Enlightenment. Unsurprisingly, the capitalist class discovered that an ‘objective’ society would be one organised in their class interests. The capitalist class’s ‘point of view’ on ideas of freedom, equality and democracy were turned into abstract ideas and elevated above society in a new philosophical idealism.
Kant & Hegel
Science would continue to push at the boundaries of mechanical materialism as new observations continued to be collected. For example the German philosopher Kant broke with the mechanical model of the solar system with the observation of nebulae (clouds of gas in space) and developed a theory to explain that as they condensed they could lead to the development of stars and solar systems.
In 1789 the capitalist class overthrew the feudal ruling class in France in the great French Revolution. This led to decades of revolution and counter-revolution across Europe. In this period of revolutionary change the German philosopher Hegel re-introduced the Ancient Greek idea of dialectics. The world was changing dramatically and that change needed explanation.
Unfortunately for Hegel, whilst he re-discovered dialectics he was not a materialist. He overcame Scholasticism’s static labels by introducing dialectical laws that could describe change. But he did not look for an objective explanation for dialectical ideas in the objective processes of change in nature and society. Hegel believed that dialectical ideas were the cause of change. In other words, Hegel’s dialectics were idealist. He replaced God with an “idea” existing somewhere ‘beyond’ the physical world.
Marx & Engels
In his youth Marx was a ‘Young Hegelian’ and followed the ideas of Hegel. But he came to realise the limitations of Hegel’s philosophy. The key breakthrough that Marx and his co-thinker Frederich Engels made was to take Hegel’s dialectic and “stand it on its head”. In other words they made dialectics materialist. Marx and Engels explained that the role of dialectical thought should be to describe change in the world and therefore help us understand it. In dialectical materialism Marx and Engels brought materialism and dialectics together. The weaknesses of these two ideas when standing alone were corrected. It was on the basis of this new philosophy, or new method of analysis, that Marx and Engels were able to go on to develop the scientific analysis of society outlined in Part I.
This breakthrough was not dependent entirely on the ‘genius’ of Marx and Engels, brilliant as they undoubtedly were. Breakthroughs in the scientific understanding of nature had continued since the Scientific Revolution allowing more and more of the world to be explained objectively. For example Darwin’s theory of evolution could now explain change in the animal kingdom overturning a central idea of Scholasticism that taught that animal ‘forms’ were eternal. That nature could be accurately described with dialectics was becoming ever more obvious.
As with the previous periods of history described above, Marx and Engels were living in a period of revolution and counter-revolution. Disappointment in the wake of the French Revolution had set in when the capitalist Enlightenment ideas of ‘liberty’ in practice only meant ‘liberty’ for the capitalists. The working class, the poor, women and black slaves were all still excluded. This led to the emergence of the ‘Utopian Socialists’ in France and Britain. Just as the capitalist Enlightenment philosophers believed that an ‘objectively’ organised society would be one organised in the interests of the capitalist class, the Utopian Socialists believed that an ‘objective’ society would be one organised in the interests of the working class. They thought they could educate the capitalist class about the errors of their ways and help them see ‘reason’. They were surprised when the capitalist class’s ‘point of view’ proved immune to persuasion! This is similar to middle class reformists today who think that the capitalist class can be persuaded to treat workers more fairly because it is the “right thing to do”.
But the answer to this ‘socialist idealism’ was being provided by the emergence of the working class as an independent political force in society. They could speak for themselves! The Chartist movement developed in Britain from the late 1830s demanding political rights for the working class. Strikes developed in the industrial cities in France. Marx and Engels were drawing the conclusion that socialism could only be created by the struggle of the working class against the capitalist class, not by appeals to the capitalist’s ‘better side’. As Marx and Engels explained in the opening line of The Communist Manifesto, “the history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.” The 1848 revolutions, the same year in which Marx and Engels published The Communist Manifesto, confirmed this prediction. The working class would increasingly begin to stand on its own, no longer hitched to the capitalist class in the struggle against the feudal ruling class.
All of these developments in society put Marx and Engels’ philosophical breakthrough in reach for the first time in human history.