Introducing Marxism: dialectical materialism

In the first instalment in the new Introduction to Marxism series in Socialism Today, ROBIN CLAPP looks at the underlying fundamental philosophy of Marxism, the ideas of dialectical materialism.

The 21st century has not brought prosperity and security to the vast majority of people on planet earth. Capitalism, fuelled by the profit motive has led to an ever-spiralling wealth gap between mega-rich multi-billionaires and the rest of us, unsurpassed in modern human history. In an Oxfam report published in 2019, just 26 people owned as much as the poorest 50% of the world’s population.

Many millions know that capitalism isn’t working for them, but the question of whether there is an alternative and if so, how it can be built, is the burning issue. The pitiful response to capitalism’s failures from political parties that in the past claimed to support the working class and stand for socialism, means that the starting point for all those entering struggle today – to defend jobs and services, fight for genuinely affordable homes, oppose privatisation of health services, education and public utilities, and combat climate change, racism, sexism and all forms of oppression – is what ideas do we need to build the fightback and construct mass workers’ parties that can overthrow this system?

The purpose of this article is to examine and explain the philosophy of Marxism – dialectical materialism. It will demonstrate that being angry at all the injustices of capitalism is not enough. Having a philosophy that can correctly interpret world events and the stages of the class struggle is indispensable for channelling anger into effective action.

Though never claiming to be a crystal ball that allows us to see all aspects of future processes in their manifold possible forms, dialectical materialism provides a compass that allows socialists to understand events in their interconnectedness and most importantly, to intervene in them with a programme that can link immediate struggles to an explanation of the need for a full socialist transformation of society, in Britain and internationally.

Dialectical materialism is still the most modern method of thought that exists. As Leon Trotsky observed in his 1939 pamphlet Marxism in Our Time, if a “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”.

Dialectics is the science of the general laws of motion and development of nature, human society and thought. It was and remains a revolutionary philosophy that challenges capitalism in every sphere, and in so doing, substitutes science for dreams and prejudice.

Marxism developed the science of perspectives. Through applying the method of dialectical materialism we can study the complex processes constantly unfolding and evolving in capitalist society and the workers’ movements everywhere, in order to intervene in these developments both with a clear political analysis and a programme that arms the working class with the ideas needed to progress the struggle at each stage.

Materialism versus idealism

People have always sought to understand the world they live in through observing nature and trying to learn by generalising their day-to-day experiences. This is called philosophy, or having a personal philosophical outlook on life.

The history of philosophy shows a division into two camps – idealism and materialism. The former assert that thought (consciousness) is primary and that people’s actions stem from abstract thoughts, devoid of material and historical context.

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 that exist in people’s heads in any historical period, but from the real, material conditions in which these ideas arise. Nature itself is historical at every level. No part of nature simply exists; it has a pre-history, comes into being, changes and develops, and finally ceases to exist, being superseded by other developments. Aspects of nature may appear to be fixed and stable in a state of equilibrium for a shorter or longer time, but none is permanently so.

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 growth of cultural and scientific enquiry was both a cause of and an effect of the early growth of capitalism. In Friedrich Engels’ words, “science rebelled against the church; the bourgeoisie could not do without science and therefore had to join the rebellion”. (Socialism Utopian and Scientific)

Astronomy, mechanics, physics, anatomy and physiology feverishly developed as areas of separate study, with the consequence that age-old beliefs in an inviolable God directing everything were severely undermined.

Galileo for instance began to discover some of the physical properties of the universe and revealed that the planets revolved around the sun. Later, Isaac Newton’s theories of gravity and laws of physical motion uncovered the mysteries of movement and mechanics. The 17th century philosopher Thomas Hobbes argued it was impossible to separate thought from matter that thinks.

Marx declared that this enlightenment had ‘cleared men’s minds’ for the great French revolution in 1789 and the ‘age of reason’. But Engels crucially added: “The specific limitation of this materialism lay in its inability to comprehend the universe as a process, as matter undergoing uninterrupted development”. (Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classical German Philosophy)

He and Marx, in a world historic advance, were to fuse the brilliant discoveries in scientific materialism with dialectical thought, creating in the process the most revolutionary and far-reaching theory for both explaining and then changing the world.

The German philosopher Georg Hegel in the early 19th century resurrected dialectical thinking from its Greek origins and cast light again on a long-dormant truth – that ideas and their real existence move through a series of processes. Hegel was, however, a proponent of idealism, conceiving of thought, things and their development as the realised images of a ‘supreme idea’ (God) existing somewhere universal, separate and eternal.

Hugely impressed by Hegel’s dialectic, Marx and Engels came to realise its incompleteness as a guide to understanding the movements of the real world and its historical processes. They were able to turn this confusion on its head through the fusing of the dialectic with a materialist conception of history, with Marx stressing: “To me the idea is nothing else than the material world reflected in the human mind and translated into forms of thought”. (Afterword to the 2nd German edition of Das Capital)

The material world is real and develops through its own natural laws. Thought is a product of matter, without which ideas cannot exist. Flowing from this, it is clear that Marxism must reject so-called ‘eternal truths’, religions and spirits (idealism).

All theories are relative, grasping one side of reality and existing in a precise historical framework. Initially a theory may be assumed to possess universal application. But at a certain point, deficiencies in that theory are found. These have to be explained and new theories are then developed which can account for the exceptions. But importantly the new theories not only supersede (negate) the old, but also incorporate them in a new qualitative 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.

The international scientific research ‘human genome project’ set out to identify and map all the genes of the human genome that are passed on from one human generation to the next. Some biologists asserted that this would reveal individual genes determining our intelligence and our behaviour patterns ranging from sexual preference to criminality and even political preference.

There have also been arguments put forward that a person’s position in society would be largely pre-determined by their genes and unalterable. However, any attempts to locate individual or even groups of genes for ‘intelligence’ or behaviour patterns like those mentioned above have failed. And any attempt to define social position as being genetically determined has been exposed as a pure consequence of the ideological stance of the biologists involved, which in turn has stemmed from the capitalist class seeking justification for the inequality within their system.

On the contrary it remains the case that environmental influences are the most powerful forces in shaping the way humans act and the differences between us, and that genes and the environment don’t work as separate influences but rather constantly interact with each other. Marx and Engels famously wrote, “it is not consciousness that determines existence, but social existence that determines consciousness”. (The German Ideology)

What is dialectical thinking?

Dialectics is the philosophy of motion. The dialectical method of analysis enables us to study natural phenomena, the evolution of society and human thought itself, as processes of development based upon motion and contradiction.

What stage is world capitalism passing through, what character will the next recession have, how powerful is the modern working class, how can new workers’ parties be built and under what conditions might we expect big workplace struggles to break out? Marxists use dialectics to examine all of the conflicting factors in every process in order to form perspectives that enable us then to intervene most effectively in the unfolding class struggle.

The roots of dialectical thought can be traced back to ancient Greek philosophers. Classical Greek society, despite its prodigious advances in mathematics, especially geometry, was not yet at that stage of technical and material development that would allow the dissection and study of natural processes in their separate parts. Therefore nature tended to be viewed in its entirety as an interrelated whole, dialectically. This was expressed by Heraclitus who famously declared: “All things flow, all change”.

Even a cursory study of the natural world reveals the simple truth of this observation. We are born, we live and we die. Nothing is permanent except motion itself.

Astronomers are transfixed as super-telescopes allow us to witness the birth and then death of distant stars, while the smallest subatomic particles which are in a constant state of ferment, have a fleeting existence, some known as virtual particles living for a billionth of a second. Neutrons change into protons and back again, ceaselessly altering their identity.

In the science laboratory manifestations of the dialectic are everywhere. Every GCSE student knows that liquid water alters its form into ice or steam depending upon temperature change. These superficially different substances are however only different manifestations of the motion of the same water molecules.

The disciplines of science cannot be restricted to rigid classifications. There is a constant mixing and inter-penetrating of disciplines that reflects the real inter-connectedness of the living universe.

In mathematics too, a dialectical approach is indispensable. ‘Common sense’ tells us that curved and straight lines are different. Our eyes even seem to confirm this as truth. But higher mathematics and differential calculus show that under certain circumstances, both can be treated using a single mathematical equation.

Although most scientists, excepting those very few who steadfastly hold to creationist beliefs, naturally and unconsciously think dialectically in pursuit of their research, it quickly becomes a very different question in the field of politics.

For the philosophers and apologists of capitalism to openly espouse dialectical thinking in this realm would be very dangerous, for it would risk exposing the transience of their system.

Explained in a Marxist manner, the development of all past and present forms of class society would show that at certain moments in history when the mode of production comes into acute conflict with the mode of exchange, economic crises, heightened levels of class struggle and even wars and revolutionary movements can follow.

The forms of class struggle have changed through different historical epochs, but the fundamental struggle over the division of the ‘surplus value’ (the new value created by workers in excess of the wages they are paid) between exploiter and exploited has been a continuous line from the early slave societies to the present day.

In trying to undermine the revolutionary theory of dialectical materialism, capitalist theoreticians and philosophers cloak themselves in the straightjacket of metaphysical thought, or ‘formal logic’.

These methods of reasoning tend to examine ‘form’ over and above ‘content’, and abstract the form as if it were unchanging. Translated into politics, this limited thinking process often becomes a justification for the status quo that rejects sudden changes and sponsors instead the idea of almost imperceptible organic evolution.

When in 2010 revolutionary uprisings of Tunisian and then Egyptian workers suddenly exploded (the ‘Arab Spring’), capitalist analysts had little conception of either their immediate or background causes. The uprisings came from ‘out of the blue’ as far as most ‘experts’ were concerned, yet Marxists, armed with a dialectical understanding that allowed us to see the anger boiling under the surface across the Middle East, were not blindsided by these rapidly escalating social explosions.

This is indeed an age of sharp turns and sudden changes and our role is to be able to prepare for many more stormy events, at least partially insuring us, in Trotsky’s words, with the ability of “foresight over astonishment”.

However, formal logic has its place in human thought and science. It was indispensable in the 18th century in assisting doctors to learn how separate human body organs functioned and also in the spheres of mechanics and engineering. Empirical research (ie based on observations and experience) in science is often the foundation for great breakthroughs, but as we progress from simple study through trial and error, to having an understanding of the interaction of processes through motion, we see the world as it is – an interrelated and constantly changing whole.

No aspect of life is ever ‘black or white’ and cause and effect are not polar opposites as we may assume in our daily lives, but are constantly merging, mixing and melting into each other, all the time. Trotsky’s comparison of formal logic with dialectics as being the difference between a still photograph and a continuous film was very apt.

For instance we often describe an election result as a mere snapshot, a moment, but while it provides us with the facts of what happened on that day, it tells us little about the myriad underlying causes of that result and less about how subsequent events may decisively negate or strengthen that outcome.

Trying to classify processes into separate closed boxes flies in the face of life itself. Even in a library where books are grouped into separate categories for the ease of the reader, classification breaks down continually as subjects cry out to be cross-referenced. Dickens’ Mr Gradgrind with his love of facts is the fictional antithesis of the dialectical thinker. For his ilk everything must be cleanly labelled and things that don’t fit nicely must be rejected as wrongly classified and simply ‘don’t make sense.’

All that is real is rational and as our scientific knowledge continues to expand, facts that were once believed to be incontrovertible, become insufficient and are negated by new knowledge. Engels himself recounts how as a young man, upon learning of the existence of the duck-billed platypus, a mammal that lays eggs, he said it wasn’t logical and suspected a fraud perpetrated by taxidermists.

In later years after he and Marx enthusiastically embraced Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection as the explanation for adaptation and speciation, he came to respect that all knowledge is partial in nature and history and that the real world exists objectively, rarely fully corresponding to our limited knowledge.

The laws of the dialectic

Based upon the laws of motion, dialectics enables us to interpret events and the natural world in their connections. From conception to death there is never a moment when our physical development, thoughts and mental growth are still. We evolve and refine our ideas against experiences, casting aside those thoughts that no longer correspond to our outlook and priorities.

Marxism is not a dogma and we reject the concept of economic determinism – the idea that the course of history neatly unfolds only through variations in the economic cycle. The theory of dialectical materialism represents generalised reality. Only motion is absolute – even the laws of dialectics are relative and variable. Engels stressed this when he wrote: “How young the whole of human history is, and how ridiculous it would be to attempt to ascribe any absolute validity to our present views”. (Anti-Duhring)

But how specifically do the laws of dialectical materialism apply in relation to a study of society? For Marxists active in the struggle to bring about the end of capitalism and the birth of socialism, this is a question of paramount importance. Socialist Party members are not armchair academics, but class fighters who learn to think and apply ideas dialectically in order to understand the actions of our class enemy, gauging the consciousness of the different sections of the working class so we can determine our strategy and tactics and develop a programme that arms workers and youth with the tools necessary to bring about the socialist transformation of society.

What are the general laws of dialectical materialism beyond the primary idea that everything is constantly changing? If dialectics is the theoretical toolkit of Marxists, what are these tools we use – whether consciously or more instinctively – and how do they assist us in both challenging capitalism and building the social forces necessary to overthrow it?

Marx and Engels elaborated three broad and interconnected laws of dialectics, each of which is continually at work. These guide us in refining our theoretical and practical tasks that face us in the fight for socialism.

It is not a question of ‘learning’ these rules and then going into the movement and selecting one or more from a crib sheet. Rather, dialectics is a way of thinking based upon seeing events in their connection. Somebody who yesterday expressed no interest in politics, or had illusions in their place in the system, can tomorrow come searching for us as a result of changes to their outlook based on losing their job, their home, an experience arising from their specific oppression as a woman, racism etc.

When intervening in the class struggle, Marxists identify the principal trends in the workers’ movement, including in the trade unions. We advocate slogans that are based on the idea of struggle around the issues that workers are facing. Under capitalism there is no such thing as a final victory for the working class, but each time the bosses are forced back, workers learn valuable lessons about their potential strength as a class, understand the value of solidarity, and begin to realise that they have the power to run society. Marxists are a powerful voice in helping to bring these lessons to the fore.

The law of quantity into quality

Just as any scientist is familiar with the concept of things altering their quality as certain quantitative points are reached (water into steam or ice at boiling or freezing point), so too the same law applies in relation to developments in society.

In any society founded upon antagonistic class forces, where bosses seek to extract the last pound of surplus value (profit) out of the working class, the friction between the classes can and does create episodic periods of sharpened struggle leading to political and social crises. These can be local, sectoral or general.

For an entire period, industrial and/or political struggle may appear to be at a low ebb. Strikes may be at historically low levels, while political protest can seem almost invisible. This can suggest that capitalism is stable and capable of delivering reforms, increased wages, etc, which certainly does not correspond to the current situation either in the UK or internationally, where weakened capitalism is compelled to continually attack the working class.

On the surface there can be apparent stability and even quiescence, but under that surface a quantitative build-up of frustration and antagonism among workers towards the bosses can break out suddenly, creating qualitatively new conditions for struggle and catching the capitalists and their political representatives completely by surprise.

A Tory government can win an election with a handsome parliamentary majority as Boris Johnson did in 2019, but then out of an apparently ‘clear blue sky’, new events such as the pandemic burst onto the scene and suddenly everything that appeared stable becomes unstable. Ineptitude in dealing with the pandemic, the impact of years of partial privatisation of the NHS, cronyism and sleaze, all created a dangerous cocktail of failures for a government that thought it was invincible.

Even philosophers educated in capitalist universities, steeped in empiricism (ie knowledge limited to immediate experience) and formal logic are forced, usually after an explosive event, to recognise the existence of the law of quantity into quality, reducing it to ‘the straw that breaks the camel’s back.’

As apologists for capitalism, they foresee little and learn less, always looking ahead to a brighter future for their system. The most eminent capitalist economists, with only a very few exceptions, did not predict the world recession of 2007-09, believing the hype of the financiers that the good times would just keep on rolling.

The Socialist Party, with its international co-thinkers in the Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI), on the contrary traced the trajectory of the processes that would lead to the crash. Moreover we understand today that all of the fundamental features that triggered the 2007 US sub-prime housing crash that in turn precipitated the most serious world recession since the 1929 Great Depression, are still present and at some stage will mature to crisis point again.

There are times when the unfolding of this law does not denote a progression, but signifies a defeat for the working class. Prior to the coming to power of the fascists in Germany in 1933, the class struggle went through a series of quantitative political phases, each one leading to partial defeats for the working class and the further erosion of parliamentary democracy through a series of unstable bonapartist governments.

The exasperation of the German capitalists at this class stalemate, in which neither they nor the working class could decisively go forward, led them to hand the keys to Germany’s parliament, the Reichstag, to Hitler’s fascist movement, signifying a qualitative defeat for the workers’ movement in Germany and internationally. The ultimate responsibility for this crushing defeat lay with the leaderships of the ‘socialist’ and ‘communist’ parties who failed to build the united front forces that could have defeated the Nazis.

There is never an inevitability about how the class struggle will play out. Leadership is decisive, which is why the building of revolutionary parties remains the key to ensuring that revolutionary opportunities will be successfully grasped in the future. We have no recipe to prepare revolutions to order. We have to build the forces to prepare for revolutions.

For over fifty years we characterised the Stalinist bureaucracy in the former Soviet Union as a relative fetter upon the growth of the planned economy that was brought in following the 1917 revolution. By this we meant that despite the horrors of the forced-labour camps and the waste and corruption of the parasitic bureaucrats, the existence of even a deformed workers’ state made it still possible for the planned economy to grow, albeit much 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 these changes and concluded that the bureaucracy had passed from being an increasingly sclerotic, relative fetter upon further progress, to an absolute one.

Quantity had turned into quality. From a study of all the declining economic and social statistics coming out of the USSR and from talking directly with Russian workers, we began to draw more rounded-out theoretical conclusions. The Soviet Union could not stay frozen in stasis.

A point was being rapidly reached where either the working class would have to overthrow the incubus that was the bureaucracy and carry through a political revolution, or there would occur a social counter-revolution leading to the restoration of capitalism (a possibility which had been posed by Trotsky in the 1930s). The triumph of the latter marked a qualitative defeat for the working class in Russia and everywhere else.

The interpenetration of opposites

In its application to the class struggle, dialectics can never have the same degree of precision as it does in the science laboratory, though even there variable and apparently contradictory results may be obtained using different quantities and qualities of measure.

The role of individuals, political parties and social movements is not scientifically pre-ordained. A trade union leader might be a respected left-winger, but may capitulate when faced with a determined onslaught from a strike-breaking employer. Moderate trade union leaders may surprise themselves and become much more ‘militant’ when faced with mass pressure from an angry membership demanding action.

Just as in science, but even more so, there are no absolutes in the class struggle! We often stress for instance that economic boom and slump are not directly opposed categories as crude capitalist economic textbooks proclaim. The seeds of the next slowdown are present in a period of growth and vice versa.

Also it would be wrong to draw an automatic, direct link between economic slump and a rise in workers’ struggle; it is not slump alone that causes workers to rebel against capitalism, but the permanent insecurity and economic friction they face in their lives. A recession can lead to workers feeling intimidated by the threat of losing their job and widespread unemployment, thus creating a period of apparent semi-passivity. In a boom on the other hand, workers can go onto the offensive not only to recapture past economic gains but also to win new victories around pay and conditions.

Trotsky illustrated the ‘interpenetration of opposites’ in his analysis of the class 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 signalling its decline. That is the essence of 1917”. (The History of the Russian Revolution)

This ‘combined and uneven development’ illustrates the complex manner in which societies develop and change. The application of the law of interpenetrating opposites is crucial in our clarification of the stage reached by capitalism, its future direction and our understanding of the ‘balance of class forces’ at any given moment.

The negation of the negation

Described by Engels in Anti-Duhring 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 sums of wealth are created in a 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 creates its opposite, which is destined to overcome and negate it.

The first human societies were classless societies based on the cooperation of the tribe. These were later negated by the emergence of class societies basing themselves upon the developing material levels of wealth realised by the exploitation of slaves and later serfs.

Modern private ownership of the means of production and the development of nation states, which are the basic features of capitalist class society and originally marked a great step forward for the productive forces, now serve only to fetter and undermine the productive forces and threaten all the previous gains of human development, even the existence of sustainable conditions for human life on earth.

However, 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.

In thinking dialectically, we do not artificially seek to separate the laws, choosing which one is most applicable to the process we are attempting to comprehend. The laws of quantity into quality, the interpenetration of opposites and the negation of the negation form a complete method, always in motion, always present, always interacting upon each other.

Towards a socialist world

The great epoch-changing social revolutions in the past that saw the overthrow of ancient slave societies, then later the deposing of absolutist feudal regimes by nascent capitalism, were carried out by emerging minorities that best reflected the new economic and political needs of the rising class.

Neither Oliver Cromwell in England nor the French Jacobins in 1789 consciously decided one day to deal decisive blows against feudalism in order to expedite the birth of capitalism. The English civil war and the great French revolution were social movements made imperative by the economic and political requirements of a class whose historical time had come.

The struggle to overthrow capitalism is however qualitatively different in that it has to involve the conscious struggle and leadership of the majority – the working class, leading the middle layers. The programme of Marxism – expressed through the revolutionary party – must sink deep roots into the workers’ movement everywhere, marching alongside the masses, exposing capitalism’s failures and unfurling the programme that shows how to vanquish the diseased system with a socialist plan of production and socialist democracy.

In periods where new ideas are taken up by the masses and begin to germinate widely, quantitative developments transform qualitatively and those ideas can begin very suddenly to become a material force for change. To paraphrase Engels, there are ages where one day can drag and seem like 20 years, but there are others where 20 years of experience can become packed into one explosive day.

This is the period opening up before us on a world scale, one in which – armed with the Marxist method and a programme that encapsulates what needs to be done – the era of socialism can be born.

As new workers’ states emerge in the 21st century and begin to free the vast economic and human potential from the chains of class society, the development of a world socialist order will be posed, where in time the very concept of class will be negated and humankind will embark on new journeys.

Reading list

The following works are recommended, the first four being the most accessible:

Socialism Utopian and Scientific, by Friedrich Engels

From the book, In Defence of Marxism, by Leon Trotsky, The ABC of Materialist Dialectics (15 December 1939), and An Open Letter to Comrade Burnham (7 January 1940)

On the Question of Dialectics, by Vladimir Lenin

The Part Played by Labour in the Transition from Ape to Man, by Friedrich Engels

Anti-Duhring, by Friedrich Engels

Dialectics of Nature, by Friedrich Engels

Fundamental Problems of Marxism, by Georgi Plekhanov