The following is the foreword by John Peterson—editor of Socialist Revolution—to the latest publication by Marxist Books, The Revolutionary Philosophy of Marxism. This new selection of writings on dialectical materialism is available for purchase on MarxistBooks.com.
On the bicentennial of his birth, Karl Marx’s ideas are more relevant than ever. While he is perhaps best known for his writings on economics and history, his philosophical method runs like Ariadne’s thread through all of his work. Anyone who wishes to have a fully rounded understanding of Marxism must strive to master his dialectical materialist method, which itself developed out of an assiduous study and critique of Hegelian dialectics.
Marxist theory represents the synthesized experience, historical memory, and guide to action of the working class in its struggle against capitalist exploitation and oppression. Without revolutionary theory, Marxists would be as helpless as sailors without a compass on a tempestuous sea. Without the “magnetic North” of theory to keep us on course, it is all too easy to drift into opportunist reformism or ultraleft isolation from the masses—or to sink altogether.
At every decisive turning point in history, scientific socialists must go back to basics. Without the fundamentals, it would be impossible to make sense of the chaotic political, economic, and social currents swirling around us. New combinations of contradictions emerge on a daily basis as capitalism teeters on the brink. But at root, the basic functioning of the system is the same as when Marx, Engels, Lenin, Luxemburg, and Trotsky were alive. A deep dive into their writings is the surest way to stay oriented. It is not an exaggeration to say that all the methodological tools we need to understand today’s world can be found in the writings of these great fighters for the working class. However, one will not find “answers” in their words, in the way one can “Google” this or that fact. The task of today’s Marxists is to study and absorb their method and to apply it to the living struggles of today.
After the fall of the Soviet Union, socialism and Marxism were written off and the “end of history” declared. But the “mole of history,” burrowing beneath the surface, has not yet finished with capitalism, and the contradictions of the system have led inevitably to a resurgence of mass struggle—and renewed interest in socialism. The 2008 crisis—which in turn led to the meteoric rise of Sanders and Trump’s election—was a key turning point. After the events of the last ten years, millions of Americans now self-identify as socialists. But there is socialism and socialism. The liberals and reformists seek to limit it to small, gradual reforms within capitalist limits. They have no confidence in the working class and believe that capitalism cannot be overthrown. Therefore, they argue, socialist revolution in our lifetime is a pipe dream.
But for Marxists, genuine socialism is not an unrealizable impossibility, it is an objectively attainable historical necessity if humanity is to survive into the next century. For us, socialism is the transitional phase between capitalism and communism, the period after the working class wins political and economic power and proceeds to dismantle capitalism’s state apparatus and exploitative relations of production. This is the perspective that inspired Marx and which inspires us today.
Willingness to sacrifice and enthusiasm to throw oneself into the thick of the class struggle are essential. But the desire to “do something” in the abstract is not enough to defeat our class enemy. We need to think carefully about what it is we need to do, maximize the use of our finite energy and resources, and connect our short-term efforts with our long-term goals. To achieve this, the working class needs a mass revolutionary party, and that party must be armed with Marxist ideas. To build such a party, we must first build a revolutionary cadre organization with the understanding that, under the right conditions, an organization of a few hundred can grow into hundreds of thousands virtually overnight. As Hegel and Marx would have put it, we must be confident that quality can be transformed into quantity. And our confidence flows from the fact that nature and history provide countless examples of precisely this.If we are to take on and defeat the centralized power of the capitalists and their state, we need the clear ideas, bold perspectives, and democratic, yet disciplined organizational methods that flow from Marxist theory. Likewise, if we are to tackle the reactionary postmodernist ideology of the bourgeois and petty bourgeois, who seek to derail us into the swamp of class collaboration, confusion, and reformism, we need Marxist theory. And Marxist theory starts with the philosophy of Marxism: dialectical materialism.
Dialectical materialism is not a philosophical invention, but a mode of thinking that approximates—as closely as possible, given the limitations of our sense organs—the real, objective, and infinite process of movement, change, and development in the world around us, which exists whether or not we are there to observe it. It does not suffice merely to be a materialist or to be a dialectician. Some of the greatest thinkers of the past were materialists, and others were dialecticians. However, Marx was the first to understand the essential unity of both of these aspects of reality, which, as Trotsky explained, “gives to concepts, by means of closer approximations, corrections, concretizations, a richness of content and flexibility; I would even say a succulence which to a certain extent brings them close to living phenomena.”
By embracing contradiction, polarization, and change instead of rejecting or attempting to write them out of reality, dialectical materialism allows us to approach processes as they are, not as we would like them to be. It allows us to understand, draw out, and explain the essential class interests in any situation. Without this, it would be impossible to get the right balance on questions such as the permanent revolution, imperialism, the national question, oppression, fascism, the dynamics of revolution and counterrevolution, and much more.
As Alan Woods explains in his exemplary and easy-to-understand introduction to this volume, one must make a concerted effort to learn to think dialectically. Although “nature is the proof of dialectics,” as Engels explained, dialectical thinking does not come naturally. This is particularly true in the United States, where “practical common sense,” “git ‘er done!” pragmatic empiricism, and religious-spiritual superstition have penetrated deeply into the psychology of the masses. These pressures and prejudices—which surround us from the cradle to the grave—must be consciously combated.
Alan Woods speaking at the launch of The Revolutionary Philosophy of Marxism at the 2018 Northeast Regional Marxist School in NYC. / Video: Socialist Revolution
Trotsky understood this feature of the American psyche as well. Before his death, he had great hopes for the Socialist Workers Party. Here was a growing section of the Fourth International in a country of millions in the throes of the Great Depression with a second world war on the horizon. Colossal class battles were being waged in the US with city-wide general strikes, factory occupations, and the rise of the Congress of Industrial Organizations. The US section had a decisive role to play in the worldwide struggle against Stalinism and fascism and Trotsky was anxious to ensure its comrades had a firm grounding in Marxist theory. SWP member George Novack recounted his first discussion with Trotsky upon his arrival in Mexico on January 10, 1937, in his book, Understanding History:
Our conversation was animated; there was so much to tell, especially about developments around the Moscow trials. (This was in the interval between the first and second of Stalin’s stage-managed judicial frame-ups.) At one point Trotsky asked about the philosopher John Dewey, who had joined the American committee set up to obtain asylum for him and hear his case.
From there, our discussion glided into the subject of philosophy, in which, he was informed, I had a special interest. We talked about the best ways of studying dialectical materialism, about Lenin’s Materialism and Empiriocriticism, and about the theoretical backwardness of American radicalism. Trotsky brought forward the name of Max Eastman, who in various works had polemicized against dialectics as a worthless idealist hangover from the Hegelian heritage of Marxism.
He became tense, agitated. “Upon going back to the States,” he urged, “you comrades must at once take up the struggle against [Max] Eastman’s distortion and repudiation of dialectical materialism. There is nothing more important than this. Pragmatism, empiricism, is the greatest curse of American thought. You must inoculate younger comrades against its infection.”
I was somewhat surprised at the vehemence of his argumentation on this matter at such a moment. As the principal defendant in absentia in the Moscow trials, and because of the dramatic circumstances of his voyage in exile, Trotsky then stood in the center of international attention. He was fighting for his reputation, liberty, and life against the powerful government of Stalin, bent on his defamation and death. After having been imprisoned and gagged for months by the Norwegian authorities, he had been kept incommunicado for weeks aboard their tanker.
Yet on the first day after reunion with his cothinkers, he spent more than an hour explaining how important it was for a Marxist movement to have a correct philosophical method and to defend dialectical materialism against its opponents!
Unfortunately, the leaders of the SWP did not take Trotsky’s exhortations seriously, and they made a whole series of political mistakes in the years after his death—which can ultimately be traced to their lack of a dialectical analysis and understanding. As always, mistakes in theory lead to mistakes in practice, and the failure of the Fourth International to develop into a truly mass force for socialist change led to many lost revolutionary opportunities in the postwar period. As a result, humanity has had to endure many more decades of capitalist immiseration and brutality. Such is the vital importance of revolutionary theory to the workers’ movement!
The International Marxist Tendency stands apart from other left tendencies in that we have always put theory at the center of our work. Following Trotsky’s advice, we view it, not as something secondary, supplemental, or elective, but as an absolute necessity if the working class is to succeed in forging a mass revolutionary force capable of ending capitalism. To that end, we have produced dozens of books, booklets, and articles on theoretical topics, including modern classics such as Reason in Revolt: Marxist Philosophy and Modern Science. We have also republished Engels’s Anti-Dühring and Dialectics of Nature, and Trotsky’s In Defense of Marxism. And we are proud of the fact that our articles and reading guides on Marxist philosophy are among the most read on the In Defence of Marxism website. Given the growing popularity and enormous importance of these ideas, we decided it was high time we produced a collection of works on Marxist philosophy, conveniently available in a single volume.
Choosing the contents for a book of this type was no simple task, primarily because there is so much that deserves to be included. For reasons of space, we did not include material from Marx’s Poverty of Philosophy, Engels’s Socialism: Utopian and Scientific, Lenin’s What Is To Be Done? or Marx’s Capital, that masterpiece of applied dialectics. As Lenin said: “In Capital, Marx applied to a single science logic, dialectics, and the theory of knowledge of materialism [three words are not needed: it is one and the same thing] which has taken everything valuable in Hegel and developed it further.” We hope the reader will forgive these and other omissions, as well as any errors that may have crept in, and will be inspired to read these works separately, armed with the deeper understanding of Marxist philosophy that this volume aims to provide.
We decided to present the selections roughly thematically, with the material organized more or less chronologically in each section. The first section focuses on the origins and genesis of dialectical materialism, its emergence out of Hegel, through the Young Hegelians and Feuerbach, and finally onto the world stage as scientific socialism. We then provide a range of articles and excerpts examining dialectics, including some little-known material not available until relatively recently. Following that, we take a closer look at the question of materialism, and we end with several articles that examine the dialectics of the class struggle, party building, and the socialist transition from capitalism to communism.
In the interest of readability and uniformity of formatting for this collection, the original punctuation, markings, notations, etc., have not necessarily been preserved, and quotations and citations have been cleaned up. This is especially true in the case of the excerpts from notebooks and marginal notes that are included, which were never intended for publication by their authors, but which provide important insights into their thinking. Those who wish to study these works in their full historical context should have no problem finding reference copies at the library.
In most instances, foreign language publication titles and terms have been translated directly to English. Only footnotes that add important context and additional depth have been retained; most of these are from the Soviet editions of these works or the Marxists Internet Archive. Wherever editorial comments have been inserted, these have been framed by [brackets] or otherwise indicated. Where only excerpts from a work are included, this is indicated in the title of the selection. And where it seemed useful to provide additional context, explanatory notes have been included at the beginning of the selection.
We would like to thank Alan Woods for writing an all-new introduction on short notice; Jon Lange and Leroy James for their much-appreciated help with proofreading; Steve Iverson, for the countless hours spent proofreading and poring over the final proofs; Antonio Balmer for the long hours needed to ensure a polished and professional layout; and Mark Rahman and Laura Brown for their striking cover design. We also extend our gratitude to the comrades of Wellred UK for their technical advice and inspiration. Last but not least, we thank Marxists.org for all their work over the years in making these and other Marxist works available to the general public.
Producing this book has truly been a labor of love, and we hope the new generation of revolutionary Marxists will enjoy reading as much as we enjoyed producing it.
October 12, 2018