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Introduction to The Revolutionary Philosophy of Marxism

The following is the introduction by Alan Woods—editor of In Defense of Marxism—to the latest publication by Marxist Books, The Revolutionary Philosophy of Marxism. This new selection of writings on dialectical materialism is now available for purchase at a special launch price on

I was delighted to learn of the plan of the comrades of the US section of the IMT to publish an anthology of basic writings on Marxist philosophy. Every specialized branch of human activity presupposes a certain level of understanding and study. This applies as much to carpentry as to brain surgery. The idea that we can get along without some degree of learning is in flat contradiction to everyday experience.

If I go to the dentist and he says to me, “I have never studied dentistry and know nothing about it, but open your mouth and I will have a go,” I think I would make a hasty exit. If I’m experiencing problems with my central heating and a man comes to my house, pulls a hammer out of his bag and says: “I know nothing about plumbing, but show me your central heating system and I will learn by trial and error,” I would certainly show him where the exit is.

Most people would not dream of expressing an informed opinion about brain surgery or quantum mechanics without specialized knowledge of these fields, but matters seem to be quite different when it comes to Marxism. It seems that anyone can express an opinion about Marxism without having read a single line of what Marx and Engels actually wrote. This statement applies just as much—in fact, far more—to the so-called academic experts who write books attacking Marxism, which clearly show that they have not read Marx, or if they have read a little, they have not understood a single word of it.

Alan Woods speaking at the launch of The Revolutionary Philosophy of Marxism at the 2018 Northeast Regional Marxist School in NYC. / Video: Socialist Revolution

This situation is sufficiently lamentable, but even more unfortunate is the fact that many people who call themselves Marxists are equally ignorant of the writings of Marx and Engels. In my experience, even many people who consider themselves to be Marxist cadres rarely bother to plumb the depths of Marxist theory in all its richness and variety. All too often they merely skate over the surface, repeating thoughtlessly a few slogans and quotes taken out of context which they have learned by rote, the genuine content of which remains a closed book for them.

Many people think they know what Marxism is. Over time they have become familiar with some of the basic ideas. But what is familiar is not understood—precisely because it is familiar. A long time ago I read something that Hegel wrote that made a deep impression on me. I cannot remember where I read it and I am writing from memory: “Aber was bekannt ist, ist darum noch nicht erkannt (But what is known is not on that account understood).

Nowhere is this affirmation clearer than in the very important area of philosophy. It is too often forgotten that Marxism began as a philosophy, and the philosophical method of Marxism is of fundamental importance in understanding the ideas of Marx and Engels.

Statues of Karl Marx and Friedrich EngelsThe philosophical method of Marxism is of fundamental importance in understanding the ideas of Marx and Engels. / Image: Adam Jones, Ph.D. / Wikimedia Commons

Here, however, we are confronted with a difficulty. The most systematic account of dialectics is contained in the writings of Hegel, in particular his massive work The Science of Logic. But the reader can soon be disheartened by the highly inaccessible way in which Hegel sets forth his ideas—“abstract and abstruse”—Engels called it, while Lenin commented that reading The Science of Logic was the best way of getting a headache.

Marx intended to write a work on dialectical materialism in order to make available to the general reader the rational kernel of Hegel’s thought. Unfortunately, he died before he could do so. Marx’s indefatigable comrade, Friedrich Engels, wrote a number of brilliant studies on dialectical philosophy including Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of German Classical Philosophy, Anti-Dühring, and The Dialectics of Nature.

The last-named work was intended to be the basis for a longer work on Marxist philosophy, but unfortunately, Engels was prevented from completing it by the immense work of finishing the second and third volumes of Capital, which Marx left unfinished at his death. It is true that, scattered throughout the works of Marx, Engels, Lenin, Trotsky, and Plekhanov, one can find a very large amount of material on this subject, but it would take a very long time to extract all this information.

Over 20 years ago, in collaboration with my comrade and teacher, Ted Grant, I wrote a book called Reason in Revolt. To the best of my knowledge, this was the first attempt to apply the method of dialectical materialism to the results of modern science since Engels wrote The Dialectics of Nature. But the task of putting together a more or less systematic exposition of Marxist philosophy still remains to be done.

For some time, I have been planning to write a work of Marxist philosophy that will hopefully present the ideas of Hegel in a way that will be more accessible to the general reader. Unfortunately, this work has been delayed by other tasks, mainly the production of the complete version of Trotsky’s Stalin. I hope to complete this task in the not too distant future. In the meantime, the present anthology will prove of invaluable assistance to the student of scientific socialism who wishes to acquire a better grasp of Marxist philosophy, and I welcome its publication with every possible enthusiasm.
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The decay of modern philosophy

The attitude of most people these days regarding philosophy is usually one of indifference or even contempt. As far as modern philosophy is concerned this is quite understandable. The fiddling and fussing about meaning and semantics strikingly resembles the rarefied atmosphere and convoluted debates of the medieval Schoolmen who argued endlessly over the sex of angels and how many angels could dance on the head of the needle.

For the past one-and-a-half centuries, the realm of philosophy has resembled an arid desert with only the occasional trace of life. One will search in vain in this wasteland for any source of illumination. It is hard to say what is worse: the intolerable pretensions of so-called postmodernism, or the obvious emptiness of its content. The treasure trove of the past, with its ancient glories and flashes of illumination seems utterly extinguished.

With the latest craze for so-called postmodernism, bourgeois philosophy has reached its nadir. The meager content of this trend has not prevented its adherents from assuming the most absurd airs and graces, accompanied by an arrogant contempt for the great philosophers of the past. When we examine the cesspit of modern philosophy, the words of Hegel in the Preface to the Phenomenology of Mind immediately spring to mind: “By the little which can thus satisfy the needs of the human spirit we can measure the extent of its loss.”

The contempt for philosophy, or rather, the complete indifference that most people display towards it is richly deserved. But it is unfortunate that in turning aside from the present-day philosophical swamp, people neglect the great thinkers of the past who, in contrast to the modern charlatans, were giants of human thought. One can learn a great deal from the Greeks, Spinoza, and Hegel, who were pioneers, who prepared the way for the brilliant achievements of Marxist philosophy and can rightly be considered as an important part of our revolutionary heritage.

Empiricism versus dialectics

The Anglo-Saxon world in general has proved remarkably impervious to philosophy. Insofar as they possess any philosophy, the Americans and their English cousins have limited the scope of their thought to the narrow boundaries of empiricism and its soulmate, pragmatism. Broad generalizations of a more theoretical character have always been regarded with something akin to suspicion.

Philosophy is abstract thought, but philosophical generalizations are alien to the Anglo-Saxon tradition. The empiricist tradition is impatient with generalizations. It constantly demands the concrete, the facts, but in confining itself to this narrow approach, it constantly misses the forest for the trees.

In its day, empiricism played a most progressive, and even revolutionary role in the development of human thought and science. However, empiricism is helpful only within certain limits. In the late 16th and early 17th centuries, the empirical school of thought associated with the name of Sir Francis Bacon exercised a contradictory influence upon subsequent developments.

On the one hand, by stressing the need for observation and experiment, it gave a stimulus to scientific investigation. On the other hand, it gave rise to the narrow empiricist outlook that has had a negative effect on the development of philosophical thought, above all, in Britain and the United States. That peculiarly Anglo-Saxon aversion to theory, the tendency towards narrow empiricism, the slavish worship of the “facts,” and a stubborn refusal to accept generalizations, has dominated educated thought in Britain and, by extension, the United States, for so long that it has acquired the character of a rooted prejudice.

Brain GearsFor everyday purposes, empirical forms of thought may suffice, but for more complex processes, the narrowness of empiricism becomes an obstacle. / Image: Public Domain

For the empirical thinker, nothing exists except in its outward manifestation. This thought always examines things in their singleness, stillness, and isolation, and ends up examining the idea of a thing, and not the thing itself. Sense perception is thought on a very low and basic level. For everyday purposes, such forms of thought may suffice, but for more complex processes, the narrowness of empiricism immediately becomes an obstacle to a mind that aspires to attain the truth.

By the truth we mean human knowledge that correctly reflects the objective world, its laws, and properties. In this sense it does not depend on a subject, as imagined by Bishop Berkeley, Hume, and the other early representatives of English empiricism, who inevitably fell into the swamp of subjective idealism.

The demand for “the facts”

Many people only feel secure when they can refer to the facts. Yet the “facts” do not select themselves. A definite method is required that will help us to look beyond the immediately given and lay bare the processes that lie beyond the “facts.” Despite claims made to the contrary, it is impossible to proceed from the “facts” without any preconceptions. Such supposed objectivity has never existed and will never exist.

In approaching the facts, we bring our own conceptions and categories with us. These can either be conscious or unconscious, but they are always present. Those who imagine that they can get along quite happily without a philosophy—as is the case with many scientists—merely repeat unconsciously the existing “official” philosophy of the day and the current prejudices of the society in which they live. It is therefore indispensable that scientists, and thinking people in general, should strive to work out a consistent way of looking at the world, a coherent philosophy which can serve as an adequate tool for analyzing things and processes.

The conclusions drawn from sense perception are hypothetical, demanding further proof. Over a long period of observation, combined with practical activity which enables us to test the correctness or otherwise of our ideas, we discover a series of essential connections between phenomena, which show that they possess common features, and belong to a particular genus or species.

The process of human cognition proceeds from the particular to the universal, but also from the universal to the particular. It is therefore incorrect and one-sided to counterpose one to the other. Dialectical materialism does not regard induction and deduction as mutually incompatible, but as different aspects of the dialectical process of cognition, which are inseparably connected, and condition one another.

Inductive reasoning, in the last analysis, is the basis of all knowledge, since all we know is ultimately derived from observation of the objective world and experience. However, on closer examination, the limitations of a strictly inductive method become clear. No matter how many facts are examined, it only takes a single exception to undermine whatever general conclusion we have drawn from them. If we have seen a thousand white swans and draw the conclusion that all swans are white, and then see a black swan, our conclusion no longer holds good.

In The Dialectics of Nature, Engels pointed out the paradox of the empirical school, which imagined that it had disposed of metaphysics once and for all, but actually ended up accepting all kinds of mystical ideas.

[This trend] which, exalting mere experience, treats thought with sovereign disdain . . . really has gone to the furthest extreme in emptiness of thought.

In the Introduction to The Philosophy of History, Hegel rightly ridicules those historians—all too common in Britain—who pretend to limit themselves to the facts, presenting a spurious façade of “academic objectivity,” while giving free reign to their prejudices:

We must proceed historically—empirically. Among other precautions we must take care not to be misled by professed historians who . . . are chargeable with the very procedure of which they accuse the philosopher—introducing a priori inventions of their own into the records of the past . . . We might then announce it as the first condition to be observed, that we should faithfully adopt all that is historical. But in such general expressions themselves, as “faithfully” and “adopt,” lies the ambiguity. Even the ordinary, the “impartial” historiographer, who believes and professes that he maintains a simply receptive attitude; surrendering himself only to the data supplied him—is by no means passive as regard the exercise of his thinking powers. He brings his categories with him, and sees the phenomena presented to his mental vision, exclusively through these media. And, especially in all that pretends to the name of science, it is indispensable that Reason should not sleep—that reflection should be in full play. To him who looks upon the world rationally, the world in its turn presents a rational aspect. The relation is mutual. But the various exercises of reflection—the different points of view—the modes of deciding the simple question of the relative importance of events (the first category that occupies the attention of the historian), do not belong to this place.

Bertrand Russell, whose views are diametrically opposed to dialectical materialism, nevertheless makes a valid criticism of the limitations of empiricism, which follows in the same line as Hegel’s remarks:

As a rule, the framing of hypotheses is the most difficult part of scientific work, and the part where great ability is indispensable. So far, no method has been found which would make it possible to invent hypotheses by rule. Usually some hypothesis is a necessary preliminary to the collection of facts, since the selection of facts demands some way of determining relevance. Without something of this kind, the mere multiplicity of facts is baffling (The History of Western Philosophy).


The term “dialectics” comes from the Greek dialektike, derived from dialegomai, to converse, or discuss. Originally, it signified the art of discussion, which may be seen in its highest form in the Socratic dialogues of Plato.

Setting out from a particular idea or opinion, usually derived from the concrete experiences and problems of life of the person involved, Socrates would, step by step, by a rigorous process of argument, bring to light the inner contradictions contained in the original proposition, show its limitations, and take the discussion to a higher level, involving an entirely different proposition.

An initial argument—thesis—is advanced. This is answered by a contrary argument—antithesis. Finally, after examining the question thoroughly, dissecting it to reveal its inner contradictions, we arrive at a conclusion on a higher level—synthesis. This may or may not mean that the two sides reach agreement, but in the very process of developing the discussion itself, the understanding of both sides is deepened, and the discussion proceeds from a lower to a higher level. This is the dialectic of discussion in its classical form.

Dialectics is a dynamic view of nature that frees human thought from the rigor mortis of formal logic. The first real exponent of dialectics was a remarkable man, the Greek philosopher Heraclitus (c. 544–484 BCE). His work survives today as a series of brief but profound aphorisms, such as the following:

Fire lives the death of air, and air lives the death of fire;

Water lives the death of earth, and earth lives the death of water.

It is the same thing in us that is living and dead, asleep and awake, young and old; each changes place and becomes the other.

We step and we do not step into the same stream; we are and are not.

These utterances seemed so difficult to understand, because they contradict what is known as the “common sense” view of the world. So obscure and paradoxical did they appear to his contemporaries that they earned him the nickname of “Heraclitus the Dark.” They did not understand what he was saying, but he was entirely indifferent to their incomprehension and treated it with scorn:

Though this word is true ever more, yet men are as unable to understand it when they hear it for the first time as before they have heard it at all . . . But other men know not what they are doing when awake, even as they forget what they do in sleep.

Fools, although they hear, are like the deaf; to them the adage applies that when present they are absent.

Heraclitus was able to see what others, who based themselves purely on the empirical evidence of the senses, could not. In a devastating criticism of empiricism, he wrote:

Eyes and ears are bad witnesses for men if they have souls that understand not their language.

Of course, all our knowledge is ultimately derived from our senses, but sense perception can only tell us part of the story, and not necessarily the most important part. It is sufficient to remember that our senses tell us that the Earth is flat. Hegel, who had a very high opinion of Heraclitus as a philosopher, wrote in his History of Philosophy: “Here we see land. There is no proposition of Heraclitus which I have not adopted in my Logic.”

The psychologist Carl Jung wrote: “Old Heraclitus, who was indeed a very great sage, discovered the most marvelous of all psychological laws: the regulative function of opposites . . . A running contrariwise, by which he meant that sooner or later, everything runs into its opposite” (Two essays on Analytical Psychology).

In Anti-Dühring Engels gives the following appraisal of Heraclitus’s dialectical world outlook:

When we reflect on nature or the history of mankind or our own intellectual activity, at first we see the picture of an endless maze of connections and interactions, in which nothing remains what, where, and as it was, but everything moves, changes, comes into being, and passes away. At first, therefore, we see the picture as a whole, with its individual parts still more or less kept in the background; we observe the movements, transitions, connections, rather than the things that move, change, and are connected. This primitive, naïve, but intrinsically correct conception of the world is that of Greek philosophy, and was first clearly formulated by Heraclitus: everything is and is not, for everything is in flux, is constantly changing, constantly coming into being and passing away.

. . . Motion is the mode of existence of matter. Never anywhere has there been matter without motion, or motion without matter, nor can there be.

In his Dialectics of Nature Engels writes:

Change of form of motion is always a process that takes place between at least two bodies, of which one loses a definite quantity of motion of one quality (e.g., heat), while the other gains a corresponding quantity of motion of another quality (mechanical motion, electricity, chemical decomposition).

Dialectics, so-called objective [materialist] dialectics, prevails throughout nature, and so-called subjective dialectics, dialectical thought, is only the reflection of the motion through opposites which asserts itself everywhere in nature, and which by the continual conflict of the opposites and their final passage into one another, or into higher forms, determines the life of nature.

In Socialism: Utopian and Scientific, Engels wrote: “the whole world, natural, historical, intellectual, is represented as a process—i.e., as in constant motion, change, transformation, development—and the attempt is made to trace out the internal connection that makes a continuous whole of all this movement and development.”

The Hegelian dialectic

The dialectical method appears in the writings of Heraclitus in an embryonic, undeveloped form. It was developed to its highest degree by Hegel. However, it appears here in a mystical, idealist form. It was rescued by the theoretical labors of Marx and Engels, who for the first time showed the rational kernel in Hegel’s thought. In its scientific—materialist—form, the dialectical method provides us with an indispensable tool for understanding the workings of nature, society and human thought.

Friederich EngelsIt is necessary to read Hegel from a critical and materialist standpoint, which is what Lenin did in his Philosophical Notebooks. / Image: Public Domain

Hegel’s great dialectical masterpiece was The Science of Logic, the structure of which, he claimed, was an abstraction from the history of philosophy. It resembles the process the mind of a child undergoes when it first starts to receive external perceptions, beginning with the category of “being,” and from it, moving to more abstract—Hegel would have said concrete—ideas.

But the basic problem with The Science of Logic lies in the structure of the work itself. As an idealist, Hegel tried to create a philosophical system that, proceeding step by step through all the processes of conscious thought, would lead ultimately to the Absolute Idea, which Feuerbach, correctly, saw as just another name for God. That was also Lenin’s opinion. He wrote in his Philosophical Notebooks: “Hegel’s Logic cannot be applied in its given form, it cannot be taken as given. One must separate out from it the logical (epistemological) nuances, after purifying them from the mysticism of ideas: that is still a big job.”

The artificial character of Hegel’s philosophical system is commented on by Engels in a Nov. 1, 1891 letter to Conrad Schmidt. He remarked that the structure of Hegel’s Logic is artificial, and that the transition from one category to the other is often made in a forced way. He did this by means of a pun: as in “zugrunde gehen” in order to get to the category of “Grund,” reason, ground.

As for the Absolute Idea, Engels commented ironically, the problem with this is that Hegel tells us absolutely nothing about it. The attempt to force what was undoubtedly a masterpiece of dialectical thinking into the straitjacket of idealism meant that the work frequently had a forced and arbitrary character. It was, to quote Engels yet again, “a colossal miscarriage.”

Nevertheless, for the patient reader, Hegel’s Logic offers a vast number of profound and rewarding ideas. Despite its idealist, and often quite obscure, character, it is possible to discern, as if through a distorting mirror, the reflection of material reality—not merely the history of philosophy—but the history of society and the laws and processes of nature in general. For this, it is necessary to read Hegel from a critical and materialist standpoint, which was what Lenin did in his Philosophical Notebooks.

The law of identity

The inclusion in the present anthology of Trotsky’s brilliant little article The ABC of Materialist Dialectics was an absolutely correct decision. Here, in a few words, the essence of dialectics is explained with impressive clarity. It is hardly surprising that this article has driven the critics of dialectics into paroxysmal rage. It challenges the very basis of the logical conceptions that have dominated philosophy for hundreds of years: the law of identity.

The generalizations arrived at over a lengthy period of human development, some of which are considered as axioms, play an important role in the development of thought and cannot be so easily dispensed with. The thought forms of traditional logic play an essential role, establishing elementary rules for avoiding absurd contradictions and following an internally consistent line of argument, but this formalistic way of thinking remains true only within certain limits.

The law of identity (a = a) is the basic, dogmatic assumption of all formal logic, and has been for over 2,000 years. It is typical of formal thinking: empty, rigid, and abstract. Dialectical thinking, on the contrary, is concrete, dynamic, and complex in its multiple determinations: it is movement expressed in its most general form.

In his book The Metaphysics, Aristotle worked out the principle of non-contradiction: “It is impossible that one and the same attribute should belong and not belong to the same subject, considered at the same time and in the same relation.” An extension of the same idea is the principle of the excluded middle: “If that which is false is only the negation of what is true, then it will be impossible for all to be false: one of the two sides of the contradiction must be true.”

However, in another of his works, the Organon, Aristotle worked out the basic laws of dialectics. Unfortunately, the ideas of Aristotle have mainly come down to us in the lifeless and scholastic form in which they were “preserved” by the Church in the Middle Ages—like a corpse preserved in formaldehyde. The Aristotle of formal logic and the syllogism was preserved in a one-sided way, but the Aristotle of the Organon was consigned to oblivion.

Since then, logical formalism has generally been utilized as a kind of scholastic device—or “artifice,” as Kant correctly observed—to avoid reality and, following in the footsteps of the medieval Schoolmen, as a kind of “opium” to burrow deep into the supposed “profundities” of the linguistic vacuum, where they dispute endlessly the meaning of words, just as the Schoolmen entertained themselves with endless debates on the sex of angels.

Logical Positivism, which dominated Anglo-Saxon philosophy in the 20th century in different disguises, was a worthy inheritor of this bad tradition of medieval Scholasticism, with its obsession with form and linguistic hairsplitting. For these people, dialectics is a book sealed with seven seals. Their way of thinking is completely dogmatic and formalistic.

Whether we call it the law of identity or the principle of equivalence really makes no difference. In the end a = a, the same old formal dogma established by Aristotle. The forms may have been changed and expressed as symbols or anything you please, but the content remains what it always was: an empty shell, or as Hegel put it “the lifeless bones of a skeleton.”

The law of identity very clearly states that a given thing is equal to itself (or self-identical, it does not really matter). But, as Trotsky points out, since things in the material world are in a constant state of change—they constantly flow, to use Heraclitus’s wonderfully profound aphorism—they are never self-identical. Thus, the law of identity is, at best, only a rough approximation. It cannot lay hold of a constantly changing reality. This is precisely the Achilles heel of formal logic.

All attempts to eliminate contradiction from logic are the equivalent of attempting to remove contradiction from nature itself—but contradiction is at the basis of all movement, life, and development. The idea that “everything flows” has been brilliantly confirmed by the discoveries of modern science, especially physics.

In the space of the last 100 years or so, physics has furnished a vast amount of evidence to show that change and motion are fundamental qualities of matter. Engels asserted that motion is the mode of existence of matter—a brilliant prediction. But Einstein went much further than that. In 1905 he proved that matter and energy are—the same.

It is not possible to understand the dynamics of the world we live in, let alone be a conscious revolutionary—that is, someone who intervenes actively and consciously in the historical process—without the aid of dialectical thinking. The breakthrough in scientific thinking associated with chaos theory is ample proof of this assertion.


The first law of dialectical materialism is absolute objectivity of consideration: not examples, not digressions, but the thing itself. The basis of all our knowledge is, of course, sensory experience. I experience the world through my senses, and can experience it in no other way. This is the essential content of empiricism.

The early empiricists—Bacon, Locke, and Hobbes—were materialists. Their battle cry was: Nihil est in intellectu quod non sit prius in sensu (Nothing is in the mind that was not first in the senses). Their insistence upon sensory perception as the basis of all knowledge represented in its day a gigantic leap forward with regard to the empty speculation of the medieval Schoolmen. It paved the way for the rapid expansion of science, based upon empirical investigation, observation, and experiment.

Thomas Hobbes PortraitThe early empiricists—Bacon, Locke, and Hobbes—were materialists. Their battle cry was: Nothing is in the mind that was not first in the senses. / Image: Public Domain

Yet, despite its tremendously revolutionary character, this form of materialism was one-sided, limited, and therefore incomplete. It tended to regard the facts as isolated and static. Taken to an extreme, as it was by the likes of Hume and Berkeley, it led to subjective idealism, which denied the existence of a material reality independent of the observer. As Bishop Berkeley put it: Esse est percipi (To be is to be perceived).

The statement “I interpret the world through my senses” is correct but one-sided. One must add that the world exists independent of my senses. Otherwise, we are left with the absurd proposition that if I close my eyes, the world ceases to exist. This argument was comprehensively demolished by Lenin in his philosophical masterpiece Materialism and Empiriocriticism.

In reality, empiricism presents cognition in a very superficial and one-sided manner. Hegel, whose objective idealism is in flat contradiction to subjective idealism, went to great lengths to show that cognition is a process that proceeds through different stages. Of these stages, sensory perception is the lowest, confining itself to the mere statement that “it is.”

But this elementary conception immediately comes into a series of contradictions, if what is being analyzed is considered, not as an isolated atom, but as a process of constant change, in which things can be transformed into their opposites.

The process of cognition has two essential elements: a thinking subject and an object of thought. In the Phenomenology of Mind, which Marx described as “Hegel’s voyage of discovery,” the great dialectician did not intend to analyze either the one side or the other, but to demonstrate their unity in the process of thought. It was thought itself that was to be examined.

However, Hegel’s method had an inherent weakness. As an idealist, Hegel did not set out from real, concrete, sensuous human thought, but from an idealist abstraction. In reality, we do not think only with our mind but with all our senses—with our whole body in fact. What links humans with the external world (nature) is not abstract thought but human labor, which transforms nature, and at the same time transforms humankind itself.

The possibilities of sensory cognition are limited. The cognition of phenomena that are beyond the reach of sensation can only be arrived at through abstract thought, dialectical thought. The object of thought has an inherent being—in German, an sich. The purpose of thought is to turn this “being in itself” into “being for us”, i.e., to proceed from ignorance to knowledge.

We do not get any closer to the truth by compiling a mass of facts. When we say “all animals” we do not assume that this amounts to zoology. In Lectures on the Philosophy of History, Hegel pointed out that, “It is, in fact, the wish for rational insight, not the ambition to amass a mere heap of requirements, that should be presupposed in every case as possessing the mind of the learner in the study of science.”

The power of thought lies precisely in its capacity for abstraction, its ability to exclude particulars and arrive at generalizations that express the main and most essential aspects of a given phenomenon. The initial step is merely to obtain a sense of the being as an individual object. This, however, proves to be impossible and compels us to delve deeper into the subject, revealing inner contradictions that provide the impulse for movement and change, in which things turn into their opposite.

The unity of opposites

For Hegel, the division of the One and the knowledge of its contradictory parts constitutes the essence of dialectics. For the One is the whole consisting of two conflicting and opposite poles. It is only by identifying these contradictory tendencies that a correct knowledge of the object under consideration can be recognized in its true, dynamic reality.

Hegel’s basic idea was that of development through contradictions. To give it another name, dialectics is the logic of contradiction. Whereas traditional (formal) logic attempts to banish contradiction, dialectics embraces it, accepts it as a normal and necessary element of all life and nature. Giordano Bruno, the 16th-century Italian philosopher, astronomer, and mathematician—whose theories anticipated modern science and whose reward by the Inquisition was to be burned at the stake—gave us a charming definition of dialectics when he described it as la divina arte degli opposti (“the divine art of opposites”).

Hegel refers to the “restless unity,” that underlying tension which is the basis of all matter. The unity—coincidence, identity, and resultant dynamic interplay—of opposites is conditional, temporary, transitory, and relative. The mutually exclusive relationship of opposites is absolute, and it is the basis of all movement, change, and evolution.

In Moralizing Criticism and Critical Morality Marx wrote:

It is characteristic of the whole grobianism of “sound common sense,” which feeds upon the “fullness of life” and does not stunt its natural faculties with any philosophical or other studies, that where it succeeds in seeing differences, it does not see unity, and that where it sees unity, it does not see differences. If it propounds differentiated determinants, they at once become fossilized in its hands, and it can see only the most reprehensible sophistry when these wooden concepts are knocked together so that they take fire.

In the Science of Logic, Hegel begins with the category of Being, with the bare assertion “it is.” But this statement, despite its apparently commonsensical and concrete character—we have established the basic fact of existence—does not get us very far, and in fact leads us to a false conclusion. Pure Being, as Hegel points out, is the same as pure nothing. It is being stripped of all its concreteness and actuality. What appeared to be concrete turns out to be an empty abstraction.

Being and nothing are generally considered to be mutually exclusive opposites. But in reality, there can be no being without nothing, and no nothing without being. The unity of being and not being, as Hegel points out, is becoming: the constant movement of change that means that at any given moment, we are, and are not.

Life and death are considered to be mutually exclusive opposites. But in fact, death is an integral part of life. Life is not conceivable without death. We begin to die the moment we are born, for in fact, it is only the death of trillions of cells and their replacement by trillions of new cells, that constitutes life and human development.

Without death there could be no life, no growth, no change, no development. Thus, the attempt to banish death from life—as if the two things could be separated—is to arrive at a state of absolute immutability, changeless, static equilibrium, but this is just another name for—death. For there can be no life without change and movement.

I have before me a photograph of a baby, taken many years ago. That baby was me, but no longer exists. A vast number of changes have occurred since that photograph was taken, so that I am no longer what I was. And yet it is possible for me to say to somebody looking at the photograph: “oh, that’s me,” and I would not be telling a lie. This dialectical process was described most beautifully by Hegel in the Preface to The Phenomenology of Mind:

The bud disappears when the blossom breaks through, and we might say that the former is refuted by the latter; in the same way when the fruit comes, the blossom may be explained to be a false form of the plant’s existence, for the fruit appears as its true nature in place of the blossom. These stages are not merely differentiated; they supplant one another as being incompatible with one another. But the ceaseless activity of their own inherent nature makes them at the same time moments of an organic unity, where they not merely do not contradict one another, but where one is as necessary as the other; and this equal necessity of all moments constitutes alone and thereby the life of the whole.

Love and hate are opposites. Yet it is common knowledge that love and hate are very closely identified, and can easily be transformed from one to the other. It is the same with pleasure and pain. One cannot exist without the other. From a medical point of view, pain has an important function. It is not just an evil, but a warning from the body that all is not well. Pain is part of the human condition. Not only that: pain and pleasure are dialectically related.

Without the existence of pain, pleasure could not exist. Don Quixote explained to Sancho Panza that the best sauce was hunger. Likewise, we rest far better after a period of vigorous exertion. And in Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Prince Hal says:

If all the year were playing holidays, To sport would be as tedious as to work; But when they seldom come, they wish’d for come.

A world in which everything was white would actually be the same as a world in which everything was black, as polar explorers discovered when they suffered from snow blindness.

Quantity and quality

In the Science of Logic, particularly the section on measurement, Hegel elaborates his theory of the nodal line of development, in which a series of small, apparently insignificant changes eventually reach a critical point in which there is a qualitative leap. Chaos theory and its derivatives are clearly a form of dialectical thinking. In particular, the idea of the transformation from quantity to quality is central to it—one of the basic laws of dialectics.

In his book Anti-Dühring, Engels pointed out that in the last analysis, nature works dialectically. The advances of science over the last hundred years have completely borne out this assertion. American scientists have been at the forefront of some of the most important developments in modern science. I am thinking in particular of the work of R.C. Lewontin in the field of genetics, and above all, the writings of the evolutionary biologist, Stephen J. Gould.

Let us cite one easily understood example.

When water at normal atmospheric pressure is heated or cooled, there is a leap from one state of aggregation to another: at 0 degrees Celsius it is a solid (ice), and at 100 degrees it changes to a gaseous state (steam). If we increase the temperature still further, to 550 degrees, it becomes plasma, an entirely different state of matter, where the dissociation of atoms and molecules occurs. The leaps between each of these states are known as phase transitions.The study of phase transitions constitutes a very important branch of modern physics. Similar changes can be observed in the history of society, where the equivalent of a phase transition is a revolution.

Nucleation is the first step in the formation of either a new thermodynamic phase or a new structure by means of self-organization. It is the process that determines how much time is required before a new phase or self-organized structure appears. This phenomenon is seen in thermodynamic phase transitions of every type. From a saturated solution to a crystal, from the evaporation of a liquid to a gas, or in the transition from water to ice.

It is possible to actually reach a position of supersaturation of a solution, where, for example, water under normal conditions can be heated or cooled above 100°C or below 0°C without becoming steam or a solid. What is required in many circumstances for the phase transition to occur is either an external shock or the presence of some impurity. Water, when heated, does not form bubbles of steam at any random point, but they all begin ascending from a scratch or imperfection on the surface of the saucepan. This is a nucleation point forming around a catalyst.

In thermodynamic terms, a supersaturated solution will have reached a level of concentration—or temperature or whatever other quantitative element is involved—where the alternative phase represents a lower entropy, but there is an entropy cost in forming the first “nucleus.” Sometimes this nucleation point forms randomly over a period of time and, as is also the case with radioactive decay, there is an increasing probability over time of it forming. However, its formation is aided by the presence of some catalyst on whose surface the entropy leap is lowered.

We can visualize this process when we think of the crystallization of a pearl in a clam. Indeed, we often talk about the “crystallization” of anger within a factory or society and the analogy is an apt one. In the case of the formation of a pearl, all of the conditions for its formation can exist except one: some impurity around which it can take shape. That “impurity” is often a worm that has burrowed through the shell of a clam and died. Here the imagery is quite striking: a beautiful pearl forming a sarcophagus around a rather ugly piece of dead biological matter.

We will return to this analogy later.

We often see the apparent repetition of stages of development that have long since been overcome. We see the same thing in the study of embryos, which apparently go through the stages of evolution. A human embryo starts as a single cell, then divides and acquires more complex forms. At one stage it has gills like a fish, later it has a tail like a monkey. The similarity between human embryos and those of other animals, including fish and reptiles, is striking, and was already noted by the ancient Greeks. Over two thousand years before Darwin, Anaximander (c. 611–546 BCE) deduced that man had evolved from a fish.

The genetic difference between humans and chimpanzees is less than two percent and we share a large percentage of our genes with fruit flies and even more primitive organisms. The last desperate counterattack of the Creationists—hiding behind the banner of “intelligent design”—was shattered against the remarkable results of the Human Genome Project. However, the two percent difference that separates us from the other primates is a qualitative leap that carries humankind to an entirely different and higher level.

Human Evolution ChimpanzeeThe genetic difference between humans and chimpanzees is less than two percent, but this small difference represents a qualitative leap that carries humankind to an entirely different and higher level. / Image: Public Domain

The process of evolution has gone on uninterruptedly from the first primitive life forms that emerged, as we now know, at a surprisingly early period in the Earth’s history. The first primitive organisms probably emerged on the bed of the primeval oceans, deriving energy, not from the sun, but from volcanic vents, generating heat from below the earth’s crust. The earliest protozoa developed into chordata, through to the earliest land-dwelling amphibians, to reptiles, and later to mammals and humans.

History and nature know both evolution—slow, gradual development—and revolution—a qualitative leap, where the process of evolution is enormously accelerated. Evolution prepares the way for revolution, which in turn prepares the way for a new period of evolution on a higher level.

The unity of opposites can be clearly observed at all levels of matter. Conflicting tendencies are found at all levels in nature, from the largest galaxies to the smallest subatomic particles. The identity of opposites is the recognition—or discovery—of the mutually exclusive tendencies that exist in all the phenomena and processes of nature. This is what Engels meant when he defined dialectics as the most general laws of nature, society, and human thought.


It is an elementary truth of chemistry that opposite charges attract, while like charges repel. But here we have an apparent paradox. The nuclei of all atoms except hydrogen contain more than one proton, and each proton carries a positive charge. The protons must feel a repulsive force from the other protons. So why would the nuclei of these atoms stay together? What holds the nucleus together?

The unity of opposites pulling together and tearing apart the atom are the strong nuclear force and the electrostatic force respectively. Neutrons and protons bind to each other through the strong nuclear force, however, this force only operates over a very short range. Positively charged protons, however, are constantly repelling each other through electrostatic repulsion. This force operates over much larger distances.

The strong nuclear force holds most ordinary matter together. In addition, the strong force binds neutrons and protons to create atomic nuclei. Just as centrifugal forces attempt to tear galaxies apart while gravity holds them together, electromagnetism is the force that would theoretically rip a nucleus apart, while the nuclear force—130 times stronger than electromagnetism—holds it together.

The nucleus holds together, but only within certain limits. If the number of protons or neutrons exceeds these limits, the nucleus becomes unstable due to radioactive decay. If the nucleus becomes very large it can undergo an even more dramatic transformation.

As the nucleus increases in size, the repulsive electrostatic force eventually overcomes the attractive nuclear force and the nucleus becomes unstable. All that is then required is to fire a single neutron at the nucleus and—quantity transforms into quality—the nucleus splits in two, emitting a large amount of energy and often emitting more neutrons in the process. This is what physicists refer to as nuclear fission.

If a certain amount of fissionable material is present, it will ensure that neutrons released by fission will strike another nucleus, thus producing a chain reaction. The more fissionable material is present, the greater the odds that such an event will occur. Critical mass is defined as the amount of material at which a neutron produced by a fission process will, on average, create another fission event.

In the transition from a controlled to an uncontrolled nuclear reaction there is a qualitative leap—a transition from quantity into quality. If you insert material—a control rod—into the fissile material to absorb more neutrons than are being emitted by the fission reaction, the reaction remains under control. However, remove the control rod an inch too far and you have a cascade of neutrons and quantity transforms into quality—producing a nuclear meltdown.

The same processes can be observed at all levels of nature. In his book Ubiquity, the American physicist and author, Mark Buchanan, points out that phenomena as diverse as heart attacks, avalanches, forest fires, the rise and fall of animal populations, stock exchange crises, the movement of traffic, and even revolutions in art and fashion are all governed by the same basic law, which can be expressed as a mathematical equation known as a power law. This is yet another striking conformation of the dialectical law of the transformation of quantity into quality.

The dialectics of Capital

In his marvelously profound Philosophical Notebooks, written during the period of his Swiss exile in the years of World War I, Lenin wrote: “It is impossible completely to understand Marx’s Capital, and especially its first chapter, without having thoroughly studied and understood the whole of Hegel’s Logic. Consequently, half a century later none of the Marxists understood Marx!”

Marx's Capital First EditionCapital is a masterful application of the dialectical method, and it is fundamental to an understanding of Marx’s analysis of the capitalist economy. / Image: Public Domain

Even allowing for an element of exaggeration—these were, after all, rough notes written for self-clarification, not intended for publication—the fundamental idea expressed by Lenin is correct. Capital itself is a masterful application of the dialectical method refined by Hegel and perfected by Marx and Engels. The first chapter of the first volume is purely philosophical in character and is precisely based on Hegel, as Marx himself pointed out.For that very reason, this chapter is generally considered one of the most difficult in the entire work. It is not about economics but about philosophy. It is rooted in the method of Hegel’s dialectical masterpiece The Science of Logic. Yet it is fundamental to an understanding of Marx’s analysis of the capitalist economy.

In the first volume of Capital, Marx derives all the laws of capitalist society from an analysis of its basic “cell”—the commodity. Marx analyzes the commodity and explains that it has two aspects, which are really contradictory tendencies. At first sight, the commodity appears to be something very simple and concrete: an object of use. Whether this use is really necessary or is the product of caprice is indifferent to this consideration. But on closer examination, we see the commodity is not simple at all. It is not just a use value, but also an exchange value—something entirely different.

Humankind has produced use values from the earliest period, but under capitalism, the nature of commodities undergoes a fundamental change. The capitalist does not produce objects for human use but objects for sale in order to obtain a profit.

The use value of a commodity is confined to its concrete attributes; but in exchange value there is not a single atom of matter. The price of an individual commodity is determined by a vast number of transactions that take place daily in the world economy. Prices fluctuate according to the laws of supply and demand, but these fluctuations take place around a given point, which is the real value of a commodity. This value, as even economists prior to Marx explained, is the product of human labor.

Particular and universal

In his Philosophical Notebooks, Lenin writes:

In his Capital, Marx first analyzes the simplest, most ordinary and fundamental, most common and everyday relation of bourgeois (commodity) society, a relation encountered billions of times, viz., the exchange of commodities. In this very simple phenomenon, in this “cell” of bourgeois society, analysis reveals all the contradictions (or the germs of all contradictions) of modern society. The subsequent exposition shows us the development (both growth and movement) of these contradictions and of this society in the sum of its individual parts. From its beginning to its end.

Such must also be the method of exposition (or study) of dialectics in general—for with Marx the dialectics of bourgeois society is only a particular case of dialectics. To begin with what is the simplest, most ordinary, common, etc., with any proposition: the leaves of a tree are green; John is a man; Fido is a dog, etc. Here already we have dialectics (as Hegel’s genius recognized): the individual is the universal.

The medieval scholastics cracked their brains over the question as to whether universals (abstractions) actually exist. Hegel solved this problem brilliantly by pointing out that the particular and the universal are in fact the same: every particular is, in one way or another, a universal. Every individual belongs to a genus or species that defines its true nature, however, genesis and species are made up of individual creatures. The limit of these categories in biology is determined by the ability to reproduce.

Consequently, the opposites—the particular as opposed to the universal—are identical: the individual exists only in the connection that leads to the universal. The universal exists only in the individual and through the individual. Every individual is—in one way or another—a universal. Every universal is a fragment, or an aspect, or the essence of an individual. Every universal only approximately embraces all the individual objects. Every individual enters incompletely into the universal, etc., etc. Every individual is connected by thousands of transitions with other kinds of individuals—things, phenomena, processes, etc. As Aristotle pointed out: “But of course, there cannot be a house in general, apart from individual houses” (Metaphysics).

. . . This apparently contradictory assertion can be shown from even the simplest sentence. It is impossible to express the nature of any particular without immediately turning it into a universal. Such is the nature of any definition, for example when we say John is a man, Fido is a dog, this is a leaf of a tree, etc., we disregard a number of attributes as contingent; we separate the essence from the appearance, and counterpose the one to the other.

Hegel pointed out that, in ordinary language, statements do not take the form of “a = a” (John is John, a house is a house, etc.) but “a = b” (John is a man, a house is a building), which implies the unity of identity and difference. And Lenin comments:

Here already we have the elements, the germs, the concepts of necessity, of objective connection in nature, etc. Here already we have the contingent and the necessary, the phenomenon and the essence . . .

. . . Thus in any proposition we can—and must—disclose as in a “nucleus” (“cell”) the germs of all the elements of dialectics, and thereby show that dialectics is a property of all human knowledge in general. And natural science shows us—and here again it must be demonstrated in any simple instance—objective nature with the same qualities, the transformation of the individual into the universal, of the contingent into the necessary, transitions, modulations, and the reciprocal connection of opposites. Dialectics is the theory of knowledge of (Hegel and) Marxism. This is the “aspect” of the matter—it is not “an aspect” but the essence of the matter—to which Plekhanov, not to speak of other Marxists, paid no attention.

Can human society be understood?

Even the most superficial observation proves that human society has passed through a number of definite stages and that certain processes are repeated at regular intervals. Just as in nature we see the transformation of quantity into quality, so in history we see that long periods of slow, almost imperceptible change are interrupted by periods in which the process is accelerated to produce a qualitative leap.

In nature, the long periods of slow change—stasis—can last for millions of years. They are interrupted by catastrophic events, which are invariably accompanied by the extinction of animal species that were previously dominant, and the rise of other species that previously were insignificant but were better adapted to take advantage of the new circumstances. In human society, wars and revolutions play such a significant role that we are accustomed to using them as milestones that separate one historical period from another.

It was Marx and Engels who discovered that the real driving force of history is the development of the productive forces. This does not mean, as the enemies of Marxism frequently assert, that Marx reduced everything to economics. There are many other factors that enter into the development of society: religion, morality, philosophy, politics, patriotism, tribal alliances, etc. All these enter into a complex web of social interrelations that create a rich and confusing mosaic of phenomena and processes.

At first sight it seems impossible to make sense of this. But the same thing could be said of nature, yet the complexity of the universe does not deter scientists from attempting to separate the different elements, to analyze and categorize them. By what right do men and women imagine that they are above nature, and that they alone in the entire universe cannot be understood by science? The very idea is preposterous and a manifestation of that burning desire of humans to be some kind of special creation, entirely separate from all other animals and with a special relation to the rest of the universe determined by God. But science has mercilessly stripped away these egocentric illusions.

Marx and Engels, for the first time, gave communism a scientific character. They explained that the real emancipation of the masses depends on the level of development of the productive forces—industry, agriculture, science and technology—which will create the necessary conditions for a general reduction of the working day and access to culture for all, as the only way of transforming the way people think and behave towards each other.

Historical materialism

Marx gives an excellent though little-quoted definition of historical materialism in the third volume of Capital:

The specific economic form in which unpaid labor is pumped out of the direct producers determines the relationship of domination and servitude, as this grows directly out of production itself and reacts back on it in turn as a determinant.

On this is based the entire configuration of the economic community arising from the actual relations of production, and hence also its specific political form. It is in each case the direct relationship of the owners of the conditions of production to the immediate producers—a relationship whose particular form naturally corresponds always to a certain level of development of the type and manner of labor, and hence to its social productive power—in which we find the innermost secret, the hidden basis of the entire social edifice, and hence also the political form of the relationship of sovereignty and dependence, in short, the specific form of state in each case.

This does not prevent the same economic basis—the same in its major conditions—from displaying endless variations and gradations in its appearance, as the result of innumerable different empirical circumstances, natural conditions, racial relations, historical influences acting from outside, etc., and these can only be understood by analyzing these empirically given conditions.

The essential content of social development is the development of the productive forces. But on the basis of the productive forces there arise property relations and a complex superstructure of legal, religious, and ideological relations. The latter constitute the forms through which the former express themselves. Content and form can come into contradiction, but in the last analysis, the content will always determine the form.

The content changes faster than the forms, creating contradictions that must be resolved. The obsolete superstructure impedes the development of the productive forces. Thus, at the present time, the development of the productive forces, which has attained levels undreamed of in previous history, is in open conflict with private ownership and the nation-state. The old forms are strangling the development of the productive forces. They must be burst asunder in order to resolve the contradiction. The obsolete forms are burst apart and replaced by new forms that are in consonance with the needs of the productive forces.

Every successive socioeconomic formation opens up the possibility for a greater development of the productive forces and therefore increases humanity’s power over nature. In this way, the material basis is prepared for what Engels described as humanity’s leap from the realm of necessity to the realm of freedom.

Class society

The species Homo sapiens emerged about 100,000 to 250,000 years ago, perhaps even as long as 400,000 years ago. What we call civilization, which arose on the basis of the division of society into classes, is roughly five thousand years old. Thus, during at least 95% of its history, humanity was denied the blessings of private property, class struggle, the police and the army, the monogamous family, and the antagonism between town and country—all those institutions that are accepted as given and eternal by mainstream social scientists.

Fall of the Roman EmpireThe fall of the Roman Empire (based on slavery) caused first a collapse of civilization in Europe, then a slow revival under the feudal system. / Image: Public Domain

Class society itself has seen a succession of fundamental changes, or revolutions, in the course of its development. Broadly speaking, as Marx explained, the economic development of society has been marked by a succession of stages or “epochs.” At a certain level of development of the productive forces, socioeconomic systems based on communal land ownership, slavery, serfdom, and wage labor have arisen, each with their own political and cultural “superstructure” and their own laws of motion.

It is therefore pointless to try to discover the laws of political economy “in general,” equally applicable to, say, ancient Egypt, medieval Europe, and the modern world economy. It is necessary to discover the particular laws that govern each system, “to appropriate the material in detail, to analyze its different forms of development, to trace out their inner connection,” to use Marx’s expression.

Today, the anarchy of production cannot contain the demands of modern industry, technology, and science. The only way to solve the contradictions of capitalism that are the cause of starvation, poverty, wars, and terrorism is through the socialist transformation of society.

It is important to note how the process of human development has undergone a constant acceleration. The fall of the Roman Empire, which represented slavery in its most developed form, caused, first a collapse of civilization in Europe, then a slow revival under the feudal system that lasted just over a thousand years. Feudalism lasted for a shorter time than slavery, and capitalism has existed for only two or three centuries.

It must be noted that the pace of development of the productive forces under capitalism has been far more rapid than in any previous society. There have been more inventions in this period than in all previous history. But this feverish development of industry, science, and technique has come into conflict with the narrow limits of private property and the nation-state.

Capitalism in its period of senile decay is no longer capable of developing the productive forces as it did in the past. This is the fundamental cause of the present crisis, which is beginning to threaten the very existence of humanity.

Contradictions in society

The dialectical laws are not confined to nature, but also apply to society, history, and economics. To this list of phase transitions described in books such as Ubiquity, we can also add revolutions, which are an expression of war between the classes.

We have already dealt with the phenomenon of criticality in relation to phenomena such as the atom, showing that the internal contradictions are contained by specific forces within certain limits, but that when these limits are exceeded, criticality results with explosive consequences. A similar process can be observed in society.

The Communist Manifesto explains that the history of all hitherto existing society—excluding pre-class societies—is the history of class struggle. The existence of class antagonisms threatens to tear society apart. In order to regulate and control the class struggle, a power emerges that stands above society and is increasingly alienated from it. This power is the state.

The role of the state power is to guarantee the maintenance of the status quo, maintain order and ensure that the forces that threaten to tear society apart are kept within acceptable limits. In the last analysis, the state consists of armed bodies: the police, the army, the prisons, courts, and judiciary. Ultimately, the ruling class, which is a minority, must rely upon violence, or the threat of violence, to maintain its domination over the masses.

However, the appeal to violence is only a last resort. The ruling class has in its hands a whole battery of instruments for keeping control. Not only does it possess a monopoly of armed force, it also has a monopoly of culture. The schools and universities, the press and mass media, and all the other paraphernalia of culture are the privileged preserve of the ruling class, which it uses and abuses in its own interests.

The philosophy departments in universities, like all the rest, have a very useful function from the standpoint of the ruling class: to combat Marxism and any other “subversive” tendencies, and to inculcate in the youth ideas that tend to serve the interests of the ruling class and the status quo. It is sufficient to quote the avalanche of antirevolutionary propaganda that flooded the bookshops and television screens during the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution to underline this point.

One of the most powerful weapons in the hands of the ruling class is religion. The utilitarian—or rather, cynical—view was expressed long ago by the Roman philosopher Seneca when he said: “Religion is regarded by the common people as true, by the wise as false, and by rulers as useful.” There is some truth in this view, particularly when it is used to explain the role of organized religion.

Napoleon saw the Church as a very useful way of controlling the masses and bolstering his own power, although he himself did not believe a word of it. Probably the same was true of the emperor Constantine, who adopted Christianity as the state religion of the Roman Empire, although there is no real proof that he himself was ever baptized.

But this cannot explain the deep roots of religion in the popular psyche, or the powerful hold it has on the minds of the masses. To understand that, one must go deeper into the nature of class society and the role of alienation. In that sense, Marx had a far more profound understanding than the Left Hegelians such as Strauss.

In capitalist society, men and women are alienated from each other and subordinated to alien forces beyond their control or understanding. The real God of capitalism is neither Jehovah nor Muhammad, but Mammon, the god of wealth. Its real temples are not the churches, mosques, or synagogues, but the stock exchanges that determine the fate of millions of people.

In the first volume of Capital there is a famous chapter on the fetishism of commodities. This explains in very graphic terms the power of money in bourgeois society. All human relations are mediated by this power, which distorts and warps them into something inhuman, ugly, and oppressive. Human psychology is powerfully conditioned by this alien force, by which human beings are judged, not on the basis of their natural abilities, physical strength, beauty, or intellect, but purely by the amount of money they possess.

Cash Money Dollars Public DomainAs Marx explains in the first volume of Capital, all human relations under capitalism are mediated by money, causing monstrous distortions in society.

This produces a monstrous situation in which all natural human relations stand on their head. If we judge the level of civilized conduct by the standards of treatment of women, children, and old people, our modern “civilization” stands condemned from every point of view.

The ghastly record of wife and child abuse, orphans, and prostitution under capitalism compares most unfavorably with the communal child rearing practiced by humanity during most of its history—that is, before the advent of that strange social arrangement that men are fond of calling civilization. We recall the words of a Native American to a missionary:

You white people love your own children only. We love the children of the clan. They belong to all the people, and we care for them. They are bone of our bone, and flesh of our flesh. We are all father and mother to them. White people are savages; they do not love their children. If children are orphaned, people have to be paid to look after them. We know nothing of such barbarous ideas (M. F. Ashley Montagu, ed., Marriage: Past and Present: A Debate Between Robert Briffault and Bronislaw Malinowski).

The tipping point

Just as within the nucleus there are forces that prevent it from flying apart, so in society there are a whole series of mechanisms that serve a similar purpose. But by far the most powerful of these is a force within the heads of the people themselves. Tradition, habit, and routine constitute an extremely powerful force of inertia in society.

Most people do not like change. They fear any disturbance in the existing order as a terrifying leap into the unknown. Most people will cling to ideas, prejudices, religious beliefs, well-known political parties, and leaders with extraordinary tenacity. This is the most powerful glue that serves to preserve the existing order. But like everything else in nature, this powerful force of inertia can hold things together only up to a definite point.

Beneath the surface of apparent tranquility in which “nothing happens here,” there is a seething discontent, and accumulation of anger, bitterness, and frustration that is striving to find a conscious expression. Sooner or later, the point is reached where quantity becomes transformed into quality.

We can see the same process in every strike, where people become transformed. Workers who were always apathetic and inactive in the past suddenly become energized and move into action in a way that surprises those who liked to consider themselves as more advanced. In the words of the Bible: “for the first shall be last and the last shall be first.” That is a very dialectical affirmation!

The emergence of a critical state was expressed in very poetic and striking language by Hegel in his Phenomenology of Mind:

For the rest it is not difficult to see that our epoch is a birth time, and a period of transition. The spirit of man has broken with the old order of things hitherto prevailing, and with the old ways of thinking, and is in the mind to let them all sink into the depths of the past and to set about its own transformation. It is indeed never at rest, but carried along the stream of progress ever onward. But it is here as in the case of the birth of a child; after a long period of nutrition in silence, the continuity of the gradual growth in size, of quantitative change, is suddenly cut short by the first breath drawn—there is a break in the process, a qualitative change and the child is born. In like manner the spirit of the time, growing slowly and quietly ripe for the new form it is to assume, disintegrates one fragment after another of the structure of its previous world. That it is tottering to its fall is indicated only by symptoms here and there. Frivolity and again ennui, which are spreading in the established order of things, the undefined foreboding of something unknown—all these betoken that there is something else approaching. This gradual crumbling to pieces, which did not alter the general look and aspect of the whole, is interrupted by the sunrise, which, in a flash and at a single stroke, brings to view the form and structure of the new world.

The contradictions within society—the class struggle—continues unabated in one form or another, and to a greater or lesser degree of intensity, until the critical point is reached. At this point, certain symptoms emerge that demonstrate the impossibility of continuing as before: the ruling class splits and is unable to rule in the old way; the masses move into action to challenge the existing order; the middle layers of society vacillate between revolution and reaction. All these symptoms indicate the imminence of a drastic change.

The process by which society finally splits apart on class lines was best expressed by the great Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky. In the chapter on dual power in his History of Russian Revolution, he writes the following:

Antagonistic classes exist in society everywhere, and a class deprived of power inevitably strives to some extent to swerve the governmental course in its favor. This does not as yet mean, however, that two or more powers are ruling in society. The character of a political structure is directly determined by the relation of the oppressed classes to the ruling class. A single government, the necessary condition of stability in any regime, is preserved so long as the ruling class succeeds in putting over its economic and political forms upon the whole of society as the only forms possible . . .

This double sovereignty does not presuppose—generally speaking, indeed, it excludes—the possibility of a division of the power into two equal halves, or indeed any formal equilibrium of forces whatever. It is not a constitutional, but a revolutionary fact. It implies that a destruction of the social equilibrium has already split the state superstructure. It arises where the hostile classes are already each relying upon essentially incompatible governmental organizations—the one outlived, the other in process of formation—which jostle against each other at every step in the sphere of government. The amount of power which falls to each of these struggling classes in such a situation is determined by the correlation of forces in the course of the struggle.

The role of the individual

On October 13, 1806, an excited Hegel wrote in a letter to his friend Niethammer: “I saw the Emperor—this World-Spirit—riding out of the city on reconnaissance. It is indeed a wonderful sensation to see such an individual, who, concentrated here at a single point, astride a horse, reaches out over the world and masters it.”

Like Beethoven and many of the most progressive intellectuals of his time, the young Hegel was a fervent admirer of the French Revolution. In the person of Napoleon, he thought he saw the spirit of that revolution riding on horseback. Of course, his appraisal of the nature and role of Napoleon was mistaken. Nevertheless, in his vision of the French Revolution as the essential spirit of the times, he was not mistaken at all. Marxism does not deny the role of the individual in history, as Engels explains:

Men make their history themselves, but not as yet with a collective will or according to a collective plan or even in a definitely defined, given society. Their efforts clash, and for that very reason all such societies are governed by necessity, which is supplemented by and appears under the forms of accident. The necessity which here asserts itself amidst all accident is again ultimately economic necessity. This is where the so-called great men come in for treatment. That such and such a man and precisely that man arises at that particular time in that given country is of course pure accident. But cut him out and there will be a demand for a substitute, and this substitute will be found, good or bad, but in the long run he will be found. That Napoleon, just that particular Corsican, should have been the military dictator whom the French Republic, exhausted by its own war, had rendered necessary, was an accident; but that, if a Napoleon had been lacking, another would have filled the place, is proved by the fact that the man has always been found as soon as he became necessary: Caesar, Augustus, Cromwell, etc. While Marx discovered the materialist conception of history, Thierry, Mignet, Guizot, and other historians writing before 1850 are the proof that it was being striven for. Lewis Morgan’s investigations into early society also proves that the time was ripe for it and that it had to be discovered.

So with all the other accidents, and apparent accidents, of history. The further the particular sphere which we are investigating is removed from the economic sphere and approaches that of pure abstract ideology, the more shall we find it exhibiting accidents in its development, the more will its curve run in a zigzag. So also you will find that the axis of this curve will approach more and more nearly parallel to the axis of the curve of economic development the longer the period considered and the wider the field dealt with (Engels, Letter to Borgius, January 25, 1894).

We have already mentioned the process of nucleation, that critical point where a given phenomenon is hovering on the brink of a fundamental change. The transformation of quantity into quality is brought about either by an external shock or the presence of a catalyst. We see just the same process in a revolution.

All the objective factors necessary for a revolution may be present, but in order for the potential to become actual, something else is needed. The role of a catalyst in the prerevolutionary situation is played by the revolutionary party and its leadership. It is this that provides the as yet undeveloped, shapeless, and confused movement of the masses with the necessary coherence, structure, aims, and organization that are needed to overthrow the existing order, which, even when it is tottering for a fall, still represents a formidable force of resistance that must be consciously overcome.

Every revolutionary party in history always begins as a small minority. In the beginning it does not apparently present a serious challenge to the existing order. It starts, like every other living organism, as an embryo. But an embryo, providing it includes all the necessary genetic information to form a healthy human being, can grow and develop.

Demonstration in Nevsky Prospekt Feb1917The transformation of quantity into quality is brought about either by an external shock or the presence of a catalyst. We see just the same process in a revolution. / Image: Public Domain

Although it seems to be a paradox, the determinism of the early Calvinists, far from leading to pessimism and a paralysis of the will, had exactly the opposite effect. The Puritans were convinced that they were fighting on the side of a force that had all the power of inevitability behind it. It was their religious duty to “fight the good fight” and assist God’s Kingdom to come into existence as soon as possible. Their absolute conviction of its ultimate success spurred them on to action.

Likewise, Marxists believe in the inevitability of socialism, in the sense that capitalism has exhausted its potential for developing society and advancing the cause of culture and civilization. By developing the forces of production to their present level, it has prepared the way for the next logical stage, which will be the socialization of the means of production, which are in revolt against the suffocating restrictions of private ownership and the nation-state.

This process can be accelerated or delayed by a series of factors, not least of which is the subjective factor. There will be many opportunities for the working class to take power into its hands, but the mere existence of a possibility does not necessarily mean that the potential will be realized. That depends on the actions of human beings, their willingness to fight, and the quality of their leaders.

Capitalism is in a state of self-evident decay. The senile decadence of capitalism poses a deadly threat to civilization and to the human species itself. To prolong the agony signifies a deepening of the crisis, with all the attendant evils of economic and social collapse, poverty, suffering, wars, death, and destruction on a massive scale.

It is, therefore, the duty of Marxists to fight to lessen the sufferings of the human race by doing everything possible to accelerate the process of revolution, which alone can put an end to the death agony of a superannuated, rotten, and thoroughly decayed system. In that sense, conscious revolutionaries are agents of historical necessity, in the same way as Oliver Cromwell’s Ironsides, the French Jacobins, and the Russian Bolsheviks were the agents of a necessary social transformation in an earlier period.

Dialectics—the scientific basis of revolutionary practice

The equivalent of genetic information in the revolutionary party is Marxist theory. The party, even when it is small, must contain the necessary quality in order to grow. If it conducts its work correctly and has the necessary opportunities at its disposal, it can grow and develop. Quality becomes transformed into quantity, but quantity in turn at a certain point becomes quality. A mass party becomes a factor in the situation, and its actions can now influence large numbers of people. It will be in a position to lead the masses to victory.

The history of the Bolshevik Party is highly instructive in this respect. No other party in history has ever achieved such striking success in such a relatively short space of time, transforming what were originally tiny and isolated groups of Marxist cadres into a mass party capable of carrying out the greatest social revolution in history.

What is most important to note is the colossal importance that Lenin and Trotsky always gave to theory, and the serious working out of perspectives, tactics, and strategy. This, in the last analysis, was the secret of their success. From the very beginning Lenin always insisted on the key importance of theory. In What Is to Be Done he wrote: “Without revolutionary theory there can be no revolutionary movement. This idea cannot be insisted upon too strongly at a time when the fashionable preaching of opportunism goes hand in hand with an infatuation for the narrowest forms of practical activity.”

The fundamental importance of the dialectical method as the scientific basis for all revolutionary practice was explained in a brilliant way in Trotsky’s autobiography, My Life:

Later, the feeling of the supremacy of the general over the particular became an integral part of my literary and political work. The dull empiricism, the unashamed, cringing worship of the fact which is so often only imaginary, and falsely interpreted at that, were odious to me. Beyond the facts, I looked for laws. Naturally, this led me more than once into hasty and incorrect generalizations, especially in my younger years when my knowledge, book-acquired, and my experience in life were still inadequate. But in every sphere, barring none, I felt that I could move and act only when I held in my hand the thread of the general. The social-revolutionary radicalism which has become the permanent pivot for my whole inner life grew out of this intellectual enmity toward the striving for petty ends, toward out-and-out pragmatism, and toward all that is ideologically without form and theoretically ungeneralized.

This “dull empiricism, the unashamed, cringing worship of the fact,” as Trotsky points out, is the philosophical basis of reformism, of that cowardly surrender to what is called “the facts of life,” of politics conceived as “the art of the possible,” in which all serious challenges to the status quo are regarded as something impossible, a utopian dream or dangerous adventurism. Marxism, on the contrary, presents us with a scientific analysis of the status quo, penetrating beneath the surface of the “facts” to reveal the hidden contradictions that will eventually lead what appears to be stable, solid, and unchangeable into its opposite.

Marx and Engels said that there were two alternatives before humanity: socialism or barbarism. The elements of barbarism already exist, not only in the so-called developing world, where millions of people are forced to live in nightmare conditions of poverty, hunger, disease, and war, but also in the so-called advanced capitalist countries.

The aim of Marxists is to fight for the socialist transformation of society on a national and international scale. We believe that the capitalist system has long ago outlived its historical usefulness and has converted itself into a monstrously oppressive, unjust, and inhuman system. The ending of exploitation and the creation of a harmonious socialist world order, based on a rational and democratically run plan of production, will be the first step in the creation of a new and higher form of society in which men and women will relate to themselves as genuinely free human beings.

The role of philosophy in the modern epoch must be the noble task of facilitating the work of the socialist revolution, combating false ideas, and providing a rational explanation of the most important manifestations of our age, thus clearing the ground for a fundamental change in society. In the celebrated words of Karl Marx:

The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it.

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