International Socialist Archives

International Socialist was the journal produced by our tendency until January 2001, when we left the Committee for a Workers International. We now produce the journal Frontline.

The Philosophy of Marxism

Mark Scott looks at dialectical materialism and the contribution made by Marx and Engels

In his great work 'Dialectics of Nature' Frederick Engels gave a dialectical materialist analysis of the main achievements of the natural sciences in the mid19th century. The revolutionary development of the capitalist mode of production made for rapid progress in technology and the natural sciences, and Engels showed three of the outstanding advances to be: the discovery of the organic cell, the discovery of the law of conservation and transformation of energy, and the evolutionary theories of Darwin.

In 1838 and 1839 M.J. Schleiden and T Schwann established the identity of vegatable and animal cells, they proved that the cell is the basic structural unit of living organisms, and created an important cell theory of the structure of organisms. Thereby demonstrating a unity in the organic world.

Between 1842 and 1847 a number of prominent scientists discovered and substantiated the law of conservation and transformation of energy. As a result the natural world presented itself as a process of one form of motion, of matter changing into another, proving and taking forward the theories of change began in the Ancient World.

In 1859 Charles Darwin published his work ' On the Origin of Species by Means of the Natural Selection', which completed the development of evolutionary theories began in the Ancient World and formed the basis of modern biology.

Darwin's theory is quite simple: it is basically concerned with the idea that organisms adapt to changing environments, environments get hotter or colder, wetter or drier, more grassy or more forested, in effect they change.

In their struggle to adapt, indeed survive - there is a struggle to keep warm, to survive the dangers of other organisms, the uncertainty of the weather, which are linked and part of the changing environments - organisms used various methods.

Victory in battle against other organisms is one method - the one members of the bourgeoisie most often quote, as it suits their view of the world that everything is in constant competition with something else - but many organisms exhibited methods of co-operation, symbiosis, and mutual aid which were also successful in other times and contexts.

Darwin showed that organisms also play a major part in changing their environment, therefore proving that natural selection requires evolutionary change to be useful to the organism or extinction follows.

Darwin's theories of evolution and natural selection directly challenged the theory of creation, and with it the ideas of religion. It challenged the idea that there was a God, gods or some king of innate natural law behind changes in the natural world. It became a centre of scientific, ideological, and political battles, and was opposed most vigorously by theologians and other members of the bourgeoisie.

Marx and Engels in contrast quickly recognized this radical theory. In 1869, Marx wrote to Engels about Darwin's 'Origins' stating that "this is the book which contains the basis in natural history for our view". That is, it proved dialectical materialism. Indeed it displays irrefutably that the evolutionary process is dialectical in its nature and character, including - as Darwin displays in his other great work 'The Descent of Man"-human society.

The ideological significance of these discoveries was that they revealed the dialectical, ever changing, character of natural developments, and scientific progress. This, for Marx and Engels, was of revolutionary importance. Yet it was hampered - and continues to be - by the contradiction between the dialectical character of the material obtained and the metaphysical method used by most scientists. Darwin himself, under constant pressure from the scientific and political establishment, turned sharply away from materialism, and consoled himself with his liberalism.

The dialectical materialism of Marx and Engels began with the general characteristics of social actions (revolution is one social action) and with the historical varieties of social systems (slavery, feudalism, capitalism).

Their analysis of social systems had two distinctive features; first, the importance which is attached to the relation between human society and nature - human society and nature are regarded as parts of a single system, the natural world - and secondly, the emphasis they laid upon historical change.

Here lies one of the fundamental laws of dialectical materialism; that historical change occurs is due to the contradictions between the productive forces and the existing social organisation. In capitalist society, the overwhelming bulk of the economy is owned and controlled by a tiny handful of the population. A couple of hundred transnational corporations, in effect, control the livelihoods of almost 5 billion people. And yet the productive forces, science and technology have the potential- if utilised to the full- to lift the world's population out of poverty, hunger and misery. It is not the lack of resources that is the problem, rather it is the fact that these productive forces are held in the straitjacket of private ownership of the means of production alongside the existing national states and trading blocs, who continue a wasteful war of competition against their rivals. The socialist re-organisation of society would break the private ownership of the economy and the outmoded barriers of individual nation states and re-build a system based of collective ownership and an international plan of production.

As we enter the 21st century capitalism, as a social and economic system, is no longer able to take society forward, can no longer develop the productive forces, and is increasingly a parasitic system. Witness, for example, the current rash of mergers and takeovers in the pharmaceutical, banking and telecommunications sectors. These mergers produce nothing useful for society, in fact jobs are lost, and the wealth making parts of the economy are concentrated in fewer and fewer hands. When a mode of production hampers, rather than furthers, the given productive forces, a society if it is not to collapse will choose a new set of productive forces, a different way of organising society, and develop them to a new and higher stage. This has occurred in history, feudal society, which hindered the further developoment of man in his relations to nature and was collapsing, was replaced by a new set of productive forces (although there were some parts of the old society that were retained, Britain being one example of this with it's feudal monarchy), the rule of capital, with its emphasis on profit.

Capitalism in it's dawning was a revolutionary advance for the economy and the productivity of labour, albeit one based on exploitation and inequality. It is here we find anther fundamental law of dialectic, the negation of the negation. Capitalism replaced or negated the old, dying feudal system and took society, science and technique onto a previously unknown level. At the same time, capitalism created it's own gravedigger, in the working class-the force that would lead the overthrow of capitalism- and in the development of a world economy, which would lay the basis for the triumph of a genuine world classless society.

In other words capitalism itself would require to be negated for humankind to move onto a higher level. This dialectical law is of course found in nature as well. A planted seed would be negated in the form of a shoot, leading to a plant, crop or flower. Yet at a certain stage the plant itself will die away, but not before it has produced seeds of it's own -many more than one seed- which if they fall on fertile enough soil will produce many more plants. The negation has been negated but on a higher level.

Bourgeois society, which mobilised the masses under the banner of liberty, freedom, and equality for all, and promised to free people from superstition (religion), became the opposite of its original purpose. It denied liberty, freedom, and equality for the majority of humankind, and continues to perpetuate belief in superstition (its relations with religion). Yet capitalism has also advanced our knowledge of the natural world, and hence ourselves. Men such as Spinoza, Descartes, Newton, as well as those noted advanced human understanding and knowledge of nature and our relations with it.

It is only by removing all basis for classes, will we solve the antagonisms between man and nature, includng our own nature. At this point, Marx says, 'the prehistory of man will come to a close and truly human society and history will begin'.

A warning! It cannot be taken for granted that socialism will replace capitalism leading to a classless society. Marx and Engels argued that the world will go one of two ways, towards socialism or barbarism.

All one has to do, is pick up a newspaper or watch a T.V. news programme to see that there are aspects of barbarism throughout the world. Wars and conflicts, famine, poverty, the widespread abuse of children all testify to this.

The laws of natural selection as formulated by Darwin state that an organism must adapt to a changing environment to survive; we are no exception to this rule. The questions that face us today, are ones of survival, in which we adapt to changing environments, and thus changes the social organisation and the forces of production into one in which human beings can develop all our abilities and learns to use the natural world for all of mankind's benefit, or possible extinction.

To achieve this task, as well as an understanding of theory, what is also needed is to build, in the words of Trotsky, "A party, a party and once again a party" The struggle to build a world party of socialist revolution is a prerequisite to achieving the task of ending capitalism and building a new international system. An understanding and application of Marxist dialectics is central to this task.