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.


With a new millennium approaching what is the relevance of ideas that are decades if not centuries old? Karl Marx has just been voted the most greatest thinker of the old millennium. So what did Marx believe in? In the first of a series of articles the International Socialist will attempt to outline the fundamentals of Marxism and their application to the 21st centuary. In this first contribution Mark Scott looks at dialectical materialism

The years 1914-16 saw the soon to be leader of the Russian Revolution, Lenin, devote a great deal of his attention to philosophy, in particular to Marxist dialectics (dialectical materialism.) Indeed Lenin described dialectical materialism as being the philosophy of Marxism.

All Lenin's major works during this period - on imperialism, socialism and war, the rights of nations to self-determination and others - are rooted in the Marxist dialectical method. For it is this very method which enabled Lenin and the Bolsheviks to make a profound scientific analysis of this period, and formulate their policy, programme, tactics and strategy of socialist revolution, which culminated in the October Revolution of 1917 when the Bolsheviks and the Russian proletariat seized power.

It is important that as Marxists we understand the dialectical method, so we can apply it to concrete, everyday events and processes in order understand what is happening. We can gain an understanding of this method by examining its evolution, from which its very method of thought should become clear. This examination has to begin in the ancient world.
Before turning to the ancient world, it must be stated that in contrast and in opposition to the dialectical method is the philosophy, the method of thinking of the ruling classes. For the sake of clarity the philosophy of the ruling classes will be termed Metaphysics - that is in the sense that they are anti-dialectical, in that they do not adhere consistently and comprehensively to the standpoint of the evolutionary development of the natural world nor of human society.


Metaphysics is often connected in one way or another with religion. It does not accept that change is a part of the natural world nor of human society, instead it views the world as being composed of fixed categories, in which each thing is equal to itself, that is each thing does not undergo change. Everything is permanent and unchanging; the solar system, the stars, all organisms.

Although metaphysics denies change, it has to accept some change, for example day changes into night, night changes into day, the seasons change, man is born, grows old and dies, but states that this change is part of a fixed system - there is something permanent, changeless within or behind the changes, i.e. God, gods or some kind of innate natural law.
Yet when we examine and analyse the natural world, and human society, we find that this method of thinking is incorrect, indeed it is nonsense, for there is clear evidence of the evolutionary development of the natural world, and of human society; we find the dialectic; Trotsky described the dialectic as being the logic of evolution. The foundations of the exact natural sciences were first worked out by the ancient Greeks. This historical period witnessed the rapid advance of mathematics, mechanics, geography, astronomy, anatomy, physiology, zoology, politics, sociology, and other sciences.

From here we must turn firstly to the man who is acknowledged as being a founder of dialectics, Heraclitus. His idea is basically simple to understand, it is that, everything is and is not. Everything is fluid, is constantly changing, constantly coming into being and passing away.

He used the natural world itself for his materialism and so began an exploration into the natural world and its connotations for human society. An exploration it has to be said, continues to this day.. The idea that everything is in a state of flux is his most famous and the one most emphasised by his followers: 'You cannot step twice into the same river; for fresh waters are ever flowing in upon you. Indeed is the river which flows into the sea that same river? Of course not, it is now the sea! And yet it is still the river, it is and is not. Also let us say, that the river bursts its banks an swamps everything around it, villages, fields of crops, livestock, everything. What would we say had happened to the environment? We would say a change had occurred; a violent change to the environment. Yet an evolutionary change.

Heraclitis also said: 'We are, and are not', in this he is absolutely correct. As Frederick Engels states, every organic being is every moment the same and not the same; every moment it assimilates matter supplied from without, and gets rid of other matter; every moment some cells of its body die and others build themselves anew. In a longer or shorter time the matter of its body is completely renewed and is replaced by other molecules of matter, so that every organic being is always itself, and yet something other than itself.

If we look at, let us say, a man who smokes forty cigarettes a day, drinks to excess, eats the wrong foods, and then decided to change his lifestyle. He begins to exercise, he jogs, goes to the gym and does weight training. Will his body undergo a change? Of course it will. Would anyone disagree with this? For his lungs would begin to clear, his muscles would develop and in time the matter of his body would be renewed; therefore this organic being would be itself and yet something other than itself. This is one example of how things can change.


Twenty or so years following Heraclitus the development of this method of thought was continued by the Atomists; although is it agreed that two men by the name of Lencippus and Democritus were the founders of the theory of atoms.

A strength of their theory is the recognition that matter - and in this case matter takes on the form of atoms - has always been, and always will be in motion. As Engels explains: ' Motion is the mode of existence of matter.' Never anywhere has there been matter without motion, nor can there be. Things change, disintegrate or enter into combinations in the natural course of events; but in doing so they cease to be what they were. A weather worn rock is no longer the same rock; metal which oxidises turns into rust.

There are a number of weaknesses in their theory, although this should not detract from their achievements. They supposed that atoms were indestructible, and that all change in the physical world consists merely or rearrangement of persistent elements. The discovery of radio-activity disproved this, for it was found atoms could disintegrate. We cannot be harsh, for they were a product of their time, and as Engels said like any person they could not step outside their epoch and the inquiry that they made of the world of atoms went a long way to providing the evidence for the dialectic.

The main weakness was their method of thinking, for they were essentially metaphysicians. They held that things happen in accordance with natural laws. That is everything occurs by and through the guidance of some kind of innate natural law. As we continue to examine the evolutionary process and therefore the dialectic we will discover that evolution does not work by a preconceived plan' that change is a part of this process. The natural world tries all possible combinations simultaneously, until it results in a being that is capable of life, and finally of propagation, As soon a s produced it perpetuates itself, whilst what fails to adapt perishes.

Frederick Engels described the old Greek philosophers as being 'born natural dialecticians'. He described Aristotle as a genius of his time, he had ' the most encyclopaedic intellect of them'


He involved himself in the study of many of the sciences throughout his life' exercising an influence on the evolution of alchemy and chemistry, medicine, physiology, mathematics, music, politics, zoology and others.

In zoology he classified animals, with a remarkable accuracy for its time, placing for example, the whale amongst mammals, contrary to the current opinion of his time, which saw them as fishes. This is remarkable, for he had none of the modern scientific apparatus.. Instead he drew his information from fishermen, hunters, shepherds; checking it carefully. He observed the natural world, analysed and verified in the process all the information given to him so he could make as an accurate classification of animals as possible.

In classifying animals, Aristotle formulated a theory of categories in relation to motion. That is he discovered that every motion is a change from one thing into something else. The animals he classified had come into being through changes, and by evolutionary process. This is a correct theory as Charles Darwin hundreds of years following Aristotle confirmed. For example Darwin discovered that at one time fishes breathed with both lungs and gills. But in time, the lungs converted to air bladders, with respiration maintained entirely by the gills. Or flying insects , which evolved their organs of flight from breathing organs.

In effect he used the dialectical law of the transformation of quantity into quality. If we take the example of a kettle being heated. The application of heat to the kettle will gradually increase the temperature. A series of quantitative changes will take place that will raise the temperature up to 99 degrees Centigrade. But the application of a little more heat will suddenly change the water from a liquid into steam as the water now begins to boil. This is an example of a series of quantitative changes producing a qualitative change in the state of the water. The same can be said in the turning of water into ice as the temperature falls. For Marxists this understanding of these ideas have revolutionary significance. A revolutionary movement can be said to be the sudden transformation of the mood and consciousness of the working class after a whole series of quantitative changes.

For Aristotle his genius lies in the fact that he as Engels states was one of only two men before Marx ( the other was Hegel) to closely investigate dialectics. that is fluid categories, rather that metaphysics with fixed categories. But Aristotle himself, moved between the dialectical and the metaphysical methods. He attached himself to tradition, to popular opinion and a belief in god.


The mode of outlook of the great founders of philosophy and science (some of whom we have looked at) was the view that the whole of the natural world, from the smallest element to the greatest, from grains of sand to suns had its existence in eternal coming into being and passing away, in ceaseless flux, in unresting motion and change.

Engels states that this conception is correct but in order to understand the details of which the picture is made up ( that is the natural world) it is imperative that each aspect must be examined separately, that is its nature, special causes, effect, etc. This is the task of natural science and historical research; branches of science the thinker and scientists of the ancient world had to put aside, as they had to first of all to collect the materials for these sciences to work upon.

The ancient world was an epoch that was progressive in it's advancement of the sciences. It was nevertheless a slave-owning society, one of the three great forms of servitude, Slavery was the first form of exploitation, peculiar to the ancient world. This was followed by serfdom in the Middle Ages, a period in which Engels says contributed nothing at all to the natural sciences. Serfdom in the Middle Ages was followed by wage labour in modern times.

In the next issue of the International Socialist we will look at how Marx and Engels used dialectics to form the basis of their analysis of capitalism, and how an understanding of dialectical materialism is an essential part of the struggle that can end the anarchy of the free market and replace it with a new society based on international socialism.