An opening given by Peter Hendy to the New Worker Supporters’ Group meeting in Manchester, England on 6th March 2008.
MARXISM, or scientific socialism, is the name given to the body of ideas first worked out by Karl Marx (1818-1883) and Friedrich Engels (1820-1895). In their totality, these ideas provide a fully worked-out theoretical basis for the struggle of the working class to attain a higher form of human society – socialism.
Marxism falls under three main headings, corresponding broadly to philosophy, social history and economics: dialectical materialism, historical materialism and Marxist economics. Lenin described these as the “three component parts of Marxism”.
To promote the study of Marxism I intend to provide an outline of the basic principles and laws of dialectical materialism. Dialectical materialism is the core of the philosophical system of Marxism-Leninism and its methodological basis.
What is dialectical materialism? Do we need a philosophy?
For those unacquainted with Marxist philosophy, dialectical materialism may seem an obscure and difficult concept. But for those prepared to take the time to study this new way of looking at things, they will discover a revolutionary outlook that will allow them an insight into and understanding of the mysteries of the world in which we live. A grasp of dialectical materialism is an essential prerequisite in understanding the doctrine of Marxism. Dialectical materialism is the philosophy of Marxism, which provides us with a scientific and comprehensive world outlook. It is the philosophical foundation – the method – on which the whole of Marxist doctrine is founded.
According to Engels, dialectics was “our best working tool and or sharpest weapon”. Dialectics provides a guide to action and our activities within the working class movement. It is similar to a compass or map, which allows us to get our bearings in the turmoil of events and permits us to understand the underlying processes that shape our world.
Whether we like it or not, consciously or unconsciously, everyone has a philosophy. A philosophy is simply a way of looking at the world. Under capitalism, without our scientific philosophy, we will inevitably adopt the dominant philosophy of the ruling class and the prejudices of the society in which we live. “Things will never change” and “history always repeats itself” are common refrains, reflecting the futility of trying to change things and of the need to accept our lot in life. These ideas, explained Marx, form a crushing weight on the consciousness of men and women.
Just as the emerging bourgeoisie in its revolution against feudal society challenged the conservative ideas of the old feudal aristocracy, so the working class, it its fight for a new society, needs to challenge the dominant outlook of its own oppressor, the capitalist class, Of course the ruling class, through its monopoly control of the mass media, the press, school, university and pulpit, consciously justifies its system of exploitation as the “jost natural form of society”. The repressive state machine, with its “armed body of men”, is not sufficient to maintain the capitalist system. The dominant ideas and morality of bourgeois society serve as a vital defence of the material interests of the ruling class. Without this powerful ideology, the capitalist system could not last for long.
“In one way or another,” states Lenin, “All official and liberal science defends wage slavery. To expect science to be impartial in a wage-slave society is as foolishly naïve as to expect impartiality from manufacturers on the question of whether workers’ wages ought not to be increased by decreasing the profits of capital.”
Official bourgeois ideology conducts a relentless war against Marxism, which it correctly sees as a mortal danger to capitalism. Blair denounced Marxism as “an outmoded sectarian dogma”. The bourgeois scribes and professors pour out a continual stream of propaganda in an attempt to discredit Marxism – particularly the dialectic. This has especially been the case since the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the ferocious ideological offensive against Marxism, communism, revolution and suchlike. “Marxism is dead,” they repeatedly proclaim like some religious incantation. But Marxism refuses to lie down in front of these witch doctors! Marxism reflects the unconscious will of the working class to change society. Its fate is linked to that of the proletariat.
The apologists of capitalism, together with their shadows in the labour movement, constantly assert that their system is a natural and permanent form of society. On the other hand the dialectic asserts that nothing is permanent and all things perish in time. Such a revolutionary philosophy constitutes a profound threat to the capitalist system and therefore must be discredited at all costs. This explains the daily churning out of anti-Marxist propaganda. But each real step forward in science and knowledge serves to confirm the correctness of the dialectic. For millions of people the growing crisis of capitalism increasingly demonstrates the validity of Marxism. The objective situation is forcing working people to seek a way out of the impasse. “Life teaches,” remarked Lenin. Today, to use the famous words of the Communist Manifesto, “A spectre is haunting Europe, the spectre of communism.”
In the fight for the emancipation of the working class, Marxism also wages a relentless war against capitalism and its ideology, which defends and justifies its system of exploitation, the “market economy”. But Marxism does more than this. Marxism provides the working class with “an integral world outlook irreconcilable with any form of superstition, reaction or defence of bourgeois oppression,” (Lenin). It seeks to reveal the real relationships that exist under capitalism and arms the working class with an understanding of how it can achieve its own emancipation. Dialectical materialism, to use the words of the Russian Marxist Plekhanov, is more than an outlook; it is a “philosophy of action”.
The limits of formal logic
Men and women attempt to think in a rational manner. Logic (from the Greek logos meaning word or reason) is the science of the laws of thinking. Whatever thoughts we think, and whatever language they are expressed in, they must satisfy the requirements of reasoning. These requirements give rise to laws of thought, to the principles of logic. It was the Greek philosopher Aristotle (384-322 BC) more than 2,000 years ago who formulated the present system of formal logic – a system that is the basis of our educational establishments to this very day. He categorised the method of how we should reason correctly and how statements are combined to arrive at judgements, and from them, how conclusions are drawn.
He laid down three basic laws of logic: the principle of identity (A = A), of contradiction (A cannot be A and not A), and the excluded middle (A is either A or non-A; there is no middle alternative).
Formal logic has held sway for more than two millennia and was the basis of experiment and the great advances of modern science. The development of mathematics was based on this logic. You cannot teach a child to add up without it. One plus one equals two, not three. Formal logic may seem like common sense and is responsible for the execution of a million-and-one everyday things. But – and this is a big but – it has its limits. When dealing with drawn our processes or complicated events, formal logic becomes a totally inadequate way of thinking. This is particularly the case when dealing with movement, change and contradiction. Formal logic regards things as fixed and motionless. Of course this is not to deny the everyday usefulness of logic; on the contrary but we need to recognise its limits.
The dialectic is neither fiction nor mysticism but a science of the forms of our thinking insofar as it is not limited to the daily problems of life but attempts to arrive at an understanding of more complicated and drawn-out processes. The dialectic and formal logic bear a relationship similar to that between higher and lower mathematics.
With the development of modern science, the system of classification (of Linnaeus) was based on formal logic, where all living things were divided into species and orders. This constituted a great leap forward for biology compared to the past. However it was a fixed and rigid system, with its rigid categories, which over time revealed its limits. Darwin in particular showed that through evolution it was possible for one species to be transformed into another species. Consequently the rigid system of classification had to be changed to allow for this new understanding of reality. In effect, the system of formal logic broke down. It could not cope with these contradictions. On the other hand, dialectics – the logic of change – explains that there are no absolute or fixed categories in nature or society.
Only dialectical materialism can explain the laws of evolution and change, which sees the world not as a complex of ready-made things but as a complex of processes, which go through an uninterrupted transformation of coming into being and passing away.
To be continued.
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