An Introduction to Dialectical Materialism

the_thinkerWhat is a philosophy?

At each stage in human history, men and women have worked out some sort of picture of the world and their place in it. They develop a Philosophy. The pieces they use to make up this picture have been obtained by observing nature and through generalising their day to day experiences.

Some people believe they have no need of such a philosophy or world outlook. Yet in practise everyone has a philosophy, even if it is not consciously worked out. People who live by rule of thumb or “common sense” and think they are doing without theory, in practice think in the traditional way. Marx once said that the dominant ideas of society are those of the ruling class. To maintain and justify its rule, the capitalist class makes use of every available means to distort the consciousness of the worker. The school, church, TV, and press are used to foster the ideology of the ruling class and indoctrinate the worker into accepting their system as the most natural permanent form of society. In the absence of a conscious socialist philosophy, they accept unconsciously the capitalist one.

At each point in class society, the rising revolutionary class, aiming to change society, have to fight for a new world outlook and have to attack the old philosophy, which, being based on the old order, justified and defended it.

Idealism and materialism

Throughout the history of philosophy we find two camps, the Idealist and the Materialist. The common idea of “Idealism” (i.e. honesty, uprightness in the pursuit of ideals) and “Materialism” (i.e. base, greedy, money-grabbing egoism) has nothing to do with philosophical idealism and philosophical materialism.

Many great thinkers of the past were Idealists, notably Plato and Hegel. This school of thought looks upon nature and history as a reflection of ideas or spirit. The theory that men and women and every material thing was created by a divine Spirit, is a basic concept of idealism. This outlook is expressed in a number of ways, yet its basis is that ideas govern the development of the material world. History is explained as a history of thought. People’s actions are seen as resulting from abstract thoughts, and not from their material needs. Hegel went one step further, being a consistent idealist, and turned thoughts into an independent “Idea” existing outside of the brain and independent of the material world. The latter was merely a reflection of this Idea. Religion is part and parcel of philosophical idealism.

The Materialist thinkers on the other hand, have maintained that the material world is real and that nature or matter is primary. The mind or ideas are a product of the brain. The brain, and therefore ideas, arose at a certain stage in the development of living matter. The basic corner-stones of Materialism are as follows:

(a) The material world, known to us by our senses and explored by science, is real. The development of the world is due to its own natural laws, without any recourse to the supernatural.

(b) There is only one world, the material one. Thought is a product of matter (the brain) without which there can be no separate ideas. Therefore minds or ideas cannot exist in isolation apart from matter. General ideas are only reflections of the material world. “To me,” wrote Marx, “the idea is nothing else than the material world reflected in the human mind, and translated into forms of thought.” And further, “Social being determines consciousness”.

The Idealists conceive of consciousness, of thought, as something external, and opposed to matter, to nature. This opposition is something entirely false and artificial. There is a close correlation between the laws of thought and the laws of nature, because the former follow and reflect the latter. Thought cannot derive its categories from itself, but only from the external world. Even the most seemingly abstract thoughts are in fact derived from the observation of the material world.

Even an apparently abstract science like pure mathematics has, in the last analysis, been derived from material reality, and is not spun from the brain. The school-child secretly counts his material fingers under a material desk before solving an abstract arithmetical problem. In so doing, he is re-creating the origins of mathematics itself. We base ourselves upon the decimal system because we have ten fingers. The Roman numerals were originally based on the representation of fingers.

According to Lenin, “this is materialism: matter acting on our sense organs produces sensation. Sensations depend upon the brain, nerves, retina, etc., i.e., matter is primary. Sensation, thought, consciousness are the supreme product of matter”.

People are a part of nature, who develop their ideas in interaction with the rest of the world. Mental processes are real enough, but they are not something absolute, outside nature. They should be studied in their material and social circumstances in which they arise. “The phantoms formed in the human brain,” stated Marx, “are … necessarily, sublimates of their material life-process.” Later he concluded, “morality, religion, metaphysics, all the rest of ideology and their corresponding forms of consciousness, thus no longer retain the semblance of independence. They have no history, no development, but men, developing their material production and their material intercourses, alter along with this their real existence their thinking and the product of their thinking. Life is not determined by consciousness, but consciousness by life.”

The origins of materialism

“The original home of all modern materialism,” wrote Engels, “from the seventeenth century onwards, is England.” At this time, the old feudal aristocracy and monarchy were being challenged by the newly emerged middle classes. The bastion of feudalism was the Roman Catholic church, which provided the divine justification for the monarchy and feudal institutions. This, therefore, had to be undermined before feudalism could be overthrown. The rising bourgeoisie challenged the old ideas and divine concepts that the old order was based upon.

“Parallel with the rise of the middle classes went on the great revival of science; astronomy, mechanics, physics, anatomy, physiology, were again cultivated. And the bourgeoisie for the development of its industrial production, required a science which ascertained the physical properties of natural objects and the modes of action of the forces of Nature. Now up to then science had but been the humble handmaid of the church, had not been allowed to overstep the limits set by faith, and for that reason had been no science at all. [In the 17th century, Galileo demonstrated the truth of Copernicus’ theory that the earth and planets revolved around the Sun. The professors of the day ridiculed these ideas and used the power of the Index and the Inquisition against Galileo to force him to recant his views. RS] (Science rebelled against the church; the bourgeoisie could not do without science, and therefore, had to join in the rebellion.)” (F. Engels.)

It was at this time that Francis Bacon (1561-1626) developed his revolutionary ideas of materialism. According to him the senses were infallible and the source of all knowledge. All science was based upon experience, and consisted in subjecting the data to a rational method of investigation; induction, analysis, comparison, observation and experiment. It was, however, left to Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) to continue and develop Bacon’s materialism into a system. He realised that ideas and concepts were only a reflection of the material world, and that “it is impossible to separate thought from matter that thinks”. Later, the English thinker John Locke (1632-1704) provided proof of this materialism.

The materialist school of philosophy passed from England to France, to be taken up and developed further by Rene Descartes (1596-1650) and his followers. These French materialists did not limit themselves to criticisms of religion, but extended them to all institutions and ideas. They challenged these things in the name of Reason, and gave ammunition to the developing bourgeoisie in their struggle with the monarchy. The birth of the great French Bourgeois Revolution of 1789-93 took as its creed materialist philosophy. Unlike the English Revolution in the mid-17th century, its French counter-part completely destroyed the old feudal order. As Engels later pointed out: “We know today that this kingdom of reason was nothing more than the idealised kingdom of the bourgeoisie.”

The defect, however, of this materialism from Bacon onwards was its rigid, mechanical interpretation of Nature. Not accidentally, the English school of materialist philosophy flourished in the 18th century, when the discoveries of Isaac Newton made “mechanics” the most advanced and important science. In the words of Engels: “The specific limitation of this materialism lay in its inability to comprehend the universe as a process, as matter undergoing uninterrupted historical development.”

The French Revolution had a profound effect upon the civilised world, similar to the Russian Revolution of 1917. It revolutionised thinking in every field, politics, philosophy, science and art. The ferment of ideas emerging from this bourgeois democratic revolution ushered in advances in natural science, geology, botany, chemistry as well as political economy.

It was in this period that a criticism was made of the mechanical approach of the materialists. A German philosopher, Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), made the first breakthrough in the old mechanistic ways with his discovery that the Earth and the solar system had come into being, and had not existed eternally. The same also applies to geography, geology, plants and animals.

This revolutionary idea of Kant was comprehensively developed by another brilliant German thinker, George Hegel (1770-1831). Hegel was a philosophical idealist, believing that the world could be explained as a manifestation or reflection of a “Universal Mind” or “Idea”, i.e., some form of God.

Hegel looked upon the world not as an active participant in society and human history, but as a philosopher, contemplating events from afar. He set himself up as a measuring rod of the world, interpreting history according to his prejudices as the history of thought, the world as the world of ideas, an Ideal World. Thus for Hegel, problems and contradictions were posed not in real terms but in terms of thought, and could therefore find their solution only in terms of thought. Instead of contradictions in society being solved by the actions of men and women, by the class struggle, they instead find their solution in the philosopher’s head, in the Absolute Idea!

Nevertheless, Hegel recognised the errors and shortcomings of the old mechanistic outlook. He also pointed out the inadequacies of formal logic and set about the creation of a new world outlook which could explain the contradictions of change and movement. (See below).

Although Hegel rediscovered and analysed the laws of motion and change, his idealism placed everything on its head. It was the struggle and criticism of the Young Hegelians, led by Ludwig Feuerbach (1804-1872), which tried to correct and place philosophy back on its feet. Yet even Feuerbach–“the under half of him was materialist, the upper half idealist” (Engels)–was not able to fully purge Hegelianism of its idealist outlook. This work was left to Marx and Engels, who were able to rescue the dialectical method from its mystical shell. Hegelian dialectics were fused with modern materialism to produce the revolutionary understanding of dialectical materialism.

What are dialectics?

We have seen that modern materialism is the concept that matter is primary and the mind or ideas are the product of the brain. But what is dialectical thinking or dialectics?

“Dialectics is nothing more than the science of the general laws of motion and development of nature, human society and thought.” (Engels, Anti-Dühring.)

The dialectical method of thinking already had a long existence before Marx and Engels developed it scientifically as a means of understanding the evolution of human society.

The ancient Greeks produced some great dialectical thinkers, including Plato, Zenon and Aristotle. As early as 500 B.C., Heraclitus advanced the idea that “everything is and is not, for everything is in flux, is constantly changing, constantly coming into being and passing away”. And further, “all things flow, all change. It is impossible to enter twice into one and the same stream”. This statement already contains the fundamental conception of dialectics that everything in nature is in a constant state of change, and that this change unfolds through a series of contradictions.

“…the great basic thought that the world is not to be comprehended as a complex of ready made things, but as a complex of processes, in which things apparently stable, no less than their mental images in our heads, concepts go through an uninterrupted change of coming into being and passing away.” (Engels, Anti-Dühring,)

“For dialectical philosophy nothing is final, absolute, sacred. It reveals the transitory character of everything and in everything: nothing can endure before it except the uninterrupted process of becoming and of passing away, of endless ascendancy from the lower to the higher. And dialectical philosophy is nothing more than the mere reflection of this process in the thinking brain.” (Ibid.)

Dialectics and metaphysics

The Greek Philosophers brilliantly anticipated the later development of dialectics as of other sciences. But they could not themselves carry this anticipation to its logical conclusion owing to the low development of the means of production, and the lack of adequate information about the detailed workings of the universe. Their ideas gave a more-or-less correct general picture, but they were often more in the nature of inspired guesses than scientifically worked out theories. In order to carry human thought further, it was necessary to abandon these old methods to arrive at a general understanding of the universe, and concentrate on the smaller, more mundane tasks of collecting, sorting out and labelling a host of individual facts, of testing particular theories by experiment, of defining, etc.

This empirical, experimental, factual approach provided an enormous boost to human thought and science. Investigations into the workings of nature could now be carried out scientifically, analysing each particular problem and testing each conclusion. But in the process, the old ability to deal with things in their connection, not separately, in their movement, not statically, in their life not in their death, was lost. The narrow, empirical mode of thought which consequently arose is termed the “Metaphysical” approach. It still dominates modern capitalist philosophy and science. In politics it is reflected in Harold Wilson’s famous “pragmatism” (“if it works, it must be right”) and the constant appeals to “the Facts”.

But facts do not select themselves. They have to be chosen by individuals. The order and sequence in which they are arranged, and the conclusions drawn from them depend upon the preconceived notions of the individual. Thus such appeals for “the Facts”, which are supposed to convey the impression of scientific impartiality, are usually just a smokescreen to conceal the prejudices of the speaker.

Dialectics deals not only with facts, but with facts in their connection, i.e. processes, not only with isolated ideas, but with laws, not only with the particular, but with the general.

Dialectical thinking stands in the same relationship to metaphysics as a motion picture to a still photograph. The one does not contradict the other, but compliments it. However, the truer, more complete approximation of reality is contained in the movie.

For everyday purposes and simple calculations, metaphysical thought, or “common sense”, suffices. But it has its limitations, and beyond these the application of “common sense” turns truth into its opposite. The fundamental shortcoming of this type of thinking is its inability to conceive of motion and development, and its rejection of all contradiction. However, movement and change imply contradiction.

“To the metaphysician things and their mental reflexes, ideas, are isolated, are to be considered one after the other and apart from each other, are objects of investigation, fixed, rigid, given once and for all. He thinks in absolutely irreconcilable antithesis … For him a thing either exists or does not exist: a thing cannot at the same time be itself and something else. Positive and negative absolutely exclude one another: cause and effect stand in rigid antithesis one to the other.” (Anti-Dühring, p. 34.)

For everyday purposes, for instance, it is possible to say with a degree of certainty whether an individual, plant or animal is alive or dead. But in reality the question is not so simple, as legal cases on abortion and the “rights of the foetus” indicate. At what point precisely does human life begin? At what point does it end? Death, also is not a simple event but a protracted process, as Heraclitus understood: “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.”

Trotsky, in his ABC of Materialist Dialectics characterised the dialectic as “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.”

He compared dialectics and formal logic (metaphysics) to higher and lower mathematics. It was Aristotle who first developed the laws of formal logic, and his system of logic has been accepted ever since by the metaphysicians as the only possible method of scientific thinking.

“The Aristotelian logic of the simple syllogism is accepted as an axiom for a multitude of practical human activities and elementary generalisations. The postulate starts from the proposition that ‘A’ = ‘A’. But in reality ‘A’ is not equal to ‘A’. This is quite easy to prove if we observe these two letters under a lens–they are quite different from each other. But, one can object, the question is not of the size or form of the letters, since they are only symbols for equal quantities, for instance, a pound of sugar. The objection is beside the point–in reality a pound of sugar is never equal to a pound of sugar–a more delicate scale will always disclose a difference. Again one can object; but a pound of sugar is equal to itself. Neither is this true–all bodies change uninterruptedly in size, weight, colour, etc. They are never equal to themselves. A sophist will respond that a pound of sugar is equal to itself ‘at any given moment’. Aside from the extremely dubious practical value of the ‘axiom’ it does not withstand theoretical criticism, either. How should we really conceive the word ‘moment’ a purely mathematical abstraction, that is a zero of time? But everything exists in time: and existence itself is an uninterrupted process of transformation: time is subsequently a fundamental element of existence. Thus the axiom ‘A’ is equal to itself if it does not change, that is, if it does not exist.

“At first glance it could seem that these ‘subtleties’ are useless. In reality they are of decisive significance. The axiom ‘A equals A’ appears on the one hand to be the point of departure for all knowledge on the other hand the point of departure for all errors in our knowledge. To make use of the axiom ‘A equals A’ with impunity is possible only within certain limits. When quantitative changes in ‘A’ are negligible for the task at hand, then we can presume that ‘A equals A’. This is, for example, the manner in which a buyer and a seller both consider a pound of sugar. We consider the Sun’s temperature likewise. Until recently we considered the buying power of the dollar in the same way. But quantitative changes beyond certain limits become qualitative. A pound of sugar subjected to the action of water or Kerosene cease to be a pound of sugar. A dollar in the embraces of a president ceases to be a dollar. To determine the right moment, the critical point where quantity changes to quality is one of the most important and difficult tasks in all spheres of knowledge, including sociology.” (Trotsky, ABC of Materialist Dialectic)

hegelHegel

The old dialectical method of reasoning, which had fallen into disuse from medieval times on, was revived in the early 19th century by the great German philosopher G.W.F. Hegel, (1770-1831). Hegel, one of the most encyclopaedic minds of his time, subjected the forms of formal logic to a detailed criticism, and demonstrated their limitations and one-sidedness. Hegel produced the first really comprehensive analysis of the laws of dialectics, which served as a basis upon which Marx and Engels later developed their theory of dialectical materialism. Lenin characterised Hegelian dialectics as “the most comprehensive, the most right in content and the most profound doctrine of development”. In comparison with this, every other formulation was “one-sided and poor in content, and distorting and mutilating the real course of development (which often proceeds in leaps, catastrophes and revolutions) in nature and society”. (Lenin, Karl Marx.)

Hegel’s View of things was that of “A development that seemingly repeats the stages already passed, but repeats them differently, on a higher basis (negation of the negation), a development, so to speak, in spirals, not in a straight line; a development by leaps, catastrophes, revolutions; breaks in continuity; the transformations of quantity into quality; the inner impulses of development, imparted by the contradictions and conflict of the various forces and tendencies acting on a given body, or within a given phenomenon, or within a given society: the interdependence and the closest, indissoluble connection of all sides of every phenomenon (while history constantly discloses ever new sides), a connection that provides a uniform, a law-governed, universal process of motion, such are some of the features of dialectics as a richer (than the ordinary) doctrine of development.” (Ibid.)

“This new German philosophy culminated in the Hegelian system. In this system–and herein is its great merit–for the first time 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. From this point of view the history of mankind no longer appeared as a wild whirl of senseless deeds of violence, as equally condemnable at the judgement-seat of mature philosophic reason, and which are best forgotten as quickly as possible, but as the process of evolution of man himself. It was now the task of the intellect to follow the gradual march of this process through all its devious ways and to trace out the inner laws running through all its apparently accidental phenomena.” (Engels, Anti-Dühring, p. 37.)

Hegel brilliantly posed the problem, but was prevented from solving it by his idealist preconceptions. It was, in Engels’ words “a colossal miscarriage”. Despite its mystical side, Hegel’s philosophy already explained the most important laws of dialectics: Quantity and quality, the interpenetration of opposites and negation of the negation.

Quantity and quality

“In spite of all gradualness, the transition from one form of motion to another always remains a leap, a decisive change”. (Engels, Anti-Dühring.)

The idea of change and evolution is now generally accepted, but the forms by which changes occur in nature and society have only been explained by Marxian dialectics. The common view of evolution as a peaceful, smooth and uninterrupted development is both one-sided and false. In politics it is the “gradualist” theory of social change–the basic theoretical plank of reformism.

Hegel developed the idea of a “nodal line of measure relations”–in which at a definite nodal point, the purely quantitative increase or decrease gives rise to a qualitative leap: for example in the case of heated water, where boiling point and freezing point are the nodes at which under normal pressure the leap into a new state of aggregation takes place, and where consequently quantity is transformed into quality.” (Engels, Anti-Dühring.)

Thus, in the example cited, the transformation of water from a liquid to vapour or solid ice do not occur by a gradual congealing or dissipation, but suddenly at a particular temperature (0°C, 100°C). The cumulative effect of numerous changes of the speed of the molecules eventually produces a change of state–quantity into quality.

Examples may be produced at will, from all the branches of science, from sociology and even from everyday life (e.g., the point at which the addition of salt changes the soup from something palatable to something undrinkable).

The Hegelian nodal line of measurement and the law of the transition of quantity into quality and vice-versa are of crucial importance not only to science (where, like other dialectical laws, they are used unconsciously by scientists who are not conscious dialecticians) but above all in an analysis of history, society and the movement of the working class.

The interpenetration of opposites

Just as “common sense” metaphysics seeks to eliminate contradiction from thought and revolution from evolution, it also tries to prove that all opposing ideas and forces are mutually exclusive. However, “we find upon closer examination that the two poles of an antithesis, positive and negative, e.g., are as inseparable as they are opposed, and that despite all their opposition they mutually interpenetrate. And we find, in like manner that cause and effect are conception to individual cases, but as soon as we consider the individual cases in their general connection with the universe as a whole, they run into each other, and they become confounded when we contemplate that universal action and interaction in which causes and effects are eternally changing places, so that what is effect here and now will be cause there and then and vice-versa”. (Engels, Anti-Dühring, p. 36.)

Dialectics is the science of inter-connections, in contrast to metaphysics which treats phenomena as separate and isolated. Dialectics seeks to uncover the countless threads, transition, cause and effect which bind together the universe. The first task of a dialectical analysis is therefore to trace the “Necessary connection, the objective connection of all the aspects, forces, tendencies etc., of the given sphere of phenomena”. (Lenin, Philosophical Notebooks, p. 97.)

Dialectics approaches a given phenomenon from the point of view of its development, its own movement and life; how it arises and how it passes away; it also considers the internal contradictory tendencies and sides of this thing.

Motion is the mode of existence of the entire material universe. Energy and matter are inseparable. Furthermore, motion is not imparted “from without”, but the manifestation of the internal tensions that are inseparable not only from life, but from all forms of matter. Development and change takes place through internal contradictions. Thus dialectical analysis begins by laying bare by empirical investigation the inner contradictions which give rise to development and change.

From the dialectical standpoint all “polar opposites” are one-sided and inadequate, including the contradiction between “truth and error”. Marxism does not accept the existence of any “Eternal Truths”. All “truths” and “errors” are relative. What is true in one time and context becomes false in another: truth and error pass into each other.

Thus the progress of knowledge and science does not proceed from the mere negation of “incorrect theories”. All theories are relative, grasping one side of reality. Initially they are assumed to have universal validity and application. They are “true”. But at a certain point, deficiencies in the theory are noticed; they are not applicable to all circumstances, exceptions to the rule are found. These have to be explained, and at a certain point, new theories are developed which can account for the exceptions. But the new theories not only “negate” the old, but incorporate them in a new form.

We can exclude contradictions only by regarding objects as lifeless, at rest and individually juxtaposed, i.e. metaphysically. But as soon as we consider things in their motion and change, in their life, their mutual interdependence and interaction, we come up against a series of contradictions.

Motion itself is a contradiction between being in the same place and somewhere else at the same time.

Life, equally, is a contradiction that “a being is at each moment itself and yet something else”. (Engels, Anti-Dühring, p. 167.)

Living structures constantly absorb substances from the environment, assimilate them and simultaneously other parts of the body decay, disintegrate and are expelled. Constant transformations occur also in the world of organic nature; e.g., a rock which disintegrated under the pressure of the elements. Everything is therefore constantly itself and something else at one and the same time. Thus, the desire to eliminate contradictions is the desire to eliminate reality.

Negation of the negation

Engels characterises this as “an extremely general and for this reason extremely far-reaching and important law of development of nature, history and thought; a law which … holds good in the animal and plant kingdoms, in geology, in mathematics, in history and philosophy”. (Ibid., p. 193.)

This law, the workings of which were observed in nature long before it was written down, was first clearly elaborated by Hegel, who gives a whole series of concrete examples which are reiterated in Anti-Dühring. (Ibid., pp. 186-190.)

The law of the negation of the negation deals with the nature of development through a series of contradictions, which appear to annul, or negate a previous fact, theory, or form of existence, only to be later negated in its turn. Motion, change and development thus moves through an uninterrupted series of negations.

However, negation in the dialectical sense does not signify a mere annulment or obliteration whereby the earlier stage is both overcome and preserved at the same time. Negation, in this sense, is both a positive and a negative act.

Hegel gives a simple example in his book, The Phenomenology of the 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 supplement one another as being incomparable 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 do not merely 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.”

In this process of endless self-annulment, the disappearance of certain forms and the emergence of others, a pattern frequently emerges which seem to be a repetition of forms, events and theories already surpassed. Thus, it is a commonplace that “history repeats itself”. Reactionary bourgeois historians have thus tried to prove that history itself is merely a meaningless repetition, proceeding in a never-ending circle.

Dialectics, on the contrary, discerns within these seeming repetitions an actual … development from lower to higher, an evolution in which the same forms may repeat themselves, but on a higher level, enriched by previous developments.

This can be seen most clearly from the process of development of human ideas. Hegel already showed how philosophy developed through a series of contradictions; one school of thought negating another, but simultaneously absorbing the older theories into its own system of thought.

Similarly with the development of science. The alchemists of the Middle Ages were motivated for the search for the “Philosophers’ Stone” which could turn base metal into gold. Owing to the low level of the productive forces and the lack of scientific technique, these early attempts at the “transmutation” of the elements was in reality a utopian fantasy. However, in the process of these vain attempts, the alchemists actually discovered a whole series of valuable facts about chemicals and experimental apparatus which later provided the basis of modern chemistry.

With the rise of capitalism, industry and technique, chemistry becomes a science which rejected the early “crazy” notions of the transmutation of the elements which was thus negated. However, all that was valuable and scientific in the discoveries of alchemy were preserved in the new chemistry, which maintained that the elements were “immutable” and could not be transformed one into another.

The 20th century has seen the revolutionising of science and technique with the discovery of nuclear physics, by means of which one element can actually be transformed into another. In fact, it would be theoretically possible to turn lead into gold, in modern times, but the process would be too expensive to be justified economically. Thus this particular process seems to have turned full circle:

(a) transmutation of elements (b) non transmutation of elements (c) transmutation of elements

But the repetition is only apparent. In reality, modern science, which in one sense has returned to an idea of the ancient alchemists, includes within itself all the enormous discoveries of the 19th century and 18th century science. Thus, one generation stands on the shoulders of another. Ideas which have apparently been “disproved” or “negated” make their re-appearance, but on a higher level, enriched by the previous experiences and discoveries.

Dialectics bases itself upon determinism: the thought that nothing in nature, society or thought is accidental; that seeming “accidents” arise only as the result of a deeper necessity.

Superficial historians have written that the First World War was “caused” by the assassination of a Crown Prince at Sarajevo. To a Marxist this event was an historical accident, in the sense that this chance event served as the pretext, or catalyst, for the world conflict which had already been made inevitable by the economic, political and military contradictions of imperialism. If the assassin had missed, or if the Crown Prince had never been born, the war would still have taken place, on some other diplomatic pretext. Necessity would have expressed itself through a different “accident”.

Everything which exists, exists of necessity. But, equally, everything which exists is doomed to perish, to be transformed into something else. Thus what is “necessary” in one time and place becomes “unnecessary” in another. Everything begets its opposite which is destined to overcome and negate it. This is true of individual living things as much as societies.

Every type of human society exists because it is necessary at the given time when it arises: “No special order ever disappears before all the productive forces for which there is room in it, have been developed: and new higher relations of production never appear before the material conditions of their existence have matured in the womb of the old society. Therefore mankind always takes up only such problems as it can solve, since, looking at the matter more closely, we will always find that the problem itself arises only when the material conditions necessary for its solution already exist or at least are in the process of formation”. (Marx, Critique of Political Economy.)

Slavery, in its day, represented an enormous leap forward over barbarism. It was a necessary stage in the development of productive forces, culture and human society. As Hegel put it: “It is not so much from slavery as through slavery that man becomes free”.

Similarly capitalism was originally a necessary and progressive stage in human society. However, like slavery, primitive communism and feudalism (see section 2), capitalism has long since ceased to represent a necessary and progressive social system. It has foundered upon the deep contradictions inherent in it, and is doomed to be overcome by the rising forces of socialism, represented by the modem proletariat. Private ownership of the means of production and the nation state, the basic features of capitalist society, which originally marked a great step forward, now serve only to fetter and undermine the productive forces and threaten all the gains made in centuries of human development.

Capitalism is now a thoroughly decrepit, degenerate social system, which must be overthrown and replaced by its opposite, Socialism, if human culture is to survive. Marxism is determinist, but not fatalist, because the working out of contradictions in society can only be achieved by men and women consciously striving for the transformation of society. This struggle of the classes is not pre-determined. Who succeeds depends on many factors, and a rising, progressive class has many advantages over the old, decrepit force of reaction. But ultimately, the result must depend upon which side has the stronger will, the greater organisation and the most skilful and resolute leadership.

The Marxist philosophy is therefore essentially a guide to action: “Philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is, however, to change it”. (Marx, Theses on Feuerbach.)

The victory of socialism will mark a new and qualitatively different stage of human history. To be more accurate it will mark the end of the prehistory of the human race, and start a real history.

However on the other hand, socialism marks a return to the earliest form of human society–tribal communism–but on a much higher level, which stands upon all the enormous gains of thousands of years of class society. The economy of superabundance, will be made possible by the application of socialist planning to the industry, science and technique established by capitalism, on a world scale. This in turn will once and for all make redundant the division of labour, the difference between mental and manual labour, between town and countryside, and the wasteful and barbaric class struggle and enable the human race at least to set its resources to the conquest of nature: to use Engels’ famous phrase, “Mankind’s leap from the realms of necessity to the Realm of Freedom”.

by Rob Sewell and Alan Woods