What Is Marxism?. Emile Burns 1939


The point has already been made that Marxism regards human beings, and therefore human society, as a part of nature. Man’s origin is therefore to be found in the development of the world; man developed out of previous forms of life, in the course of whose evolution thought and conscious action made their appearance. This means that matter, reality that is not conscious, existed before mind, reality that is conscious. But this also means that matter, external reality, exists independently of the mind. This view of nature is known as “materialism.”

The opposite view, the view that the external world is not real, that it has existence only in the mind, or in the mind of some supreme being, is known as idealism. There are many forms of idealism, but all of them assert that mind, whether ,]human or divine, is the primary reality and that matter, if it has any reality at all, is secondary.

To the Marxists, as Engels put it, “the materialist world outlook is simply the conception of nature as it is, without any reservations.” The external world is real, it exists independently of whether we are conscious of it or not, and its motion and development are governed by laws which are capable of being discovered and used by man, but are not directed by any mind.

Idealism, on the other hand, because it regards matter, external reality, as having only secondary reality, if indeed it is in any sense real, also holds that we can never know reality, that we can never understand the “mysterious ways” of the world.

Why is the controversy of materialism versus idealism of importance? Because it is not just a question of speculation and abstract thought; it is, in the last analysis, a question of practical action. Man does not only observe external Nature: he changes it, and himself with it.

Secondly, the materialist standpoint also means that what is in men’s minds, what mind is conscious of, is external reality; ideas are reflections, as it were, of reality, they have their origin in external reality. Of course this does not mean that all ideas are true, are correct reflections of reality; the point is that actual experience of reality gives the test of correctness.

The idealist, on the other hand, believes in eternally valid principles, and does not feel concerned in making them fit reality. An example of this in current affairs is the standpoint of absolute pacifism. The completely logical pacifist ignores the real world round him; it is a matter of no importance to him that in reality, in the actual experience of life at the present day, force is a fact that cannot be conjured away by wishing; that in reality, in our actual experience, non-resistance to force brings more force, more aggression and brutality. The fundamental basis of such absolute pacifism is an idealist view of the world, a disbelief in external reality, even if the pacifist concerned is not conscious that he has any such philosophical outlook.

Marxism, therefore, bases all its theories on the materialist conception of the world, and from this standpoint it examines the world, it tries to discover the laws which govern the world and – since man is a part of reality – the laws which govern the movement of human society. And it tests all its discoveries, all its conclusions, by actual experience, rejecting or modifying conclusions and theories which, to use the simplest phrase, do not fit the facts.

This approach to the world (always including human society) reveals certain general features, which are real, and not imposed by the mind; the Marxist view is essentially scientific, drawn from reality and is not a “system” invented by some clever thinker. Because of this it not only sees the world as materialist, but finds that it also has certain characteristics which are covered by the term “dialectical” The phrase “dialectical materialism,” which expresses the Marxist conception of the world, is generally regarded as mysterious. But it is not really mysterious, because it is a reflection of the real world, and it is possible to explain the word “dialectical” by describing ordinary things which everyone will recognise.

In the first place. nature or the world, including human society, is not made up of totally distinct and independent things. Every scientist knows this, and has the very greatest difficulty in making allowances for even the important factors which may affect the particular thing he is studying. Water is water; but if its temperature is increased to a certain point (which varies with the atmospheric pressure) it becomes steam; if its temperature is lowered, it forms ice; all kinds of other factors affect it. Every ordinary person also realises, if he examines things at all, that nothing, so to speak, leads an entirely independent existence; that everything is dependent on other things.

In fact, this interdependence of things may seem so obvious that there may not appear to be any reason for calling attention to it. But, in fact, people do not always recognise the interdependence of things. They do not recognise that what is true in one set of circumstances may not be true in another; they are constantly applying ideas formed in one set of circumstances to a quite different set of circumstances. The attitude to freedom of speech is a case in point. In general, freedom of speech helps democracy, helps the will of the people to express itself on the course of events, and is therefore helpful to the development of society. But freedom of speech for fascism, for something that is essentially repressive of democracy, is quite different; it holds back the development of society. And no matter how many times the formula “freedom of speech” is repeated, what is true of it in normal circumstances, for parties whose aim is democracy, is not true of it for fascist parties, whose aim is to discredit democracy and finally to destroy it.

The dialectical approach also sees that nothing in the world is really static, that everything is moving, changing, either rising and developing or declining and dying away. All scientific knowledge confirms this. The earth itself is in constant change. It is even more obvious in the case of living things. Therefore it is essential to any really scientific investigation of reality, that it should see this change, and not approach things as if they were eternally fixed and lasting.

Again, why is it essential to bring out this feature of reality, which is so obvious when it is stated? Because in practice this is not the approach men make to reality, especially to human society, and for that matter to individual men and women. The person who rejects the idea that production for profit is not a permanent feature of human society, that it came into being, developed and is now in its decline – such a person does not apply the conception of reality which has just been described as obvious. And, in fact, the conception that “as it was, so it will be” is to be met with almost everywhere, and is a constant barrier to the development of individuals and of society.

There is a further point arising from the clear realisation that everything is changing, developing or dying away. Because this is so, it is of supreme practical importance to recognise the stage reached by each thing that concerns us. The farmer is well enough aware of this when he is buying a cow; the buyer of a house has it well in mind; in fact, in the simpler practical things of life no one ignores the general law. But it is unfortunately not so well appreciated in regard to human institutions, especially the system of production and the ideas that go with it. However, this is a point that is developed later on.

The interdependence of things, and the fact that things are always in a process of change, have been referred to as obvious features of reality. The third feature which is included in the “.dialectical” approach to reality is not quite so obvious, although it is easy enough to recognise that it is true once it is stated.

This feature is: the development that takes place in things is not simple and smooth, but is, so to speak, broken at certain points in a very sharp way. The simple and smooth development may take place for a very long time, during which the only change is that there is more of a particular quality in the thing. To take the example of water again: while the temperature is being raised the water remains water, with all the general characteristics of water, but the amount of heat in it is increasing. Similarly, while the temperature is being reduced the water remains water, but the amount of heat in it is decreasing.

However, at a certain point in this process of change, at boiling or freezing point, a sudden break occurs; the water completely changes its qualities; it is no longer water, but steam or ice. This feature of reality is particularly evident in chemistry, where less or more of a particular constituent completely changes the character of the result.

In human society, gradual changes take place over a long period without any fundamental changes in the character of society; then a break takes pace, there is a revolution, the old form of society is destroyed and a new form comes into existence and begins its own process of development. Thus within feudal society, which was production for local consumption, the buying and selling of surplus products led to the production of things for the market and so on to the beginnings of capitalist production. All of this was a gradual process of development; but at a certain point the rising capitalist class came into conflict with the feudal order, overthrew it, and transformed the whole character of production; capitalist society took the place of feudalism and began a more tempestuous development.

The fourth feature of dialectics is the conception of what causes the development which, as we have already seen, is universal. The dialectical approach to things shows that they are not simple, not completely of one character. Everything has its positive and its negative side; everything has within it features that are developing, becoming more dominant, and features that are passing away, becoming less dominant. One feature is always expanding, the other resisting that expansion. One feature is always expanding, the other resisting that expansion. And it is the conflict between these opposites, the struggle of the rising factor to destroy the domination of the other, and the struggle of the dominant factor to prevent the other factor from developing, which is the content of the whole process of change which ends ultimately in a violent break.

This is most clearly seen in human society. At each historical stage there has been division into classes, one of which was developing and one declining. It was the case in feudal society, with capitalism developing in the germ and, as it developed, coming more and more into conflict with feudalism. It is the same in the capitalist period,, with the working class as the rising factor that “has the future in its hands.” Capitalist society is not all of one kind; as capitalists develop, so do workers. The conflict between these classes develops. It is this conflict, this “contradiction” within capitalism, and the actual struggles which arise from the division into classes, which ultimately lead to the sharp break, the revolution.

It is now possible to put together the various ideas covered by the phrase “dialectical materialism.” It is the view which holds that reality exists apart from our consciousness of it; and that this reality is not in isolated fragments, but interdependent; that it is not static but in motion, developing and dying away; that this development is gradual up to a point, when there is a sharp break and something new appears; that the development takes place because of internal conflict, and the sharp break is the victory of the rising factor over the dying factor.

It is this conception of the world, including human society, that sharply distinguishes Marxism from all other approaches to reality. Of course, dialectical materialism is not something standing above reality – an arbitrarily invented outlook into which the world must fit. On the contrary, it claims to be the most accurate representation of the world, and to be drawn from the accumulated knowledge and experience of man. It is in the mind of the Marxist because it is in the world outside; it is the real “shape of things!’

The discoveries of science are more and more confirming that this is so; scientists who approach nature from the dialectical standpoint find that it reveals new facts, explains things which seemed inexplicable. But in the present stage of human development the whole outlook of dialectical materialism is of the greatest importance in relation to human society.

The examples given earlier in this chapter serve to show the difference in outlook between the Marxist and the non-Marxist in connection with the development of society and the idea that spring from this development. There are other examples in other chapters. But the question of the nature of reality is of such practical importance in the life and actions of men and women that it is worth closer study.

It was noted above that the materialist outlook means that matter, external reality, is regarded as primary, and mind as secondary, as something that develops on the basis of the matter. It follows from this that man’s physical existence, and therefore the ways in which it is preserved, come before the ideas which man forms of his own life and methods of living. In other words, practice comes before theory. Man got himself a living long before he began to have ideas about it. But also the ideas, when he developed them, were associated with his practice; that is to say, theory and practice ran together. And this was so not only in the early stages, but at all stages. The practical ways in which men get their living are the basis of their ideas. Their political ideas rise from the same root; their political institutions are formed in the practice of preserving the system of production, and not at all on the basis of any abstract principles. The institutions and ideas of each age are a reflection of the practice in that age. They do not have an independent existence and history, developing, so to speak, from idea to idea, but they develop when the material mode of production changes. A new custom takes the place of the old custom, and gives rise to new ideas.

But old ideas and institutions persist, alongside the new. Ideas which developed from the feudal system of production, such as respect for the monarch and the nobility, still play an important part in capitalist Britain. There are ideas developed from the capitalist system of production; some are modifications of old forms, such as respect for the wealthy. irrespective of noble birth. Then there are the socialist ideas, derived essentially from the fact that production under capitalism becomes more and more social in character, more collective and interdependent. These three sets of ideas are current in present-day society, and no one of them is finally and absolutely true, valid for all eternity.

This, however, does not mean that Marxism regards them all as equally unreal. On the contrary, Marxism sees the feudal ideas as completely past, the capitalist ideas as declining, the socialist ideas as becoming valid. Or rather, at this stage not only becoming. For since November, 1917, it has been possible to test socialist ideas from actual experience: to prove that they fit reality. The main idea, that even the vast and complex modern machinery of production can be organised for use and not for profit, has been confirmed in practice. Experience has shown that this means also an enormous increase in production, the abolition of crises, and a continuous rise in the standard of living of the people. In other words, the socialist ideas, scientifically developed by Marx from the observed facts of economic and social development, remained, so to speak, a scientific hypothesis until 1917; now experience has confirmed them as true.

The conscious action of the Russian Communist Party, whose outlook was Marxist, brought about the overthrow of the old system and the establishment of the new. From that point on, the Russian people – overwhelmingly non-Marxist in their outlook – began to experience the new system, to become socialists in practice. On such a basis the conscious educational work of the theoretical socialists bore quick fruit, and the combination or practice and education is rapidly transforming the outlook of the whole people.

It should be made clear that Marxism does not claim more for its view of the world, dialectical materialism, than that this approach helps the investigator in every field of science to see and understand the facts. It tells us nothing about the details, which must be the subject of special study in each field. Marxism does not deny that a considerable body of scientific truth can be built up on the basis of studying the facts in isolation. But it claims that when they are examined in their interdependence, in their development, in their change of quantity into quality, in their internal contradiction, the scientific truth that emerges is infinitely more valuable, more true.

An this holds good particularly in the science of society. The study of individual men and women, or even the whole societies at one time and place, can give conclusions of only very limited value; they cannot be applied to other groups, or even to the same society at another time. What gives the Marxist study of society its special value is that it deals with society not only as it exists here and now (this is of course essential), but as it has existed in the past and as it is developing as the result of its internal contradictions. This gives men and women the first chance of consciously fitting their actions to a process that i’s actually taking place, a movement that, as Marx said, is “going on before our own eyes” if we care to see it. It gives us a guide to our actions which cannot be provided by any abstract principles or views which in fact represent some static outlook of the past.