First Published: In Struggle! No. 238, February 17, 1981
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Malcolm and Paul Saba
Copyright: This work is in the Public Domain under the Creative Commons Common Deed. You can freely copy, distribute and display this work; as well as make derivative and commercial works. Please credit the Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line as your source, include the url to this work, and note any of the transcribers, editors & proofreaders above.
We have said many times that studying the past is only meaningful for communists inasmuch as it enables them to better orient their work in the present. More precisely, a knowledge of the laws that have governed the evolution of societies in the past should enable us to have a clearer and more certain understanding of how society is likely to evolve in the future, and therefore how we can act to make these laws work towards progress, in the interest of the workers, who are the vast majority of the world’s population.
Last September, a professor of history and the philosophy of science in Hamilton  wrote to us, challenging us to prove that the history of humanity is characterized by progress. He pointed out that Great Britain has been incapable of feeding its population since 1846. While this country’s military power has grown 10,000-fold since the Middle Ages, its population is ten times greater and its production of grain only five times greater. He continued with similar statistics for Russia, and then went on to say that science had created pollution but had been powerless to solve the problem of food; this problem has on occasion been solved, but only through colonialism and wars, at the cost of millions of human lives. His letter raises two major questions. How can you say that there has been progress in the history of society?. And what is your solution to the current situation, which is certainly unacceptable, apart from revolution, which means more violence?
At first glance, the questions raised by this professor do not have much connection with the tasks of research and study our Organization has set for itself to struggle against revisionism. But his questions do in fact have the merit of stating explicitly what is explicit to various degrees in all the criticisms made of Marxism these days. The reason why IN STRUGGLE! has begun to study the past development of the struggle for socialism so as to draw the necessary lessons for future struggles is that we believe the current situation can be changed and improved. We also believe that men and women can and must participate actively in these changes to ensure that they bring fulfilment of their aspirations.
Although communists generally take social progress for granted, just as they do evolution in Nature, it is worth reviewing these subjects . Many religious, political and scientific forms of the dominant ideology clearly try to suggest that historical materialism, along with Marxism and scientific socialism, are totally outmoded theories. One has to be extremely naive not to see them as deliberate attempts by the ruling classes to hinder the development of the revolutionary consciousness of exploited and oppressed people at a time when the contradictions of imperialism are increasingly flagrant.
It is hard to dispute the fact that the universe as we know it today is in perpetual evolution. The many discoveries of all the sciences, from astronomy to nuclear physics, have amply demonstrated that Nature is in constant movement, constantly changing.
Our correspondent in Hamilton would undoubtedly readily agree that-there is progress in the transition from liquid matter (which composes the core of our planet under a crust of solid matter, bursting through this crust from time to time in the form of volcanoes) to one-cell organisms like bacteria or the organisms found in the oceans today.
Today, it is generally admitted that man himself is the product,of this uninterrupted evolution of nature from inanimate matter right through to man, a living, intelligent being. And the evolution of the universe did not come to an end with the emergence of life; nor did it end with the emergence of intelligent beings. The evolutionary process is still going on. Specialized researchers in various fields are working on finding out what factors govern this multi-faceted evolution.
Historical materialism, which owes its basic tenets to Marx and Engels, is the science that studies one particular form of evolution – the evolution of human society. It is the evolution of “human society”, rather than of individual men, for a society cannot be reduced to a collection of individuals any more than a human being can be reduced to a sum of cells. Society is a specific reality whose evolution is governed by a specific set of laws.
Naturally, some knowledge of biology or psychology can be useful in studying human society, just as an acquaintance with chemistry is sometimes indispensable for biologists. But it is always risky to reduce one specific reality to another on the pretext that they have certain similarities. For instance, a French biologist (Laborit) has tried to analyse social behaviour, and implicitly the class struggle, by comparing and equating it with the behaviour of caged rats subjected to electric shocks. He claims to have developed a “revolutionary theory”, but his approach is nonetheless thoroughly unscientific; in fact it is the antithesis of a scientific approach, despite its scientific trappings.
It is theoretically possible to consider that the best thing that could happen to men would be to go back to the stone age (but then, why stop there? why not regress to being reptiles? or inanimate matter?). This, however, is only so if you have a fairly odd value system. If we reject this outlook, we are forced to acknowledge that human society has been evolving ever since the beginning of humanity, even if it has not succeeded in resolving the problem of hunger or war.
There is a troubling paradox. The most advanced contemporary societies have achieved a fairly impressive mastery of various natural phenomena. They have developed their capacity to understand and change their natural surroundings to a very high degree. In short, they have learned a great deal about using Nature to their own advantage, and thus improving their living conditions. It is fairly obvious that man, the descendant of the ape and once a cave man, has developed many tools and methods to help simplify his existence. There has been progress; it is an undeniable fact. But at the same time, there are still millions of human beings who die of starvation every year. Thousands more are ’killed simply because they aspire to the freedom and decent standard of living that scientific progress and technology has made possible... for a minority of the earth’s inhabitants.
This paradoxical situation is not a mystery; nor is it unalterable. Marxism provides a scientific explanation which, despite its inadequacies, has so far not been seriously challenged by any of its detractors. Basically, Marxism explains the social phenomena accompanying the evolution of society by society’s constant need to ensure its subsistence and reproduction, and its tendency to try and reduce its operating costs (to put it somewhat crudely).
This explains why in its struggle to survive and reproduce, human society has at times been obliged to engage in some activities judged rather severely by the moral standards of today, such as slavery and cannibalism. This also explains why society came to be and is still divided into social classes, a reality that socialism is the means to ending.
Marxism did not invent human aspirations for a just, egalitarian and free society; men have cherished this dream for a very long time. In the late 18th and early 19th century, these aspirations took the form of utopian socialism and later anarchism. What Marx and Engels did was to take these rather spontaneous aspirations and shape them into a revolutionary project. They undertook to discover the laws governing the evolution of class society so as to use this understanding to achieve the better society to which mankind aspires.
This is the framework in which the current work of our Organization must be seen. The conclusions to which Marxism leads have not remained a dead letter; they have inspired nearly all the revolutions since the October 1917 Revolution in Russia. These revolutionary upheavals have substantially transformed the social and political order of humanity, even if they have not fulfilled all the hopes placed in them. Today, these revo-lutions can be analysed. This analysis can help us acquire a better understanding of the laws of social evolution and thus lay more solid foundations for the struggle for socialism.
 George Grinnel, a professor at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ont.
 “Reviewing”, because Engels’ treatment of these subjects in Anti-Duhring has been consistantly confirmend by the developments in history and science since then.
 The theory is presented in “Mon oncle d’Amerique”, a film by Alain Resnais which is very popular in Montreal at the present time.