Communist Party of Great Britain
Published: March 1949
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Stalin: Dialectical and Historical Materialism (History of the C.P.S.U.(B), Chapter 4, Section 2).
Engels: Socialism: Utopian and Scientific, Introduction (Marx, Selected Works, “On Historical Materialism ”, pp. 395-417).
Marx-Engels: “Letters on Historical Materialism” (Marx, Selected Works, Vol. l, pp. 372-394).
Dialectical Materialism is the philosophical foundation of Communism.
Why should a political theory be connected with a particular philosophical one?
Because philosophy has a political—a class—significance
Philosophy is our account of the nature of the world and man’s place in it—our world outlook.
At every stage of human history men have worked out some sort of picture of the world and their place in it—a picture first expressed in their myths, later in philosophy: The materials for this picture have been got, not only from their knowledge of nature and its working, but also from their social experience. So, at every stage of social development, the rising classes, aiming to change society, have had to fight for a new world outlook, and have had to fight against the old philosophy, which, being based on the old order, justified and defended it.
Today, capitalism in its last stages of decay is championing every philosophy which maintains that people are helpless to control their fate, at the mercy of incomprehensible, uncontrollable forces. Capitalism has not only become a fetter on the development of productive forces and their full use for the benefit of mankind, it has become also a fetter on the development and utilisation of our knowledge. And the working class, in their struggle for Socialism, must fight against this philosophy, which is false as well as reactionary, and put in its place a philosophy which corresponds with life, one which shows how people can control their destiny, how it is possible to understand the laws of social development and change. So part of the fight for a changed world is the battle of ideas, the fight for a philosophy which shows the world can be changed.
Many people will say that they get on quite well without any philosophy—either capitalist or revolutionary. But in practice every one adopts some outlook on the world, even if it is not consciously worked out. People who live by rule of thumb and think they are doing without a theory, in practice usually think in the traditional way, as they have been taught; that is to say, according to the prevailing outlook of the ruling class. In the absence of a conscious Socialist philosophy they take over an unconscious capitalist philosophy.
Materialism and Idealism
The meaning of “materialist” and “idealist” as used in philosophy must be distinguished from the everyday use of these words. In ordinary conversation, by an “idealist” is often meant some one with high standards and aims and faith in human nature, and by a “materialist” is meant some one only concerned with cash values. This is not the way in which these words are used in philosophy. Communists are materialists in their philosophy; but they have faith in human nature, and they are concerned to change the conditions of life so that working people may develop in an all-round way.
Materialism and Idealism as the Basic Question of Philosophy
Throughout the history of philosophy we find two camps: the Idealists who maintain that Spirit or Thought or Ideas are primary, are the basis of reality and that the ultimate causes which determine the course of events are spiritual or mental, and the Materialists who assert that nature is primary, that the material world is real, and that mind is a product of matter at a late stage of development (when the brain has developed).
These two antagonistic points of view have been expressed in many different ways. For instance idealists have maintained: —
1. That the whole of the universe is working to carry out some purpose conceived of by a divine mind or spirit.
2. That the things we are aware of, which change, decay, and pass away, are only pale shadows of the Eternal Ideas they exemplify, so that to understand the world we must first understand ideas—e.g., to find the nature of the State we must examine the idea of the State, what is the ideal, the perfect State.
3. That behind and superior to the familiar world of things known to us by our senses and explored by natural science there is another order of reality, which can only be known by intuition or revelation.
4. That all we know to exist is our own sensations or ideas, and that all science does is to predict the order of our sensations, so that if anything else exists it is mysterious and unknowable.
All these varied forms of idealism have one thing in common: they all put first what is mental or spiritual, and everything else has to be accounted for in terms of Ideas or Spirit or Mind.
In opposition to idealism, materialism maintains: —
1. That the material world of things known to us by our senses and explored by science is real, and that its development can be accounted for in terms of its own natural laws, without recourse to the supernatural.
2. That there is only one world, the material world, and thought is a product of matter; there can be no thinking without a brain. Therefore minds or ideas cannot exist in isolation apart from matter, and general ideas are only abstractions reflecting the nature of actually existing things. So that to get correct ideas we must study things and how they behave; e.g., to understand the nature of the State we must examine, not the idea of the State, but how actual States have come into existence and function.
3. That science does give us authentic knowledge of the real material world, since scientific knowledge has been built up by acting on material things and enables us to control and reproduce the material processes it describes and use them for our own purposes.
There are many things not yet known, but there are no things which are unknowable.
Materialists are sometimes accused of taking no account of the importance of ideas, of ignoring everything that gives light and colour and interest to the world, of reducing everything to the dead lifeless world of matter, which has no place for human values or for anything that makes life worth living.
This criticism is a criticism of mechanical materialist, which conceived of matter as a system of tiny particles like minute billiard balls and tried to reduce everything to the movements and mechanical interactions of these little material particles.
This sort of materialism had three great deficiencies: —
1. It could not account for change, movement, or development. The world was thought of as made up of a lot of tiny particles like billiard balls. But somebody or something has to push a billiard ball before it starts moving. So if the world is like this the problem remains—what started it up? What gave the initial impetus? (Thus mechanical materialism was driven in the end to idealism and explanation by means of a deity.)
2. It could not deal with the real richness and variety of the world. In practice it is impossible to account for human activity and the development of society in terms of the mechanical interactions of material particles. And so in practice mechanical materialism gave no basis for a scientific approach to the problems of society.
3. Mechanical materialism, trying to reduce everything to mechanical interactions, saw human thought and human activity generally simply as a mechanical reaction to external influences. This view that the whole of human behaviour is simply a reaction to external stimuli, led in the long run to an outlook similar to that of idealism—that we are helpless, at the mercy of forces which we cannot control. It saw people as the product of their circumstances, but could not explain how people, by their own conscious activity, could change their circumstances.
Therefore mechanical materialism could not give an adequate interpretation of the world and of human activity. It was an incomplete materialism, which led back to idealism. It was not until Marx, rejecting both idealism and the mechanistic conceptions of earlier materialists, developed dialectical materialism, that a fully materialist understanding of the world became possible.
Before Marx, Hegel developed the conception of a dialectical process of development and change.
But Hegel was an idealist, and therefore for him the whole process could be understood and explained in terms of abstract ideas. He set out to construct a system of philosophy which would explain the whole development of the world as a manifestation of “Universal Mind.”
Marx took Hegel’s dialectics—which he said was “standing on its head”—and turned it right way up again, by interpreting it in a materialist way, as applying to the real material world, instead of to “Universal Mind”.
But dialectical materialism does not set up yet another “system of philosophy” made by combining materialism and dialectics. Dialectical materialism itself represented a leap forward, transforming the whole conception of philosophy.
From the point of view of dialectical materialism there is no room for philosophical “systems” which present a picture of the world based on abstract ideas. There is only one world, of which people and their ideas form a part. And there is only one way to find out what this world is like and that is by scientific investigation of the actual processes happening in it. Dialectical materialism, therefore, does not try to stand above science, but bases itself on science and shows: first, that the positive knowledge built up by science justifies a materialist view of the world and man’s place in it, and second, that a materialist view of the world and man’s place in it gives us the basis for a scientific approach, not only to nature, but also to human society. Dialectical materialism, though based on science, does more than just register the results of science. Because it helps science to purge itself of all relics of idealism, it enables the scientist better to see nature as it is, and so to advance and extend science. It makes no claim to give a final and complete picture of the world, but itself has to be creatively advanced and enriched with every extension of scientific knowledge.
1. Dialectical materialism does not view the world as a collection of separate fixed things, like little particles, whose movement and change has to be accounted for as arising from forces outside themselves. It gives a picture of the world as an infinitely complicated system of ever-changing, inter-dependent material processes, whose own internal conflicts give rise to new developments and new processes, and which develops according to its own laws, needing no explanation as an embodiment or creation of God or Mind or Spirit. The forces which condition the development of things are to be found in things themselves; the explanation is not to be found in the super-natural—but by studying nature itself.
2. Dialectical materialism does not deny the richness and variety of the world, does not try to reduce everything to the mechanical movements of material particles, or to deny the existence and significance of mental processes and ideas.
But viewing the whole world as a process of development, dialectical materialism sees mind as coming into existence at a certain stage of the development of matter, on the basis of material processes, the material processes that go on in our brains. To talk about thoughts or ideas or minds as existing on their own account, apart from material beings who think, is to make an entirely false abstraction—and all the idealists who make thought, mind, ideas or spirit primary are making this abstraction.
People are a part of nature, they develop their ideas in interaction with the rest of the world; and so our general ideas, which idealists take as a starting point, are derived from our experience and are only valid in so far as they fit in with the world revealed in experience. Mental processes are real enough but they are not something absolute, outside nature; they have to be studied in the actual material and social circumstances in which they arise.
3. On the other hand, unlike mechanical materialism, dialectical materialism, while stressing that matter is real and primary, also recognises that thinking is something new which arises in the development of matter. For dialectical materialism human beings are not passive, only reacting to external influences; they are an active part of nature themselves, not only reacting to it, but acting on it. Ideas, therefore, which arise from and reflect the material world, also help people to act on and influence the material world.
For dialectical materialism, therefore, men are not helpless puppets at the mercy of external forces, but increasing knowledge makes it possible for men to understand and control the forces of nature and society.
4. Dialectical materialism sees not two worlds, the world of matter dealt with by science and the world of mind or values—but one world. Therefore dialectical materialism gives the basis for a scientific approach, not only to things like stars and atoms but also to people and society. Since the whole world is seen as one historical process in which men and human society came into being as the result of a long process of development, there is no reason to set aside the development of society as something quite separate, unpredictable, inexplicable. Therefore dialectical materialism leads us to look for the way to explain scientifically how social changes come about.
The Practical Significance of Idealism and Materialism Today
Why do all the reactionary forces in the world today champion one or another form of idealism? This becomes plainer if the practical implications of various forms of idealism are considered.
1. All forms of idealism minimise or restrict the scope of science. If there is another spiritual reality alongside the world of material things, then knowledge is to be got by intuitions or religious revelation, and not only by scientific investigation. If science gives knowledge of only a very limited part of the world, then for the rest we must rely on intuitions or revelations, or put up with ignorance. So idealism prevents science from being used to enlighten and emancipate people; it prevents a scientific approach being made to moral and social problems; and it leaves it open to people to rely on religion or mysticism or even astrology or other superstitions for day-to-day guidance. In this way, by restricting the scope of science, idealism prevents people from striving to control their own destiny.
2. In so far as idealism maintains that mind or spirit is primary and that the mind or soul exists apart from the body, it stresses the importance of our inner life as something quite apart from the material conditions in which it actually takes form, and thus it leads people to seek for a solution of social problems in inner regeneration. Such an approach is exemplified in the Oxford Group’s “Moral Re-Armament”. In this way, idealism leads us to concentrate on the state of people’s minds or souls, instead of fighting to change the conditions of their lives. Thus Durbin-right-wing Socialist—in his Politics of Democratic Socialism saw the cause of war in “human impulses of aggression”, and relies on “a new type of emotional education” to remove the ultimate causes of war. And the Conservative, Quintin Hogg, in his Case for Conservatism, claims that the power of politics to put things right in this world is limited, because man is an imperfect creature with a streak of evil as well as good in his nature.
Thus if we take the idealistic view of human nature as fixed, existing in itself quite apart from the material conditions of society in which human nature actually takes shape, we can be led to accept oppression, misery, and war, as arising inevitably from the wickedness of human beings—so that nothing can be done to remove these evils except by the grace of God.
And some forms of idealism will lead us to put up with all this misery without too much fuss, since they depreciate the importance of this life altogether. If we believe in life after death we can be persuaded to seek happiness in the next world and to put up with this one as it is.
So idealism helps to foster superstition and unscientific ways of looking at the world. It helps to prevent people from seeking—the true causes of the evil and suffering in the world, leading them to look for spiritual causes; it leads them to seek spiritual cures which do not challenge the ruling class.
Materialism as a Progressive Revolutionary Force
1. Materialism, on the other hand, is a weapon which destroys the superstitions, prejudices, and mystifications which help to prevent people from understanding the conditions of their lives and from acting effectively to change them. There is only one world, the material world of nature, and all our ideas must be based on experience, checked up and tested in practice.
2. Materialism leads us to study the development of society scientifically. It therefore helps us to find the real causes of the evil and suffering in the world, and not to be satisfied with the explanation that it is all due to the wickedness of human nature. A materialist sees human nature as related to the conditions in which human brings live. Human nature can be changed, but not just by preaching. People will change themselves in changing society, in changing the conditions of their eyes.
Since materialism teaches us that ideas come from experience, we will not rely solely on changing people’s hearts or minds as the first step to Socialism. We will not limit ourselves to harmless preaching or emotional “re-education”, but we will lead people into action; and then with the help of Marxist theory help them to draw the correct conclusions from their experience.
3. Materialism, teaching that there is only one world of which human life and minds and society are all a part, leads us to look for the laws of development of society—to study society scientifically. It therefore leads us not to despair at the evil in the world or to accept things as they are, as the will of God or as the result of mysterious uncontrollable forces; but it leads us to have confidence in our power to understand and so control the conditions of our lives, to have confidence in our power to find the causes of wars, poverty, and misery, and so to have confidence in our power to fight to end these things.
Questions for Discussion
1. Why does a Communist need to study dialectical materialism? What is meant by saying philosophy is always partisan?
2. Give examples of influential forms of idealism current today.
3. What are some practical implications of idealism and materialism today? Why is idealism reactionary?
4. What are the relations between dialectical materialism and science?
5. Can you think of ways in which, in your experience, idealist ways of thinking have influenced people and led to wrong conclusions?
The character and laws of motion of the world as shown by human experience have certain general features. If we ignore these general features we inevitably make mistakes. The dialectical approach is based on recognising these features, therefore making our ideas correspond more closely with reality, and thus guiding our actions more securely.
The more we know about the world the more we see that it is in constant movement, always changing; and the more we study the processes of development that actually occur, the more we see that they arise as the result of the interaction of opposed forces.
Dialectics is the study of the laws of development and change in general; and of how we need to adapt our ways of thinking to deal with a world which is in a state of constant movement, change and development.
As Communists we are concerned with moving people into action with the aim of changing society. It is therefore very important for us to understand how things change and to learn to approach all our problems in a dialectical way. For materialist dialectics is the theoretical weapon of the working class in the struggle to change the world.
The principles of Dialectics as Explained by Stalin
1. Nature is not an accidental collection of unconnected isolated independent things, but a connected whole, in which all things are connected, determined by and dependent on each other. Therefore nothing can be understood by itself—in isolation—but the way to understand anything is to see how it is conditioned by the circumstances in which it arises.
This principle is illustrated by natural science, when, in formulating general laws, the circumstances must always be taken into account. For instance, for ordinary purposes it is sufficient to say that water boils at 100° centigrade, but in fact this is not independent of the circumstances. The boiling point of water varies with the pressure, and at the top of Mount Everest water bails at a different temperature.
When we come to approach social problems, however, it happens only too often that abstract principles are maintained to be absolutely true whatever the circumstances in which they are to be applied.
It is argued, for instance, that freedom of speech should be universally supported by all democrats, and that any restriction on freedom of speech, whatever the circumstances, is reactionary. From this point of view it is argued that Mosley and his fascists should have the right to speak and organise freely. But the fascists use such freedom of speech to destroy democracy. Therefore to estimate whether freedom of speech is progressive or reactionary, the circumstances must be taken into account, and the question asked—freedom of speech for whom and for what purposes?
Similarly pacifists argue that war is unequivocally bad and wrong under all circumstances; all wars must be resisted and opposed. Communists also want to do away with war. But Communists understand that war cannot be done away with without doing away with classes and creating Socialism, and it may be necessary to fight in order to create the conditions which shall do away with the necessity for fighting. Communists therefore recognise that each war must be studied individually in the actual circumstances in which it arises. We just ask what political and economic developments led up to the war, what classes prepared for it, and with what objects in view.
Only on the basis of such a study of each particular war in the actual circumstances which give rise to it can we decide whether it is just or unjust, progressive or reactionary.
A comparable question is that of democracy. It is often argued by right-wing Labour Party leaders and others that democracy depends on having opposition parties, and a choice between rival parties at periodical elections. But in considering the question of democracy, once again we have to take concrete circumstances into account. There can be no question of complete democracy or complete freedom as long as classes remain. In regard to every question we have to ask, democracy for whom, freedom for whom, for which classes? Parliamentary democracy represented an advance on the restrictions of feudalism. But under our party system the majority of the people have very little real control over the circumstances of their lives. The Soviet system represents a great extension of freedom and of control for the majority of the people, at the same time as it represents a restriction of freedom from the point of view of the exploiters. Therefore, when we consider the question of democracy we have to take the concrete circumstances into account and consider how much real freedom, how much real control, the different classes of society have in the systems which we are comparing.
Thus we must always beware of being misled by absolute assertions which fail to take concrete changing circumstances into account. For instance, we might be tempted to say capitalism is reactionary. But capitalism is only reactionary, a fetter on social progress, in the circumstances of today: In the early stage of the development of capitalism it represented a progressive advance on the social system of feudalism.
So in working out policy Communists always study the exact circumstances in which this policy has to be carried out, so as to decide what in these circumstances will most benefit the working-class movement. They don’t assert “all wars are wrong”, but examine the circumstances to decide whether this war or that is just or unjust. They don’t say “we never participate in a coalition government” but decide whether in the existing relations of class forces to participate will be of advantage to the working class.
Always, to decide on a correct policy we must study the facts—and in particular the relationships of class forces in the situation in which we have to work.
Nature is not in a state of rest. Everything is continually moving and changing; there is continuous renewal and development. Something is always arising and developing, something is always disintegrating and dying away.
Therefore we must always think of things in motion, considering where they are coming from and where they are going. And we must attend especially to what is new, to what is arising and developing, because nothing persists unchanged, and what seems established and lasting may already be about to pass away.
The more natural science increases our knowledge of nature, the more it demonstrates that everything is moving and changing. The stars have been thought of as eternal; but astronomy now accepts as established that stars have a history and go through a process of change and development. Atoms are no longer thought of as solid unchanging particles, but as moving systems of smaller particles, which themselves are undergoing continual transformations. Living bodies are not made up of permanent enduring parts, but of cells, every one of which is continually disintegrating and being renewed.
In society, too, nothing persists unchanged. Capitalism has not always existed. To understand it we have to study it in motion, to see how it came into existence out of the conditions of feudalism, and how it has developed from competition to monopoly, from progress to decay. With the development of capitalism the classes within it also have developed and changed. The capitalist class, the owners of the means of production, has changed from a class of industrial capitalists, the majority of whom owned and managed their own businesses, to a class of finance-capitalists, owning controlling interests in a vast variety of enterprises, employing others to do the managing for them, and playing no part at all themselves in the process of production. The working class, itself a creation of capitalism, with the development of capitalism has also changed and has grown and consolidated and developed new forms of organisation to defend its interests. In the days of the Chartists, the working class was not yet fully developed, its ranks included artisans who looked forward to becoming master craftsmen, with their own workshops and employees, as well as the factory workers and miners. The development of capitalist industry destroyed the artisans, and swelled the ranks of the factory workers, but with the development of industry the working class not only became bigger—it also became stronger.
As more and more workers were forced to combine to defend their conditions, local organisations developed into national ones. The workers became more and more consolidated and organised as a class.
Just as capitalism has to be studied in motion, so also has Socialism. The new democracies in Eastern Europe are now facing the problems of transition from capitalism to Socialism; in the Soviet Union, Socialism has been achieved; but society is not stationary and there they are in the process of moving forward from Socialism to full Communism. Nothing stands still.
And in all these processes of change we must attend especially to the new, rising, developing forces.
Thus, in Russia, at the end of the last century, although the peasants were by far the majority of the exploited people, Lenin argued against the Narodniki who looked to them as the main support for the revolution against Tsarism, because he saw that although the workers were the minority, it was they who were the new rising class, capable of leading the whole people to Socialism.
And now, when we study the situation in the post-war world, although the forces of reaction may seem strong, against them we see ranged everywhere the new rising forces of the people. Thus in working out policy, international, national or local, Communists study things in their development, and are always on the look-out for the new rising forces. We don’t judge movements or people only on the basis of their past, but study how they are developing, where they are going, looking for and helping the new progressive tendencies, which, although they may be small to start with, are capable of advancing and growing.
Such a point of view makes for steadfastness and confidence when times are difficult and the reactionary forces seem strong.
Thus in 1942, when the Nazis were just outside Moscow, Stalin was able to speak with confidence of victory, because he saw that the fascists had reached the peak of their strength, that their power was not durable, whereas the forces on the side of the Soviet Union were still developing and growing stronger.
And today, when the forces of reaction are preparing for another war, such an approach enables us to see what are the forces of progress, how they are arising and developing, and so equips us better for the fight for peace.
Processes of development are not simple processes of growth; but a series of small gradual measurable changes leads to a sudden transformation of the whole character of a thing, i.e., quantitative changes lead to qualitative changes. Or, conversely, if we study qualitative changes in which quite new states of affairs or properties appear, we find that they arise as a result of a series of quantitative measurable changes. Thus it is characteristic of the development of nature that change does not always proceed regularly, slowly, evenly, but that there are always sharp breaks or leaps, from one state of affairs to another.
Once again, the development of natural science has shown how this principle holds good in nature. For instance, modern physical chemistry shows how the qualitative differences between the molecules of different elements, like lead, oxygen, carbon, etc., can be accounted for in terms of the numbers and relations of the smaller atoms that make them up.
But there is no need to go to complex scientific theory for examples of quantitative changes leading to qualitative ones. Every housewife who has boiled water or scrambled eggs has had personal experience of such decisive dialectical leaps. When water is heated it gradually gets hotter and hotter until a certain decisive point is reached, when it changes its state and begins to boil.
But in society, as well as in nature, development proceeds by sudden transformations, by revolution as well as by evolution. The decisive stage in the development towards Socialism is the capturing of political power by the working class, and the destruction of the old State apparatus that helped to maintain capitalism. Before this stage is reached there must be a long, steady, quantitative growth of working-class strength. And after the qualitative leap of the achievement of power, comes the period of transition to Socialism, another period of steady and quantitative growth of the Socialist sector in industry and agriculture, with accompanying class changes. This Marxist view of the development from capitalism to Socialism is to be contrasted with the Reformist view, expressed by MacDonald when he said: “In human history one epoch slides into another. Individuals formulate ideas. Society gradually assimilates them, and gradually the assimilation shows itself in the social structure.” Reformism maintains that capitalism can be gradually transformed into Socialism, without any decisive leap, by a series of reforms. But experience has shown that no such gradual process is possible; and that State ownership or nationalisation, for example, does not represent a beginning of Socialism, as long as the State itself remains capitalist, and there is no decisive change in the relations of class forces.
In so far as the struggle for reforms is a struggle which unites and strengthens the working class, it helps to prepare the way for the struggle for power. But the State power must be taken out of the hands of the capitalists before there can be any fundamental change in society.
Therefore, in working out policy, Communists see the struggle for reforms as a preparation for the achievement of power by the working class, not as a substitute for it.
And in general, since we expect to find abrupt changes both in nature and society, we have to be prepared for sudden transformations of the situation which necessitate corresponding changes of policy and methods of work.
What causes all these processes of development? Do we have to suppose that the history of the world, the development from inanimate objects to living beings, and from animals to men presupposes a plan, a design, or driving force from outside? Study of processes of development shows that this movement and change arises not from outside, but from their own nature.
Every process of development is a process of conflict, in which something is dying away, and something is growing up, and this conflict between tendencies operating in opposite directions is what conditions the whole process. A sharp break or decisive leap occurs when one of the tendencies gains a decisive dominance over the other.
Thus the development of the world is not a smooth, harmonious unfolding, but conflict and contradiction are right at the very heart of things—as Lenin put it in one place: “Dialectics is the study of contradiction within the very essence of things.”
The development of natural science has demonstrated the truth of this principle, also.
In animals and plants the process of building up of tissue is united with the opposite process of breakdown. One may dominate, as in growth or starvation; and the state of existence of the whole organism depends on the balance of these two opposite processes.
And in society, the whole development of human history can only be understood in terms of conflict and struggle. The development from primitive savagery to modern civilisation has not proceeded smoothly, by a gradual development of human technique, and corresponding adaptation of social relationships, but at each stage of human history the transformation of social relationships necessary to make full use of developing knowledge and technique has only been achieved as the result of bitter class struggle.
Thus in working out policy Communists see conflict and struggle as a necessary part of every process of development.
The right-wing Labour leadership, on the other hand, either deny the class struggle altogether, regarding every manifestation of it as the product of evil-minded agitators, or they regard it as something unfortunate, to be smoothed over. Thus MacDonald maintained that “Socialism is to be achieved not through the uprising of a class, but the rise of social unity and the growth of organic wholeness. It is the whole of society and not merely a class that is moving towards Socialism.” And Durbin wrote that “no society can continue to exist unless peaceful co-operation can be maintained within it.” And Stafford Cripps’s conception of democratic planning is one in which there shall be no coercion of capitalists, but everything must be carried through with their agreement and co-operation.
Thus the right-wing Labour leaders do not approve of the class struggle—they try to minimise it. But it is a fact. Capitalists do resist every advance of the workers; do hang on like grim death to every penny of profit and every ounce of privilege; do use their key positions in the State apparatus to help maintain their domination. Therefore by denying this fact the right-wing Labour leaders do not remove the class struggle, but simply play into the hands of the capitalists, and disarm the workers in the face of their attacks (e.g., wage freezing policy). The task of a genuine Socialist party is therefore not to deny the class struggle, or to make it disappear or to try to smooth it over, but to develop, lead and guide it; for it is only as a result of class struggle that the working-class movement becomes strong and that Socialism can be achieved.
Thus in all their work Communists are not satisfied just to analyse the process of conflict going on; but participate actively in the conflict, leading and helping forward the new developing progressive forces. In England today we see the Labour movement as developing and changing. We don’t regard the Reformist leadership as permanent and unchangeable, but look for the new forces rising in opposition, which, though they may be small to start with, are capable of developing, and changing leadership. And where are those new forces to be found? Wherever there is a fight to defend the interests of the working class.
It is extremely important for Communists to learn to use the principles of dialectics in day-to-day work, for our aim is to change the conditions in which we live, and in all our work we are dealing with processes of development and change.
In working out day-to-day policy in a town or village or a factory it is essential to study the circumstances at that particular place and time. We have to study people and organisations in movement, to see what is developing and what is dying away, and we have to be on the look-out for the new developing progressive forces, recognising them while they are still small and planning our work so as to help them develop and grow.
Such an approach maintains confidence and gives courage when things are difficult, for it enables us to see that what is strong is not necessarily durable and that what is small can grow into a force able to change the course of history.
But this can only take place as a result of struggle between the progressive and reactionary forces, in the course of which the progressive forces defeat the reactionary.
Questions for Discussion
1. What are the principles of dialectics as expressed by Stalin?
2. How do we use the principles of dialectics in working out Communist policy? Give some examples from your own experience.
3. “Dialectics is the study of contradiction within the very essence of things.” Give examples from your own experience.
4. Give examples of how right-wing Labour leaders use undialectical arguments to justify their policy.
When discussing the principles of dialectics we have given examples from both the physical world and human society; the same very general laws of development and change apply to both. Hence it is possible to make a scientific approach to development and change in human society.
Materialist Approach to History
Seeing the whole world as one historical process, in which men and human society came into existence as the result of a long process of development, there is no reason to set aside the development of society as something quite separate and unpredictable.
People with minds and purposes are a part of nature; therefore the materialist view of man’s place in the world leads us to look for a way to explain scientifically how social changes come about, what are the laws of development of human society.
But because Marxism recognises the dialectical character of the development of the world, Marxists do not try to explain human society in terms of physical, biological, or psychological laws. The appearance of human society is a new development in the history of the world, a qualitative leap; therefore it is necessary to apply dialectics to the study of society, i.e., to look for the new laws which apply specifically to society—to study society in motion, as it develops and changes, and to find what conflicts are fundamental and condition the process of development.
The early Utopian Socialists failed to base their Socialism on such an approach. They painted a picture of what society ought to be and hoped to convince all classes by precept and example. And reformists like Attlee still make a similar approach. Marxism alone appears as scientific Socialism, based firmly on a theory of the laws of motion of society. The discovery of these laws (like any other scientific discovery) was of enormous practical importance; for it laid the basis not only for understanding the course of history, but also for controlling it.
What Are the Fundamental Factors in Social Change?
In any period there are large numbers of known facts about great men, kings, statesmen, generals and so on; about the development of ideas, the development of economic life, about the life of the ordinary people. All these are a part of history. The problem is how to sort out all this mass of material, how to find which are the decisive factors.
Historical materialism gives an answer to this question; namely that the key factor, the foundation of society, is the material conditions of life; how men get their living; in other words, their mode of production.
This is not a ready-made explanation of the whole course of history. It shows us what to look for, it is a jumping-off ground for scientific investigation, to be justified not by abstract argument, but by its fruitfulness, its success in helping us to sort out all the masses of facts, and to predict future developments. Marx and Engels, using this approach in all their works, bring out the decisive facts and show their development in each historical period.
The starting point is the fundamental conflict between men and their natural environment. In order to live men must have food and shelter, and to get these they must work—that is to say they must battle with their environment. And the sage they have reached in their knowledge and control over nature is expressed in their methods of work; their mode of production.
What is Meant by “Mode of Production”?
In order to produce we need (1) tools, means of production, whether they be stone axes or modern machines; and (2) people with the experience and skill to use them.
These two factors together are termed the productive forces of society.
But when we talk of the prevailing mode of production, we include more than the productive forces, we include also the relationships between people in the process of production. The economic foundation of society is not just its technical equipment; but also the way in which people are organised to use this equipment. Production is social, men get their living, not in isolation, but in groups: in the process of production people enter into definite relationships with one another. These may be relations of co-operation and mutual help or they may be relations of domination and subordination. (For example, master and slave, lord and serf, capitalist and wage-workers.)
“In production men act not only on nature, but also on one another. They produce only by co-operating in a certain way. In order to produce they enter into definite connections and relations with one another and only within these social connections and relations, does their action on nature, does production, take place.”
Thus different modes of production are distinguished, not only by the difference in the means of production, the tools and technique employed, but also by the relationships that people have to the means of production and to each other. In primitive society the means of production were owned in common. Technique was so primitive that a group of producers could only produce just enough for their own subsistence. Therefore it was impossible for one class to exploit another, to live on other men’s labour. For there was no surplus left over for the support of an exploiting, non-producing class.
In slave society, a major part of the work of society was done by slaves who not only owned nothing, but were themselves the property of the people for whom they laboured.
In feudal society a major part of the work of society was done by serfs, who might own their own tools, but whose main means of production, the land, was owned by the feudal lord and who, in return for the use of land, had to work on the lord’s land for nothing and to hand over to him a great part of the produce of their own holdings. The serfs were not free to leave their holdings, but were obliged to stay and work on them and the lord’s land under pain of heavy penalties.
In capitalist society the major work of society is done by workers who own no means of production. Unlike serfs they are free to work or not as they please, but their only means of living is to sell their labour-power to the capitalists, the owners of the means of production, in return for wages.
In Socialist society the means of production are socially owned, no one is permitted to live by exploiting the labour of any one else; and no one able to work gets a share of the social product, except in proportion to the contribution which he makes by his work.
Thus we can distinguish these five general modes of production—primitive communism, slavery, feudalism, capitalism, socialism.
How Society Changes
The conflict of men with their material environment leads to a drive to improve technique, to improve and change the forces of production. And the changes in the forces of production lead eventually to a new conflict—the conflict between the new growing forces of production; and the old relations of production, the old property relations, which were adapted to the old forces of production, but which become a fetter holding up further development.
The old ruling classes fight to preserve the property relations and the whole system of society based on them, which is the foundation for their privileges, and the new rising classes have to fight for the economic, political, and social changes which are necessary if production and the social life that depends on it is to continue to advance.
This class struggle, the basic of which is economic, also finds expression in many other forms. On the basis of the prevailing mode of production is raised a whole superstructure of social institutions and relationships adapted to it and reflecting it, together with whole systems of ideas—philosophical, legal, moral, cultural—what is called the “ideology” corresponding to that mode of production.
In particular the State apparatus is not neutral, but is adapted to the existing mode of production. The State is, in class society; the State of the exploiting class—whether that be slave-owners, feudal lords, or capitalists. Therefore, in order to transform productive relations to conform with the development of the forces of production, in order to introduce the new mode of production which will set free the further development of the forces of production, in order to realise the possibilities that the growth of knowledge and power over nature hold out, the rising class has to fight for State power, and to destroy the State power of the old exploiting class.
Thus capitalism did not develop smoothly out of feudalism; but the rising capitalist class waged a long fight which culminated in the bourgeois revolutions of the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries, which laid the basis for the complete transformation of society.
At any given time in class society, its history can only be understood in terms of class conflict.
Ideas and social movements are developed either as ideas and movements of the rising progressive forces, as part of their battle to change the established order, or as ideas and movements of the old established reactionary forces fighting to maintain the social order which is the basis for their privileged position.
Thus the fight for Parliamentary Government did not arise out of the blue, as the result of a change in ideas about political institutions, but came as part of the fight of the rising capitalist class against feudalism.
Fascism did not appear as a new ideology or set of ideas which happened to get a hold on certain nations, but appeared as the weapon of the monopoly capitalist class, when they were unable to keep power any longer by Parliamentary democracy.
Thus the history of ideas has to be studied in relation to the economic structure: “It is not so much men’s ideas of right and justice that account for the way they live, as their way of living that accounts for their ideas of right and justice.”
That is, the reasons for the development of new ideas and theories have to be found in the material conditions of life. But this does not mean that ideas and theories are not important. Once new ideas and theories exist, they do more than reflect the development of society; they play an active part in transforming society.
The theory of Marxism could not have been developed before capitalism; it was born out of the experience and the struggles of the working class. But once Marxist theory exists it becomes a tremendous weapon in the hands of the working class. Born out of capitalist society, it becomes a force in the struggle to change society.
Moreover, people don’t automatically adopt ideas adapted to their way of life—for instance many workers are under the influence of capitalist ideas. Therefore the battle of ideas is an important part of the class struggle.
When we say there are laws governing social change, does this mean everything is predetermined?
The knowledge of the laws of nature and society does not imply passivity but the possibility of active control. “Freedom does not consist in independence of natural laws, but in the knowledge of these laws and in the possibility this gives of systematically making them work towards definite ends. Freedom consists in the control over ourselves and over external nature which is founded on the knowledge of natural necessity.”
So long as we are ignorant of the laws of nature and society we are helpless and at the mercy of forces which we cannot control. But once we have knowledge, we can, on the basis of knowing the laws of motion of nature and society, control the workings of both.
It is people who make history; but knowledge of the laws of development of society leads us to make history consciously instead of blindly. Therefore our knowledge of the laws of social development does not mean that we are passive; but that we are able to be much more effectively active.
The Role of Individuals and Great Men
Individuals are important, but they are not independent of the material conditions in which they live. What they can do depends on how society is organised and on the prevailing relationships of class forces.
For instance Lenin played a great part in leading the Russian revolution; but he could not have done so if the conditions for successful revolution had not existed. Whether a particular man becomes recognised as “great” or not depends on whether his particular talent meets the needs of his time. Thus great men tend to appear when needed because great men are themselves the products of the trend of events.
What is the practical importance of Historical Materialism?
Historical materialism is of enormous practical importance for the working-class movement because it gives the basis for scientific socialism.
Pre-Marxist utopian socialists criticised capitalism and made ideal pictures of a better state of things, but they were unable to show the way out, to show the means by which Socialism was to be achieved.
Historical Materialism, showing all history to have been a history of class struggles, makes plain what is the force which can and must bring Socialism into existence.
Today right-wing Labour leaders, preach the doctrine of class collaboration and appeal to all classes for support. But Marx’s analysis lays bare the class conflict lying at the heart of capitalism; it shows that there is only one way to defeat the defenders of the old order, the growing struggle of the working class; that it is the historic mission of the working class to be the builders of Socialist society.
Questions for Discussion
1. Why does historical materialism give the basis for scientific Socialism?
2. When we say that there are laws governing social change, does this mean everything is predetermined so that what we do makes no difference?
3. Why is the class struggle more than an economic struggle?
4. Historical materialism is often represented as meaning that people are only moved by economic motives. Is this right? If not, why not?