Dialectical & Historical Materialism – The philosophy of Marx

You may have heard people say that “Marx’s ideas are beautiful in theory, but they don’t work in practice“? It is almost universally the case that poeple who express this opinion have not read Marx – and have little or no understanding of his real philosophy.

At our recent study school, held on November 8 2015, the day after we celebrated the 98th anniversary of the October Revolution, Ranjeet Brar, member of the CPGB-ML gave the above presentation that we now present in video form. We hope it will go some way towards redressing the balance. An outline of the substance of the presentation can be found in the text below.

We felt this was an iportant subject to revisit, as besides revealing the mechainsm of capitalist exploitation, Marx’s truy great gift to human knowledge was his philisophical method, his “revolutionary dalectics“, as Lenin called it, which not only applies to the general study of thought and knowledge itself, but has profoundly influenced the study of the natural world, Science, as well as Society and its history.

The revolutionary implications of Marx’s Dialectics are not lost on our exploiters, the capitalists. It is for this reason that Marxism has become a taboo in ‘polite’ society, our media, state and educational institutions. For all of these are controlled by the capitalist class, directly and indirectly, but most assuredly and effectively. And yet Marx’s ideas have revolutionaised every branch of human learning, and cannot be ‘undiscovered’ any more than Darwin’s Evolutionary theory.

It is just these ‘dialectical materialist’ ideas applied to Human society that all workers must understand if we are to win our freedom, and combat our exploiters effectively.

It is just this approach to Socialism, the idea of changing society to meet the needs of the mass of working people, that has transformed our movement for workers’ freedom from a dream, a Utopia, to a reality.

The idea of stuying human history society in all its detail, understanding it and weighing up the forces that are impelling its development, forwards and backwards, allowed Marx to reveal how to bring a socialist world into being, not in idealist dreams, but in concrete reality, out of the chaos and destruction that is capitalism. It is the dialectical method that allows us to talk of Marxism-Leninism as being SCIENTIFIC socialism.

Yet precious little material is available to explain this revolutionary outlook and philosophy to Workers. We hope this modest contribution will go some way towards explaining and popularising the understanding of dialectics, but it can never be a substitute to grappling with the texts in detail. Get them, read them, form a study circle and increase your unertanding together. Great things may yet happen!

In the words of Marx:

“There is no royal road to science, and only thse who do not dread the fatiguing climbs of its steep paths, have a chance of gaining its luminous summits.

“Believe me, dear reader, your Karl Marx.”


We reproduce an article written by Ranjeet Brar as a contribution to an old magazine “Red Youth” – the proud forerunner of the youth wing of the CPGB-ML.


Dialectical & Historical Materialism – The philosophy of Marx

Marx’s greatest contributions to human knowledge were in the areas of political economy (theory of surplus value), which shows how the wages system exploits and effectively enslaves workers, and philosophy (dialectical and historical materialism).

The latter has had far-reaching implications in every branch of learning, reflected by a recent BBC poll, which voted Marx the greatest figure of the millennium. Its revolutionary implications in social science, however, especially its bearing on workers’ struggle has led to the suppression of this jewel of human knowledge. A class without a future must cling to the past, and so the bourgeoisie tries to deny workers the tools to win their freedom.

Marxism is ‘dialectical’ in its approach, its method of studying natural phenomena, while its interpretation of those phenomena, its theory, is materialistic.

The word dialectics comes from the Greek “dielago” meaning to debate, to discourse. Ancient Greek philosophers believed that the best way to advance their understanding was by argument between opposite points of view (thesis and antithesis). This would reveal weaknesses, inconsistencies or ‘contradictions’ in one or both arguments. Thus the principle features of a problem would be revealed, allowing their combination (synthesis) into a more complete and accurate idea, a more ‘truthful’ approximation of reality.

Dialectics developed into a way of describing and understanding the world around us. It regards nature as being in a state of continual movement, of constant change, this being brought about by the interaction of opposing forces. Dialectics is the direct opposite of metaphysics. Put simply, dialectics is a set of laws of motion of matter. The remarkable thing – because all things are composed of more or less complex forms of matter – is the extent to which these patterns manifest themselves everywhere one looks, from the microcosm to the macrocosm, physics to biology, palaeontology to human history.

Marx’s dialectics holds that:

  1. i) All things are interconnected, organically inter-linked and therefore dependent on one another. No natural phenomenon can be understood in isolation. Conversely, any and every phenomenon can be understood if considered in its inseparable connection with surrounding phenomena

Natural science is devoted entirely to understanding the connections between the phenomena of nature (and applying that understanding productively) and has achieved marked success. Yet when thinking about human society and its history we are encouraged to think (metaphysically) of all phenomena in isolation, lest we draw dangerous conclusions.

To take a topical example, ‘crime’ is rampant in our cities. This is very frightening if you are lucky enough to have any property worth stealing. Establishment politicians say they will solve crime, that theft is ‘immoral.’ “Tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime” is taken to mean tough and yet tougher on the criminals. But why does crime continue to spiral out of control despite ever-harsher penalties? The answer is obvious: because of the growing inequalities in income distribution, the increasing impoverishment of the workers. There is a growing underclass for whom everyday life is comparable to a prison.

Poor income means poor housing, unhealthy and inadequate diet and poor quality clothing. It means no access to decent services, education, entertainment and sports facilities, daily humiliation in a consumer society which judges you – and encourages you to value yourself – according to the products you possess. It means lack of control over your life, increased stress and decreased life expectancy. Poor income means you are subject to harassment at the hands of the police, especially if you happen to be black or Irish. Being financially poor in capitalist society means you have a poor quality of life. So what is there to loose? In the absence of a way out (which only involvement in revolutionary politics can offer to the working class) why not steal? Why not destroy (other peoples) property? Why not take drugs? Don’t these seem the easiest ways to try and even out or escape the injustice life has dealt you? Can we not in fact accuse the state of actively encouraging the proletariat to indulge in such escapism (whilst hypocritically denouncing the drugs trade) in order to divert it from its task of setting society to rights?

To really tackle the causes of crime, unemployment and poverty must be eradicated, working people must be given a future and thereby a stake in society. But what lies behind impoverishment? We find the answer to be capitalist exploitation. And further, that this robbery from the poor to further enrich the already super-rich, which is carried out on the most organised basis and vast scale is no ‘crime’ but entirely ‘legal’, for capitalists make the laws. This is why capitalism cannot afford to let working people think dialectically about society, and why metaphysics persists.

  1. ii) All things undergo continuous change, renewal and development. Something is always arising and developing, something always dying away. Therefore things must be viewed not as being fixed for all time, as being static and unchanging (as does metaphysics), but from the standpoint of their movement and change. Their coming into being and going out of being.

Obvious examples abound in nature. In physical geography (sand dune or lagoon development to plate-tectonic formation and destruction of volcanoes, mountain ranges and entire continents), in astronomy (birth of stars and planets and their death forming ‘black holes’ etc.), in the human body itself.

Nature” says Engels, “is the test of dialectics, and it must be said for modern natural science that it has furnished extremely rich and daily increasing materials for this test, and has thus proved that in the last analysis nature’s process is dialectical and not metaphysical, that it does not move in an eternally uniform and constantly repeated circle, but passes through a real history. Here prime mention should be made of Darwin, who dealt a severe blow to the metaphysical conception of nature by proving that the organic world of today, plants and animals, and consequently man too, is all a product of a process of development that has been in progress for millions of years.” (Engels, Anti-Dühring.)

iii) Quantity is transformed into quality. Development does not occur as a simple process of smooth even change, but as periods of slow, gradual, almost imperceptible quantitative changes, which accumulate over a period of time, leading in turn to periods of rapid, abrupt, fundamental change. This latter qualitative change takes the form of a leap from one state to another.

Development therefore does not occur as a movement in a simple circle, as an endless repetition of what has already occurred (as metaphysics deduces from the superficial observation of repeating seasons, chicken-egg-chicken type lineage, etc.), but as an onward and upward movement, as a transition from an old qualitative state to a new qualitative state, from the simple to the complex, from the lower to the higher.

A classical example of the way in which quantitative change builds up to the point of sudden, qualitative change is the transition between the states of matter (solid, liquid and gas) in response to alterations in their physical conditions (pressure and temperature).  If we heat a beaker of water from room temperature, the energy imparted to the constituent molecules of the water causes them to move (vibrate, rotate and translate) faster, yet their outward appearance is much the same. Through gradual quantitative increase in the temperature of that water, however, we come to a point (the boiling point at the given pressure – 100°C at one atmosphere) where the energy of the individual molecules is sufficient to overcome the cohesive forces that bind them together in their liquid form, where the tiny progressive increments in temperature suddenly cause a rapid and fundamental rearrangement of water into steam.

Conversely if we cool water by degrees, a corresponding decrease in movement of the H2O molecules ensues, until their mutual forces of attraction (principally hydrogen bonds in this case) overcome their (translational) movement altogether, and again we see the abrupt and profound qualitative change of water becoming solid ice. The same can be said of the ‘nodal points’ of transition between different crystalline forms of ice and indeed for the phase transitions of all known substances, in as much as their inherent chemical stability allows them to be heated and cooled without decomposing.

Engels notes that “Chemistry may be called the science of qualitative changes which take place in bodies as the effect of quantitative changes in their composition.” (Dialectics of Nature) To illustrate the point: “Take oxygen: if the molecule contains three atoms instead of the customary two, we get ozone, a body definitely distinct in odour and reaction from ordinary oxygen.”

The very periodic table of elements is derived from quantitative addition of protons (neutrons) and electrons, resulting in the formation of profoundly (qualitatively) different elemental substances. A single proton with its orbital electron is a Hydrogen atom, addition of another proton and electron (and two neutrons) yields an atom of Helium. A third neutron and orbital electron gives Lithium, a fourth Beryllium, a fifth Boron, six yields a Carbon atom, seven Nitrogen, eight neutrons in the nucleus and we have Oxygen… and so on.

Life itself is a product of qualitative change caused by quantitative increases in the complexities of molecules (which may be traced back to the acquisition by certain molecules of the ability to replicate). The same may be said of consciousness – that man’s shift to a state of self-awareness was a product of quantitative increase in the complexity of his nervous system.

When studying the fossil record of life on earth, palaeontologists have long noted that there are “missing links” in the development of species. It is now thought, however, that there are unlikely to be fossilised remains of a smooth spectrum of intermediates (in the transition from ‘ape’ to man say), because in reality such a spectrum did not exist. Rather, using the term “punctuated equilibria,” scientists postulate that gradual change accumulates in the gene pool of species (in response to environmental selection pressures), leading at certain points to more rapid and abrupt periods of morphological evolution. So, once again, nature points the objective investigator toward the truth of dialectics.

  1. iv) Internal contradictions are inherent in all things and phenomena in nature. They all have their negative and positive sides, a past and a future, something developing and something dying away. This ‘struggle’ between opposite tendencies is the internal driving force behind the process of development. “Development is the struggle of opposites” (Lenin).

Atoms are made up of negative and positive constituent parts. Movement itself is inherently contradictory: objects, in order to move, must be at once in a place and not in that place! The concept of dynamic equilibrium in chemical reactions illustrates this point well.

During the course of reaction the substrates (alcohol and organic acid, say) are converted to products (the corresponding ester and water). The driving force is the more stable energetic state of the products compared to the reactants, yet there is a barrier to the reaction, an energy of activation which is very often insurmountable unless the reactants are given the necessary energetic push (by heating say, or by lowering the barrier of activation and finding an alternative, easier path of transition, as with use of enzymes and inorganic catalysts). By heating we force the reactants into a less stable transitional state, from which they may decay back to their starting point (the initial reactants) or recombine to form the more stable products – and on average, over time the latter, due to its stability, will be the favoured pathway. It is evident that the driving force behind this reaction – as with all change and progress – is the struggle between opposite tendencies.

The application of these principles to the study of the life and history of society leads us to the following conclusions:

“…if the world is in a constant state of development, if the dying away of the old and the upgrowth of the new is a law of development, then it is clear that there can be no immutable social systems, no “eternal principles” of private property and exploitation, no “eternal ideas” of the subjugation of the peasant to the landlord, of the worker to the capitalist.

Hence the capitalist system can be replaced by the socialist system, just as at one time the feudal system was replaced by the capitalist system” (J. V. Stalin, Dialectical and Historical Materialism. our emphasis)

Despite their currently subordinate position in society, the working class is the element of society that is developing, increasing in number and strength. Competition between big and small business-men, the bourgeoisie and the petty-bourgeoisie, means that they are constantly putting each other out of business, decaying as a class, forcing each other into the ranks of the workers who have no way to survive other than selling their labour power. The workers, therefore, are the only class that is capable of effecting the change from capitalism to socialism.

Further, if the passing of slow quantitative changes into rapid and abrupt qualitative changes is a law of development, then it is clear that revolutions made by oppressed classes are a quite natural and inevitable phenomenon.”

Hence, in order not to err in policy we must be revolutionary, not reformist.” Faint-hearted social democrats shy away from revolution. It is ‘unrealistic,’ they say. But study of nature and human history show that both are shot through with revolutionary change, that it would be unrealistic to expect society to change in any other way. Just as one straw too many broke the proverbial camels back, so the misery and oppression heaped upon the workers will bring them all at once to revolution; will cause the fabric of capitalist social relations to break down.

Further, if development proceeds through the disclosure of internal contradictions, by way of collisions between opposite forces on the basis of these contradictions, then it is clear that the class struggle of the proletariat is a quite natural and inevitable phenomenon.

Hence we should not cover up the contradictions in the capitalist system but disclose and unravel them; we must not try to check the class struggle but carry it to its conclusion” (J.V. Stalin, ibid.)

We must not seek “third ways” to reconcile the interests of workers and capitalists. In reality no such third way exists. The significance of such attempts is that they mask the contradiction between workers interests and capitalism, hold back the workers’ struggle for freedom and serve the interests of the exploiters.

The transitional state of revolution may not progress on every occasion; it may decay back to its starting point. Further, under certain conditions, reactionary forces may gain the upper hand in the class struggle and drag a higher, fundamentally more stable, state of society back to a lower, less stable state of society for a certain period.

It is possible – as was the case in the USSR – for the reactionary forces of capitalism to gain the upper hand, for the more advanced socialist society to temporarily decay backward towards capitalism. Regardless of such reverses, on average, over time, history will forge a path towards the higher stages of socialism and communism, despite temporary setbacks, despite all zigzags of history. We can state this with confidence because the inherent volatility of monopoly capitalist society (arising from the contradiction between social production and private profit, the interests of workers and capitalists) will push the working class again and again towards the necessity of its revolutionary transformation; its replacement with economy planned to meet people’s needs rather than fill capitalist pockets.

The role of the working class party (and its socialist theory) in this progression is to act as the catalyst for change, to effectively organise and inspire the masses; to navigate the easiest, most direct and successful path though the rapids of revolution, to defend and consolidate the gains of socialism. The Bolsheviks were such a party. The SLP aims to become such a party, and will succeed in proportion as it enlists the most politically conscious sections of the workers into its ranks and wins the confidence of the working people. It is clear that the Labour Party (New or Old) was never such a party of the working class, regardless of the composition of its membership.

Marxist philosophical materialism contends (contrary to ‘idealism’) that:

  1. i) The world and all things in it are made up of matter. Interconnection of phenomena as outlined by dialectics are laws of development of that matter in motion. The material world develops in accordance with these laws and therefore stands in no need of a creator, (god or “universal spirit”) as idealist philosophy contends. That all things, to quote Engels once again, “…from the sun to a grain of rice, organic and inorganic, living and dead, in short all natural phenomena are different manifestations of matter in motion
  2. ii) That the world really exists, independently and outside of our conception. That matter is primary – since it is the source of our thoughts, ideas and sensations. That these thoughts, ideas and sensations are secondary, derivative – since the bodily organ which thinks (the brain) is itself a complex formation of matter as indeed are the sense organs and the nervous system which feed the brain with information, allowing it to create a more or less accurate mental picture of the surrounding environment.

Unlike idealism, which asserts that the world is illusion, a chimera, the projection of our minds, a fantasy that does not really exist (“I think therefore I am”, rather than the materialist understanding “I have a brain, therefore I think!”), materialism “in general recognises objectively real being (matter) as independent of consciousness, sensation, experience… Consciousness is only the reflection of being, at best, an approximately true (adequate, ideally exact) reflection of it” (Lenin).

iii) That the world and its laws are fully knowable. That our knowledge of the laws of nature, tested by experiment and practice, is authentic knowledge having the validity of objective truth. That there are no ‘unknowable’ things in the world, but only things that are not yet known.

The advance of science, “natural philosophy,” has proven the correctness of this outlook. Speaking of idealism, which holds that there are enigmatic phenomena, “things-in-themselves” which can by their very nature never be known (and thus must dwell in the realms of “faith”), Engels says:

The most telling refutation of this as of all theoretical fancies is practice, viz., experiment and industry. If we are able to prove the correctness of our conception of a natural process by making it ourselves, bringing it into being out of its conditions and using it for our own purposes into the bargain, then there is an end of the Kantian “thing in itself”. The chemical substances produced in the bodies of plants and animals remained such “things-in-themselves” until organic chemistry began to produce them one after another, whereupon the “thing in itself” became a thing for us, as for instance, alizarin, the colouring matter of the madder, which we no longer trouble to grow in the madder roots in the field, but produce much more cheaply and simply from coal tar. For three hundred years the Copernican solar system was a hypothesis. But wen Leverrier, by means of the data provided by this system, not only deduced the necessity of the existence of an unknown planet, but also calculated the position in the eavens which this planet must necessarily occupy, and when Galle really found this planet, the Copernican system was proved.”

The extension of these principles to the study of society and its history (Historical Materialism) gives important lessons for the working class and its party:

Human society and its history cannot be artificially separated from the rest of the material world. It too follows laws of development which are knowable and must be studied and understood by the proletarian party. In this light, history is not merely an “agglomeration of accidents“, but “the study of the development of society according to regular laws“. The struggle for socialism is taken forever from the realm of dreams and put on the precise foundations of science. It is in this sense that Marx and Engels are the founders of ‘Scientific’ (as opposed to ‘idealist’) Socialism.

What’s more, if nature, the material world is primary and mind, thought is secondary, the same can be said of human society as a whole. “It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness” (Marx)

In other words, our ideas are formed by the material conditions in which we live. There is no unchanging, permanent “human nature” or set of “universal moral values”, but these change along with our material conditions, or ‘manner of life.’

Hence, if in different periods of history of society different social ideas, theories, views and political institutions are to be observed; if under the slave system we encounter certain social ideas, theories, views and political institutions, under

feudalism others, and under capitalism others still, this is not to be explained by their “nature,” the properties of the ideas, theories, views and political institutions themselves but by the different conditions of the material life of society at different periods of social development” (Stalin, ibid.)

Marx stressed, however, that this does not reduce the importance of the conscious activity of men, of social ideas, theories, political views and institutions. These, in so far as they are correct (facilitate the development of society’s material needs), have a tremendous role in organising and mobilising the progressive classes to effect great changes in society. They do not, however, arise independently and of themselves, but precisely because of the new tasks set by the changing material conditions of society.

But what, exactly, do we mean by “conditions of material life of society”? Many physical factors contribute to these ‘material conditions’: geography, environment, climate, population density, etc. But for our purposes we seek that “chief force in the complex of conditions of material life of society which determines the physiognomy of society, the character of the social system, the development of society from

one system to another.”

Study of human history has revealed that such a key factor really exists: it is technology. In particular the technology (or ‘means’) of production. The way in which humanity makes the goods necessary for its survival (food, clothing, housing, fuel, etc.) determines the way in which society is organised around those means of production in order to use them.

In production, men not only act on nature but also on one another. They produce only by co-operating in a certain way and mutually exchanging their activities. 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.” (Marx)

Relations of production, the structure of society and its division into different classes, are determined by the method of production. But technology of production is constantly developing. As the method of production advances by degrees it outgrows the old relations of production. The way in which old classes have organised themselves around the old means of production persists, but is no longer suitable for effective utilisation of the new, more powerful means of production. Society is thrown into economic and social turmoil demanding revolutionary re-organisation.

[And in this way, human society too progresses from the lower to the higher stage. Indeed, historical study shows that all human societies have moved through several readily identifiable stages, taking various cultural forms in different places, but readily identifiable by their chief economic and social characteristics. Briefly, these are barbarism (primitive communism), slavery, feudalism, capitalism and socialism.]

“…[H]aving developed productive forces to a tremendous extent, capitalism has become enmeshed in contradictions which it is unable to solve. By producing larger and larger quantities of commodities, and reducing their prices, capitalism intensifies competition, ruins the mass of small and medium private owners, converts them into proletarians and reduces their purchasing power, with the result that it becomes impossible to dispose of the commodities produced. On the other hand, by expanding production and concentrating millions of workers in huge mills and factories, capitalism lends the process of production a social character and thus undermines its own foundation, in as much as the social character of the process of production demands the social ownership of the means of production; yet the means of production remain private capitalist property, which is incompatible with the social character of the process of production.

These irreconcilable contradictions between the character of the productive forces and the relations of production make themselves felt in periodical crices of overproduction, when the capitalists, finding no effective demand for their goods owing to the ruin of the mass of the population which they themselves have brought about, are compelled to burn products, destroy manufactured goods, suspend production and destroy productive forces at a time when millions of people are forced to suffer unemployment and starvation, not because there are not enough goods, but because there is an overproduction of goods.

This means that capitalist relations have ceased to correspond to the state of productive forces of society and have come into irreconcilable contradiction with them.

This means that capitalism is pregnant with revolution, whose mission it is to replace the existing capitalist ownership of the means of production by socialist ownership.

This means that the main feature of the capitalist system is a most acute class struggle between the exploiter and the exploited.” (J. V. Stalin, Dialectical and Historical Materialism)

We can see, then, why bourgeois sponsored education and science do not clearly formulate and apply the principles of dialectical materialism. Despite this, it is evident that science rests precisely upon the dialectical materialist conception of the world. That all major scientific breakthroughs – from Copernicus and Galileo to Darwin and Mendel – have dealt crushing blows to sterile metaphysical and idealist conceptions of the world and give ringing endorsement to the correctness of dialectical and historical materialism.

Undoubtedly the lack of systematic teaching and application of dialectical materialism holds back the progress of science, the advance of human knowledge. To the capitalist, this is he unavoidable side effect of maintaining his senile rule. To the working class it is another indictment to add to the long charge sheet against capitalism, the proof that capitalism has become an insuperable barrier to human development and must be overthrown.


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