Marxism FAQ

MarxFeaturedMarxism is the collective, generalized experience of the world working class. By studying the past, we are able to learn from the innovations, mistakes, victories, and defeats of the working class as a whole. By studying theory, history, and the processes unfolding around us, we can, through a series of successive approximations, come to an ever-better understanding of the world and most importantly, we can change it.

This FAQ is intended as an introduction to some of the basic ideas and positions of the Workers International League. In general, we have provided short, concise answers, with plenty of suggestions for further reading, although in some cases we have provided a longer explanation. However, reading the classics of Marxism is the best way to understand these ideas. At first it may seem difficult, but every worker and young person knows that things worth having are worth working hard for! Patient and persistent study, discussion, and ultimately, the day to day application of these ideas over a lifetime are the key.

On the Need For a Revolutionary Party


What exactly is the revolutionary party?

Why must there be a revolutionary party?


Q.  What exactly is the revolutionary party?

A. A party is not just an organizational form, a name, a banner, a collection of individuals, or an apparatus. A revolutionary party, for a Marxist, is in the first place program, methods, ideas and traditions and only in the second place, an organization and an apparatus (important as these undoubtedly are) in order to carry these ideas to the broadest layers of the working people. The Marxist party, from the very beginning, must base itself on theory and program, which is the summing up of the general historical experience of the proletariat. Without this, it is nothing. The building of a revolutionary party always begins with the slow and painstaking work of assembling and educating the cadres, which forms the backbone of the party throughout its entire lifetime.  That is the first half of the problem. But only the first half. The second half is more complicated: how to reach the mass of the workers with our ideas and program? This is not at all a simple question.  For more on the task and methods of reaching the broad layers of masses, see On the Mass Organizations, a letter to Russian Marxists from Ted Grant.

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Q. Why must there be a revolutionary party?

A. The task of a Marxist tendency is to act as the memory of the working class, generalizing the vast experience of the workers' movement.  There is no other point to our existence as a separate tendency within the movement. If we are to learn anything from history - and surely the only point in studying it is to try to learn its lessons - the lessons of both successes and defeats - it is that that if the working class is to succeed in transforming society, then it is necessary to painstakingly build such a party trained and educated in theory, in strategy and in experience in the workers' movement in advance, over a period of years. Revolutionary opportunities do not last indefinitely. If they do not succeed in transforming society, then inevitably the ruling class will crush them in defense of their own system. That unfortunately is the history of many attempts by the working class to take power - in Chile from 1970-73 for example. A revolutionary party cannot simply be expected to spring up out of the blue, but must be consciously built, and built internationally out of the struggles of the workers movement and within their already existing organizations, parties and unions.

The presence of a revolutionary party and leadership is no less decisive for the outcome of the class struggle as is the quality of the army and its general staff in the wars between nations. The revolutionary party cannot be improvised on the spur of the moment, any more than a general staff can be improvised on the outbreak of war. It has to be systematically prepared over years and decades. This lesson has been demonstrated by the whole of history, especially the history of the twentieth century. Rosa Luxemburg, that great revolutionary and martyr of the working class, always emphasised the revolutionary initiative of the masses as the motor force of revolution. In this, she was absolutely right. In the course of a revolution the masses learn rapidly. But a revolutionary situation, by its very nature, cannot last for long. Society cannot be kept in a permanent state of ferment, nor the working class in a state of white-hot activism. Either a way out is shown in time, or the moment will be lost. There is not enough time to experiment or for the workers to learn by trial and error. In a life and death situation, errors are paid for very dearly! Therefore, it is necessary to combine the "spontaneous" movement of the masses with organisation, program, perspectives, strategy and tactics - in a word, with a revolutionary party led by experienced cadres.

There will be no automatic collapse of capitalism, and each crisis will make things worse for us. Only the conscious struggle of the workers internationally and the building of a revolutionary leadership can drive the final nail into capitalism's coffin. This of course requires not a coup, or putsch, but rather the conscious movement of the majority of society, the working class. We are all different and cannot be expected to automatically draw the same conclusions overnight, waking up simultaneously one morning and proceeding to carry out a revolution. We all learn at different times through different events. A revolutionary tendency must exist to draw these people together into the task of changing society.

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Marxist Economics


What is Marx's economic doctrine?

What is value?

What is surplus value?

On economic determinism


Q.  What is Marx's economic doctrine?

From V.I. Lenin's Karl Marx—A Brief Biographical Sketch with an Exposition of Marxism (Lenin Collected Works, Volume 21)

A.  "It is the ultimate aim of this work to lay bare the economic law of motion of modern society, i.e., capitalist, bourgeois society," says Marx in the preface to Capital. An investigation into the relations of production in a given, historically defined society, in their inception, development, and decline -- such is the content of Marx's economic doctrine. In capitalist society, the production of commodities is predominant, and Marx's analysis therefore begin with an analysis of commodity.

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Q.  What is value?

From V.I. Lenin's Karl Marx—A Brief Biographical Sketch with an Exposition of Marxism (Lenin Collected Works, Volume 21)

A.  A commodity is, in the first place, a thing that satisfies a human want; in the second place, it is a thing that can be exchanged for another thing. The utility of a thing makes is a use-value. Exchange-value (or, simply, value), is first of all the ratio, the proportion, in which a certain number of use-values of one kind can be exchanged for a certain number of use-values of another kind. Daily experience shows us that million upon millions of such exchanges are constantly equating with one another every kind of use-value, even the most diverse and incomparable. Now, what is there in common between these various things. things constantly equated with one another in a definite system of social relations? Their common feature is that they are products of labor. In exchanging products, people equate the most diverse kinds of labor. The production of commodities is a system of social relations in which individual producers create diverse products (the social division of labor), and in which all these products are equated with one another in the process of exchange. Consequently, what is common to all commodities is not the concrete labor of a definite branch of production, not labor of one particular kind, but abstract human labor -- human labor in general. All the labor power of a given society, as represented in the sum total of the values of all commodities, is one and the same human labor power. Thousands upon thousands of millions of acts of exchange prove this. Consequently, each particular commodity represents only a certain share of the socially necessary labor time. The magnitude of value is determined by the amount of socially necessary labor, or by the labor time that is socially necessary for the production of a given commodity, of a given use-value.

"Whenever, by an exchange, we equate as values our different products, by that very act, we also equate, as human labor, the different kind of labor expended upon them. We are not aware of this, nevertheless we do it." [Capital]. As one of the earlier economists said, value is a relation between two persons; only he should have added: a relation concealed beneath a material wrapping. We can understand what value is only when we consider it from the standpoint of the system of social relations of production in a particular historical type of society, moreover, or relations that manifest themselves in the mass phenomenon of exchange, a phenomenon which repeats itself thousands upon thousands of time. "As values, all commodities are only definite masses of congealed labor time." [A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy].

After making a detailed analysis of the twofold character of the labor incorporated in commodities, Marx goes on to analyze the form of value and money. Here, Marx's main task is to study the origin of the money form of value, to study the historical process of the development of exchange, beginning with individual and incidental acts of exchange (the "elementary or accidental form of value", in which a given quantity of one commmodity is exchanged for a given quantity of another), passing on to the universal form of value, in which a number of different commodities are exchanged for one and the same particular commodity, and ending with the money form of value, when gold becomes that particular commodity, the universal equivalent. As the highest product of the development of exchange and commodity production, money masks, conceals, the social character of all individual labor, the social link between individual producers united by the market. Marx analyzes the various functions of money in very great detail; it is important to note here in particular (as in the opening chapters of Capital in general) that what seems to be an abstract and at times purely deductive mode of exposition deals in reality with a gigantic collection of factual material on the history of the development of exchange and commodity production.

"If we consider money, its existence implies a definite stage in the exchange of commodities. The particular functions of money, which it performs either as the mere equivalent of commodities or as means of circulation, or means of payment, as hoard or as universal money, point, according to the extent and relative preponderance of the one function or the other, to very different stages in the process of social production." [Capital].

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Q.  What is surplus value?

From V.I. Lenin's Karl Marx—A Brief Biographical Sketch with an Exposition of Marxism (Lenin Collected Works, Volume 21)

A.  At a certain stage in the development of commodity production money becomes transformed into capital. The formula of commodity circulation was C-M-C (commodity -- money -- commodity) -- i.e., the sale of one commodity for the purpose of buying another.

The general formula of capital, on the contrary, is M-C-M -- i.e., the purchase for the purpose of selling (at a profit).

The increase over the original value of the money that is put into circulation is called by Marx surplus value. The fact of this "growth" of money in capitalist circulation is common knowledge. Indeed, it is this "growth" which transforms money into capital, as a special and historically determined social relation of production. Surplus value cannot arise out of commodity circulation, for the latter knows only the exchange of equivalents; neither can it arise out of price increases, for the mutual losses and gains of buyers and sellers would equalize one another, whereas what we have here in not an individual phenomenon but a mass, average and social phenomenon. To obtain surplus value, the owner of money "must ... find... in the market a commodity, whose use-value possesses the peculiar property of being a source of value" [Capital]. -- a commodity whose process of consumption is at the same time a process of the creation of value. Such a commodity exists -- human labor power. Its consumption is labor, and labor creates value. The owner of money buys labor power at its value, which, like the value of every other commodity, is determined by the socially necessary labor time requisite for its production (i.e., the cost of maintaining the worker and his family). Having bought enough labor power, the owner of money is entitled to use it, that is, to set it to work for a whole day -- 12 hours, let us say. Yet, in the course of six hours ("necessary" labor time) the worker creates product sufficient to cover the cost of his own maintenance; in the course of the next six hours ("surplus" labor time), he creates "surplus" product, or surplus value, for which the capitalist does not pay. Therefore, from the standpoint of the process of production, two parts must be distinguished in capital: constant capital, which is expended on means of production (machinery, tools, raw materials, etc.), whose value, without any change, is transferred (immediately or part by part) to the finished product; secondly, variable capital, which is expended on labor power. The value of this latter capital is not invariable, but grows in the labor process, creating surplus value. Therefore, to express the degree of capital's exploitation of labor power, surplus must be compared not with the entire capital but only with variable capital. Thus, in the example just given, the rate of surplus value, as Marx calls this ration, will be 6:6, i.e., 100 per cent.

There were two historical prerequisites for capital to arise: first, the accumulation of certain sums of money in the hands of individuals under conditions of a relatively high level of development of community production in general; secondly, the existence of a worker who is "free" in a double sense: free of all constraint or restriction on the scale of his labor power, and free from the land and all means of production in general, a free and unattached laborer, a "proletarian", who cannot subsist except by selling his labor power.

There are two main ways of increasing surplus value: lengthening the working day ("absolute surplus value"), and reducing the necessary working day ("relative surplus value"). In analyzing the former, Marx gives a most impressive picture of the struggle of the working class for a shorter working day and of interference by the state authority to lengthen the working day (from the 14th century to the 17th) and to reduce it (factory legislation in the 19th century). Since the appearance of Capital, the history of the working class movement in all civilized countries of the world has provided a wealth of new facts amplifying this picture.

Analyzing the production of relative surplus value, Marx investigates the three fundamental historical stage in capitalism's increase of the productivity of labor: (1) simple co-operation; (2) the division of labor, and manufacture; (3) machinery and large-scale industry. How profoundly Marx has here revealed the basic and typical features of capitalist development is shown incidentally by the fact that investigations into the handicraft industries in Russia furnish abundant material illustrating the first two of the mentioned stages. The revolutionizing effect of large-scale machine industry, as described by Marx in 1867, has revealed itself in a number of "new" countries (Russia, Japan, etc.), in the course of the half-century that has since elapsed.

To continue. New and important in the highest degree is Marx's analysis of the accumulation of capital -- i.e., the transformation of a part of surplus value into capital, and its use, not for satisfying the personal needs of whims of the capitalist, but for new production. Marx revealed the error made by all earlier classical political economists (beginning with Adam Smith), who assumed that the entire surplus value which is transformed into capital goes to form variable capital. in actual fact, it is divided into means of production and variable capital. Of tremendous importance to the process of development of capitalism and its transformation into socialism is the more rapid growth of the constant capital share (of the total capital) as compared with the variable capital share.

By speeding up the supplanting of workers by machinery and by creating wealth at one extreme and poverty at the other, the accumulation of capital also gives rise to what is called the "reserve army of labor", to the "relative surplus" of workers, or "capitalist overpopulation", which assumes the most diverse forms and enables capital to expand production extremely rapidly. In conjunction with credit facilities and the accumulation of capital in the form of means of production, this incidentally is the key to an understanding of the crises of overproduction which occur periodically in capitalist countries -- at first at an average of every 10 years, and later at more lengthy and less definite intervals. From the accumulation go capital under capitalism we should distinguish what is known as primitive accumulation: the forcible divorcement of the worker from the means of production, the driving of the peasant off the land, the stealing of communal lands, the system of colonies and national debts, protective tariffs, and the like. "Primitive accumulation" creates the "free" proletarian at one extreme, and the owner of money, the capitalist, at the other.

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Q.  On economic determinism

A.  According to the materialist conception of history the determining element in history is ultimately the production and reproduction in real life. More than this neither Marx nor I have ever asserted. If therefore somebody twists this into the staternent that the economic element is the only determining one, he transforms it into a meaningless, abstract and absurd phrase. The economic situation is the basis, but the various elements of the superstructure—political forms of the class struggle and its consequences, constitutions established by the victorious class after a successful battle, etc.—forms of law—and then even the reflexes of all these actual struggles in the brains of the combatants: political, legal, philosophical theories, religious ideas and their further development into systems of dogma—also exercise their influence upon the course of the historical struggles and in many cases preponderate in determining their form. There is an interaction of all these elements, in which, amid all endless host of accidents (i.e., of things and events whose inner connection is so remote or so impossible to prove that we regard it as absent and can neglect it), the economic movement finally asserts itself as necessary. Otherwise the application of the theory to any period of history one chose would be easier than the solution of a simple equation of the first degree.

We make our own history, but in the first place under very definite presuppositions and conditions. Among these the economic ones are finally decisive. But the political, etc., ones and indeed even the traditions which haunt human minds, also play a part, although not the decisive one. (Engels, Letter to Joseph Bloch - 1890)

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The Marxist Conception of History


What is the materialist conception of history?

What is the role of the individual in history?

What is the class struggle?

What was Marx's view on the tactics of the class struggle of the proletariat?

What was Marx's view on the inevitability of socialism?

On the material basis of society

On the laws of social development

On the historical tendency of capitalist accumulation


Q.  What is the materialist conception of history?

From V.I. Lenin's Karl Marx—A Brief Biographical Sketch with an Exposition of Marxism (Lenin Collected Works, Volume 21)

A.  A realization of the inconsistency, incompleteness, and onesidedness of the old materialism convinced Marx of the necessity of "bringing the science of society... into harmony with the materialist foundation, and of reconstructing it thereupon."  Since materialism in general explains consciousness as the outcome of being, and not conversely, then materialism as applied to the social life of mankind has to explain social consciousness as the outcome of social being. "Technology," Marx writes (Capital, Vol. I), "discloses man's mode of dealing with Nature, the immediate process of production by which he sustains his life, and thereby also lays bare the mode of formation of his social relations, and of the mental conceptions that flow from them."  In the preface to his Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, Marx gives an integral formulation of the fundamental principles of materialism as applied to human society and its history, in the following words:

"In the social production of their life, men enter into definite relations that are indispensable and independent of their will, relations of production which correspond to a definite stage of development of their material productive forces.

"The sum total of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which rises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness. The mode of production of material life conditions the social, political and intellectual life process in general. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness. At a certain stage of their development, the material productive forces of society come in conflict with the existing relations of production, or -- what is but a legal expression for the same thing -- with the property relations within which they have been at work hitherto. From forms of development of the productive forces these relation turn into their fetters. Then begins an epoch of social revolution. With the change of the economic foundation the entire immense superstructure is more or less rapidly transformed. In considering such transformations a distinction should always be made between the material transformation of the economic conditions of production, which can be determined with the precision of natural science, and the legal, political, religious, aesthetic or philosophic -- in short, ideological forms in which men become conscious of this conflict and fight it out.

"Just as our opinion of an individual is not based on what he thinks of himself, so we cannot judge of such a period of transformation by its own consciousness; on the contrary, this consciousness must be explained rather from the contradictions of material life, from the existing conflict between the social productive forces and the relations of production.... In broad outlines, Asiatic, ancient, feudal, and modern bourgeois modes of production can be designated as progressive epochs in the economic formation of society." [See Marx's brief formulation in a letter to Engels dated July 7, 1866: "Our theory that the organization of labor is determined by the means of production."]

The discovery of the materialist conception of history, or more correctly, the consistent continuation and extension of materialism into the domain of social phenomena, removed the two chief shortcomings in earlier historical theories. In the first place, the latter at best examined only the ideological motives in the historical activities of human beings, without investigating the origins of those motives, or ascertaining the objective laws government the development of the system of social relations, or seeing the roots of these relations in the degree of development reached by material production; in the second place, the earlier theories did not embrace the activities of the masses of the population, whereas historical materialism made it possible for the first time to study with scientific accuracy the social conditions of the life of the masses, and the changes in those conditions. At best, pre-Marxist "sociology" and historiography brought forth an accumulation of raw facts, collected at random, and a description of individual aspects of the historical process. By examining the totality of opposing tendencies, by reducing them to precisely definable conditions of life and production of the various classes of individual aspects of the historical process. By examining the choice of a particular "dominant" idea or in its interpretation, and by revealing that, without exception, all ideas and all the various tendencies stem from the condition of the material forces of production, Marxism indicated the way to an all-embracing and comprehensive study of the process of the rise, development, and decline of socio-economic systems. People make their own history but what determines the motives of people, of the mass of people -- i.e., what is the sum total of all these clashes in the mass of human societies? What are the objective conditions of production of material life that form the basis of all man's historical activity? What is the law of development of these conditions? To all these Marx drew attention and indicated the way to a scientific study of history as a single process which, with all its immense variety and contradictoriness, is governed by definite laws.

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Q.  What is the role of the individual in history?

From V.I. Lenin's Karl Marx—A Brief Biographical Sketch with an Exposition of Marxism (Lenin Collected Works, Volume 21)

A.  Marxism does not at all deny the importance of the role of the individual in history, but only explains that the role played by individuals or parties is circumscribed by the given level of historical development, by the objective social environment which, in the last analysis, is determined by the development of the productive forces. This does not mean - as has been alleged by the critics of Marxism - that men and women are merely puppets of the blind workings of "economic determinism". Marx and Engels explained that men and women make their own history, but they do not do so as completely free agents, but have to work on the basis of the kind of society that they find in existence. The personal qualities of political figures - their theoretical preparation, skill, courage and determination can determine the outcome in a given situation. There are critical moments in human history when the quality of the leadership can be the decisive factor that tips the balance one way or another. Such periods are not the norm, but only arise when all the hidden contradictions have slowly matured over a long period to the point when, in the language of dialectics, quantity is changed into quality. Although individuals cannot determine the development of society by the force of the will alone, yet the role of the subjective factor is ultimately decisive in human history.

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Q.  What is the class struggle?

From V.I. Lenin's Karl Marx—A Brief Biographical Sketch with an Exposition of Marxism (Lenin Collected Works, Volume 21)

A.  "It is common knowledge that, in any given society, the striving of some of its members conflict with the strivings of others, that social life is full of contradictions, and that history reveals a struggle between nations and societies, as well as within nations and societies, and, besides, an alternation of periods of revolution and reaction, peace and war, stagnation and rapid progress or decline. Marxism has provided the guidance -- i.e., the theory of the class struggle -- for the discovery of the laws governing this seeming maze and chaos. It is only a study of the sum of the strivings of all the members of a given society or group of societies that can lead to a scientific definition of the result of those strivings. Now the conflicting strivings stem from the difference in the position and mode of life of the classes into which each society is divided.

"The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles," Marx wrote in the Communist Manifesto (with the exception of the history of the primitive community, Engels added subsequently). "Freeman and slave, patrician and plebeian, lord and serf, guild-master and journeyman, in a word, oppressor and oppressed, stood in constant opposition to one another, carried on an uninterrupted, now hidden, now open fight, a fight that each time ended, either in a revolutionary reconstruction of society at large, or in the common ruin of the contending classes.... The modern bourgeois society that has sprouted from the ruins of feudal society has not done away with class antagonisms. It has but established new classes, new conditions of oppression, new forms of struggle in place of the old ones. Our epoch, the epoch of the bourgeoisie, possesses, however, this distinctive feature: it has simplified class antagonisms. Society as a whole is more and more splitting up into two great hostile camps, into two great classes directly facing each other: Bourgeoisie and Proletariat."

Ever since the Great French Revolution, European history has, in a number of countries, tellingly revealed what actually lies at the bottom of events -- the struggle of classes. The Restoration period in France [12] already produced a number of historians (Thierry, Guizot, Mignet, and Thiers) who, in summing up what was taking place, were obliged to admit that the class struggle was taking place, were obliged to admit that the class struggle was the key to all French history. The modern period -- that of complete victory of the bourgeoisie, representative institutions, extensive (if not universal) suffrage, a cheap daily press that is widely circulated among the masses, etc., a period of powerful and every-expanding unions of workers and unions of employers, etc. -- has shown even more strikingly (though sometimes in a very one-sided, "peaceful", and "constitutional" form) the class struggle as the mainspring of events. The following passage from Marx's Communist Manifesto will show us what Marx demanded of social science as regards an objective analysis of the position of each class in modern society, with reference to an analysis of each class's conditions of development:

"Of all the classes that stand face to face with the bourgeoisie today, the proletariat alone is a really revolutionary class. The other classes decay and finally disappear in the face of Modern Industry; the proletariat is its special and essential product. The lower middle class, the small manufacturer, the shopkeeper, the artisan, the peasant, all these fight against the bourgeoisie, to save from extinction their existence as fractions of the middle class. They are therefore not revolutionary, but conservative. Nay more, they are reactionary, for they try to roll back the wheel of history. If by chance they are revolutionary, they are so only in view of their impending transfer into the proletariat; they thus defend not their present, but their future interests; they desert their own standpoint to place themselves at that of the proletariat."

In a number of historical works, Marx gave brilliant and profound examples of materialist historiography, of an analysis of the position of each individual class, and sometimes of various groups or strata within a class, showing plainly why and how "every class struggle is a political struggle." The above-quoted passage is an illustration of what a complex network of social relations and transitional stages from one class to another, from the past to the future, was analyzed by Marx so as to determine the resultant of historical development.

Marx's economic doctrine is the most profound, comprehensive and detailed confirmation and application of his theory.

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Q.  What was Marx's view on the tactics of the class struggle of the proletariat?

From V.I. Lenin's Karl Marx—A Brief Biographical Sketch with an Exposition of Marxism (Lenin Collected Works, Volume 21)

A.  After examining, as early as 1844-45, one of the main shortcomings in the earlier materialism -- namely, its inability to understand the conditions or appreciate the importance of practical revolutionary activity -- Marx, along with his theoretical work, devoted unremitting attention, throughout his lifetime, to the tactical problems of the proletariat's class struggle. An immense amount of material bearing on this is contained in all the works of Marx, particularly in the four volumes of his correspondence with Engels, published in 1913. This material is still far from having been brought together, collected, examined and studied. We shall therefore have to confine ourselves here to the most general and brief remarks, emphasizing that Marx justly considered that, without this aspect, materialism is incomplete, onesided, and lifeless. The fundamental task of proletarian tactics was defined by Marx in strict conformity with all the postulates of his materialist-dialectical Weltanschauung. Only an objective consideration of the sum total of the relations between absolutely all the classes in a given society, and consequently a consideration of the objective stage of development reached by that society and of the relations between it and other societies, can serve as a basis for the correct tactics of an advanced class. At the same time, all classes and all countries are regarded, not statistically, but dynamically -- i.e., not in a state of immobility -- but in motion (whose laws are determined by the economic conditions of existence of each class). Motion, in its turn, is regarded from the standpoint, not only of the past, but also of the future, and that not in the vulgar sense it is understood in by the "evolutionists", who see only slow changes, but dialectically: "... in developments of such magnitude 20 years are no more than a day," Marx wrote to Engels, "thought later on there may come days in which 20 years are embodied" At each stage of development, at each moment, proletarian tactics must take account of this objectively inevitable dialectics of human history, on the one hand, utilizing the periods of political stagnation or of sluggish, so-called "peaceful" development in order to develop the class-consciousness, strength and militancy of the advanced class, and, on the other hand, directing all the work of this utilization towards the "ultimate aim" of that class's advance, towards creating in it the ability to find practical solutions for great tasks in the great days, in which "20 years are embodied". Two of Marx's arguments are of special importance in this connection: one of these is contained in The Poverty of Philosopy, and concerns the economic struggle and economic organizations of the proletariat; the other is contained in the Communist Manifesto and concerns the asks of the proletariat. The former runs as follows:

  "Large-scale industry concentrates in one place a crowd of people unknown to one another. Competition divides their interests. But the maintenance of wages, this common interest which they have against their boss, unites them in a common thought of resistance -- combination . . . Combinations, at first isolated, constitute themselves into groups... and in face of always united capital, the maintenance of the association becomes more necessary to them [i.e., the workers] than that of wages.... In this struggle -- a veritable civil war -- all the elements necessary for coming battle unite and develop. Once it has reached this point, association takes on a political character. (Marx, The Poverty of Philosopy, 1847) Here we have the programme and tactics of the economic struggle and of the trade union movement for several decades to come, for all the lengthy period in which the proletariat will prepare its forces for the "coming battle." All this should be compared with numerous references by Marx and Engels to the example of the British labor movement, showing how industrial "property" leads to attempts "to buy the proletariat to divert them from the struggle; how this prosperity in general "demoralizes the workers"); how the British becomes "bourgeoisified" -- "this most bourgeois of all nations is apparently aiming ultimately at the possession of a bourgeois aristocracy and a bourgeois proletariat alongside the bourgeoisie"; how its "revolutionary energy" oozes away how it will be necessary to wait for a more or less lengthy space of time before "the British workers will free themselves from their apparent bourgeois infection" how the British labor movement "lacks the mettle of the Chartists how the British workers' leaders are becoming a type midway between "a radical bourgeois and a worker" (in reference to Holyoak, Vol. 4, p.209); how, owning to Britain's monopoly, and as long as that monopoly lasts, "the British workingman will not budge" The tactics of the economic struggle, in connection with the general course (and outcome) of the working-class movement, are considered here from a remarkably broad, comprehensive, dialectical, and genuinely revolutionary standpoint.

 The Communist Manifesto advanced a fundamental Marxist principle on the tactics of the political struggle:

  "The Communists fight for the attainment of the immediate aims, for the enforcement of the momentary interests of the working class; but in the movement of the present, they also represent and take care of the future of that movement." That was why, in 1848, Marx supported the party of the "agrarian revolution" in Poland, "that party which brought about the Krakow insurrection in 1846."  In Germany, Marx, in 1848 and 1849, supported the extreme revolutionary democrats, and subsequently never retracted what he had then said about tactics. He regarded the German bourgeoisie as an element which was "inclined from the very beginning to betray the people" (only an alliance with the peasantry could have enabled the bourgeoisie to completely achieve its aims) "and compromise with the crowned representatives of the old society." Here is Marx's summing-up of the German bourgeois-democratic revolution -- an analysis which, incidentally, is a sample of a materialism that examines society in motion, and, moreover, not only from the aspect of a motion that is backward:

  "Without faith in itself, without faith in the people, grumbling at those above, trembling before those below... intimidated by the world storm... no energy in any respect, plagiarism in every respect... without initiative... an execrable old man who saw himself doomed to guide and deflect the first youthful impulses of a robust people in his own senile interests...." (Neue Rheinische Zeitung, 1848; see Literarischer Nachlass, Vol. 3, p.212.)

About 20 years later, Marx declared, in a letter to Engels (Briefwechsel, Vol. 3, p.224), that the Revolution of 1848 had failed because the bourgeoisie had preferred peace with slavery to the mere prospect of a fight for freedom. When the revolutionary period of 1848-49 ended, Marx opposed any attempt to play at revolution (his struggle against Schapper and Willich), and insisted on the ability to work in a new phase, which in a quasi-"peaceful" way was preparing new revolutions. The spirit in which Marx wanted this work to be conducted is to be seen in his appraisal of the situation in Germany in 1856, the darkest period of reaction: "The whole thing in Germany will depend on the possibility of backing the proletarian revolution by some second edition of the Peasant War" (Briefwechsel, Vol. 2, p.108). While the democratic (bourgeois) revolution in Germany was uncompleted, Marx focused every attention, in the tactics of the socialist proletariat, on developing the democratic energy of the peasantry. He held that Lassalle's attitude was "objectively... a betrayal of the whole workers' movement to Prussia" (Vol. 3, p.210), incidentally because Lassalle was tolerant of the Junkers and Prussian nationalism.

  "In a predominantly agricultural country," Engels wrote in 1865, in exchanging views with Marx on their forthcoming joint declaration in the press, ". . . it is dastardly to make an exclusive attack on the bourgeoisie in the name of the industrial proletariat but never to devote a word to the patriarchal exploitation of the rural proletariat under the lash of the great feudal aristocracy" (Vol. 3, p.217).

From 1864 to 1870, when the period of the consummation of the bourgeois-democratic revolution in Germany was coming to an end, a period in which the Prussian and Austrian exploiting classes were struggling to complete that revolution in one way or another from above, Marx not only rebuked Lassalle, who was coquetting with Bismarck, but also corrected Liebknecht, who had lapsed into Austrophilism" and a defense of particularism; Marx demanded revolutionary tactics which would combat with equal ruthlessness both Bismarck and the Austrophiles, tactics which would not be adapted to the "victor" -- the Prussian Junkers -- but would immediately renew the revolutionary struggle against him despite the conditions created by the Prussian military victories (Briefwechsel, Vol. 3, pp. 134, 136, 147, 179, 204, 210, 215, 418, 437, 440-41). In the celebrated Address of the International of September 9 1870, Marx warned the French proletariat against an untimely uprising, but when an uprising nevertheless took place (1871), Marx enthusiastically hailed the revolutionary initiative of the masses, who were "storming heaven."

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Q.  What was Marx's view on the inevitability of socialism?

A.  From the foregoing, it is evident that Marx deduces the inevitability of the transformation of capitalist society into socialist society and wholly and exclusively from the economic law of the development of contemporary society. The socialization of labor, which is advancing ever more rapidly in thousands of forms and has manifested itself very strikingly, during the half-century since the death of Marx, in the growth of large-scale production, capitalist cartels, syndicates and trusts, as well as in the gigantic increase in the dimensions and power of finance capital, provides the principal material foundation for the inevitable advent of socialism. The intellectual and moral motive force and the physical executor of this transformation is the proletariat, which has been trained by capitalism itself. The proletariat's struggle against the bourgeoisie, which finds expression in a variety of forms ever richer in content, inevitably becomes a political struggle directed towards the conquest of political power by the proletariat ("the dictatorship of the proletariat"). The socialization of production cannot but lead to the means of production becoming the property of society, to the "expropriation of the expropriators." A tremendous rise in labor productivity, a shorter working day, and the replacement of the remnants, the ruins, of small-scale, primitive and disunited production by collective and improved labor -- such are the direct consequences of this transformation. Capitalism breaks for all time the ties between agriculture and industry, but at the same time, through its highest developed, it prepares new elements of those ties, a union between industry and agriculture based on the conscious application of science and the concentration of collective labor, and on a redistribution of the human population (thus putting an end both to rural backwardness, isolation and barbarism, and to the unnatural concentration of vast masses of people in big cities). A new form of family, new conditions in the status of women and in the upbringing of the younger generation are prepared by the highest forms of present-day capitalism: the labor of women and children and the break-up of the patriarchal family by capitalism inevitably assume the most terrible, disastrous, and repulsive forms in modern society. Nevertheless,

"modern industry, by assigning as it does, an important part in the socially organized process of production, outside the domestic sphere, to women, to young persons, and to children of both sexes, creates a new economic foundation for a higher form of the family and of the relations between the sexes. It is, of course, just as absurd to hold the Teutonic-Christian form of the family to be absolute and final as it would be to apply that character to the ancient Roman, the ancient Greek, or the Eastern forms which, moreover, taken together form a series in historic development. Moreover, it is obvious that the fact of the collective working group being composed of individuals of both sexes and all ages, must necessarily, under suitable conditions, become a source of human development; although in its spontaneously developed, brutal, capitalistic form, where the laborer exists for the process of production, and not the process of production for the laborer, that fact is a pestiferous source of corruption and slavery." (Capital, Vol. I, end of Chapter 13)

The factory system contains "the germ of the education of the future, an education that will, in the ease of every child over a given age, combine productive labor with instruction and gymnastics, not only as one of the methods of adding to the efficiency of social production, but as the only method of producing fully developed human beings." (ibid)

Marx's socialism places the problems of nationality and of the state on the same historical hooting, not only in the sense of explaining the past but also in the sense of a bold forecast of the future and of bold practical action for its achievement. Nations are an inevitable product, an inevitable form, in the bourgeois epoch of social development. The working class could not grow strong, become mature and take shape without "constituting itself within the nation," without being "national" ("though not in the bourgeois sense of the word"). The development of capitalism, however, breaks down national barriers more and more, does away with national seclusion, and substitutes class antagonisms for national antagonism. It is, therefore, perfectly true of the developed capitalist countries that "the workingmen have no country" and that "united action" by the workers, of the civilized countries at least, "is one of the first conditions for the emancipation of the proletariat" (Communist Manifesto) That state, which is organized coercion, inevitably came into being at a definite stage in the development of society, when the latter had split into irreconcilable classes, and could not exist without an "authority" ostensibly standing above society, and to a certain degree separate from society. Arising out of class contradictions, the state becomes "... the state of the most powerful, economically dominant class, which, through the medium of the state, becomes also the politically dominant class, and thus acquires new means of holding down and exploiting the oppressed class. Thus, the state of antiquity was above all the state of the slave-owners for the purpose of holding down the slaves, as the feudal state was the organ of the nobility for holding down the peasant serfs and bondsmen, and the modern representative state is an instrument of exploitation of wage labor by capital." (Engels, The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, a work in which the writer expounds his own views and Marx's.) Even the democratic republic, the freest and most progressive form of the bourgeois state, does not eliminate this fact in any way, but merely modifies its form (the links between government and the stock exchange, the corruption -- direct and indirect -- of officialdom and the press, etc.). By leading to the abolition of classes, socialism will thereby lead to the abolition of the state as well. "The first act," Engels writes in Anti-Duhring "by virtue of which the state really constitutes itself the representative of society as a whole -- the taking possession of the means of production in the name of society -- is, at the same time, its last independent act as a state. The state interference in social relations becomes superfluous in one sphere after another, and then ceases of itself. The government of persons is replaced by the administration of things and by the direction of the processes of production. The state is not 'abolished,' it withers away." (Anti-Duhring)

"The society that will organize production on the basis of a free and equal association of the producers will put the whole machinery of state where it will then belong: into the Museum of Antiquities, by the side of the spinning wheel and the bronze axe." (Engels, The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State) Finally, as regards the attitude of Marx's socialism towards the small peasantry, which will continue to exist in the period of the expropriation of the expropriators, we must refer to a declaration made by Engels, which expresses Marx's views:

". . . when we are in possession of state power we shall not even think of forcibly expropriating the small peasants (regardless of whether with or without compensation), as we shall have to do in the case of the big landowners. Our task relative to the small peasant consists, in the first place, in effecting a transition of his private enterprise and private possession to co-operative ones, not forcibly but by dint of example and the proffer of social assistance for this purpose. And then of course we shall have ample means of showing to the small peasant prospective advantages that must be obvious to him even today." (Engels The Peasant Question in France and Germany, published by Alexeyeva; there are errors in the Russian translation. Original in Die Neue Zeit.)

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Q.  On the material basis of society

A.  Just as Darwin discovered the law of evolution in organic nature, so Marx discovered the law of evolution in human history: he discovered the simple fact, hitherto concealed by an overgrowth of ideology, that mankind must first of all eat and drink, have shelter and clothing, before it can pursue politics, science, religion, art, etc., and that therefore the production of the immediate material means of subsistence and consequently the degree of economic development attained by a given people or during a given epoch, form the foundation upon which the state institutions, the legal conceptions, the art and even the religious ideas of the people concerned have been evolved, and in the light of which these things must therefore be explained, instead of vice versa as had hitherto been the case. (Engels,  “Speech at the Graveside of Karl Marx” - 1883)

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Q.  On the laws of social development

A.  The general conclusion at which I arrived and which, once reached, continued to serve as the leading thread in my studies, may be briefly summed up as follows: In the social production which men carry on they enter into definite relations that are indispensable and independent of their will; these relations of production correspond to a definite stage of development of their material powers of production. The sum total of these relations of production constitutes the eco­nomic structure of society - the real foundation, on which rise legal and political superstructures and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness. The mode of production in material life determines the general character of the social, political, and spiritual processes of life. It is not the conscious­ness of men that determines their existence, but, on the con­trary, their social existence determines their consciousness. At a certain stage of their development, the material forces of pro­duction in society come in conflict with the existing relations of production, or - what is but a legal expression for the same thing - with the property relations within which they had been at work before. From forms of development of the forces of production these relations turn into their fetters. Then comes the period of social revolution. With the change of the economic foundation the entire immense superstructure is more or less rapidly transformed.

In considering such transformations the distinction should always be made between the material transformation of the economic conditions of production which can be determined with the precision of natural science, and the legal, political, religious, aesthetic, or philosophic - in short ideological forms in which men become conscious of this conflict and fight it out. Just as our opinion of an individual is not based on what he thinks of himself, so can we not judge of such a period of trans­formation by its own consciousness; on the contrary, this con­sciousness must rather be explained from the contradictions of material life, from the existing conflict between the social forces of production and the relations of production. No social order ever disappears before all the productive forces, for which there is room in it, have been developed; and new higher relations of production never appear before the material conditions of their existence have matured in the womb of the old society.

Therefore, mankind always takes up only such problems as it can solve; since, looking at the matter more closely, we will always find that the problem itself arises only when the material conditions necessary for its solution already exist or are at least in the process of formation. In broad outlines we can designate the Asiatic, the ancient, the feudal, and the modern bourgeois methods of production as so many epochs in the progress of the economic formation of society. The bourgeois relations of pro­duction are the last antagonistic form of the social process of production - antagonistic not in the sense of individual antagonism, but of one arising from conditions surrounding the life of individuals in society; at the same time the productive forces developing in the womb of bourgeois society create the material conditions for the solution of that antagonism.  This social formation constitutes,  therefore, the closing chapter of the prehistoric stage of human society.

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Q. On the historical tendency of capitalist accumulation

A. The expropriation of the immediate producers is accomplished with merciless vandalism, and under the stimulus of passions the most infamous, the most sordid, the pettiest, the most meanly odious. Self-earned private property [of the peasant and handicraftsman], that is based, so to say, on the fusing together of the isolated, independent laboring-individual with the conditions of his labor, is supplanted by capitalistic private property, which rests on exploitation of the nominally free labor of others.... That which is now to be expropriated is no longer the laborer working for himself, but the capitalist exploiting many laborers. This expropriation is accomplished by the action of the immanent laws of capitalistic production itself, by the centralization of capital. One capitalist always kills many. Hand in hand with this centralization, or this expropriation of many capitalists by few, develop, on an ever extending scale, the co-operative form of the labor process, the conscious technical application of science, the methodical cultivation of the soil, the transformation of the instruments of labor into instruments of labor only usable in common, the economizing of all means of production by their use as the means of production of combined, socialized labor, the entanglement of all people in the net of the world market, and with this the international character of the capitalistic regime. Along with the constantly diminishing number of the magnates of capital, who usurp and monopolize all advantages of this process of transformation, grows the mass of misery, oppression, slavery, degradation, exploitation; but with this too grows the revolt of the working class, a class always increasing in numbers, and disciplined, united, organized by the very mechanism of the process of capitalist production itself. The monopoly of capital becomes a fetter upon the mode of production, which has sprung up and flourished along with, and under, it. Centralization of the means of production and socialization of labor at last reach a point where they become incompatible with their capitalist integument. The integument is burst asunder. The knell of capitalist private property sound. The expropriators are expropriated. (Marx, Capital, Volume I)

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Marxist Philosophy


What is philosophical materialism?

What is dialectics?

What is alienation?

What about Marxism and existentialism, post-modernism, etc?

On the prevailing ideas of any age


Q.  What is philosophical materialism?

From V.I. Lenin's Karl Marx—A Brief Biographical Sketch with an Exposition of Marxism (Lenin Collected Works, Volume 21)

A. Beginning with the years 1844-45, when his views took shape, Marx was a materialist and especially a follower of Ludwig Feuerbach, whose weak point he subsequently saw only in his materialism being insufficiently consistent and comprehensive. To Marx, Feuerbach's historic and "epoch-making" significance lay in his having resolutely broken with Hegel's idealism and in his proclamation of materialism, which already "in the 18th century, particularly French materialism, was not only a struggle against the existing political institutions and against . . . religion and theology, but also... against all metaphysics" (in the sense of "drunken speculation" as distinct from "sober philosophy"). (The Holy Family, in Literarischer Nachlass)

"To Hegel... ," wrote Marx, "the process of thinking, which, under the name of 'the Idea', he even transforms into an independent subject, is the demiurgos (the creator, the maker) of the real world.... With me, on the contrary, the ideal is nothing else than the material world reflected by the human mind, and translated into forms of thought." (Capital, Vol. I, Afterward to the Second Edition.) In full conformity with this materialist philosophy of Marx's, and expounding it, Frederick Engels wrote in Anti-Duhring (read by Marx in the manuscript):

"The real unity of the world consists in its materiality, and this is proved... by a long and wearisome development of philosophy and natural science....

"Motion is the mode of existence of matter. Never anywhere has there been matter without motion, or motion without matter, nor can there be.... Bit if the... question is raised: what thought and consciousness really are, and where they come from; it becomes apparent that they are products of the human brain and that main himself is a product of Nature, which has developed in and along with its environment; hence it is self-evident that the products of the human brain, being in the last analysis also products of Nature, do not contradict the rest of Nature's interconnections but are in correspondence with them....

"Hegel was an idealist, that is to say, the thoughts within his mind were to him not the more or less abstract images [Abbilder, reflections; Engels sometimes speaks of "imprints"] of real things and processes, but on the contrary, things and their development were to him only the images, made real, of the 'Idea' existing somewhere or other before the world existed."

In his Ludwig Feuerbach—which expounded his own and Marx's views on Feuerbach's philosophy, and was sent to the printers after he had re-read an old manuscript Marx and himself had written in 1844-45 on Hegel, Feuerbach and the materialist conception of history—Engels wrote:

"The great basic question of all philosophy, especially of more recent philosophy, is the relation of thinking and being... spirit to Nature... which is primary, spirit or Nature.... The answers which the philosophers gave to this question split them into two great camps. Those who asserted the primary of spirit to Nature and, therefore, in the last instance, assumed world creation in some form or other... comprised the camp of idealism. The others, who regarded Nature as primary, belonged to the various schools of materialism."

Any other use of the concepts of (philosophical) idealism and materialism leads only to confusion. Marx decidedly rejected, not only idealism, which is always linked in one way or another with religion, but also the views -- especially widespread in our day -- of Hume and Kant, agnosticism, criticism, and positivism in their various forms; he considered that philosophy a "reactionary" concession to idealism, and at best a "shame-faced way of surreptitiously accepting materialism, while denying it before the world." On this question, see, besides the works by Engels and Marx mentioned above, a letter Marx wrote to Engels on December 12, 1868, in which, referring to an utterance by the naturalist Thomas Huxley, which was "more materialistic" than usual,, and to his recognition that "as long as we actually observe and think, we cannot possibly get away from materialism", Marx reproached Huxley for leaving a "loop hole" for agnosticism, for Humism.

It is particularly important to note Marx's view on the relation between freedom and necessity: "Freedom is the appreciation of necessity. 'Necessity is blind only insofar as it is not understood.'" (Engels in Anti-Duhring) This means recognition of the rule of objective laws in Nature and of the dialectical transformation of necessity into freedom (in the same manner as the transformation of the uncognized but cognizable "thing-in-itself" into the "thing-for-us", of the "essence of things" into "phenomena). Marx and Engels considered that the "old" materialism, including that of Feuerbach (and still more the "vulgar" materialism of Buchner, Vogt and Moleschott), contained the following major shortcomings:

  1. This materialism was "predominantly mechanical," failing to take account of the latest developments in chemistry and biology (today it would be necessary to add: and in the electrical theory of matter);

  2. The old materialism was non-historical and non-dialectical (metaphysical, in the meaning of anti-dialectical), and did not adhere consistently and comprehensively to the standpoint of development;

  3. It regarded the "human essence" in the abstract, not as the "complex of all" (concretely and historically determined) "social relations", and therefore morely "interpreted" the world, whereas it was a question of "changing" it, i.e., it did not understand the importance of "revolutionary practical activity".

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Q.  What is dialectics?

From V.I. Lenin's Karl Marx—A Brief Biographical Sketch with an Exposition of Marxism (Lenin Collected Works, Volume 21)

A.  As the most comprehensive and profound doctrine of development, and the richest in content, Hegelian dialectics was considered by Marx and Engels the greatest achievement of classical German philosophy. They thought that any other formulation of the principle of development, of evolution, was one-sided and poor in content, and could only distort and mutilate the actual course of development (which often proceeds by leaps, and via catastrophes and revolutions) in Nature and in society.

"Marx and I were pretty well the only people to rescue conscious dialectics [from the destruction of idealism, including Hegelianism] and apply it in the materialist conception of Nature.... Nature is the proof of dialectics, and it must be said for modern natural science that it has furnished extremely rich [this was written before the discovery of radium, electrons, the transmutation of elements, etc.!] and daily increasing materials for this test, and has thus proved that in the last analysis Nature's process is dialectical and not metaphysical.

"The great basic thought," Engels writes, "that the world is not to be comprehended as a complex of ready-made things, but as a complex of processes, in which the things apparently stable no less than their mind images in our heads, the concepts, go through an uninterrupted change of coming into being and passing away... this great fundamental thought has, especially since the time of Hegel, so thoroughly permeated ordinary consciousness that in this generality it is now scarcely ever contradicted. But to acknowledge this fundamental thought in words and to apply it in reality in detail to each domain of investigation are two different things.... For dialectical philosophy nothing is final, absolute, sacred. It reveals the transitory character of everything and in everything; nothing can endure before it except the uninterrupted process of becoming and of passing away, of endless ascendancy from the lower to the higher. And dialectical philosophy itself is nothing more than the mere reflection of this process in the thinking brain." Thus, according to Marx, dialectics is "the science of the general laws of motion, both of the external world and of human though."

This revolutionary aspect of Hegel's philosophy was adopted and developed by Marx. Dialectical materialism "does not need any philosophy standing above the other sciences." From previous philosophy there remains "the science of thought and its laws -- formal logic and dialectics." Dialectics, as understood by Marx, and also in conformity with Hegel, includes what is now called the theory of knowledge, or epistemology, studying and generalizing the original and development of knowledge, the transition from non-knowledge to knowledge.

In our times, the idea of development, of evolution, has almost completely penetrated social consciousness, only in other ways, and not through Hegelian philosophy. Still, this idea, as formulated by Marx and Engels on the basis of Hegels' philosophy, is far more comprehensive and far richer in content than the current idea of evolution is. A development that repeats, as it were, stages that have already been passed, but repeats them in a different way, on a higher basis ("the negation of the negation"), a development, so to speak, that proceeds in spirals, not in a straight line; a development by leaps, catastrophes, and revolutions; "breaks in continuity"; the transformation of quantity into quality; inner impulses towards development, imparted by the contradiction and conflict of the various forces and tendencies acting on a given body, or within a given phenomenon, or within a given society; the interdependence and the closest and indissoluble connection between all aspects of any phenomenon (history constantly revealing ever new aspects), a connection that provides a uniform, and universal process of motion, one that follows definite laws -- these are some of the features of dialectics as a doctrine of development that is richer than the conventional one. (See Marx's letter to Engels of January 8, 1868, in which he ridicules Stein's "wooden trichotomies," which it would be absurd to confuse with materialist dialectics.)

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Q. What is alienation?

A. The basis of alienation under capitalism is the alienation of the worker from the product of his labour and the mystification of capitalist exploitation that tries to hide the real relation between wage labour and capital. Out of this hidden exploitation arises the fetishism of commodities whereby things (commodities) take on the attributes of living beings and humans are degraded to the level of "things". These distorted, mystified ("alienated") relations sink deep into human consciousness and are then regarded as something natural and inevitable. Thus, in the English language, workers are referred to as "hands", wa we often refer to a man as being "worth a billion dollars". But the basis of this alienation is to be found in the relations of production and in property relations, which is merely a legal expression for the same thing. This is explained in the very profound and dialectical chapter in the first volume of Capital "On the Fetishism of commodities, and the Secret Thereof".

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Q. What about Marxism and existentialism, post-modernism, etc.?

A. Many people wonder whether the ideas of Jean Paul Sartre, existentialism, phenomenology, the "New Left", post-structuralism and post-modernism are somehow compatible with Marx's thinking. These trends represent a petit-bourgeois attempt to find interpretations of the world that are different to Marxism. That is their common denominator and raison d'être. They proceed from entirely different premises and therefore cannot be made compatible with Marxism.

Marx started out with a study of the history of philosophy. In attempting to understand the development of philosophy and what it represented he came to the conclusion that the development of the means of production was ultimately the key to understanding the development of society. Does this mean that the causal relation between the development of the productive forces is direct and automatic? If that were the case, our task would be redundant because revolution would be unnecessary. The whole point is that the process is dialectical, involving a contradiction between the demands of economic development and the inevitable lag in human consciousness, ideas, theories, institutions, morality, etc. However, yes, in the final analysis, the development of the productive forces is decisive. Deny that and you will end in a mess.

These petit-bourgeois thinkers move in the opposite direction. They move away from the economic base and end up with "individualism". They refute the class approach to understanding society precisely because it comes into conflict with their own individualistic way of thinking. These ladies and gentlemen spend all their lives in aimless "theoretical" meanderings which never come close to the real movement of society and the working class. Shut up in their university hot-houses, they are free to indulge themselves in politics as a hobby.

The decay of capitalism also affects the field of ideology and culture. Philosophy in our time has entered into a phase of irreversible decline. In all the trends of modern Western philosophy, one looks in vain for a single idea that has not been expressed long ago, and far better by others. Bourgeois philosophy has withered on the vine. It has nothing new or meaningful to say. For that very reason, it is justly subject to universal contempt, or, more accurately, indifference. Here again the baneful effects of the extreme division of labour make themselves felt with a vengeance. Isolated in their ivory towers, the academics pass their lives writing obscure theses which are read, and sometimes answered, by other academics. Few people understand what they write. Fewer still even care!

Let us take Existentialism. This is one of the emptiest of the modern bourgeois "philosophies" (it goes against the grain to dignify it with the name). Existentialism has its roots in the irrationalist trend of 19th century philosophy, typified by Nietzsche and Kierkegaard. It has assumed the most varied forms and political colouring. There was a religious trend (Marcel, Jaspers, Berdyayev and Buber) and an atheistic trend (Heidigger, Sartre, Camus). But its most common feature is extreme subjectivism, reflected in its preferred vocabulary: its watchwords - "being-in-the-world", "dread", "care", "being towards death", and the like. It was already anticipated by Edmund Husserl, a German mathematician turned philosopher, whose "phenomenology" was a form of subjective idealism, based on the "individual, personal world, as directly experienced, with the ego at the centre".

Existentialism centres everything on the moment. All that you can achieve is in the moment in which you are living and anything before or after becomes irrelevant. It is an individualistic and extremely pessimistic view of the world, entirely at one with the psychology of the petty bourgeois intellectual. This is the very opposite of Marxism and inevitably leads you away from a class understanding. Thus it becomes irrelevant to study the past, to study overall processes. You must live for the moment and for yourself. This school of thought developed on the basis of the petit-bourgeois of the 1930s, ruined by the economic crisis and crushed between the working class and the big banks and monopolies. Politically and personally disoriented, and lacking any perspective, they had lost any hope in the future. One group of existentialists collaborated with the Nazis (Heidigger) while another for a time came within the orbit of Stalinism (Sartre). In neither case did they lose their essentially petty bourgeois idealist character.

With existentialism, we reach the complete dissolution of modern philosophy. It may be argued (probably correctly) that this world view reflects the irrationalism of the capitalist system in its period of senile decay. It would not be difficult to demonstrate that in every period of decline similar philosophical trends have emerged. They reflect the pessimism of the intellectual who, having a fairly comfortable life, is able to turn his back on society and seek salvation in the "dark night of the soul".

Jean-Paul Sartre made an attempt to unite existentialism with "Marxism" (actually, Stalinism) and met with predictable results. One cannot unite oil and water. Sartre's thought cannot be described as a coherent body of philosophical ideas. It is a disorderly mishmash of notions borrowed from different philosophers, particularly Descartes and Hegel. The end result is total incoherence, shot through with a pervading spirit of pessimism and nihilism. For Sartre, the fundamental philosophical experience is nausea, a feeling of disgust at the absurd and incomprehensible nature of being. Everything is resolved into nothingness. This is a caricature of Hegel, who certainly did not think that the world was incomprehensible. In Sartre's writings, Hegelian jargon is used in a way that makes even Hegel's most obscure passages seem models of clarity.

Jean-Paul Sartre represented the "left" wing of existentialism, as opposed to the openly fascist wing. That is to his credit. But he never broke with the mystical idealist basis of existentialism, dwelling on "Being and the threat of Nothingness", "Freedom of Choice", "Duty", and so on. A sense of impending doom, and a feeling of powerlessness and "dread" fill these writings, accompanied by an attempt to seek an alternative on an individual basis. This expressed a certain mood among section of the intellectuals after the first world war in Germany, and then in France. What it indicates is the profound crisis of liberalism, as a result of "the Great War", and the upheavals which followed in its wake. They saw the problems facing society, but could see no alternative.

Underlying all this is the feeling of impotence of the isolated intellectual, faced with a hostile and uncomprehending world. In other words, the usual outlook of the petty bourgeois intellectual. The attempt to escape from the wicked world into individualism is summed up in Sartre's celebrated (or notorious) phrase: "L'enfer, c'est les autres" ("Hell is other people"). How this outlook could ever be squared with the revolutionary optimism of dialectical materialism it is hard to imagine. But then, no-one could ever accuse Sartre of consistency. It is, of course, to his credit that he espoused progressive causes, like Vietnam and solidarized with the movement of the French workers and students in 1968. But from a philosophical and psychological point of view, the position of Sartre was completely foreign to Marxism.

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Q.  On the prevailing ideas of any age

A.  The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas; i.e. the class, which is the ruling material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force. The class which has the means of material production at its disposal, has control at the same time over the means of mental production, so that thereby, generally speaking, the ideas of those who lack the means of mental production are subject to it. The ruling ideas are nothing more than the ideal expression of the dominant material relationships, the dominant material relationships grasped as ideas; hence of the relationships which make the one class the ruling one, therefore the ideas of its dominance. The individuals composing the ruling class possess among other things consciousness, and therefore think. In so far, therefore, as they rule as a class and determine the extent and compass of an epoch, it is self-evident that they do this in their whole range, hence among other things rule also as thinkers, as producers of ideas, and regulate the production and distribution of the ideas of their age; thus their ideas are the ruling ideas of the epoch.  (Marx and Engels, The German Ideology - 1846)

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