Marxism and philosophy

The following article was published in the first issue of the new Marxist theoretical magazine, Lal Salaam, published in Pakistan.

The attitude of scientists and many other people these days regarding philosophy is usually one of indifference or even contempt. As far as modern philosophy is concerned this is well deserved. For the past one and a half centuries the realm of philosophy resembles an arid desert with only the occasional trace of life. The treasure trove of the past, with its ancient glories and flashes of illumination seems utterly extinguished. One will search in vain in this wasteland for any source of illumination.

Yet on closer inspection the contempt for philosophy is misplaced. For if we look seriously at the state of modern science – or more accurately its theoretical underpinnings and assumptions, we see that science has in fact never freed itself from philosophy. Unceremoniously expelled by the front door, philosophy makes its re-entry, unannounced, through the back window.

Scientists who proudly assert their complete indifference to philosophy in reality make all kinds of assumptions that are philosophical in character. And in fact, this kind of unconscious and uncritical philosophy is not superior to the old fashioned kind but immeasurably inferior to it. Moreover, it is the source of many errors in practice.

Unfortunately, for many decades the kind of philosophy taught in universities has been based on false and misleading theories such as logical positivism, which under one guise or another has been the dominant philosophical trend particularly in the Anglo-Saxon countries for most of the 20th century.

The meagre content of this school of thought did not prevent its adherents from assuming the most arrogant airs and graces, reserving for themselves the stately title of “philosophers of science”. However, this positivist love affair with science was by no means met with corresponding zeal from those active in the field.

The obsession of the positivists with an imaginary “structure of science”, the fiddling and fussing about meaning and semantics all strikingly resembled the rarefied atmosphere and convoluted debates of the medieval Schoolmen. The intolerable pretensions of the high priests of logical positivism eventually led to rejection and revolt on the part of the scientists themselves.

A major advance in the application of the dialectical method to the history of science was the publication in 1962 of TS Kuhn’s remarkable book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. This demonstrated the inevitability of scientific revolutions and showed the approximate mechanism whereby these occur. “All that exists deserves to perish” holds good not only for living organisms but also to scientific theories, including those which we currently hold to be of absolute validity.

The origins of philosophy

Anyone who takes the trouble to study the history of philosophy will find a goldmine of the most profound ideas. Philosophy is a way of thinking that is different from everyday thinking. It deals with the big questions, which everyone at one time or another has considered: what is the meaning of life? What is good and what is bad? What is the nature of the universe? These questions, many of which have been answered by science itself, have occupied the minds of great thinkers for over 2000 years.

The link between science and philosophy therefore goes back a long way. Like so much of our modern culture and civilisation, philosophy and science begin with the Greeks. Although it is true that important discoveries in these fields were made by earlier civilisations (The Indus Valley, Babylon and Egypt), human thought at that stage was impregnated with religious superstition.

With the Greeks for the first time we find an attempt to explain the universe without recourse to the supernatural, without the intervention of the gods – an attempt to explain nature in terms of nature itself. The word “philosophy” seems to have been used first by Pythagoras in the sixth century BC: “Life,” he said, “is like a festival; just as some come… to compete, some to ply their trade but the rest come as spectators, so in life, slavish men go hunting for fame or gain, the philosophers for truth.” (Diogenes Laertius)

From the time the early philosophers of the Ionian Islands sought a rational explanation of nature without the intervention of the gods, science and philosophy were inextricably connected. These early Greek philosophers were materialists. They studied the causes of natural phenomena like lightning, thunder, earthquakes, comets and stars. For all these phenomena they sought for rational explanations, free from the intervention of gods and other supernatural agencies.

Lal Salaam front page - Lal SalaamFront page of the first edition of Lal Salaam - Image: Lal SalaamIn his Tusculan Disputations Cicero wrote that the early Greek philosophers studied “number and movement, and the source from which all things arise and to which they return; and these early thinkers inquired zealously into magnitude, intervals, and courses of the stars, and all celestial matters”. That is to say, the pre-Socratic philosophers studied nature. They were the courageous pioneers who prepared the way for all subsequent scientific advances.

They made extremely important discoveries. They knew that the earth was round and that the moon’s light reflected that of the sun. They knew that humans were descended from fish and proved it by examining human embryos and fossils. However, most of these discoveries were the result of inspired guesswork. Inevitably at a certain stage they came up against the limitations related to the given level of technology.

At a certain stage the attention of thinkers was directed away from natural phenomena and towards society, morality and all questions pertaining to human life. In the fifth century BC Aristotle noted: “The study of nature was given up and philosophers turned their attention to practical goodness and political science.”  In the Tusculan Disputations Cicero says that “Socrates first called philosophy down from the skies, set it in the cities and even induced it into homes, and compelled it to consider life and morals, good and evil.”

The Sophist school of philosophy that arose at this time was closely related to the development of Athenian democracy, in which skills in oratory and debate were the necessary conditions for success in public assemblies. Sophism was challenged by Socrates and Plato who developed dialectics, although they did so on the basis of philosophical idealism. The term "dialectics" comes from the Greek "dialektike," derived from "dialegomai," to converse, or discuss. Originally, it signified the art of discussion, which may be seen in its highest form in the Socratic dialogues of Plato.

Greek philosophy entered into a period of decline together with Athenian democracy itself. The flame of civilisation passed to the Romans who, however, added nothing substantial to the ideas they took from Greece. Greece and Rome were based on the economic system of slavery. All the great cultural and scientific advances of those societies were ultimately based on the Labour of the slaves.

The same has been true of every other civilisation for the last 10,000 years. Slavery has always existed in one form or another, and still exists today in the form of wage slavery. Art, culture and science down the ages has always ultimately been based on the exploitation of the masses.

Slave society ultimately reached its limits, just as capitalism has reached its limits at the present time. And when a society enters into decline, the results can be seen at every level, including culture itself. In the absence of a revolutionary alternative, the breakdown of slave society produced a frightful collapse of culture, the effects of which lasted for 1000 years.

In the period known as the Dark Ages, the scientific and artistic achievements of Antiquity were largely lost in Europe. The flame of learning was kept alight in Byzantium, Ireland and, above all, in the part of Spain occupied by the Arabs. The rest of Europe remained sunk in the morass of barbarism for centuries.

The last known philosopher of antiquity was a remarkable woman called Hypatia, a teacher of philosophy, science and mathematics at the University of Alexandria, who was brutally murdered by a Christian mob and her body burned. Christians closed Pagan temples and academies, destroying or scattering their libraries. In 391 AD, an edict of the emperor Theodosius prohibited visiting Pagan temples and even looking at their ruins. Christians burned the famous library at Alexandria, and profaned its images.

However, throughout the dark ages in Europe the flame of civilisation burned brightly in Islamic Spain where the culture of antiquity was venerated and preserved. For centuries the works of Aristotle were known in Europe only from Arab translations. To this very day we stand in wonder before the marvels of architecture in the mosque at Cordoba and the Alhambra in Granada. In their unique beauty and grace, they have never been equalled in any country in the world.

This was the high point of Islamic culture and civilisation. While Europe languished in darkness and ignorance, the Arabs in Spain built famous universities where learning flourished in this spirit of tolerance that allowed Jews, Christians and Muslims to debate and discuss ideas. This shows what can be achieved by the human spirit when it is free from the shackles of narrowness, superstition and fanaticism.


In the ancient world, from where all our science is ultimately derived, we already have the painstaking investigations of Aristotle into nature. The rebirth of civilisation at the time of the Renaissance in Europe coincides with the early development of capitalism and with it a new interest in science.

Later, the French philosopher Descartes has a strong claim to be the founder of the modern scientific method, while Francis Bacon in England pioneered the method of experimental science and induction that laid heavy stress on observation, experiment and the collection of facts.

Newtons Principia -  Andrew Dunn Newton's Principia - Photo: Andrew DunnThe German philosopher Leibnitz can claim to have discovered the integral and differential calculus (although Newton may have discovered it at the same time). It therefore does not surprise us that when Newton published his great work in 1687 he called it The Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy. Kant first advanced the hypothesis that the solar system had evolved out of a rotating gas nebula. And when Dalton introduced the modern concept of the atom into chemistry, he had his book published under the title A New System of Chemical Philosophy. (1808).

The sixteenth and seventeenth centuries marked a decisive break with the stifling intellectual dictatorship of the Church, and laid the basis for the modern scientific method as Engels explains:

"Genuine natural science dates from the second half of the fifteenth century, and from then on it has advanced with ever increasing rapidity. The analysis of nature into its individual parts, the division of the different natural processes and objects into definite classes, the study of the internal anatomy of organic bodies in their manifold forms—these were the fundamental conditions for the gigantic strides in our knowledge of nature that have been made during the last four hundred years. But this has bequeathed us the habit of observing natural objects and processes in isolation, detached from the general context; of observing them not in their motion, but in their state of rest; not as essentially variable elements, but as constant ones; not in their life, but in their death. And when this way of looking at things was transferred by Bacon and Locke from natural science to philosophy, it begot the narrow, metaphysical mode of thought peculiar to the last centuries." (Engels, Anti-Dühring, p. 25)

In its day, empiricism played a most progressive (even revolutionary) role in the development of human thought and science. However, empiricism is helpful only within certain limits. Many people only feel secure when they can refer to the facts. Yet, of course, the “facts” do not select themselves! A definite method is required that will help us to look beyond the immediately given and lay bare the processes that lie beyond the “facts”.

That wonderful old philosopher Spinoza – one of the fathers of modern philosophical materialism – once said that the task of philosophy is “neither to weep nor to laugh, but to understand.” The Anglo-Saxon world in general has proved remarkably impervious to philosophy. Insofar as they possess any philosophy, the Americans and their English cousins have limited the scope of their thought to the narrow boundaries of empiricism, and its soul-mate pragmatism. Broad generalizations of a more theoretical character were always regarded with something akin to suspicion.

But in the words of the great German philosopher Hegel, it is the wish for a rational insight, and not the accumulation of a heap of facts that must possess the mind of one who wishes to adopt the scientific standpoint.

The importance of dialectics

The input of philosophy into science has therefore been considerable. However, the remarkable advances of science over the past century seem to have made philosophy redundant. In a world where we can penetrate the deepest mysteries of the cosmos and follow the complex motions of subatomic particles, the old questions which absorbed the attentions of philosophers have been resolved. The role of philosophy has been correspondingly reduced. However, there are two areas where philosophy retains its importance: formal logic and dialectics.

The dialectical method was developed to its highest degree by Hegel. However, it appears here in a mystical, idealist form. It was rescued by the revolutionary work of Marx and Engels, who for the first time showed the rational kernel in Hegel’s thought. In its scientific (materialist) form, the dialectical method provides us with an indispensable tool for understanding the workings of nature, society and human thought.

Marxist dialectics provides us with the necessary analytical tools we require to make sense of the mass of information we now possess about nature and society. Marxist philosophy – the only consistent revolutionary philosophy – is of enormous practical importance for the class struggle. But these wonderfully profound ideas have a far wider application, especially to the field of science.

Here, however, we are confronted with a difficulty. The most systematic account of dialectics is contained in the writings of Hegel, in particular his massive work The Science of Logic. But the reader can soon be disheartened by the highly inaccessible way in which Hegel sets forth his ideas – “abstract and abstruse”, Engels called it.

Marx intended to write a work on dialectical materialism in order to make available to the general reader the rational kernel of Hegel’s thought. Unfortunately, he died before he could do so. After Marx’s death, his indefatigable comrade Frederick Engels wrote a number of brilliant studies on dialectical philosophy (Ludwig Feuerbach and the end of German classical philosophy, Anti-Dühring, and The Dialectics of Nature).

The last-named work was intended to be the basis for a longer work on Marxist philosophy, but unfortunately, Engels was prevented from completing it by the immense work of finishing the second and third volumes of Capital, which Marx left unfinished at his death.

Scattered throughout the works of Marx, Engels, Lenin, Trotsky and Plekhanov, one can find a very large amount of material on this subject. But it would take a very long time to extract all this information. The task of putting together a more or less systematic exposition of Marxist philosophy still remains to be done. To the best of my knowledge, Reason in Revolt, written by Ted Grant and myself over 20 years ago was the first attempt to apply the method of dialectical materialism to the results of modern science since The Dialectics of Nature.

In his book Anti-Dühring, Engels pointed out that in the last analysis, nature works dialectically. The advances of science over the last hundred years have completely borne out this assertion. American scientists have been in the forefront of some of the most important areas in modern science. I am thinking in particular of the work of R.C. Lewontin in the field of genetics, and above all the writings of Stephen J Gould.

Gould’s discoveries of palaeontology were the basis of a new and very dialectical theory of evolution which he called punctuated equilibria. This fundamentally modified the old view of evolution as a slow, gradual process, uninterrupted by sudden catastrophes and leaps. Gould himself was influenced by the ideas of Marxism, and he paid tribute to the contribution of Frederick Engels, who, in his little masterpiece The Part Played by Labour in the Transition from Ape to Man, brilliantly anticipated the latest discoveries in the investigation of human origins.

Chaos theory

Chaos theory and its derivatives are clearly a form of dialectical thinking. In particular, the idea of the transformation from quantity to quality is central to it. One of the basic laws of dialectics is the law of the transformation of quantity to quality. Let us cite one easily understood example.

When water is or heated cooled, there is a leap from one state of aggregation to another: at zero degrees it is a solid (ice). At 100 degrees it changes to a gaseous state (steam). If we increase the temperature still further, to 550 degrees, it becomes plasma, an entirely new state of matter, where the disassociation of atoms and molecules occurs. Each of these states is known as a phase transition. The study of phase transitions constitutes a very important branch of modern physics. Similar changes can be observed in the history of society. The equivalent of a phase transition is a revolution.

History knows both evolution (slow, gradual development) and revolution (a qualitative leap, where the process of evolution is enormously accelerated). Evolution prepares the way for revolution, which in turn prepares the way for a new period of evolution on a higher level. This dialectical process was described most beautifully by Hegel in the Preface to The Phenomenology of Mind:

“The bud disappears when the blossom breaks through, and we might say that the former is refuted by the latter; in the same way when the fruit comes, the blossom may be explained to be a false form of the plant’s existence, for the fruit appears as its true nature in place of the blossom. These stages are not merely differentiated; they supplant one another as being incompatible with one another. But the ceaseless activity of their own inherent nature makes them at the same time moments of an organic unity, where they not merely do not contradict one another, but where one is as necessary as the other; and this equal necessity of all moments constitutes alone and thereby the life of the whole.”

We often see the apparent repetition of stages of development that have long since been overcome. We see the same thing in the study of embryos, which apparently go through the stages of evolution. A human embryo starts as a single cell, then divides and acquires more complex forms. At one stage it has gills like a fish, later it has a tail like a monkey. The similarity between human embryos and those of other animals, including fish and reptiles, is striking, and was already noted by the ancient Greeks, who, as we have seen, over two thousand years before Darwin, deduced that man had evolved from a fish.

The process of evolution has gone on uninterruptedly from the first primitive life-forms that emerged, as we now know, at a surprisingly early period in the earth’s history. The first primitive organisms probably emerged on the bed of the primeval oceans, deriving energy not from the sun, but from volcanic vents, generating heat from below the earth’s crust. The earliest protozoa developed into chordata, through the earliest land-dwelling amphibians, to reptiles and later to mammals and humans.

The genetic difference between humans and chimpanzees is less than two percent and we share a large percentage of our genes with fruit flies and even more primitive organisms. The last desperate counterattack of the Creationists (hiding under the banner of “intelligent design”) was shattered against the remarkable results of the Human Genome Project. However, the two percent difference that separates us from the other primates is a qualitative leap that carries humankind to an entirely different and higher level.

Can human society be understood?

The dialectical method is not confined to nature. Even the most superficial observation proves that human society has passed through a number of definite stages and that certain processes are repeated at regular intervals. Just as in nature we see the transformation of quantity into quality, so in history we see that long periods of slow, almost imperceptible change are interrupted by periods in which the process is accelerated to produce a qualitative leap.

In nature the long periods of slow change (stasis) can last for millions of years. They are interrupted by catastrophic events, which are invariably accompanied by the extinction of animal species that were previously dominant, and the rise of other species that previously were insignificant but were better adapted to take advantage of the new circumstances. In human society wars and revolutions play such a significant role, that we are accustomed to use them as milestones that separate one historical period from another.

It was Marx and Engels who discovered that the real locomotive force of history is the development of the productive forces. This does not mean, as the enemies of Marxism frequently assert, that Marx reduced everything to economics. There are many other factors that enter into the development of society: religion, morality, philosophy, politics, patriotism, tribal alliances etc. All these enter into a complex web of social interrelations that create a rich and confusing mosaic of phenomena and processes.

At first sight it seems impossible to make sense of this. But the same thing could be said of nature, yet the complexity of the universe does not deter scientists from attempting to separate the different elements, analyse them and categorise them. By what right do men and women imagine that they are above nature, and that they alone in the entire universe cannot be understood by science? The very idea is preposterous and a manifestation of that burning desire of humans to be some kind of special creation, entirely separate from all other animals and with a special relation to the rest of the universe determined by God. But science has mercilessly stripped away these egocentric illusions.

Marx and Engels for the first time gave communism a scientific character. They explained that the real emancipation of the masses depends on the level of development of the productive forces (industry, agriculture, science and technology) which will create the necessary conditions for a general reduction of the working day and access to culture for all, as the only way of transforming the way people think and behave towards each other.

Marx pointed out that no social order ever disappears before it has exhausted all the potential for the development of the productive forces inherent within it. Every successive socio-economic formation opens up the possibility for a greater development of the productive forces and therefore increases humanity’s power over nature. In this way, the material basis is prepared for what Engels described as humanity’s leap from the realm of necessity to the realm of freedom.

Historical materialism

The essential content of social development is the development of the productive forces. But on the basis of the productive forces there arise property relations and a complex superstructure of legal, religious and ideological relations. The latter constitute the forms through which the former express themselves. Content and form can come into contradiction, but in the last analysis, the content will always determine the form.

The content changes faster than the forms, creating contradictions that must be resolved. The obsolete superstructure impedes the development of the productive forces. Thus, at the present time, the development of the productive forces, which has attained levels undreamed of in previous history, is in open conflict with private ownership and the nation state. The old forms are strangling the development of the productive forces. They must be burst asunder in order to resolve the contradiction. The obsolete forms are burst apart and replaced by new forms that are in consonance with the needs of the productive forces.

Broadly speaking, human society can be divided into four categories (if we exclude the Asiatic mode of production, which was a historical dead end). The earliest was the primitive communal system that lasted over a million years. This was superseded, in the west, by slavery, which lasted for about 10,000 years. The fall of the Roman Empire, which represented slavery in its most developed form, caused, first a collapse of civilization, then a slow revival under the feudal system that lasted just over a thousand years. Finally, the capitalist system has lasted for 200-300.

Each of these socio-economic systems had its own laws of motion that differed fundamentally from the others. It is therefore pointless to try to discover the laws of political economy “in general”. It is necessary to discover the particular laws that govern each system, and this is what Marx did. The anarchy of production cannot contain the demands of modern industry, technology and science. The only way to solve the contradictions of capitalism that are the cause of starvation, poverty, wars and terrorism, is through the socialist transformation of society.

It is important to note how the process of human development has undergone a constant acceleration. Feudalism lasted for a shorter time than slavery, and capitalism has existed for only two or three centuries. Moreover, the pace of development of the productive forces under capitalism has been far more rapid than in any previous society. There have been more inventions in this period than in all previous history. But this feverish development of industry, science and technique has come into conflict with the narrow limits of private property and the nation state. Capitalism in its period of senile decay is no longer capable of developing the productive forces as it did in the past. This is the fundamental cause of the present crisis, which is beginning to threaten the very existence of humanity.

Socialism or barbarism

“Even a whole society, a nation, or even all simultaneously existing societies taken together, are not the owners of the globe. They are only its possessors, its usufructuaries, and, like boni patres familias, they must hand it down to succeeding generations in an improved condition.” (Marx)

Marx once remarked that cultivation when it progresses spontaneously and is not consciously planned leaves deserts behind. The capitalism of the 21st century is in the process of turning the planet into a desert. Anarchistic interference in natural processes, unrestrained deforestation, uncontrolled hunting and fishing, the pollution of the environment, the poisoning of the food we eat, the air we breathe and the water we drink, upsets the balance of nature on a vast scale and places a question mark over the future of the planet, and, possibly, of life on earth.

As long as the economic system that governs the world is subordinate to the profit motive, the rape of the planet will continue. The domination of the world economy demands a planned economy, that is to say, world socialism. Climate change, the destruction of the environment, etc., cannot be solved by any other means.

A socialist planned economy is the only way to protect the natural environment and eliminate pollution of the oceans and the atmosphere and thus save the planet from an ecological catastrophe. The rational use of nature, the discovery and implementation of new sources of clean energy will open up the possibility of sustainable development, about which the ecologists talk, but are powerless to implement. It is entirely possible to feed the population of the world on the basis of the presently existing technology. The problem is not that we do not possess the means for solving the problem, but that the productive forces are constrained by the profit motive.

A socialist planned economy would free science and technology from the shackles of the profit system. It would enormously accelerate the economic progress of humanity, while safeguarding the treasures of the natural world that are threatened by capitalist market economics. In the words of Marx  “Under socialism people can regulate their interchange with Nature, bringing it under their common control, instead of being ruled by it as by the blind forces of Nature, and achieving this with the least expenditure of energy and under conditions most favourable to, and worthy of, their human nature.”

It is clear to any thinking person that the capitalist system is a monstrously oppressive and inhuman system which means untold misery, disease, oppression and death for millions of people in the world. It is surely the duty of any humane person to support the fight against such a system. However, in order to fight effectively, it is necessary to work out a serious programme, policy and perspective that can guarantee success. We believe that only Marxism (scientific socialism) provides such a perspective.

Marxists invite men and women to fight to transform their lives and to create a genuinely human society which would permit the human race to lift itself up to its true stature. We believe that humans have only one life, and should dedicate themselves to making this life beautiful and self-fulfilling. We are fighting for a paradise on this Earth, because we do not think there is any other.

Karl Marx pointed out long ago that the choice before the human race was socialism or barbarism. The truth of that prediction is very clear for the people of Pakistan. After decades of formal independence, a beautiful and potentially rich country has been reduced to a state of unparalleled misery, oppression and suffering. The elements of barbarism already exist and threaten the very existence of Pakistan.

Only a socialist revolution can save Pakistan from falling into the bottomless pit of barbarism. Only by overthrowing the rule of a criminal elite of bankers, landlords and capitalists who oppress and plunder the people can we achieve the conditions for our final emancipation. Our task is to unite to put an end to the dictatorship of Capital that keeps the workers and peasants in a state of slavery.

A socialist Pakistan would introduce a planned economy, under the democratic control and administration of the working class. Socialism would permit the free development of human beings, without the constraint of material needs. It would be able to mobilize the vast resources of the country to satisfy the needs of the people.

This would give a powerful impetus to the revolutionary movement in India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan and Nepal. The working class will sweep away all the artificial frontiers created by imperialism, preparing the way for the creation of the Socialist Federation of the Subcontinent.

This would be a giant step forward for the victory of socialism on a world scale and the establishment of a new page in the history of humankind. A socialist Federation of the Subcontinent would develop the productive forces to a level where all the evils of poverty, unemployment, ignorance and misery would be abolished.

Socialism will carry human civilisation to a level unseen at any period in the past. The glories of Cordoba and Granada will be surpassed and poetry, art, literature, philosophy and science will attain new levels of greatness. It is the task of the Marxists to fight for this great aim: the emancipation of the working class.

The role of philosophy in the modern epoch must be to facilitate this task, clarifying our ideas and providing a rational explanation of the most important manifestations of our age.

In the words of Karl Marx: “Philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways. The point is, however, to change it.”

London 17th November 2016

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