Reason in Revolt: Marxist Philosophy and Modern Science

Authors' Foreword

“A spectre is haunting Europe.”
(The Communist Manifesto)

Mark Twain once joked that rumours of his death had been exaggerated. It is a striking fact that, every year for approximately the last 150 years, Marxism has been pronounced defunct. Yet, for some unaccountable reason, it maintains a stubborn vitality, the best proof of which is the fact that the attacks upon it not only continue, but actually tend to multiply both in frequency and acrimony. If Marxism is really irrelevant, why bother even to mention it? The fact is that the detractors of Marxism are still haunted by the same old spectre. They are uncomfortably aware that the system they defend is in serious difficulties, riven by insurmountable contradictions; that the collapse of a totalitarian caricature of socialism is not the end of the story.

In the last few years, ever since the fall of the Berlin Wall, there has been an unprecedented ideological counter-offensive against Marxism, and the idea of socialism in general. Francis Fukuyama went so far as to proclaim the “End of History”. But history continues, and with a vengeance. The monstrous regime of Stalinism in Russia has been replaced by an even greater monstrosity. The real meaning of “free-market reform” in the former Soviet Union has been a frightful collapse of the productive forces, science and culture, on a scale that can only be likened to a catastrophic defeat in war.

Despite all this—or maybe because of it—the admirers of the alleged virtues of capitalism are dedicating considerable resources to affirm that the collapse of Stalinism proves that socialism does not work. It is alleged that the entire body of ideas worked out by Marx and Engels, and later developed by Lenin, Trotsky and Rosa Luxemburg, have been completely discredited. Upon closer examination, however, what is becoming increasingly obvious is the crisis of the so-called free-market economy, which currently condemns 22 million human beings to a life of enforced inactivity in the industrialised nations alone, wasting the creative potential of a whole generation. The whole of Western society finds itself in a blind alley, not only economically, politically and socially, but morally and culturally. The fall of Stalinism, which was predicted by Marxists decades ago, cannot disguise the fact that, in the final decade of the 20th century, the capitalist system is in a deep crisis on a world scale. The strategists of Capital look to the future with profound foreboding. And at bottom the more honest among them ask themselves the question they dare not answer: Was old Karl right after all?

Whether one accepts or rejects the ideas of Marxism, it is impossible to deny the colossal impact that they have exercised on the world. From the appearance of The Communist Manifesto, down to the present day, Marxism has been a decisive factor, not only in the political arena, but in the development of human thought. Those who fought against it were nevertheless compelled to take it as their starting point. And, irrespective of the present state of affairs, it is an indisputable fact that the October Revolution changed the entire course of world history. A close acquaintance with the theories of Marxism is therefore a necessary precondition for anyone who wishes to understand some of the most fundamental phenomena of our times.

Engels' role

August 1995 marks the centenary of the death of Frederick Engels, the man who, together with Karl Marx developed an entirely new way of looking at the world of nature, society and human development. The role played by Engels in the development of Marxist thought is a subject that has never been given its due. This is partly the result of the towering genius of Marx, which inevitably overshadows the contribution made by his lifelong friend and comrade. In part it flows from the innate humility of Engels, who always played down his own contribution, preferring to emphasise Marx's pre-eminence. At his death, Engels gave instructions that his body be cremated and his ashes cast into the sea at Beachy Head, because he wanted no monument. Like Marx, he heartily detested anything remotely resembling a cult of the personality. The only real monument they wished to leave behind was the imposing body of ideas, which provides a comprehensive ideological basis for the fight for the socialist transformation of society.

Many people do not realise that the scope of Marxism extends far beyond politics and economics. At the heart of Marxism lies the philosophy of dialectical materialism. Unfortunately, the immense labour of writing Capital prevented Marx from writing a comprehensive work on the subject, as he had intended. If we exclude the early works, such as The Holy Family and The German Ideology, which represent important, but still preparatory, attempts to develop a new philosophy, and the three volumes of Capital, which are a classic example of the concrete application of the dialectical method to the particular sphere of economics, then the principal works of Marxist philosophy were all the work of Engels. Whoever wants to understand dialectical materialism must begin by a thorough knowledge of Anti-Dühring, The Dialectics of Nature, and Ludwig Feuerbach.

To what extent have the philosophical writings of this man who died in August 1895 stood the test of time? That is the starting point of the present work. Engels defined dialectics as “the most general laws of motion of nature, society, and human thought”. In The Dialectics of Nature, in particular, Engels based himself on a careful study of the most advanced scientific knowledge of the day, to show that “in the last analysis, the workings of nature are dialectical”. It is the contention of the present work that the most important discoveries of 20th century science provide a striking confirmation of this.

What is most amazing is not the attacks on Marxism, but the complete ignorance of it which is displayed by its detractors. Whereas no one would dream of practising as a car mechanic without studying mechanics, everyone feels free to express an opinion about Marxism, without any knowledge of it whatsoever. The present work is an attempt to explain the basic ideas of Marxist philosophy, and show the relation between it and the position of science and philosophy in the modern world. The intention of the authors is to produce a trilogy, which will cover the three main component parts of Marxism: 1) Marxist philosophy (dialectical materialism), 2) the Marxist theory of history and society (historical materialism), and 3) Marxist economics (the labour theory of value).

Originally, we intended to include a section on the history of philosophy, but in view of the length of the present work we have decided to publish this separately. We begin with a review of the philosophy of Marxism, dialectical materialism. This is fundamental because it is the method of Marxism. Historical materialism is the application of this method to the study of the development of human society; the labour theory of value is the result of the application of the same method to economics. An understanding of Marxism is impossible without a grasp of dialectical materialism.

The ultimate proof of dialectics is nature itself. The study of science occupied the attention of Marx and Engels all their lives. Engels had intended to produce a major work, outlining in detail the relation between dialectical materialism and science, but was prevented from completing it because of the heavy burden of work on the second and third volumes of Capital, left unfinished when Marx died. His incomplete manuscripts for The Dialectics of Nature were only published in 1925. Even in their unfinished state, they provide a most important source for the study of Marxist philosophy, and provide brilliant insights into the central problems of science.

One of the problems we faced in writing the present work is the fact that most people have only a second-hand knowledge of the basic writings of Marxism. This is regrettable, since the only way to understand Marxism is by reading the works of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky. The great majority of works that purport to explain “what Marx meant” are worthless. We have therefore decided to include a large number of quite lengthy quotes, particularly from Engels, partly to give the reader direct access to these ideas without any “translation”, and partly in the hope that it will stimulate people to read the originals for themselves. This method does not make the book easier to read, but was, in our opinion, necessary. In the same way, we felt obliged to reproduce some lengthy quotes of authors with whom we disagree, on the principle that it is always better to allow one's opponents to speak for themselves.

London, May 1st 1995