How Marxists Think

By Clara Fraser

Lectures from a class taught in Winter 1955-56

To many people, Marxism is a call for violent action by Crazy People. The ruling class would have it so; they claim for themselves the mantle of progress, logic, truth, beauty, and knowledge. They represent Marxists as deluded, irrational, psychotic, and hateful. But just look at these elevated critics of Marxism: the atom-maniacs in the Pentagon; the perverted and distorted finance capitalists who would see a world plunged into barbarism before they relinquish a penny of their fabulous profits; the power-mad industrialists who calmly grind the working class to dust beneath the wheels of automation; the southern white aristocracy and their stooges in the KKK who would have every magnolia tree swaying with the strange black fruit of human bodies; the professors of knowledge who devote their lives to keeping knowledge off the campus and away from students.

Are these people sane? Wise? Right? Beneficent? Reasonable? Today we're going to talk about reason. Only we Marxists really take reason seriously. We are infinitely more rational than our class antagonists, because we are honest scientists, practitioners in the laboratory of society. Science is the investigation of the motion and behavior of matter. Scientific socialism is the knowledge of the movements and behavior of human matter, a social substance. And the basis of our science is our philosophy.

Philosophy means "first principles" - the basic laws of the world from which everything else springs. The two most important fields of philosophy are logic and ontology. Logic is how we think about reality; the science of the thought process. Ontology is what we think about reality; the study of the nature of existence. Marxism is first and foremost a philosophy based on the highest form of logic known to humanity. Its adherents maintain more than anybody else the main principle of science: that reality and the laws governing it can be known; that we can always come closer to a complete understanding of nature, society, human thought. Indeed, Marxists are the only true philosophers on this earth!

You don't believe me? Read today's philosophers. They're a joke, a headache. They've got nothing to say or are too scared to say it. The best of them see their own futility and uselessness, and say so. Pragmatists such as John Dewey and Edmund Wilson boast about their philosophy of no philosophy, their contempt for first principles and basic questions. They're engineers; they make things. If the things or ideas work out right away, they're good. If they don't catch on, they're bad. Or take the Existentialists. Upon discovering there is no God and that life is absurd and meaningless, they sent out the directive to commit suicide. After World War II, utterly despairing but lacking the guts to kill themselves, they advised, "Find the strength to live a useless life."

Bourgeois philosophy, like bourgeois economics, is dead. Marx brought world thought to a climax; afterward, bourgeois philosophy had no place to go.To understand the sources of Marxism, let's briefly trace the history of philosophy.

The Greeks - source of Western philosophy

Formal logic was the crowning accomplishment of the Greek thinkers. Aristotle, who analyzed, classified, and systematized logic, contributed the three laws of formal logic:

1. "A" equals A: the law of identity. A thing is always equal to itself.

2. "A" cannot be non-A: the law of contradiction.

3. "A" cannot be both A and non-A: the law of the excluded middle.

This manner of thinking is valid and necessary, but at the same time incomplete and limited. It is "common sense" logic - instinctive, half-conscious. Its laws are the rules of thought in the bourgeois world. They do have a material content and reflect real relations in life, but they apply only if we assume fixity - unchanging relations.

In 'The Logic of Marxism', George Novack identifies five basic errors in formal logic:

1. It demands a static universe. Nothing moves and develops, because motion implies self-contradiction, which formal logic cannot accommodate. Does a dollar always equal a dollar? Hardly.

2. Formal logic erects impassable barriers between things. But in reality, everything grows out of and into other things: paper into money and money into paper again; rivers into seas and seas into clouds; bacteria into animals and animals into humans.

3. Formal logic excludes difference from identity. But the working class, for example, is heterogeneous and contradictory. A worker is not a boss, but can think and act like one.

4. The laws of formal logic present themselves and the reality they describe as absolute, final, unconditional, eternal. But everything is really relative, inter-dependent. History is made up of unique, concrete, finite, related and ever-shifting circumstances.

5. Finally, formal logic can't explain itself: its origin, causes for being, development. Absent any other explanation, it can only be attributed to divine revelation.

Hegel's dialectics in the Age of Revolution

The absolutism and petrification of the Middle Ages eventually produced a crisis in feudal society that brought about revolutions on all planes. The world turned upside down. History was demanding a new method of thought to make sense of the titanic explosions detonating all stable, ancient, and honored institutions and relations. "A's" were becoming "non-A's" all over the place - feudalism was becoming capitalism, the king was being replaced by commoners, atheism was challenging God. Logic had to follow course and become more scientific, useful to humankind, reflective of the motion that dominated life.

The inevitable reformation in logic was capped by the heroic and profound discoveries of the genius Georg Hegel (1770 -1831). The revolutionary thought of Hegel was the product of the French Revolution of 1789, which inspired groundbreaking ideas in politics and the arts. Hegel and other German intellectuals rebelled against the mechanical, immobile outlook dominant in science. Their theme: Everything has a history of development; nothing is absolute. To formal logic, Hegel counterposed dialectics.

Dialectics holds that life is made up of concrete, changing, contradictory circumstances, and so the formulas that describe and explain life must be provisional, limited, transient. Dialectics begins with what is real - everything that has provable existence - and says that what is real is rational, meaning that it is based on laws: inexorable, objective processes that can be known. These laws of reality are based on necessity. There is a reason for every phenomenon, no matter how "irrational" it may appear on the surface. If we conclude that reality, rationality and necessity go hand in hand, then everything that exists is justified.

Reactionaries embrace only this side of Hegel's thought. But Hegel is also revolutionary because he shows negation as well as justification: everything that exists eventually turns into its opposite and dies. And then comes a negation of the negation - a new positive. Feudalism becomes capitalism becomes socialism. Childhood develops into youth, maturity, age. All phenomena are composed of both essence and form, and as they pass out of existence, their forms can linger long after their essences are gone.

Think of a wrecked house, a lame-duck political regime, a corpse. Hegel teaches that life is change, movement, development through contradictions. He stresses the identity, unity and interpenetration of opposites - like that of the working class and capitalist class, which can only exist together, though each is death to the other.

The materialist challenge to Hegel

Hegel had his limits. He was an idealist, who saw thought or spirit as primary, as cause, and matter as secondary, as effect. The mind came first and created nature and society; the objective world was only a reflection, as in a mirror, of the "Absolute Idea," the fundamental reality. He was wrong, and he was challenged. The Young Hegelians revolted against Hegel's god, returning not only to atheism, but to materialist atheism. In the final analysis, they said, everything has a material base or cause. There is no mind without a body; no ideas without brain cells. All ideas grow from relations of people in society, and relations of people grow from their relation with nature. So reality starts with nature - the unconscious, material universe.

Ludwig Feuerbach was the first Hegelian rebel to proclaim materialism as the only rational and scientifically demonstrable explanation of the world. He ascertained that humanity has no innate ideas, morals, goals. We are not cogs in a machine built by some Absolute Spirit. We are conditioned by society; environment is decisive in determining our character, personality, abilities. But Feuerbach, too, had his limitations. He threw out dialectics along with idealism, and he was incompletely materialist. Like the previous Enlightenment materialists, he couldn't extend his environment thesis to history. What causes the social changes that transform peoples' ideas? Feuerbach believed that the motive force of society is "human nature," which lands us right back where we started from, mired in idealism.

Other breakthrough thinkers of the 18th and 19th centuries explored property relations as the foundation of the social environment. But what then determines property relations? Well, they said, human nature. Utopian socialists like Charles Fourier and Robert Owen got a few steps further. They asserted that the source of property relations is found in the needs of developing production. What you produce and how you produce it, they held, is the basis of your relation to property; what you're going to own, if anything, depends on what kind of a class set-up is demanded by the mode of production. They went even further. They realized that tools determine the growth of production. The needs of production progress in concert with the development of new tools. But here they got stuck. What's the source of tools? They could find no material answer. Since tools are invented by human beings, they once again returned to human nature and endeavored to construct ideal societies based on romantic illusions about people's altruism.

Marx and Engels resolve the impasse

Enter Marx and Engels. Look at the job they had before them! Young radicals, fresh out of German universities and the political struggles against the monarchy, they were feverishly studying classical German philosophy, Hegel's dialectics, Feuerbach's materialism, utopian socialism, and English political economy (the science of the production and distribution of wealth). They had before them the gigantic historical task of taking the truest kernels of all previous thought and synthesizing them into a systematic whole. Marx's encounter with a group of workers in the League of the Just, proved crucial to achieving this synthesis. Marx was convinced of the desirability of socialism, but his scientific training made him ask: "Is socialism necessary? realistic? inevitable? Are its seeds in the present system? If so, where?" And here, before his eyes, were a handful of artisans who showed him the embryo of the tremendous social power that lay in the hands of the organized proletariat. The working class was growing rapidly, as were the ideas of scientific socialism; here the twain met, the reality and the idea, the means and the end, the oppressed and the science of their liberation.

Friedrich Engels, meanwhile, was a rich young businessman. But he was also a radical, writer, and contributor to Marx's paper. A student of English industry and political economy, he concluded that economics are the decisive historical force, the basis of the development of classes and the political parties representing these classes. Reading each other's articles, Marx and Engels were thrilled to recognize in each other a kindred methodology. They entered into a lifelong collaboration.

In 1845, they authored The Holy Family. They contended that history is born, not in heaven, but on earth through mass interests finding expression. Socialism is the manifestation of the needs of the working class and its individual members. The new philosophy of Marx and Engels took Hegel's dialectics, freed it from his idealism, and re-fused it with its actual, logical counterpart, materialism. They understood that the laws of motion described by Hegel, whose origin he explained by reference to the Absolute Idea, are in fact inherent in matter itself. Applied to social development, their conclusions make up the theory of historical materialism. This doctrine states that social structure, or the organization of classes, flows from the methods of production; that the motor force of history is class struggle between rulers and the ruled; and that these struggles have now reached a pinnacle where the exploited class, the proletariat, can't free itself from the bourgeoisie without simultaneously freeing all society from oppression forever.

In 1859, in the preface to his Critique of Political Economy, Marx elaborates: ". . .Legal relations [and] political forms. . .originate in the material conditions of life, the totality of which Hegel. . .embraces within the term 'civil society'; the anatomy of civil society, however, has to be sought in political economy." And on what does political economy itself depend, if not human nature? Marx said that human nature is an effect, caused by history; history, in turn, is caused ultimately by external nature, which supplies humankind with its means of existence. Humans must act in relation to nature. But by acting on external nature, human beings change their own nature. In fact, Homo sapiens became human precisely by acting on nature - as a tool-maker.

Tool-making is the distinctive human feature. An elephant uses a branch to sweep away flies, but this is a non-essential characteristic; elephants will be elephants whether or not they employ branches. But the boomerang of the early hunter is definitive - remove it, make him a farmer, and his nature will change. Ancient tool-making did not result from humankind's high intelligence. Quite the contrary. Tools created the superior intellect of humans. The development of regular tool use was an accident attributable to the capabilities inherent to the unique human hand, an organ which Darwin thought probably evolved to adapt to special features in the physical environment that demanded a physiological division of labor between front and rear limbs.

Humankind continues to change as its use of tools advances. This change is social, because humans are social animals. Nuclear weapons affect the organization of the army, for instance. General technological leaps forward, like the Industrial Revolution, affect the whole of economic and cultural life. Ancient society, feudal society, bourgeois society - each denotes a stage of development of the forces of production. So the determinant of political economy, including the mutual relations of people in production, is technology - the level and kind of tools used in the struggle for existence. The relations of production are expressed in laws. Social being therefore determines social consciousness.

Materialism has been applied to history and history becomes illuminated. The needs imposed upon people by nature include not only production, but also reproduction. Family structure and sexual habits, too, are an effect of the growth of productive forces. Today's patriarchal, atomized bourgeois family developed over time as the result of the historic change-over from female to male systems of kinship that accompanied the rise of private property. In the sphere of reproduction as in the sphere of production, individual relations are determined fundamentally by the nature of the existing social system, which corresponds to the prevailing level and type of technology.

Consciousness of necessity: the dawn of freedom

Materialist dialectics came from Hegel's idealist dialectics like astronomy from astrology and chemistry from alchemy - as its opposite, as the revolutionary negation of Hegel. Marx and Engels exposed the limits of both Hegel and Feuerbach, while explaining their historical necessity and synthesizing the valid ideas of both. The previously warring conceptions were merged into a unity on a higher level. Such is the real dialectical derivation of dialectical materialism itself. Before Marx and Engels, logic played an insignificant part in history. Society did not develop self-consciously through thought, but through the influence of blind social and natural forces. Our anthropoid predecessors were slaves of the physical world and its laws. People progressively triumphed over natural necessity, but as our social environment developed, with its own set of laws, humanity became enthralled to economic necessity. Humankind's own unconscious creation, the social order, now dominates and crushes us. But when we realize this, we establish the basis for the victory of reason over blind law, of consciousness over necessity. Free humanity makes necessity the slave of reason. We become the gods. But we must still get with necessity, act with it, help it along.

When existing productive relations become fetters on the productive forces, when the quality of the tools has outgrown the old organization of production, when automation as it is wielded under the profit system brutally makes millions of workers jobless and unproductive - then social revolution becomes a necessity. In our time, that means capitalism demands to be replaced by socialism. Under socialism, logic will become a great and dynamic power in shaping society and people, opening up limitless perspectives for the future of human thought through the use of the materialist dialectic. The Marxist philosophy of matter in motion is the most powerful key in existence. It will unlock doors that have been locked to humanity throughout the whole course of our existence and enable us as a social species to consciously transform not just the external world, but, for the first time, ourselves.

reprinted from 'Revolution, She Wrote', by Clara Fraser (Seattle: Red Letter Press, 1998)

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