MARXIST OUTLOOK


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REVOLUTION – THE LOCOMOTIVE

OF HISTORY


Marxism in general is a world scientific outlook, and in its present concrete form it is the theory of world social revolution. It is much misunderstood. Generally Marxism is approached as a body of knowledge as it is contained in the vast accumulation of literature that has so far been produced in its name, but this is a fatal misunderstanding.


Marxism is firstly a theory of knowledge, the science of how knowledge arises as human understanding of the material world in which we live.   The body of knowledge we have so far developed is therefore not Marxism as such, but rather the result of Marxism.


Marxism as philosophy is materialism, the understanding that the world of matter in motion exists independently us, and human consciousness is a reflection of it.


Secondly, Marxism is dialectical logic, which is based on the understanding that every thing exists in relation to its own opposite - people in the act of trade exchanging commodities, countries at war, classes in conflict, bodies in space acting under the influence of gravity. Marxism is therefore dialectical materialism. Only the most dreadful confusion can result from the attempt to approach Marxist theory on the basis of the dominant social ideology of today which is its exact opposite, subjective idealism and metaphysical logic. The more completely is the individual trained in this latter ideology, the worse the confusion.


A study of the history of philosophy reveals a sporadic and inconsistent acceptance that progress takes place through the conflict of opposites. Much of this can be described as “false dialectics”, since it is based on the view that it is the opposites that determine the conflict. This turns the truth inside-out. It is actually the conflict that determines the opposites. The first to grasp this was the Greek Philosopher Heraclitus, (535-475 BC), but it took Hegel, and after him Marx, to place this philosophy on a consistent scientific basis.


Many things can come into relation apparently by accident, but some are always found in relation. Considered abstractly, we may take such as left and right, positive and negative, cause and effect, the material world and our reflection of it in thought. Such pairs of things we call self-related opposites and if we wish to understand how things relate to each other it is best to start with these.


Take left and right. It is easy to see that they can only exist in relation. Take away left, and there is nothing for right to be right of … so it ceases to be right. The same is true of positive and negative. Positive can only be positive in relation to negative. Take away negative and it ceases to be positive.


So if we concentrate our attention on the one side of these self-related opposites we see that while it  presents itself to us immediately as positive, the inner truth of this positive, that which makes it what it is, is the negative. Positive as an outer form contains negative within itself as its inner truth, its essence.

The same is true of negative. While it presents itself to us immediately as negative, its inner truth, that which makes it what it is, is the positive.


So we see that we now have two things which are identical in the sense that both are the unity of positive and negative. Each points to, or “posits”, its own opposite, positive-negative on one side, negative positive on the other. We now have four things instead of two, and clearly we can do the whole thing again and have eight, sixteen, thirty-two, and so on to infinity. This process of unfolding Hegel refers to as the quantitative infinite progress.


However, so far we have considered particular, limited opposites. If we take the universal opposites of space and time, we see that we have been discussing the unfolding, becoming, of the universe since the big bang, (or whatever origin we accept). In this connection we should take space as it exists as extension, which can be of any quality, earth, air, water, “vacuum”, etc. We know that the universe is expanding – it is its nature to do so and it can do no other.


If we observe this process of becoming over time, we discover that it does not happen in a smooth and evenly continuous way. There are long periods of fairly quiet and continuous change, quantitative change; increase and decrease during time. Such periods are interrupted by violent eruptions which bring about revolutionary qualitative leaps, and we perceive that all this motion and change manifests certain patterns or forms of motion which repeat themselves where ever the same conditions exist. These forms of motion we call laws of motion, and the science of Marxism has reduced them to three absolutely universal laws of nature from which spring all the laws of science that we know – the laws of physics, mechanics, chemistry, biology, inorganic and organic matter, the laws of evolution, of human society and human thought. These laws are as follows:


1. The law of the unity and conflict, interpenetration and transformation of opposites.


2. The law of the transformation of quality into quantity, and of quantity back to quality.


3. The law of the negation of the negation.


   We must try to grasp these laws materialistically, concretely, directly from life as we experience it as a species of animal living on this planet.  Such experience we gain, not as individuals, but as members of society. Like every other creature mankind, taken as a single whole, is in unity and conflict with the rest of nature as its dialectical opposite, and this struggle has taken the form of the labour process. It began with simple hand tools of wood and stone, and has become the world of science, technology and industry we know today. In a pamphlet titled The Part Played by Labour in the Transition From Ape to Man, Engels informs us:


“Labour is the source of all wealth, the political economists assert. And it really is the source – next to nature, which supplies it with the material that it converts to wealth. But it is even infinitely more than this. It is the prime basic condition for all human existence, and this to such an extent that, in a sense, we have to say that Labour created man himself.”


The evolution of technology, tools and equipment, the means of production, industry, which we interpose between ourselves and nature in the process of producing our needs, has involved a division of labour, with different products being produced by different producers and distribution through a system of exchange.  A system of property rights became necessary resulting in a structured society.


However, increasing population, increased production and development of technology, (the means of production), has given rise to changes in the forms of production and distribution, and this has led to fundamental changes to the property relations and in the structural forms of society.


An examination of known history reveals four such forms of social structure which achieved a degree of stability and endured for long periods of history, savagery, barbarism, feudalism and capitalism. Each successive stage was made necessary and came into being as the result of development in the means of production in the preceding stage, a process of becoming according to the laws of motion we have stated. Of these four social forms we shall deal only with the conflict between feudalism and capitalism as dialectical opposites, and the resulting transformation of the social basis from the one into the other.


Feudalism was essentially an agricultural system. What technology there was depended entirely upon it and remained simple and small scale. The central principle of the social structure was land ownership and bonded labour service. Powerful aristocratic land lords “owned” vast areas and the serf labourers worked plots of land and paid rent in kind by handing over part of their produce to the landowner, and worked directly for him for a proportion of their time. They were tied to their plot of land – they could not leave it, certainly not without making some substantial reparation payment which was normally far beyond their means.


The feudal system, then, was a society divided into classes, a ruling aristocratic class which owned the means of production, and exploited the labour of the working class which owned nothing and was politically and socially oppressed. As a kind of society it was a definite determinate kind of thing, a quality. Here we see the first condition of the first of the three laws we have given, the unity and conflict of opposites, the classes.


These three laws do not operate individually and independently of each other, they are simply different sides or aspects of the process of becoming and they operate simultaneously, in harmony. Turning to the second law, the transformation of quality into quantity, we see that the Feudal system as a quality had become a process of quantitative change. We normally think of quantity as existing in fixed amounts, a pound, a litre, an hour, but quantity as such exists only as a process of change, an unfolding as we have described. Feudal society made progress. There was a general rise in the cultural level, technology advanced and wealth was accumulated. Quality had been transformed into quantity.  


At first the social and economic life of feudal society remained peaceful enough, but as time went by the material interests of the two classes began to conflict and their interrelation became antagonistic.


Changes had taken place in the working class population. It had been quantitatively reduced by the Black Death plague in 1340 so that there was a substantial labour shortage which empowered the working class to fight for better conditions. The Peasant Revolt of 1381 was a case in point. Significantly, the main demand was to end the feudal system of labour exploitation, payment in produce and direct service, and to be paid money wages for agreed work. At the same time many workers had been excluded from the feudal labour market due to enclosure of common land and the replacement of arable farming by sheep, so that “free labour” became available to work for wages.


The ruling, possessing class had also undergone changes. Large accumulations of liquid capital were in private hands in the form of merchant capital, and means of setting this capital to work by exploiting wage labour were offered by new technology. Up to 15000 water mills were in operation by the year 1300, and water power could be put to any number of uses.


This quantitative change over time, the materially based deepening of the conflict of interests of the two classes, manifests the abstract relation of positive and negative. The ruling class represented the positive side, tending to maintain the existing status quo. The negative side was the working class, struggling to negate the status quo. To negate simply means to cancel, to render null, and negation is the process as it happens. The third law we have given, the law of the negation of the negation, began to manifest itself. The increasing, quantitative negation which we are discussing is expressed by the second of these negations as the law is written, which is later itself to be negated by the first negation as it is written. The second negation, a quantitative process through time, is negated by the first negation, a sudden qualitative leap. Let us see how the three laws manifested themselves in the transition from feudalism to capitalism.


All this mass of contradiction in the social and economic life of the country had of necessity to find political expression; it is in the political life of society that all the inner contradictions are expressed and resolved.


The absolute political power in the land was the king. He was by far the biggest feudal landlord and was bound to represent the feudal class against the rising bourgeoisie, the capitalist class. Capitalism could not develop without negating the feudal hierarchical social structure to make way for individual freedoms and enterprise. This negation took place in a progressive, quantitative way. The class conflict intensified to the point of crisis resulting in civil war. Here was the second negation, the negation of the first, quantitative negation. This first negation was a process of change through time, and to negate such a process means to bring it to an end, and the result is a qualitative leap, the transformation of quantity into quality.   


So the second negation was not a process through time, it was a qualitative leap, and it is the nature of this leap that lays bare the law of motion human society. The feudal system under the king was maintained by the coercive power of the state. The absolute power of the king rested on armed force – the tower of London, the wrack, armed soldiers, magistrates in the villages. In order to establish the property and democratic rights of capitalist society Cromwell had to raise a rival army to defeat and smash this machinery of state. But in smashing the feudal state he created a new one, the state of the bourgeoisie, the “new model army”. Here is the mechanics of revolution; the state power passes from the hands of one class into those of another as the result of economic necessity. Marx once characterised revolution as “the locomotive of history”. Very apt.


The next time this “locomotive of history” arrived was in 1789 in France where the revolution took essentially the same form, the negation of the feudal relations of production to those of capitalism and the consequent restructuring of the class divided society. Next the revolution came to Germany where the individual feudal principalities were united into one capitalist nation state.


In 1871 the revolution returned to France, but this time under different conditions.  


On March 26 the workers of Paris, who had been suffering appalling conditions due to the siege of Paris by the invading Prussian army, elected the Commune, a council or soviet, in order to take control of their situation. Among their political leaders at the time were members of the First International led by Marx and Engels, and anarchists such as Proudhon and Blanqui.  The Commune began immediately to function as a legislative and executive body rolled into one, and this in opposition to the Government of the Third Republic which had come into being the previous September, hence at this juncture there was a situation of dual power, two centres of authority competing to be the single governing power. The Government of the Third Republic relied for its support on the capitalist ruling class of France and Europe, while the Paris Commune represented the working class through the system of local Communes that sprang up spontaneously all over the country.


   Here was the unity of opposites, the positive and the negative, and the conflict between them was intense. The positive side, the outer form of society, was the Third Republic regime of the capitalist ruling class, which contained within itself the negative, the Commune representing the working class, the wage earning proletariat, whose historic role was the transformation of property relations and the relations of production from capitalist private ownership to public ownership and production to meet need instead of the accumulation of profit..


However, although the Commune created a state system including an armed force this quantitative change did not go far enough – the workers made the fatal mistake of leaving the banks under the control of the capitalists who united round the Third Republic government fiercely resisted. Troops were dispatched from Versailles and with the connivance of the besieging Prussian troops, their national enemies but at the same time their class allies against the workers, they entered Paris and began to massacre the workers. As many as 30,000 workers were executed, 38,000 were imprisoned and 7,000 deported.


However, it spite of this defeat the Paris Commune was a historical turning point because although there had been massive revolutionary struggles in the past this was the first time the working class actually set up a government and wielded power for a short period, in all 71 days. The process of transformation came to an end because the quantitative negation of the capitalist system achieved during this time under the Commune proved insufficient to bring about the qualitative leap to workers state power.

  

The experience of the Paris Commune gives us deeper insight into the law governed process of human history. Undoubtedly, all progress takes place according to the laws we have given, but this does not mean that progress is inevitable. History can regress into darker times as well as move forward. This means that we must understand that the history of society moves through the conscious intervention of people, and that those who master the theory and practice of the Marxist science of social evolution will be the ones who make history. “Men make history, but not under conditions of their own choosing”, says Marx.


In 1905 revolution struck again, this time in Russia. At the start of the twentieth century Russia was still almost entirely a backward feudal country, in its cultural being as much Asiatic as European.  The Czar ruled through a heavy handed and despotic bureaucratic state system and democracy of any kind was unknown.   Capitalism came to Russia from outside, by way of foreign direct investment in industry, just as is happening today in countries like Malaysia and Indonesia. 


Conditions for the workers in Czarist Russia were extremely harsh; they worked an eleven hour day and a six day week and in 1904 cost of living increases reduced real wages by 20%. Foreign concerns built gigantic factories to take advantage of the inexperienced and un-organised wage labour force which was recruited from the uneducated peasant population, and in this way the capitalists sowed the seeds of their own destruction by creating the modern working class, the proletariat, which by this time had organised massive trade unions which led a militant strike movement.  This explosive development of capitalism, bringing into being the organised proletariat, was the negative within the positive of Czarist Russia, tending to progress feudal Russia into the modern capitalist world.

 

    But the important lesson from this history concerns the positive rather than the negative. In 1905 110,000 workers at the Putilov Iron Works in St. Petersburg came out on strike when 4 of their members were sacked. But what the workers didn’t know was that the strike had been provoked by the Okrana, the Czarist secret police, and it was a trap. The Okrana had set up an organisation called The Association of Russian Factory Workers and a massive demonstration was organised calling for reduced hours, wage increases, an end to the Russo-Japanese war, and calling for a Constituent Assembly, a representative and legislative body of the parliamentary type. The appeal was taken at the head of a huge procession to the Winter Palace to be presented to the Czar, but the procession was attacked by Cossacks and police and over 100 workers were killed and 300 wounded, and this incident is remembered as Bloody Sunday.  


   Although the strikes continued the workers had suffered a serious defeat and years of repression followed, and this shows the nature of the positive side of the dialectic. The positive is not simply a passive, inert principle – in times of crisis it can be an active force resisting the changing, progressive force of the negative, a reactionary principle tending to wind the clock of history back. This conflict between the two we call contradiction; it is the fundamental principle of all existence, the mode of existence of matter and the cause of its motion and change. We explained this above when we asserted that it is not the opposites that determine the conflict, but the conflict that determines to opposites.


   This period has gone down in history as the 1905 Revolution, and although it was unsuccessful it changed Russia for ever. After a few years of reactionary dictatorship things began to change.  In January 1917, immediately prior to the great revolution of that year, Trotsky summarised the results of the 1905 Revolution as follows:-

 

   “The revolution was defeated.  The same old forces and almost the same figures now rule Russia that ruled her twelve years ago.  Yet the revolution has changed Russia beyond recognition.  The kingdom of stagnation, servitude, vodka and humbleness has become a kingdom of fermentation, criticism, fight. Where once there was a shapeless dough – impersonal formless people, ‘Holy Russia’, - now social classes consciously oppose each other, political parties have sprung into existence, each with its programme and methods of struggle. January 9th, [1905], opens a new Russian history.” (L. Trotsky, The Lessons of the Great Year)



This quantitative negation was about to be negated by the biggest qualitative leap in political history. Once again it began with a massive response of the people to the intolerable conditions of life that resulted from the World War which began in 1914. Millions had been conscripted into the army which was suffering appalling casualties, and while there were shortages of all kinds of essentials and workers were suffering harsh working conditions, huge profits were being made by industry. Agitation began on the 23rd February and soon there were massive strikes and demonstrations, the troops of the St. Petersburg garrison mutinied and joined the people, and the Czar was forced to abdicate. 


Then, just as had happened in Paris in 1871 a Russia in 1905, workers councils began to spring up, and the most important of these was the St. Petersburg Soviet which elected Leon Trotsky as chairman. 


At this point there were three social classes in Russia, each striving to impose its own economic system through the political constitution. The existing aristocracy and landlord class struggling to maintain the existing feudal system; the rising capitalist class, calling for a constituent assembly and the private property relations of capitalism; and the new industrial proletariat whose ultimate interests lay in socialised property relations and Soviet power.  As a result the revolution took on a double aspect. The positive of the feudal system was quantitatively negated by the negative of the capitalist class with the workers doing all the fighting as usual, but this negative was a positive with respect to the negative of the working class, struggling to negate it and to impose its own hegemony.


We now see that the simple relation between positive and negative can be likened to the finite “cell” of society, which constitutes an infinite system of such relations, changing and evolving quantitatively through time and through qualitative, revolutionary leaps.   The biggest ever such leap was about to take place.


The Bolsheviks, who were leading the revolutionary struggle of the working class, had been educated on the writings of Marx and Engels, who had given the general picture of the stages of social history we mentioned above, savagery, barbarism, feudalism and capitalism. (See The origin of the Family, Private Property and the State by Engels.)  According to this, the Russian revolution of 1917 should logically result in a capitalist system which, according to its own inner dialectic, would prepare the way for the transition to socialism in the fullness of time. But when Lenin arrived back in St. Petersburg from his exile in Switzerland in April, he called for a workers revolution with the demand “all power to the soviets!” Everyone was astonished and thought he had misunderstood the situation. The only one to agree with him was Trotsky who returned in March from America.


How had Lenin arrived at this outrageous position? A consummate master of the dialectical method, he had been able to assimilate all the different sides and aspects of the complex situation and to discover its substance, the inner unity of all the conflicting forces, both positive and negative.  He concluded that the capitalist class was too weak to impose its system on the whole of society, and that they were bound to suffer catastrophic defeat at the hands of the Czarist system and the result would be years of dictatorship and economic ruin.  The actual real, concrete, living situation presented the abstract historical sequence given by Marx and Engels in a modified form. The revolution, the locomotive of history, could not stop at the capitalist station. It had to pass straight on to workers power and the social revolution.


From all this we can conclude that social history moves according to the dialectical laws we have given. The recent attempts under the Thatcher and Blair regimes to deny the class divided nature of society through suppression of trade unions, abandoning the socialist perspective, accompanied by rhetorical nonsense like “healing the wounds of society”, are clearly reactionary attempts the prop up the capitalist status quo, to oppose the reactionary positive against the progressive negative of the social revolution. It will take more than this last gasp of ruling class halitosis to stop the locomotive of history.


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