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The Marxist world outlook

The most fundamental question in philosophy is about the connection between human beings and the universe in which we exist, between reality and our understanding of it, between our being and our consciousness.

For Marxism, this connection is especially important because we want thinking, acting human beings to change material reality—to create a world free from exploitation and all forms of oppression.


The first issue we have to consider, therefore, is whether such a connection exists between thought and existence, between consciousness and being, which would enable us to change the conditions of our existence in a profound, revolutionary way.

Can we create a future broadly in accordance with aspirations, ideas and plans that we have thought up in advance?

Not necessarily or at all, if there is another force which is more powerful than human thought and action. Such a force might be a god, or a spirit of good or evil, or it may be called karma or ‘fate’. Although such forces are said to exert influence within the material universe, they are usually held by their believers to be superior to the universe, to exist independently of it. In some belief systems, such forces actually created the material universe or—in some mysterious way—are inside ‘nature’ itself. Yet, perhaps oddly, when ideas, feelings or values are attributed to such a force, they are invariably and recognisably human ones.

A modern version of this outlook is that something called ‘human nature’ substantially determines—and in particular depresses—the conditions and potentials of human society. This so-called human nature is usually presented as something unchanging, unchangeable and almost entirely negative: that as a species we are prejudiced, selfish and greedy due to something (which is never precisely identified) inside us.

It is no coincidence that these ideas were first propagated systematically in the earliest phase of capitalist development, with the rise of merchants and bankers in the so-called ‘mercantilist’ period. From Thomas Hobbes onwards, it has been argued that human beings are innately individualistic, selfish, and acquisitive—the very values which capitalist development requires, promotes and, so it is claimed, harnesses to the general benefit of all.

Yet such a pessimistic, defeatist theory of human behaviour is disproved every day across the planet by a billion acts of friendship, thoughtfulness, self-sacrifice and generosity.

What we have been looking at are in fact different schools of idealist philosophy, although not ‘idealist’ in the everyday sense of the word i.e. to want everything to be perfect. They are idealist because those who propagate them believe that ideas—their own or those of some supernatural force which they have created in their imagination—are superior to the material universe.

The materialist outlook, on the other hand, asserts that the material universe is primary. The universe existed before our consciousness of it did, and today continues to exist independent of our consciousness of it. Here, of course, we are not dealing with ‘materialism’ in the more common, everyday meaning of the word, namely, an excessive desire to possess material things.

Materialist philosophy goes further and points out that our consciousness, our thoughts and ideas, are themselves the product of matter. They have been manufactured by the human brain—a highly complex form of matter—which is located in our material body, through which it receives its sensations from the material world around us (including the ideas received from other human beings and through our own sensory images, experiences and so on).

Materialism holds that there is nothing in the material world which should forever remain a mystery to us. Through science and reason, we have developed knowledge and understanding of gravity, electricity, weather, the seasons—all of which once fed superstitious beliefs in gods and spirits. Despite all our deficiencies, mistakes and regressions, the history of human society has largely been one of material and intellectual progress, at least up until now. Furthermore, we continue to enlarge our knowledge of the material universe and to exert—not always for the best—our control over substantial aspects of it.

We have no evidence that some supernatural force or other created the material universe, or guides or determines its course of development. When pressed about the supposed existence of such a force—about its origins in particular—idealists invite us into the realm of mysticism. They often tell us that we can never know the origins of such-and-such a force, or why it acts as it does. Ultimately, we are implored to have ‘faith’.

So why are so many people devoutly religious in what is supposed to be the age of reason? Marx once described religion as ‘the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world’ and, more famously, as the ‘opium of the people’ (although he meant opium in the sense of a pain-killing refuge from harsh realities rather than an addictive drug). For Lenin, religious faith was a form of ‘false consciousness’, just as today we might regard the spiritual content of, say, nationalism as being so.

Thus, we return to the question: can human beings change social reality and hence determine the future in accordance with some kind of plan, if only an outline one? What are the possibilities and how can they be realised? What are the dangers, and how can they be minimised if not eliminated?

As a materialist philosophy, Marxism takes the material world as its starting point.

To begin with, therefore, we have to be conscious of the material basis of our consciousness. In other words, we have to recognise and take full account of our own thought processes—and in particular of the fact that our own beliefs and ideas are formed from the interaction between our brain, our senses and the material world. This means that our beliefs, ideas and values can be partial, self-centred, distorted by our own experiences etc.—but also that they can be enriched by drawing more fully upon the evidence provided by the material world and its development.

Secondly, we reject the notion that human beings are restricted in what they can achieve by any mysterious external or superior force.

Thirdly, Marxism argues that in order to change reality, we first have to understand it—including all the forces at work in society. Which forces can be harnessed, strengthened and directed for progressive and revolutionary change? Which ones oppose such change and thus have to marginalised, weakened and deflected? We have to make what Lenin called ‘a concrete analysis of the concrete situation’.

But Marxism is not merely materialism. There are other philosophical outlooks which analyse the world in terms of its material reality—but which conclude that nothing much can be changed, at least not by human beings in a conscious, planned way.

That is why, of all the quotations available from Marx, the inscription on his plinth at Highgate cemetery insists that: ‘Philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point, however, is to change it’.


To understand how this can be done, Marxist materialism makes use of dialectics—a way of thinking which explains how things develop and change.

The laws of dialectics can be summarised as follows:

  • Everything is part of the whole, interconnected, an element in the material unity of the universe. So we should not be partial, blinkered or narrow in our outlook and analysis.
  • Everything is in flux, in motion, in the process of changing. Movement or change may be dramatic, sudden, obvious—or small, gradual, virtually invisible. Although on the surface nothing appears to be happening, underneath elements are growing or declining, moods are changing—sometimes through connections with things happening elsewhere. So, nothing is unchanging forever. No form of human society is infinite and unchangeable.
  • Movement and change occur through the conflict of opposites. Within any particular thing there are elements, forces and tendencies opposed to one another. They give rise to the internal contradictions within a given thing. At the same time, these conflicting elements, forces and tendencies are parts of the whole of that particular object or phenomenon, co-existing within it as a ‘unity of opposites’. However, this object also exists in a wider context or environment, thereby giving rise to external contradictions between it and other particular things, and between the object and its environment as a whole. Internal or external contradictions which reflect conflicting interests that cannot be reconciled are said to be fundamentally antagonistic. Such conflicting elements and forces will not be able to co-exist permanently in the same unity or environment. Something has to give. Eventually, an antagonistic contradiction sharpens to the point where one force has to vanquish the other. The old unity is broken, and a new unity has to be constructed under the leadership of the victorious force.
  • In the process of struggle, the opposing forces have an impact on one another, changing each other to a greater or lesser degree. This is what Marxism calls the ‘interpenetration of opposites’. The struggle itself will also have an impact on the contending forces. At the conclusion of the struggle, the victorious force is not the same as it was at the beginning. It may, for example, have absorbed some features of the contrary force, themselves transformed in the conflict.
  • Changes of degree—of quantity—will at some point produce a fundamental change in the quality of something i.e. a change in its essence or character. For instance, a workplace may begin with just a few workers in a trade union. But as the level of unionism increases and the employer is compelled to negotiate collective terms and conditions, so the whole character or quality of industrial relations in that workplace will change. Recruitment to the union multiplies—an example of qualitative change in turn producing quantitative change. The same processes can come to embrace whole industrial sectors and whole national economies.
  • Finally, fundamental change involves what Engels called the ‘negation of the negation’. That which negates something in the process of revolutionary change can itself come to be negated by a new force which arises in contradiction to the new. But the result is not the restoration of the old, previously-defeated force or institution or idea, but its restoration in a new form and at a higher level.

Marx and Engels applied dialectical materialism to what was known in the 19th century about the development of human society. This enabled them to define more precisely the different stages of development and to explain how and why societies have changed from one type to another.

They began by asking the most fundamental question: how did each type of society produce and reproduce the material conditions of its own existence? Which groups or classes of people did the producing? Who commanded the forces of production—the material resources, the technology and the labour power? And what were the relations between these different classes involved in the production process?


Marx and Engels argued that understanding the economic basis of a society—its mode of production—was essential to understanding the institutions, ideas, laws and customs which develop from and come to rest upon those economic foundations. Thus they identified the different types of human society—or ‘modes of production’—which had existed since the beginning of recorded history.

These were, in order of their appearance:

  • Primitive Communism in which the means of production such as the land, animals, traps and fires were owned in common by kinship groups.
  • Slave Society which arose as technological advance made possible a social surplus of food, weapons, shelter etc., where tribes clashed over scarce resources and surpluses thereby creating classes of warriors and slaves—the former later turning the latter into their own private property.

It was during the first, patriarchal stage of slavery that women lost out in the division of labour, in the ownership and inheritance of property and therefore in social status, suffering what Engels called the ‘world-historic defeat of women’. Some societies did not progress to the more advanced, urbanised second stage of slavery (ancient or classical society as in the Roman Empire), but went directly from patriarchal slavery to the next mode of production.

  • Feudalism which emerged out of the collapse and overthrow of slave societies, at first as a largely rural mode of production in which ownership and control of land—the chief means of production—determined power, wealth and status. With this ownership of land went control over the lives of the ’emancipated’ slaves who now worked it as ‘serfs’ in conditions of semi-slavery. Later, serfs became ‘free peasants’ with varying rights of tenure over plots of land.

Some societies, notably in Asia, combined aspects of primitive communism, slavery and feudalism. The nature of the climate and of the land—large tracts of which were desert—made artificial irrigation the prerequisite for agriculture. This in turn required collective public works at village, provincial and even national levels and maintained communal ownership of land in localised societies. While control of vital water resources and land provided the impetus for conquest and despotism, the lack of private ownership deprived the Asiatic mode of production of the dynamic which, elsewhere, spawned within feudalism a new, more dynamic mode of production.

  • Capitalism as capitalist farmers and capitalist landowners, merchants and manufactory masters organised the production of a surplus of commodities for sale in the market-place. More and more agricultural, cottage and workshop production was carried out by hired labour, made available by the separation of the peasantry from the land and their sharper differentiation into independent farmers, tenant farmers and landless wage labourers. The different capitalist elements—including bankers and financiers—developed into a more cohesive capitalist class as they created a national market and came to challenge and overthrow the old feudal order.

What are the common characteristics of all societies since primitive communism?

Firstly, they all germinated within the womb of the preceding mode of production. Feudalism arose within slave society as the heads of kinship groups became the owners of landed estates which they extended into principalities and kingdoms through conquest, marriage and inheritance. Capitalist commodity production, trade and commerce developed within feudal society, speeding the formation of a national market and the fusion of fiefdoms, petty kingdoms and annexed territories into national states.

Secondly, they have all been class-divided societies, in which one major class does most of the producing while another owns the means of production (less so in Asiatic societies), commands the forces of production and consumes much of the wealth produced. The relations between different classes in production and in society more widely are therefore based on inequality and exploitation. Through various institutions of power and influence, backed by customs and law—through the ‘superstructure’ of society in fact—the exploiting class exercises its rule over the others. In particular, it wields political power through the apparatus of the state which, ultimately, has the capacity to use force.

Thirdly, each society has been characterised by the struggle over wealth and power between the main social classes—between slave-owners and slaves (and between slave-owners and the independent producers, artisans and plebeians), between landowners and peasants and then between landowners and the rising capitalist class.

Fourthly, there comes a point in each society when the relations of production hold back society’s potential to develop its forces of production, notably through scientific and technological progress. The existing ruling class seeks to preserve the existing relations of production as the basis of its economic wealth and political power. The revolutionary class seeks political power in order to abolish those relations, thereby liberating both itself and society’s latent productive forces.

For example, under feudalism capitalist landowners, merchants and workshop masters wanted to found new enterprises, to lend and borrow money at interest for investment and attract labour from feudal estates into the new capitalist workforce. But they found their path blocked by traditional patterns of land ownership and use, by laws and customs tying peasants to estates and by the ideas and forces of powerful institutions such as the Church and the monarchy. Feudalism’s relations of production, whereby the big landowners commanded most of society’s labour, wealth and—through the superstructure—political power, were restricting the further development of society’s productive forces.

Consequently, not only did those relations of production—the basis of the feudal class system—have to be abolished. The whole superstructure of institutions, laws and ideas which reinforced and perpetuated feudalism had to be swept away in order to bring this about. Political power had to be taken from the feudal landowning class. It was the struggle between the rising capitalist class and the old feudal aristocracy which gave rise to the English Civil War in the 1640s and the French Revolution of the 1790s.

Those revolutions were fought under the banners of liberty, democracy and the rights of the people against tyranny and despotism. Free trade, commerce and production were presented as something which would benefit society as a whole, not merely the merchants, financiers and industrialists. Naturally, much of the argument and terminology reflected the predominance of religious faith at the time, with both sides interpreting or re-interpreting the scriptures in order to justify their cause. But the conflict was, at root, one between contending classes for political power—between those who would use it either to impede or to clear the way for the rapid development of capitalism.

The capitalist class or bourgeoisie (from the French for the town burghers who were mostly merchants and manufacturers) achieved political power as a revolutionary class, taking over and restructuring the machinery of state, leading a coalition of the exploited and oppressed.

In Britain unlike in France, the transfer of power was only a partial one—the monarchy, the House of Lords and the established Church were soon restored and the aristocracy retained much of its wealth and status. The British capitalist class did not acquire full political power—notably control over the state apparatus through elections and Parliament—until the second half of the 19th century, having been enriched and strengthened by the African slave trade, American slave plantations and by the Industrial Revolution in Britain itself.


Since its emergence as the predominant mode of production in Britain, western Europe and north America, capitalism has revolutionised the face of the planet. Some of its own features have changed and new ones have come to the fore. Yet as a mode of production, its essential characteristics—those which define it as capitalism—have remained the same. What are these?

Firstly, the production of commodities—of products for sale in the market rather than for consumption by the producers or their master—is generalised. Capitalist society, Marx wrote, is an ‘immense accumulation of commodities’. We are surrounded by them, wearing them, sitting on them, writing with them and— perhaps after this class—buying, cooking, eating or drinking them.

Secondly, the means of production—the industrial land and buildings, plant and machinery, tools, raw materials and energy inputs—are mostly in private ownership. Today, this takes the form of joint ownership by capitalists who are stockholders in industrial, financial and commercial corporations. They and their administrative representatives also control the pension and insurance funds to which workers contribute, and which are used to help maintain capitalist enterprise.

Thirdly, a different class—the proletariat—works these means of production to produce society’s wealth. Capitalism has created this proletariat, which neither owns the means of production nor most of the wealth which it works them to produce. It has to sell its capacity to work—its labour power—to employers as a commodity in order to secure the wages and social benefits which it needs in order to survive.

In Britain today employers, senior managers and proprietors (including those genuinely self-employed) comprise no more than 15 per cent of the working population, with senior professionals another 5 per cent. About four-fifths of the adult population are working class i.e. dependent upon wages, benefits or state pensions for their livelihood. The richest one-tenth of the population—i.e. most of the capitalist class—own around three-quarters of society’s material wealth; the richest one-quarter own more than four-fifths; and the poorer half of the population own just 1 per cent of the wealth.

Despite the spread of home—or at least mortgage—ownership among a section of the working class, the term proletariat is still appropriate. It comes from the Latin for ‘offspring’, denoting the fact that all the poor can be said to really own are their own children.

Discussion Questions

  • Think of a current issue or event of political importance. How would a dialectical materialist approach to it deepen our understanding and enable us to make a more significant contribution to political struggle?
  • Identify some idealist (in the philosophical sense) notions or ideas which limit the struggle for progressive change today. How might they be challenged or overcome?
  • Why is class struggle the motor which drives forward economic and social development—and how does this apply to capitalism today?
  • What role does human agency have within the class struggle – can we change the course of history and, if so, how?

After May, Communist Party members wanting to set up an online discussion with other comrades, can invite them to a meeting using our meeting facility.

  • K Marx & F. Engels, Manifesto of the Communist Party
  • VI Lenin, ‘Karl Marx: A Brief Biographical Sketch with an Exposition of Marxism’ and ‘The Three Sources and Three Component Parts of Marxism’ (available from the Communist Party’s Classics of Communism range as, On Karl Marx and Marxism, 2007)
  • F Engels, Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classical German Philosophy