Dialectical Materialism and Politics

The concepts of ideology, economic determinism, and the class struggle complete the theoretical parts of Marx’s social philosophy. They were to provide the stimulus to a working-class revolution and also a guide to the strategy of revolutionary parties, for the purpose of a philosophy, as Mar said, is not to interpret the world but to change it.

They convey the impression of a high degree of intellectual originality and of penetrating observation, but not less of an irritating indefiniteness of meaning. The root of their indefiniteness in every case is the underlying vagueness in Marx’s system already mentioned, namely, the impossibility of distinguishing clearly between the economic basis and the superstructure.

Because of this indefiniteness the claims that Marx’s socialism is in some special sense scientific and that his the ories have a unique predictive value are wholly exaggerated. He made several far-sighted predictions about the future of capitalism, but he also was often wrong, as might be true of any man with a great fund of knowledge and keen insight. But this is not the same as science. The great importance of the concepts mentioned merits comment at this point.

The words “ideology” is the only term from Marx’s formidable vocabulary that has come into common use, and though Marx did not coin the word, he gave it more or less the meaning that it now has in common usage. The word has long ceased to have any connotation of Marxism. Its meaning hardly admits of precise definition, though it refers to a fact now generally recognized.

This is the fact that any social group which acts together as a unit must have a common body of beliefs, values, and convictions that reflects its understanding of itself, of its environment, and of other social groups with which it has trans actions. Such a body of common beliefs is indeed a condition of its existence as a group.

These beliefs range all the way from knowledge to myth, with no very sharp dividing lines between them, because until they are questioned they all seem to those who share them to be merely the normal ways for human beings to think or believe. That every society does and must have such a body of shared ideas is now a commonplace of cultural anthropology.

In Marx’s usage, and to same degree in common usage, the word ideology is likely to have a fain sometimes an explicit-implication of condescension; it assumes the superior sophistication of the user as compared with the simple minded attitude of those who merely take an idea without question, Sometimes the word has connotations like rationalization,with full thinking, or prejudice.

The distinctive claim of Marx’s theory is that ideological beliefs are characteristic of social classes and reflect the position of the class in the class structure of the society, which in turn can be explained by the system of economic production.

This is certainly much too limited, for any group may have its typical beliefs and attitudes, and if the word has the usual sense of rationalization, Freud’s psychology can provide more examples than economics. In Marx’s use the word described especially the theories of natural law in liberal political theory or in classical economics, which he regarded as typical of middle-class people.

The use of “ideology” in politics is almost always controversial. Unmasking an opponent is standard Marxian practice, it means showing that his arguments make a pretense of reasonableness but are really covert defenses of class privilege, and seem valid only because of his class prejudices.

For controversial purposes it is often very effective, but it is negative and can also be self-defeating; because, since everyone has some sort of ideology, unmasking is a game that can be played on everyone and that everyone can play. And when everything, including Marxism itself, has been unmasked, the positive conclusion has still to be drawn and defended. Any serious reasoning, on politics or any other subject, simply must go on the assumption that good evidence can be distinguished from bad. This capacity is no more characteristic of one social class than of another.

Marx’s theory of economic determinism also was an idea of great originality, highly suggestive but also capable of fantastic exaggeration which Engels himself thought it necessary to disclaim and which sometimes brought the idea into unmerited disrepute. As G. D. H. Cole, by no means an unsympathetic critic of Marxism, once said, There are Marxists who cannot see a flapper use her lipstick without producing pat an explanation of her conduct in terms of the processes of production and the class struggle.

The difficulty of seeing the importance of the idea was largely occasioned by Marx himself, by his insistence on the priority of economic to all other explanations and by his description of economic factors as material and therefore more scientific or more open to observation than others.

This was in reality a fragment of Marx’s metaphysics, his predilection for materialism. But when a social scientist is talking about human behavior-and what people do in economic relations is behavior-drawing a sine between mind and matter is neither possible nor useful. Another obstacle that Marx set up against appreciating economic determinism was his tendency to turn it into a philosophy of history.

This was a frequent nineteenth-century speculation, quite baseless and often merely a misunderstanding of organic evolution-that there is some standard, straight-line succession of stages that every society runs through. Yet when all the objections are made, economic explanation in political and social history is enormously useful. No historian would now disregard it.

Technology, transportation, trade routes, available raw materials, the distribution of wealth in a society have always been important for history and politics, and they still are. They are related to the political institutions of a society, its law, its social classes, and its morals and art. All these together form an intricately related complex, and no single factor explains them all, but neither can the economy be left out.

Economic determinism was one factor-certainly not the only one-in making the study of politics more realistic than was possible with the utilitarian separation of politics from economics, or with an almost wholly legalism approach to the subject. It was a step in the direction of a later tendency to bring it into contact with social and cultural history, or with anthropology and social psychology. The abuses of economic interpretation in history by socialists after Marx came, as Engels said, from those who used it as an excuse for not studying history.

The concepts of ideology and economic determinism underpinned the concept of the class struggle, so that the three together were considered by Marx to provide a strategical guide for the proletariat in accomplishing the social revolution. Marx’s theory of social classes was in fact largely a priority and designed to fit his theory of social revolution.

He certainly never made an empirical study of the class structure of any society. His theory was indeed put together rather incongruously from his experience as a revolutionist in France, supplemented by his valid perception of the social importance of the industrial revolution which, at the time when Marx wrote, was mainly a phenomenon of English society.

Thus he assumed a dominant middle class, essentially plutocratic and mainly urban, sharply distinguished from a nobility which was a feudal remnant, and from a large body of peasant farmers. None of this applied at all accurately to England, where capitalist agriculture had displaced the peasant proprietor.

In England also the wealthy middle class had intermarried extensively with the nobility. Marx’s theory, therefore, was in many respects not at all a good guide to political strategy. It never made any significant impression on the English working class, who according to Marx’s theory ought to have been its readiest recipients. Marxian party socialism succeeded far better in Germany than in France, yet Marx always looked upon Germany as a backward country in comparison with either France or England.

Marx’s account of the behavior of social classes presented some theoretical peculiarities. A social class is for him a collective entity, as nations were for Hegel, and their members, as he said in the Preface to Capital, can be treated as personifications of economic categories, representations of special class relations and class interests.

As a rule, therefore, a social class acts competitively in its own interest, very much like the economic man of classical economics. But the dialectic requires that its ideology should be also at some point self-contradictory and its behavior suicidal.

Though an individual’s beliefs and behavior are assumed in the main to be those that the position of his class impresses on him, the class must also occasionally produce unusual individuals who break loose and provide a new ideology for a rising class that will supplant the old ruling class. As Marx said in the Communist Manifesto, there is a portion of the bourgeois ideologists, who have raised themselves to the level of comprehending theoretically the historical movements as a whole.

The passage was written at a time when Marx thought of communists not as a political party but as intellectualism revolutionists able to spark and direct discontent from the outside. The passage provided the germ of the role that Lenin assigned to the Marxist intellectual and indirectly therefore of Lenin’s theory of the party as the vanguard of the proletariat.

The final disappearance of social classes, which Marx expected to happen in the final stage of socialism, seems to be logically no more than a fragment of romantic individualism that Marx never got rid of. It is quite discrepant with the collectivist bent of his social philosophy or the generally realistic temper of his thought. Both he and Engels attributed classes to the division of social labor, and how a society becoming steadily more highly industrialized can simplify its specialization defies explanation.

The struggle for power between social classes provides the driving force for politics, because as Marx understands political organization, some class must at any given time be dominant. It will use its superior power to exploit classes with less power, and the state is merely the apparatus of power which it uses for exploitation, a committee for managing the common affairs of the dominant class. The law is a body of rules that upholds what the exploiting class calls its rights.

The key to successful political leadership is the understanding that politics is merely a conventionalized kind of warfare, that a party is the general staff which plans and directs the strategy of whatever class it represents. A conception of politics like this obviously represents the point of view of a revolutionist who regards the existing political system as so unjust that it can only be smashed. It represents also the point of view of a person so far from power that he never contemplates even in imagination what it would be like to have the responsibility of governing.

After the system is smashed, however, the successful revolutionist will have nothing but law and politics to put together a new system, and-he will certainly not describe that, even in his own mind, as merely a means of exploitation. Like Stalin he will describe the relations between peasants and industrial workers in Russia as “friendly,” which will be as fictitious, or as true, as the same statement made about relations between the classes in any society.

For if classes depend on the division of labor, it is as easy to follow Plato in describing their relations as cooperative as to follow Marx in describing them as hostile, the truth being that in some respects they are the one and in some respects the other. Pending the revolution, a party which thinks of social classes as continually at war will give its attention to planning the revolution and will have very hazy plans for doing anything constructive afterward. In general this is what Marx did.


SAKHRI Mohamed
SAKHRI Mohamed

I hold a Bachelor's degree in Political Science and International Relations in addition to a Master's degree in International Security Studies. Alongside this, I have a passion for web development. During my studies, I acquired a strong understanding of fundamental political concepts and theories in international relations, security studies, and strategic studies.

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