How Marxists think

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Cast your mind back to the days following September 11, 2001. George W Bush issued an ultimatum to the peoples of the world: “You’re either with us or with the terrorists.” Politicians are particularly good at simplifying an issue beyond the point of absurdity. However, this spin doctoring is useful, because it shows the limitations of Formal Logic, the dominant mode of thought in Western society. In politics, and in the physical world, no situation is ever black or white. Absolute certainty is the refuge of the narrow-minded bigot and the demagogue. Hmm, I’ve just described the aforesaid George W!

In any case, his nasty threat is a tautology. The carnage in Iraq and Afghanistan and the attacks on basic civil liberties since 2001 have shown that the “us” means the criminal gang running the White House — terrorists by any definition. So we get to “You’re either with the terrorists or with the terrorists.” Maybe it’s one of Bush’s famous misstatements. He meant to say, perhaps, “You’re either with us or with the other terrorists.”

First principles. “Philosophy” comes from an ancient Greek phrase meaning “love of knowledge.” It also refers to the study of the processes of thought and of the laws underlying the functioning of the universe. Formal logic is only one of several philosophies invented since the beginning of civilisation, but it has dominated Judeo-Christian (and Islamic) thought for over two thousand years. It was invented by the ancient Greek thinkers, one of whom, Aristotle, devised three laws. These are:

  • The law of identity: “A” equals A — a thing is always equal to itself
  • The law of contradiction: “A” cannot be non-A
  • The law of the excluded middle: “A” cannot be both A and non-A

One of the reasons that formal logic has been dominant is because it seems to explain the world in a “common sense” way. It is a valid way of thinking, but it is limited. Scratch the surface and these limitations are plain enough.

Formal logic demands a static universe. It insists that things don’t move, because movement is self-contradiction. A pot of water is either boiling or not. There is no room for the process by which the water passes from cold to cool to warm to hot.

Formal logic puts rigid barriers between things. But it’s plain to any gardener that that’s not reality. A seed becomes a tomato plant, which fruits and produces another seed. Formal logic excludes difference from identity. Not one of the 6 billion people on earth is a copy of anyone else. Yet every one of us is human.

The laws of formal logic are presented as absolute and unchanging. But everything is relative and interdependent. You are both you and something different from the person you were yesterday.

Formal logic can’t explain itself, its origins, or its development. We are meant to accept it exactly as if handed down by god on stone tablets.

Thought in motion. The upheaval of the French Revolution inspired a revolution in thought. Georg Hegel and other German intellectuals rebelled against the stultifying inertia of aristocratic Germany. They held that, like the French monarchy, nothing was fixed and immobile. Hegel began from the premise that everything that is real is rational. Every thing that has a proven existence has an explanation. That is, it has a reason according to the laws of reality. Those laws themselves are objective: everything has an explanation, which is capable of independent verification. Putting together reality, rationality and necessity, Hegel concluded that everything that exists is justified. Hegel had his limits. He was an idealist, believing that thought determines reality.

Yet his philosophy was revolutionary, because it also introduced movement into logic. Everything might be justified, but that justification is not fixed. Everything that exists eventually turns into its opposite and ceases to be. This is “negation.” But this was not a “negative” idea. Negation is itself negated by the creation of a new positive. A seed becomes a tree, which then becomes a seed.

Halfway there. Hegel had transcended formal logic by describing how the world works. Yet his new logic system, dialectics, was incomplete. Younger co-thinkers revolted against the concept of the Absolute Idea, which was a reflection of Hegel’s unwillingness to separate religion from science. Using Hegel’s ideas against him, they argued that without the brain, there was no idea, no mind without body. Most importantly, they considered that ideas came from society. There was no need to look outside humanity for an explanation of its existence. The material world is the source of reality — society arose from the material world, out of the human interaction with nature. Elsewhere in Europe, radical thinkers deduced that social relations arose out of property relations. The boldest held not only that property relations came from the needs of production, but that the mode of production arises from the class nature of society.

Scientific Socialism. Karl Marx and Frederick Engels were young fighters immersed in the struggle against the monarchy. They studied all of the philosophical debates and political economics. They needed to distil the truth in the entire debate into a coherent system, a dialectical materialism. Marx and Engels turned to answering the questions that defeated the utopians: Upon what does the economy depend? What drives technology? They reached the conclusion that political economy is dependent upon human nature. But what accounts for human nature? History and the interaction between humans and the environment.

We have to act in relation to nature in order to survive. But in acting on the natural world, human beings change their own nature. Human beings as a species evolved our intelligence because of this interaction with the natural world. We were not “created” with big brains and superior intellect. The tools we used to modify our environment required learning, repetition and planning. Engels wrote a fascinating pamphlet on this phenomenon, called The Part Played by Labour in the Transition from Ape to Man.

We “became” human when we began using tools to modify the environment in a purposeful manner, knowing that we were doing so. A bird building a nest modifies its environment, but has no awareness of the future. A dog will bathe itself to reduce its load of fleas, but only as a reaction to irritation. A human can reason, “If I build a shelter I will be dry when it rains. If I strike the flint this way, it will make a fire. If I move the cursor over this icon and click, I can find out the time the next train departs.”

All of these actions are the application of labour. And the ability to labour led, over many generations, to the creation of a surplus. People labouring collectively were able to keep some part of this season’s food for next season. Society was freed from nature — that is, from the immediate struggle for survival. Once that happened, a major consequence followed a struggle over control of the social surplus. In freeing itself from the necessity of coping with nature, humanity created a new, economic imperative where the majority were subjugated to production which, for thousands of years, has been controlled by a tiny minority.

From philosophy to action. That’s where socialism comes to the front. Marx and Engels asked these questions: Is socialism necessary? Is it rational, that is can it be concretely described and understood? And finally, is it inevitable — that is, could it grow out of present conditions (as any society must)? The answers were “yes,” “yes,” and “if society is organised to make it inevitable.”

Marxist logic uncovers the excluded middle. It is certainly possible to conceive of a world where both wealth and poverty cease to exist, because goods are freely available according to need. It’s certainly possible to conceive of a world where production is designed to fulfil need. Where no person starves while their crop is shipped to the highest bidder.

What is socialism? In short, it’s a society where the surplus is distributed according to need and where production is planned to meet that need. Where individuals contribute to the collective wealth as they choose and as they are able. Under the present mode of production — capitalism — production is planned, but only to maximise profit, not to meet need. Distribution is globally organised, but goods are only available if exchanged for money. The logic of capitalism is the starkest of formal logic: wealth or poverty, ruled or ruler, individual or community. And so on.

We can indeed grasp the idea of a free, equal society. But we need to make it happen. Conscious social change requires thought and action. As Marx famously stated, “Philosophers have interpreted the world in various ways. The point, however, is to change it.” Dialectical logic offers us a powerful understanding: from the explosion of opposing forces comes change.

And why is that so? It’s the essence of humanity to undertake purposeful change. If anything defines what it means to be human, that does. Formal logic demands that we be passive contemplators. Society is what happens to us, and we deal with it as best we can. But we have always interacted with the world to change it for our needs. Why should society be different? There’s a formal pair: director or actor. Define those who control the wealth as directors and the rest of us as actors. Equate directing with power and acting with powerlessness. Then further equate power with knowledge and powerlessness with ignorance. You have a fair, if rough, description of class society under capitalism.

But unearthing the excluded middle, we discover the obvious logical possibility that we can be both director and actor at the same time. Yet merely understanding that changes nothing. It’s necessary to organise to unseat the self-appointed directors. They, by the way, understand most of this. Strip away the ideology of individual liberty and you find the iron fist of State power: courts, police and armies. The ruling class has always understood that their power is best defended, not by the Idea but by the Gun. Formal logic still has uses: if we challenge them, then they will resist.

And so the crowning achievement of Marxism has been to advance the proposition that out of the economic slavery of capitalism had already appeared the embryo of the new society. The director lost the ability to act ages ago. Capitalism is no longer willing or able to create. It is only destructive, as ceaseless wars and global warming prove only too well. One hundred and sixty years after Marx and Engels published the Communist Manifesto, the collective intellect and labour of the working class already organises society. The Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union has a motto truer than it thought: “We built this city” and this global society. Acting has its own benefits: every building, every page of every book, every keystroke comes from us and us alone. One more action is needed: to take control of our labour.

Never black or white. Freeing one’s thought patterns from the philosophy of formal logic is opening one’s mind to the world as it is. Take the bogus idea of race, which defines people according to an “opposite” pair of skin tones, both of which are political constructs. That skin tone is a range, from very, very dark brown to very, very pale pink, is obvious to anybody with a concept of colour. Here is the excluded middle again, except race excludes reality completely. There is no such thing as race: there is identity ideologically dressed up as difference.

Where on a range do you fix a start point, a benchmark? Where it suits your ideology. Discrimination on the basis of skin tone is nearly as old as private property. But race, a concept dreamed up in early capitalism, is little more than a justification of slavery and colonialism. White equalled wealthy equalled good in the eyes of European merchants and politicians. Black equalled poor equalled bad in those same eyes. From that, a whole set of discriminatory and ultimately murderous policies arose. Human societies show a vast range of cultural, linguistic, economic and physical differences. But all of us can potentially interbreed. We are different and identical, in fundamental ways. “A” = A andnon-A!

The formal logic divide is always at work, emphasising difference and masking identity. The gender binary: male or female. Yet humans have forever shown a range of gender identities and sexual orientations, none of which are separable from each other. The rigid categorisation of people into man or woman (and homosexual or heterosexual, which arises from this) does not reflect reality, but rather a formal logic schema ultimately designed to explain private property and the patriarchal family. There are many others, of which Muslim or non-Muslim, probably a feature in John Howard’s next election campaign, comes instantly to mind. See above discussion of race!

Even in the physical world, formal logic fails. A raindrop becomes a stream, becomes a river, becomes a sea, becomes a cloud. All are distinct states of the identical molecule: water. Different and the same. Even existence and non-existence blur at the smallest scale of the universe. As far as we can tell, mass and energy constantly flicker into and out of the vacuum of space-time.

Bush thunders that we are with his terrorist gang or bin Laden’s. Actually, the vast majority of us wish a very nasty plague on both houses.

Yet formal logic is not completely useless. It’s a rough guide, at least. German revolutionary, Rosa Luxemburg, once put the struggle for human liberation this way: “Socialism or barbarism.” Where’s the excluded middle? There is none. Capitalism and barbarism merge ever more closely.

Which is why the point of Marxism is to change the world.

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