by Don Franks
(based on a talk delivered at Marxism 2010, Wellington)

indexThis is obviously a big subject, which could be approached in a number of ways.  In the small time we have this morning, my aim will be to introduce basic points and hopefully arouse some ongoing interest.

There are various contending definitions of ‘Marxism”. The one I’m tempted to offer today is that Marxism is a set of sharp political tools, which New Zealand leftists tend to leave in the box. Later on in this talk I’ll consider why that has been so frequently the case.

As a more general definition to introduce Marxism, I’ll add that it’s a theory named for its main architect and can be understood as the theory of dialectical materialism based on communist practice. The expression ‘dialectical materialism’ has a forbidding sound and is not common currency in the day-to-day life of most people. Here I see a huge contradiction, because dialectical materialism is a thoroughly practical method of understanding human society and the universe in which we’re placed. Dialectical materialism is also a philosophy which by its nature takes sides with the oppressed.


Take the more familiar word first. Marxism is materialist because it’s a philosophy which recognises the primacy of matter.  As Marx’s collaborator Fredrick Engels put it: “The great basic question of all philosophy, especially of more recent philosophy, is that concerning the relation of thinking and being…. The answers which the philosophers gave to this question split them into two great camps. Those who asserted the primacy of spirit to nature… comprised the camp of idealism. The others, who regarded nature as primary, belong to the various schools of materialism.”

As a materialist philosophy, Marxism regards the production of the necessities of life as the basis on which human ideas arise. That includes the origin and development of religious ideas. This scientific viewpoint is relatively recent. As New Zealand communist Ray Nunes noted: “Up to the mid-nineteenth century the religious – and most of the secular – authorities propagated the idea that the bible, both the old and the new testaments, were the founts of all knowledge. The age of the earth was held to be about six thousand years. The nature of the wider universe was unknown. Today an immense array of factual evidence has been accumulated by the physical sciences – particularly astronomy, geology, chemistry and physics, conclusively proving that the age of the earth is in the vicinity of 4.5 thousand million years, while the age of the universe is approximately 15 thousand million years. Our own solar system with its sun and planets is a tiny part of the Milky Way galaxy, with its two hundred billion stars, and there are at least two billion galaxies in the cosmos, many much vaster than our own. The simplest forms of life on earth originated about three billion years ago, evolving eventually into modern man (homo sapiens) somewhere between one hundred thousand and forty thousand years ago, a mere trifle in geological time.”


So, these days, a materialist philosophical outlook is not so uncommon. However, the prevailing materialist mode of thought is more limited than the outlook developed by Marx. What passes for ‘ordinary’  ’sensible’ thinking is usually a descendant of the formal logic developed by Aristotle. The basic idea of formal logic is that something is either the case or not the case, for example, the cat is or is not sitting on the mat. But, as British socialist John Molyneux put it: “As soon as you take movement and change into account, ( formal logic) ceases to be adequate. A cat moving goes through a moment when it is in the process of passing onto the mat or in the process of passing off it- when it is both on and off the mat. Dialectics is in advance of formal logic because it enables us to grasp this contradiction.”

Dialectics is a method of reasoning aiming to understand things concretely in all their movement, change and interconnection. It is the logic of change, of contradiction, of evolution and development. It’s starting point is the idea – and the fact- that everything changes and is involved in an ongoing process of coming into being and ceasing to be. As Russian revolutionary Trotsky put it: “Dialectical thinking is related to vulgar thinking in the same way that a motion picture is related to a still photograph. The motion picture does not outlaw the still photograph but combines a series of them according to the laws of motion. Dialectics does not deny the syllogism” (formal logic), “but teaches us to combine syllogisms in such a way as to bring our understanding closer to the eternally changing reality.” “Normal” methods of thought tend to take things at their surface appearance value.

Dialectics go beneath the appearance of things to understand their essence, recognising that any thing can only really be understood concretely and in relation to its past, present and future states. Every flower was once a seed and must become dust. Dialectics is not only applicable to nature, but to the ideas of humankind. For example, take the concept of “freedom”. There can be no concept of freedom without its opposite, (constraint, slavery or subordination).

The great rallying cry of human freedom is commonly automatically presented as if it were an eternal truth. In fact, the idea of social freedom is a relatively recently evolved human concept. The concept of freedom could only begin to arise in the human mind with the advent of its opposite, enslavement. Many thousands of years of human existence took place before productivity had developed to an extent where a slave owning class could arise and be sustained. The oppression and resistance of slaves was the precursor to the idea of freedom.

The notion of freedom for all citizens on the planet is even more recent, and subject to all sorts of philosophical confusion. For example, the New Zealand anarchist collective Thr@ll mission statement declares: “We want the maximum possible freedom for each individual, but not at the expense of others. We recognise that because humans are social beings, freedom for all (social equality) is the necessary condition for the freedom of each.” That statement sounds impressive, but on close examination, its meaning disintegrates. If all humans somehow become and remain equally free, then the concept of freedom loses all meaning, and, other than in the form of a dusty historical footnote, ‘freedom’ itself completely disappears.

The more practical problem with Thr@ll’s proposition is its complete abstraction from life. Detached from the actually existing struggle of human social relationships, demanding freedom for each and all has no substantial meaning. In today’s world capitalists want freedom to run their business; workers want freedom from exploitation. Both freedoms cannot happily coexist. As opposed to abstract idealism, dialectics insists on taking as its starting point the concrete analysis of actually existing concrete conditions. Modern dialectics is itself a product of intense real life struggle.

French revolution

The modern development of dialectics was profoundly influenced by one of history’s most significant social upheavals. The innovative German dialectical philosopher Hegel was much moved by the unprecedented explosion of the French Revolution. This overturning of what had been previously seen as the natural order of divinely appointed kings and its radical demands for liberty and equality shook Europe to the core. The ruling classes were seized with terror, idealistic young people were enthralled.

Back in the 1700′s, the French revolution was Venezuela, Nepal, Greece and the Philippines all rolled into one. In 1790, one year after the storming of the Bastille, the 19-year old poet Wordsworth went to France, where he talked to participants in the struggle, joined protests and reveled in what he called the spectacle of “human nature being born again” As Wordsworth later put it in his famous autobiographical work The Prelude: ” […] ‘Twas in truth an hour of universal ferment; mildest men were agitated; and commotions, strife of passion and opinion, filled the walls of peaceful houses with unique sounds. The soil of common life, was, at that time, too hot to tread upon.” (The Prelude, ix, 163-9)

John Molyneux wrote later: “The dialectical theory of development through contradiction was the philosophical expression of the revolution. But because the French Revolution was a bourgeois revolution, one led by lawyers and intellectuals, it necessarily appeared to Hegel that the driving force of history was the struggle between opposite ideas ( between the idea of a monarchy and the idea of a republic, between the idea of aristocracy and the idea of equality and so on). Marx, coming 50 years later and taking the standpoint of the working class, was able to go beyond Hegel and show that this struggle of ideas was a reflection of a struggle of material forces. With Marx the dialectic became the logic of class struggle.”

Of course, revolutions don’t take place every five minutes, because they are extreme forms of human behavior, where everyday caution is thrown to the winds, mildest men are agitated and become violent opponents of authority. What does dialectics have to say about the periods of relative social peace – such as we in New Zealand are in at the moment? How does humdrum everyday life transform to a state of revolution?

A central proposition of dialectics is that quantitative changes become qualitative changes. “It has been said that there are no sudden leaps in nature, and it is a common notion that things have their origin through gradual increase or decrease,” states Hegel. “But there is also such a thing as sudden transformation from quantity to quality. For example, water does not become gradually hard on cooling, becoming first pulpy and ultimately attaining a rigidity of ice, but turns hard at once. If temperature be lowered to a certain degree, the water is suddenly changed into ice, i.e., the quantity – the number of degrees of temperature – is transformed into quality – a change in the nature of the thing.” As British Trotskyist Rob Sewell observed:

“This is the cornerstone of understanding change. Change or evolution does not take place gradually in a straight smooth line. Marx compared the social revolution to an old mole burrowing busily beneath the ground, invisible for long periods, but steadily undermining the old order and later emerging into the light in a sudden overturn. Even Charles Darwin believed that his theory of evolution was essentially gradual and that the gaps in the fossil record did not represent any breaks or leaps in evolution, and would be “filled in” by further discoveries. In this Darwin was wrong. Today, new theories, essentially dialectical, have been put forward to explain the leaps in evolution. Stephen J. Gould and Niles Eldredge termed their dialectical theory of evolution “punctuated equilibria”. They explained that there were long periods of evolution where there were no apparent changes taking place, then suddenly, a new life form or forms emerged. In other words, quantitative differences gave rise to a qualitative change, leading to new species. The whole of development is characterised by breaks in continuity, leaps, catastrophes and revolutions. The emergence of single-cellular life in the earth’s oceans some 3.6 billion years ago was a qualitative leap in the evolution of matter. The “Cambrian explosion”, some 600 million years ago, where complex multicellular life with hard parts exploded onto the scene was a further qualitative leap forward in evolution. In the lower Paleozoic, some 400 to 500 million years ago, the first vertebrate fish emerged. This revolutionary design became dominant and advanced through the amphibians (which lived both in water and on land), through reptiles, and finally branched off into warm-blooded creatures: birds and mammals. Such revolutionary leaps culminated in human beings that have the capacity to think. Evolution is a long process whereby an accumulation of changes inside and outside the organism leads to a leap, a qualitatively higher state of development.”

Applying this principle to history, Ray Nunes wrote: “A war cannot be won by a platoon. But by recruitment a platoon can grow to a battalion, a battalion to a division, and a division into an army capable of winning a war. Similarly, a gradual increase in revolutionary forces within a country can bring about a position of strength from a position of weakness and lead to a successful revolution such as took place in Russia and China, or a successful national liberation war such as took place in Viet Nam. The success of such revolutions in turn gives rise to a great growth in other revolutionary forces. Thus, not only is quantity transformed into quality, but quality is also transformed into quantity. Within the working-class Party the gradual accumulation of experience and of Marxist-Leninist understanding leads to improvement in the quality of its members and in the correctness of its policies. At a certain point this is transformed into an increase in numbers, until continued development of this kind leads to the point where the Party becomes the Party of the masses and is capable of successfully leading the socialist revolution.

Applying dialectics

Marxism only comes to life when it’s applied to actual circumstances. By way of illustration, here is part of a Wellington Workers Party branch examination of the New Zealand trade union movement using dialectics. Past President of the NZ Federation of Labour Jim Knox was fond of declaiming: “Governments come and go, but the union movement goes on forever.” That undialectical and rather complacent sounding statement bears the stamp of its time.

Unions appeared much more durable on Jim’s watch. In that era, compulsory unionism, national awards with gradually improving conditions, large blue collar sites and relatively unrestricted freedom to strike were the order of the day. Then, it was theorised by not a few leftist minded unionists that a steady gradual progression of union and parliamentary reforms would eventually and peacefully lead to a fully socialist New Zealand. In fact, below the surface, the apparently united union movement of the ’60′s and ’70′s was rent with contradictions, several of which were later resolved, mostly to the huge detriment of the movement.

The NZ union movement came into being historically recently and, like everything else, will, eventually go out of being. In fact, we can see right away that the union movement, as the late Jim Knox knew it, has already gone out of being. Jim Knox’s comment about the unions may have been shaped by a line from Tennyson’s poem The Brook: “men may come and men may go, but I go on forever” – rolling along interminably, essentially unchanging. A glance at New Zealand union history is enough to show the opposite – a passage of constant change and contradiction. New Zealand unionism began in the mid 19th century, as a reaction to the harsh terms of employment faced by New Zealand workers. Initial groupings were branches of existing British unions. Local unionism grew and spread in opposition to local employers and government. At the end of the 19th century in 1895, the antagonistic contradictions between labour and capital reached an apparent state of truce. This took the form of government union recognition substituting arbitration for strike action; the IC& A act. New Zealand was heralded internationally as having done away with class antagonisms. But after some time, numerous pent up quantitative frustrations moved some workers to a radical qualitative change in their attitude; illegal industrial action in defiance of the state’s I C& A act as “Labour’s leg-irons”.

In 1935, the antagonistic relationship between unions and the capitalist state again seemingly resolved itself amicably when a new industrial law made union membership compulsory. The surface appearance of this law was to cast the government as a neutral and possibly benign player in the struggle between labour and capital.

Labour Party leaders and union careerists still evoke this long discredited fantasy. In fact, one effect of compulsory unionism was to increase antagonistic contradictions between some workers and time serving union officials. Some unions were maintained not by loyalty from within, but state imposed fee collection undertaken by employers. At its worst, government compulsion turned some unionism into its opposite; a form of state control over workers. A movement made up in large part of unwilling conscripts was in no condition to stop the union busting 1991 Employment Contracts Act.

What is the state of the union movement today? Can the sum of New Zealand unions be properly described as a movement? Today’s equivalent of the Jim Knox mantra is the statement: “The CTU’s 300,000 members make up New Zealand’s largest democratic organisation.” That comforting catchphrase, originated by Ross Wilson and frequently repeated by his successor Helen Kelly, suggests a stable positive going concern.

What contradictions lie beneath the surface of this apparently harmonious social organisation? To uncover the contradictions of anything, we need to see the factual material of which they are composed.  In this case, we need to know what percentage of the workforce is unionised, and which way the trend is going. We need to know something of the relationships between the unionised and un-unionised, between employed and unemployed workers, between higher and lower paid, casualised and permanent, highly skilled and ‘unskilled’ various unions of the CTU, the contradictions between individual unions and the central body.

We also need to know something about the employers, their organisation, expectations and their unity or disunity, the contradictions between workers and bosses and contradictions between bosses. As we collect this data some contradictions seem to loom larger than others. For example, sometimes the contradiction between organised and unorganised workers appears more acute than the contradiction between all the workers and all the bosses, especially when there’s a disruptive strike. Which is really the more important contradiction? Why?

A few more questions: What is the principle contradiction inside the union movement? What is the principle contradiction inside your own union? What contradictions exist on your job? How might they be resolved?

A good starting point is Mao’s materialist dialectical advice that to understand something you have to change it. His example was that of a person biting into a pear, to taste it you have to change it. To find out how organised and how democratic NZ’s largest democratic organisation is, we must try and change it. If you attend a CTU conference as an affiliated union observer you will be given a large pile of printed matter in glossy covers and hear a number of speeches. This material will tend to confirm and underline your existing information that the ” The CTU’s 300,000 members make up New Zealand’s largest democratic organisation.” If you just sit quietly at the conference and behave yourself, you won’t leave much the wiser. But if you try to change the direction of the conference you will start to learn more about its real nature. If, let’s say, you leap up to suggest union disaffiliation from the Labour party because they introduced GST you’ll get some idea of how democratic the outfit really is. There, then are a few words to try and introduce what is currently the most advanced and comprehensive human philosophy.

In conclusion I will raise the question – if this dialectical materialism is so all encompassing and wonderful, why isn’t it used more widely? It is relatively easy to see why capitalist institutions shy away from dialectical materialism. Like the feudal lords before them, it suits the capitalists to cast their system as ‘natural’ and basically unchanging. As a philosophy of change, dialectical materialism is hostile to that idea. Dialectical materialism also cuts through the bullshit presentation of the speculator as creator of value. It is no accident that the “Marxism” component of bourgeois university courses is unspeakably boring and seemingly peripheral to the real business of life. Academic “Marxism” preserves its comfortable irrelevance by remaining disconnected from any real life modern struggles. Less easy to understand is the neglect of Marxism by left and socialist groups.

Taking Marxist theory seriously

One of the attractions the Workers Party has for me is that it’s an organisation which takes Marxist theory seriously and consistently tries to apply it to all our political activity.* This is at variance with most of my previous political experience. My recollection of being in the Workers Communist League and The Socialist Workers Organisation is that from time to time we’d study Marxist classics and we’d also participate in unions and protest groups, but there wasn’t much connection between the two activities.

There has long been a leftist tendency of contempt for theory altogether, on the grounds of “being practical”. One throwaway line from Marx’s entire correspondence: “Every step of real movement is worth a dozen programmes” has often been evoked to justify the abandonment of his theory altogether. Several different factors have helped diminish the importance of Marxist theory among New Zealand activists.

One factor is the fall of communism and the preceding atrocities committed in the name of communism. While it’s true that the likes of Brezhnev and Pol Pot were not practicing Marxism, the fact that they committed vast anti social crimes beneath its banner could not but take a toll on public opinion.

Another factor has been the relative weakness of organised labour in this country. Marxism is about the conscious self-activity of the working class. Historically, most workplaces have been small and scattered, with the employer often working alongside his hired staff. From this base grew the myth of New Zealand as a “classless society”, a myth much encouraged by astute ruling politicians.

In recent years the decline in manufacturing, plus repeated political assaults on a disunited union structure has diminished the strength of the working-class further. Other social movements have seemed more viable and worthy of activist energy. Some global issues, such as today’s environmental concerns, and, prior to that, the threat of nuclear war, have been explicitly presented as rendering Marxism irrelevant.

It’s also a fact that single issues are relatively easy to grasp and offer quick tangible returns. At various times there appear ready markets for things like opposition to genetic engineering. Doesn’t it make sense to go where the action is? Perhaps, after sufficient ‘common sense’ campaigns for free buses and GST off food, someday in the future an awakened populace will spontaneously decide – hey, what we really need is to get rid of capitalism and replace it with a cooperative social and economic system. Wouldn’t that be the working out of quantitative to qualitative change? The point about ‘common sense’ requests to authorities is that they are often not so much changes as a reorganisation of what’s seen to be socially affordable. That ‘soft contradiction’ does not make for a clash leading to political advance. An aspect of popular ‘sensible’ campaigns is that they can actually reinforce acceptance of the present system as arbiter of what’s practical and possible – and not possible.

This is not to say reforms shouldn’t be fought for, it is to say that struggles for reforms do not all intrinsically translate into revolutionary consciousness. The last 30 or so years of left pragmatism and single issue protests has seen a marked decline in worker’s political weight and a growth of capitalist material and ideological control. The note on which I will end this introduction is that its time for the Marxists to return to Marxism.

* The Workers Party no longer exists, one part is now grouped around Redline, one part abandoned political activity, and one part has drifted into radical-liberalism, making up part of the Fightback group.


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