Marxism: the science of society and social change

Over 150 years ago, Karl Marx and Frederick Engels founded the scientific study of society, or scientific socialism. After Marx died, Engels carried their studies a step further by laying the theoretical foundations of dialectical materialism in his book “Dialectics of Nature.”

At the time, modern science was in its infancy. The discovery of the cell, the conservation of energy and the theory of evolution were the basis of Engels’ work.

In the approximate century and a quarter that has elapsed since Engels wrote his seminal work, a whole host of scientific discoveries have enriched our knowledge of nature and its laws. Such far-reaching discoveries as the structure of DNA, the theory of relativity, quantum mechanics, the discovery of 155 extra-solar planets, the discovery of the existence of black holes and quasars, have all occurred since Engels wrote “Dialectics of Nature.”

Science and ideology

The history of Marxist-Leninist thought is bound to and intertwined with general philosophical principles which come from the history of science. Dialectical materialism is not a worldview imposed from without on thought; it is a generalization of scientific progress.

While the very progress of science itself constitutes an illustration of, and justification for, the concept that the scientific outlook can benefit mankind in general, it is impossible to separate science from ideology.

For example, a UNESCO/ICSU (International Council for Science) conference, with over 1,800 participants from around the world, was held in Budapest in 1999. It detailed the unequal benefits of scientific progress in the various countries of the world, as well as the use of science in the arms race.

This conference noted that multinational corporations, which carry out a significant part of the scientific research, did not bring anything of significance to the conference. Of course, one would hardly expect them to, driven as they are by the profit motive. But we should also note that science, the pursuit of scientific truth, would be practiced far less in capitalist countries, were it not for the very real benefits that accrue to the capitalist class, i.e. profits.

Modern examples

Engels gave illustrations of the laws of dialectics operating in nature taken from the science of his time. Here, I augment his examples with a couple of illustrations taken from more recent discoveries in physics.

The ideas of dialectics permeate all of physics. For example, consider the motion of planets, comets and asteroids. A simple circular orbit is understood to be the result of a balance between opposing tendencies of the gravitational pull of the sun, which pulls the body closer to the sun, and the outward centrifugal force. As one tendency increases, the other tendency decreases, and when the two are equal, a “nodal point” (Engels’ terminology) is reached, and the object will go into a circular orbit.

In Einstein’s “general” theory of relativity, the mass of the sun warps the space around the sun. The greater the sun’s mass, the greater the warping effect. A body moving with an initial speed in the neighborhood of the sun will move away from the sun and not be bound to it. But if the initial speed is decreased, a point is reached at which the gravitational pull of the sun will capture the object and it will go into a stable orbit around the sun. Clearly, this qualitative change (the capture of the object into a stable orbit) is brought about by the succession of quantitative changes in the initial speed of the object, which is part of the dialectical process.

Matter and motion

One of the cornerstones of dialectical materialism is that only matter exists in the universe, and that motion is its mode of existence.

Another way in which one of the fundamental underpinnings of dialectical materialism is verified comes from Einstein’s “special” theory of relativity. It concerns the fact that moving clocks run slow. This conclusion has been experimentally verified numerous times.

It follows that time cannot have a separate existence apart from matter; that is, time and motion are not independent.

The “general” theory of relativity predicted the existence of black holes. Since then, astronomers have discovered experimental proof of the existence of these strange objects: stars with a mass so great that not even light waves can escape their gravitational pull, hence their appellation “black hole.”

As an object approaches ever closer to a black hole, a clock mounted on the object will, according to the general theory of relativity, run ever slower. As the distance of separation is decreased, the interval between successive ticks of the clock increases — two countervailing tendencies.

But there is a limit beyond which the interval between successive ticks of the clock cannot increase; that limit is infinity. The rate of the clock slows to zero. That condition occurs at a radius of separation known as the “event horizon,” beyond which the radius is too small for the object to escape, and the object becomes part of the black hole. This marks a qualitative change in the nature both of the black hole and the object itself. That such an “event horizon” exists has already been proven experimentally. (The one who predicted the existence of black holes, Karl Schwarzschild, died a few months later at the age of 42, on the Russian front during the First World War, an ironic tragedy.)

Although Einstein, who gets the credit for formulating the “special” theory of relativity, was not a conscious Marxist, his inspiration was in accord with Marxist principles. He was a socialist, and dialectical thought permeates many of his theories.

Science and society

The power of Marxist-Leninist ideology becomes apparent when one applies these principles to the study of human society.

Doing so makes all of sociology and history a science, albeit without the “exact” laws of physics.

It was the genius of Marx, in applying the laws of dialectical materialism to the study of society, and thereby inventing historical materialism and transforming the study of society into a science, that he was able to show that society moves through various stages, and that the next, higher stage of society after capitalism is socialism.

In socialism, in contrast to capitalism, science becomes a liberating force rather than a force retarding human progress. Under capitalism and its latter stages of imperialism and globalization, we have seen the enormous potential of science misused. The environment is despoiled, wars have accelerated in ferocity and advances in medical science prolong the lives of the privileged few. The developing countries, not having access to the benefits of modern science, are ravaged by disease, war and starvation. Despoliation of the environment continues worldwide. And meanwhile the Damocles sword of nuclear annihilation hangs over mankind.

Modern capitalism is only 500 years old. It has been 150 years since Marx analyzed its workings, and showed that although in its beginning capitalism was a liberating force, it was already outliving its usefulness and becoming a fetter on the progress of mankind.

In the subsequent 150 years, it has become clearer than ever that capitalism has had its chance, and has failed. For example, the United States, the leading superpower of the world capitalist states, ranks 70 in the world list of countries with respect to the number of adults per capita living with HIV/AIDS, while socialist Cuba ranks 144 in that same category, with only 0.1 percent of adults living with HIV/AIDS. Cuba has a smaller infant mortality rate than the U.S., while its illiteracy rate is 2.2 percent, compared with the figure of 23 million U.S. adults who are functionally illiterate, about 7.8 percent.

If we look at the aging infrastructure of the U.S., roughly 13,000 highway fatalities each year are the result of inadequate maintenance of aging highways, according to the American Society of Civil Engineers. And $1.6 trillion must be spent over the next five years to prevent further deterioration of the infrastructure of the nation, while only $900 billion is now earmarked for such a purpose.

To add the icing on the cake, the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina, and the resulting destruction of New Orleans due to the racist and shameful performance of the federal government, have exposed the utter inadequacy of the capitalist system to protect its own citizens against natural disasters. We have reached a point in the history of capitalism when it has become obvious that it is urgent to replace this system with a better system: socialism.

John Pappademos ( is a retired physics professor.