By James Thompson

The goal of Marxists is to elevate the working class to the status of the ruling class. To do this, Marxists use the scientific method to better understand social, political, cultural and economic conditions and to facilitate the process of change to bring about a better world. In classical Marxist theory, science is referred to as materialism.

Marxists point out that it is important to recognize that there is an opposing point of view. They call this view idealism. This refers to a philosophical system which relies on non-scientific, i.e. religious, mythological, prejudicial or imaginary explanations of phenomena. In other words, idealist explanations are not observable, measurable or provable.

Materialism is a fundamental philosophical concept in the Marxist world view. There has been some confusion in the use of the term due to an alternative version of its meaning. Materialism in its alternative meaning is thought to refer to “The theory or doctrine that physical well-being and worldly possessions constitute the greatest good and highest value in life.” (American Heritage Dictionary, 2nd College Edition). This is not what is meant by the term materialism in the Marxist approach.

Maurice Cornforth in his book Materialism and the Dialectical Method outlines the basic teachings of materialism:
1. Materialism teaches that the world is by its very nature material, that everything which exists comes into being on the basis of material causes, arises and develops in accordance with the laws of motion and matter.
2. Materialism teaches that matter is objective reality existing outside and independent of the mind; and that far from the mental existing in separation from the material, everything mental or spiritual is a product of material processes.
3. Materialism teaches that the world and its laws are knowable, and that while much in the material world may not be known there is no unknowable sphere of reality which lies outside the material world.
The Marxist philosophy is characterized by its absolutely consistent materialism all along the line, by its making no concessions whatever at any point to idealism.

Materialism is irrevocably opposed to idealism. Cornforth points out that there are three main assertions of idealism.
1. Idealism asserts that the material world is dependent on the spiritual.
2. Idealism asserts that spirit, or mind, or idea, can and does exist in separation from matter. (The most extreme form of this assertion is subjective idealism, which asserts that matter does not exist at all but is pure illusion.)
3. Idealism asserts that there exists a realm of the mysterious and unknowable, “above”, or “beyond”, or “behind” what can be ascertained and known by perception, experience and science.
The basic teachings of materialism stand in opposition to these three assertions of idealism.

Cornforth further notes that Frederick Engels offers a definition of materialism and idealism and the difference between them in his book on Ludwig Feuerbach.

“The great basic question of all philosophy, especially of modern philosophy, is that concerning the relation of thinking and being….The answers which the philosophers have given to this question split them into two great camps. Those who asserted the primacy of spirit to nature and therefore in the last instance assumed world creation in some form or another…comprised the camp of idealism. The others, who regarded nature as primary, belong to the various schools of materialism.”

We can see that idealist conceptions rely on spiritual explanations which are fantastic, not measurable and are unrealistic. An idealist explanation of the cause of a thunderstorm might be that God was angry at the people because they were not obeying their masters. Diseases are explained by the idealist paradigm by a similar ruse, e.g. that diseases are a way God can punish bad people who demand higher wages and better working conditions.

Materialist explanations of disease, thunderstorms and all phenomena view them as being due to complex forces which are measurable and understandable through scientific investigation.

Cornforth presents another interesting example.

“Why are there rich and poor? This is a question which many people ask, especially poor people.
The most straightforward idealist answer to this question is to say simply—it is because God made them so. It is the will of God that some should be rich and others poor.
But other less straightforward idealist explanations are more in vogue. For example: it is because some men are careful and farsighted, and these husband their resources and grow rich, while others are thriftless and stupid, and these remain poor. Those who favour this type of explanation say that it is all due to eternal “human nature”. The nature of man and of society is such that the distinction of rich and poor necessarily arises…
The materialist, on the other hand, seeks the reason in the material, economic conditions of social life. If society is divided into rich and poor, it is because the production of the material means of life is so ordered that some have possession of the land and other means of production while the rest have to work for them. However hard they may work and however much they may scrape and save, the non-possessors will remain poor, while the possessors grow rich on the fruits of their labour…”

The difference in the materialist and idealist explanations of disease, thunderstorms and class differences have important theoretical but also practical implications.

A materialist conception of thunderstorms helps us to take precautions against them. Science has developed weather forecasting systems so that people can be warned of impending storms. Buildings and houses can be constructed in such a way that they can withstand storms. However, if our explanation of thunderstorms is idealistic, all we can do is pray or perform other rituals. Similarly with disease, if the conception is materialist, then we can take preventive measure through lifestyle change or engage in treatment if the disease is active. Idealists are again stuck with appeals to God, the Church or other supernatural entities.

If we accept an idealist explanation of the reasons there are rich and poor, all we can do is to accept the existing state of affairs. The materialist approach to society offers a way to work towards changing society.

Cornforth points out:

“…every real social advance—every increase in the productive forces, every advance of science—generates materialism and is helped along by materialist ideas. And the whole history of human thought has been the history of the fight of materialism against idealism, of the overcoming of idealist illusions and fantasies.

Materialism teaches us to have confidence in ourselves, in the working class—in people. It teaches us that there are no mysteries beyond our understanding, that we need not accept that which is as being the will of God, that we should contemptuously reject the “authoritative” teachings of those who set up to be our masters, and that we can ourselves understand nature and society so as to be able to change them.”