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How ideas change

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We are often told socialism can’t work because people will not shift the way they think. John Molyneux shows how dramatic shifts are possible and have occured in the past
Issue 2351
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Some people argue that it isn’t possible to change how others look at the world. Yet shifts in ideas are constantly taking place—from right to left, left to right, in general and on specific issues.

Sometimes ideas change very quickly. There have been many dramatic shifts in ideas throughout history.

When I was growing up in the 1950s and early 1960s the majority view was that homosexuality was perverted, shameful, and unacceptable in public life. 

Now there are openly gay MPs and gay marriage is legal.

A wave of patriotic enthusiasm across Europe greeted the onset of the First World War in 1914. 

Yet within three years it had become deeply unpopular and spurred on revolts such as the Russian Revolution of 1917. 

In the 17th and 18th centuries the dominant view in Britain and America was that slavery was reasonable and moral. 

But by the 20th century it had long been abolished and anyone advocating its return would be considered mad or utterly scandalous.

That such shifts in attitudes are not unusual needs emphasising because there is no shortage of voices proclaiming that “things” will never change. 

This is the “common sense” idea that people will always be sexist or racist or accept capitalism.

In fact what shapes people’s ideas is, first and foremost, the material condition of their lives. This needs to be stressed because it is contrary to the way matters are usually seen. 

Not surprisingly the ruling classes like to believe, and want us to believe, that it is their “big ideas” and superior thinking that shape the course of history.

Frederick Engels explained the great strength of the materialist view, that starts from people’s situation, at the funeral of his friend Karl Marx. 

He said that Marx had “discovered the law of development of human history—the simple fact…that mankind must first of all eat, drink, have shelter and clothing, before it can pursue politics, science, art, religion etc.”

So the way production is organised, and the level of economic development, forms a foundation on which political ideas and philosophies arise.

So, the great split in Christianity in the 16th century was not caused by a few individuals such as Martin Luther and John Calvin. 

The central reason was the emergance of a new way of producing—capitalist rather than feudal. 

The people associated with this capitalist production were the new middle class of burghers or bourgeoisie. 

They needed society to be restructured to reflect their interests rather than those of the feudal lords. 

This was what Protestantism offered over the old Catholicism. 

But such changes in thinking didn’t occur automatically or smoothly. 


They involved conflicts and struggles that often went much further than the bourgeoisie wanted them to.

For example, the English Revolution beheaded the king and put the bourgeoisie in  power. 

Some radicalised soldiers looked to a much more thoroughgoing democracy. 

Thomas Rainsborough said, “I do think that the poorest man in England is not at all bound in a strict sense to that government that he hath not had a voice to put himself under.”

Similarly the change in attitude to slavery from the 18th to the 19th century didn’t happen simply because people became more moral or enlightened.

It happened at a time when the rise of industrial capitalism required “free” wage labour rather than chattel slaves for plantations.

Yet the slaveholders hung on to their “property”—and it took slave revolts, mass campaigns and war to dislodge them. 

In the US thousands of slaves were vital to the northern victory as they fled their plantations and joined the union army.

At the end of the war in 1865, a black soldier recognised his former owner among a group of prisoners he was guarding and called out, “Hello, massa! Bottom rail on top this time!”

But the fight against slavery tells another story too. In the early 1870s the state of Mississippi gained its first black senators. 

But the old rulers fought back with a mixture of ideology and naked terror. 

They re-established a racial divide that wouldn’t be broken until the Civil Rights Movement nearly a century later.

Of course, ideas can go backwards as well as forwards. But the conflict will continue.

This is because the main way production has been organised for the last 5,000 years or so has divided people into opposed classes, exploiters and exploited. 

One class has owned and controlled the means of production, and so controlled the economy.

This includes slave owners in Ancient Greece and Rome, feudal lords in the Middle Ages and the capitalists of modern society.

The other classes—the slaves, peasants and workers—have been subordinate to them and done the actual work. 

As a result the first group, the ruling class, has a disproportionate influence on the ideas in society. They run the churches, schools, universities, media, publishing houses and so on. 

As Marx put it, “The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas, i.e. the class which is the ruling material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force. 

“The class which has the means of material production at its disposal, has control at the same time over the means of mental production, so that thereby, generally speaking, the ideas of those who lack the means of mental production are subject to it.”

This does not mean the ruling class has things all their own way.

Working class people also develop their own ideas, their own view of the world based on their own experience of life and their own interests. 

In practice most people tend to hold a contradictory mix of ideas. Some reflect their own experience and others are imposed on them from above by the media or politicians. 

So they may believe both that there’s one law for rich and another for the poor, and that it is only reasonable that the boss should make a profit.

The balance between these opposed sets of ideas sometimes shifts radically. 

This can happen when people’s experience comes into conflict with the ideas they have received from above. 

In the case of the First World War the initial enthusiasm for the war was shaped by decades of imperialist propaganda by the various ruling classes. 

But the experience of the war was so terrible that the ruling class view of the war as glorious was soon undermined.

This tendency for ruling class ideas to lose their grip is greatly accentuated when people experience not only suffering but active and collective resistance. 

In struggling against the bosses and the government through demonstrations, strikes, sit-ins and so on working people get a sense of their own power.

This increases their confidence in their own ideas and opens them up to new ways of thinking that challenge the ruling ideas.

When Britain’s miners went on strike in 1984-85 they didn’t just rebel against Margaret Thatcher. 

They also came to challenge the racism, sexism and homophobia which had previously been quite strong in mining areas. 

The extreme example of this is the radicalisation that takes place in the process of a revolution.

The existence of an organised political force arguing for ideas within struggle also plays a vital role.

The process of change during the First World War was greatly assisted by the fact that some organised revolutionary socialists opposed the war from the start.

And where that opposition was best organised, with Lenin and the Bolsheviks in Russia, it had the most effect.

Ideas about religion, race and women, for example, changed within days during the revolution.

Today the capitalist system is in crisis internationally. 

It is inflicting experiences on people that undermine neoliberal ideas in the eyes of millions. 

The struggle against this austerity and the system is also, with various ups and downs, developing internationally.

If we want ideas to change, and we do, our job as socialists is to raise the level of that struggle. 

We also need to make sure that at the heart of the struggle is a political movement systematically arguing for a real change in the system.

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