Marxism and system theory

Copyright 2017 Graham Berrisford. One of several hundred papers at Last updated 07/12/2018 00:35


Heraclitus of Ephesus was a Greek philosopher known for his doctrine of change being central to the universe.

Plato quoted him as saying “Everything changes and nothing stands still.


People have long looked at systems and considered making transformational or generational changes to them.

In the 13th century, some English barons drew up the Magna Carta to change how England was governed.

In the 19th century, Karl Marx and Frederick Engels proposed a rationale for revolutionary social system change.

In the 20th century, “enterprise architecture" is about making generational changes from baseline business system to target business system.


This paper discusses the first two examples above.

It challenges presumptions of Marxism about systems in general and social systems in particular.

And indicates where the basis of Marxism in analogy may lead to confusion or error.


The Magna Carta. 1

Marxism – an introduction. 2

Dialectic materialism: the two ideas. 4

Dialectic materialism: the three laws. 5

The first law: the interpenetration of opposites. 5

The second law: the transformation of quantity into quality (and vice versa) 6

The third law: the negation of the negation. 7

Inexorable progress?. 8

Conclusions and remarks. 10


The Magna Carta

The Magna Carta (agreed on 15 June 1215) proposed a reorganization of England’s government.

It led to a generational step change in the roles and rules performed by actors in the English socio-political system.

It has been presented as a change that was "of the people, for the people and by the people".

It might be presented as an early example of enterprise architecture – of designing and planning changes to business systems.


The baseline system

The barons understood the roles and rules of the current situation, and they didn’t like it.

They had a mental model of the baseline system of interest; did they also have a documented model?

We know that, centuries earlier, the roles and rules of Anglo-Saxon society were well understood.

The roles (abbot, lord, knight, freeholder, villein etc.) were recorded in the Domesday book in 1066.

And we know those roles came with certain rights and obligations, which scribes surely recorded at the time.


The target system

The barons sought to make a “management intervention” by documenting change proposals, discussing and agreeing them.

They agreed their model of the target system, and documented it in the Magna Carta.

The document focused on the rights of free men - especially the barons of course!


For example, it proposed limits on feudal payments from the barons to the Crown

In other words, it proposed rules for behaviors that move data between actors playing different roles in the system.


The meta system

The barons acted as a meta system to the system of government.

They knew the old system, described the new system they wanted, and pressed for the roles and rules of that target system to be realised.

They also proposed an ongoing meta system - a council of 25 barons to govern adherence of the new system in operation to the system in description.


The Magna Carta might reasonably be seen as an example of critical systems thinking, long before anybody had published a systems thinking approach.

Sure, the barons didn't use any of the words we use now (system, role, rule, behavior etc) but they understood the concepts.

The Magna Carta represented not only a step change in rules and roles, but also a step forward in the formalisation of roles and rules a documented model.

Suppose it had been written using a modern systems thinking approach - would it have been any different?

Marxism – an introduction

Karl Marx (1818 to 1893) was a philosopher, economist, political theorist, sociologist, journalist, and revolutionary socialist.

Friedrich Engels (1820 to 1895) was a philosopher, social scientist, journalist, and businessman.

Marx and Engels developed a philosophy, eventually called dialectic materialism, as an inversion of Hegelian dialectics.

If their philosophy was obscurely academic; their revolutionary politics was clearer.


Bear in mind the 19th century context in which Marx and Engels grew up.

There was extreme poverty; peasants worked the land, a growing number of factory workers lived in cramped and insanitary conditions.

There was widespread dissatisfaction with rulers and politicians, demands for more democracy, freedom of the press etc.

As a result, revolutions swept in waves across Europe in 1820, 1830 and 1848.


It is perhaps no surprise that Marx and Engels saw history as a process in which one political system replaces another.

Not long after those revolutions, that one species can replace another was explained in Charles Darwin’s 1859 book.

“On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life.”

Darwin’s idea has often been misunderstood, misinterpreted or misapplied – not least in sociology.


Marx and Engels decided society was divided into two main classes.

They saw the bourgeoisie class as oppressors of the proletariat class.

They said that for most of history, there has been a struggle between those two classes.

This is known as the class struggle, akin to Darwin’s struggle for life.

They proposed that the proletariat should revolt against their oppressors.

They argued for the forceful and equal redistribution of resources, including land.

The goal was to make all citizens equal - give them equal outcomes, not just equal opportunities.


Marxists tend to promote the importance of the dialectic over evidence.

A dialectic is a logical investigation or discussion of the truth of propositions.

Before we analyse the logic of Marxism - what about the evidence?


Observations on history

Marx and Engels died in the 19h century, long before the Leninist-Marxist Russian revolution of 1917.

However well-intentioned, this and other revolutions inspired by Marxism had dreadful consequences.

Lenin, Stalin and Mao Zedong infamously starved or otherwise killed tens of millions of their own citizens.


After a Marxist revolution, politicians become the new upper class.

Governments become totalitarian, centralized and dictatorial, demanding subservience to the state.

To hold on to power, politicians restrict people’s freedom of speech and action.

To impose equality requires a hierarchical bureaucracy in which corruption is common.


The Magna Carta had shown a society can be reorganised without revolution.

In the 20th century, democracies showed themselves able to evolve without revolution.

Unquestionably, government concerns include support for disadvantaged, redistribution of wealth, and equality of opportunity.

The discussion today is about how, how far, and how far a government should try to impose equality of outcomes.

And to what extent individuals are responsible for themselves.


Initial observations on the logic of Marxism

Marx eagerly misinterpreted Darwinian theory as supporting his advocacy of “the class struggle”.

Marxism treats society as a system composed of interacting classes, rather than individuals.

This tendentious kind of systems thinking is still found in Neo-Marxism, and in the “identity politics” of today.


First, one divides a population into groups using some criteria (class, sex, race, income, ability, postcode, whatever).

If group A is perceived to be worse off than group B, then group A is portrayed as victims of group B, or the system.

Activists demand the government and law equalise group A with group B.

Not only must people in group A be helped, but people in group B must be held back or controlled.

(Rational causes for an inter-group discrepancy may be denied, in a postmodernist way, or ignored.)


A counter-narrative goes something like this.

You belong to countless groups, many of which are disadvantaged in some way.

Like me, you may belong to the group that is not blessed with the many advantages that film star good looks bring.

Should ugly people should be equalised with beautiful ones? Who decides that? And how could it be done?


As individuals, you and I are disadvantaged in many different ways.

But there are more differences between individuals within a group than between groups.

It is impossible to equalise all the groups we belong to.

Attempting to do it implies a top-down totalitarian style of government.

And would impose monstrous restrictions on individual freedoms and aspirations.


The one thing that all the infinite disadvantaged groups you belong to have in common is you.

The first and best things you can do is improve yourself, look after yourself and your family.

The first and best things a government can do is help you do that through education, healthcare and a degree of social security.

Dialectic materialism: the two ideas

At the heart of Marxism is the ideology, the logic of ideas, called “dialectic materialism”.

The logic of dialectic materialism is based on two ideas and three laws about system change.

The two ideas are materialism and continual change/development,



Marx said: “the idea is nothing else than the material world reflected in the human mind.”

This triangle captures the notion.



<form>                        <idealise>

Humans     <observe and envisage>   Material world


Some may use the word realism rather than materialism.

Contrarily - for reasons explained elsewhere – we sometimes call it scientific idealism.

The label doesn’t matter; the notion does, since it appears also in system theory and in enterprise architecture.


Ideas can be recorded in any kind of material or energy structure: brain matter, speech, writing pictures, statues.

And recovered from that structure by any entity able to sense and decode the structure.


Continual change/development

As the ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus said: "All things flow, all change."

Engels defined dialectics as: "the science of the motion and development of nature, human society and thought."

Today, system theory is the science or general laws of change in natural, social and human-conceived systems.

And enterprise architecture is about applying that science to the design and planning of changes to business systems.

Dialectic materialism: the three laws

In “Anti-Dühring and The Dialectics of Nature”, Engels defined three fundamental laws of dialectic materialism.


1.      Interpenetration of opposites: on state changes: Engels proposed that (at least in a stable system) pluses are balanced by minuses, increases are balanced by decreases.

2.      Transformation of quantity into quality: on state changes: Engels proposed inputs incrementally change the qualities of a system’s state.

3.      Negation of the negation: on development: Engels proposed ideas and things can change or develop (by contradiction) in a direction that is ever onward and upward.


However, throwing some scientific ideas into a pot and drawing analogies doesn’t amount to science.

Scientific hypotheses may be informed or prompted by analogies, but theories are tested by experiment rather than proven by analogy.

Read on for how these ideas and laws appear in system theory, and may be challenged in some ways.

The first law: the interpenetration of opposites

On state changes: Engels proposed that (at least in a stable system) pluses are balanced by minuses, increases are balanced by decreases.

Today, we know that systems, whose roles and rules are stable, may grow or shrink dramatic ways


The state of one very narrow ecology can be described in terms of two variables: the quantity of sheep and the quantity of wolves.

Forrester’s System Dynamics helps to explain how these stocks interact.

It employs the idea of causal loop between what Engels might call opposites.


A growth in the stock of


will increase the stock of


A growth in the stock of


will deplete the stock of



The state of the wider world’s ecology can be described in terms of three variables: the mass of plants, the mass of animals and the mass of oxygen in the atmosphere.

We all depend on the fact that plants and animals balance the stock of oxygen.

Forrester’s System Dynamics helps to explain how these stocks interact so as to reach a balance.


A growth in the stock of


will increase the stock of


A growth in the stock of


will deplete the stock of



However, these feedback loops don’t necessarily act to keep a system stable.

Such a system may crash, by depleting a stock to zero.

Moreover, instability may be desirable.

A system may (by design) exhaust a resource it needs: E.g. A moon rocket exhausts its fuel in a few minutes.

And a system may continually expand or grow in some way: E.g. A business increases its revenue every year.

The second law: the transformation of quantity into quality (and vice versa)

On state changes: Engels proposed successive inputs incrementally change the qualities of system’s state.

And sometimes, the increments build up to a point where they trigger a dramatic change.


Some terms here need definition, as in this glossary:

·        State: the current structure of a thing, as described in the current values of its variable properties.

·        Event: a discrete input that triggers a process that changes a system’s state, depending on the current state.

·        Process: one or more state changes over time, or the logic that determines which state changes lead to which other state changes.

·        Deterministic: the quality of a system that means its next state is predictable from its current state and input event.


A deterministic system, in a given state, will respond to a stimulus by acting in a predictable way.

In the 1950s, Ashby wrote that the notion of a deterministic system was already more than century old.

Sociologists, biologists, psychologists and engineers all describe deterministic systems.

And general system theory is much about the general principles of such deterministic systems.


Individual changes of the kind that Engels called “interpenetrations between opposites” may be deterministic.

And they may maintain a system in a homeostatic state.


Contrarily however: the build up of small incremental changes can lead to a swift and dramatic increase or decrease in quantitative system state variable values.

Small differences in the initial values of a system’s state variables may lead over time to dramatically large differences in the values of those variables.

Such wide variations in the outcomes of a system are called “chaotic”.


E.g. A system with just two element types (wolves and sheep) and simple rules can behave unpredictably or chaotically.

The behavior of an individual actor (wolf or sheep) in response to an event may be deterministic, predictable from its current state.

Yet at a macro level, the volumes of populations (wolf packs and sheep flocks) may fluctuate in what seems a random or chaotic manner.


Multiple actions and interactions between individual actors at a micro-level may lead to unpredictable outcomes at the macro level.

Populations may remain stable for a while, then boom or bust unexpectedly.

For more, read Modelling a continuously varying system using System Dynamics.


Subjectively, a dramatic increase or decrease in quantity may be perceived as a change in quality.

Contrarily however: in the progress of human thought, the transformation is from quality to quantity.

·        You can’t quantify (count the instances of a type) until you know and can recognise a quality (a type).

·        You can’t count how many apples you have until you know and can recognise the qualities of an “apple”.

·        You can’t count how many dollars you have until you know what qualifies as a “dollar”.


In general, you can’t give a value to a variable instance (e.g. 44 degrees) until you know the variable type (e.g. the temperature in Celsius).

For a paper on abstracting quantities from qualities read Converting a discrete model into continuous model.

The third law: the negation of the negation

On development: Engels proposed ideas and things can change or develop (by contradiction) in a direction that is ever onward and upward.


“Dialectics envisages the fundamental processes at work in the universe, in society and in the history of ideas,

not as a closed circle, where the same processes merely repeat themselves in an endless mechanical cycle,

but as a kind of open-ended spiral of development in which nothing is ever repeated exactly in the same way.

This process can be clearly seen in the history of philosophy and science.

The entire history of thought consists of an endless process of development through contradiction”


“Negation of the negation” is a rather obscurely academic way of saying something akin to “trial and error”.

Think of a negation as a contradiction of a hypothesis, proposition or system description.

It triggers, by way of response, a more accurate hypothesis, proposition or system description.

This process continues iteratively and indefinitely.


“Negation of the negation” does not signify a return to the original state of a thing (homeostatic adaptation).

It signifies the regeneration of a thing at a “qualitatively higher level”; this is akin to evolution, but with the addition of inexorable progress.


On “nothing is ever repeated exactly in the same way”.

This is true in the natural or material world.


Contrarily however: system theory is about abstracting system descriptions from concrete systems in operation.

You abstract the essence of some real behaviors to a point where the process you describe is indeed repeatable in exactly the same way.


On “fundamental processes”

Negation of negation is the process by which, Engels proposed, ideas or things evolve from a lower form to a higher form.

The idea is that movement through successive “contradictions” leads to development, from simple to complex, from lower to higher.


Contrarily however: it is unclear to me whether or how clearly Engels distinguished the processes of a system and the processes by which a system evolves.


On “endless process of development”

This may be expressed as eliminating ideas or things that are “contradicted” and rewarding those ideas or things that succeed.


Contrarily however: the evolution of scientific ideas should not be confused with the evolution of things in nature.

Many ideas have been contradicted (logically or empirically) yet continue to thrive (cf. Dawkin’s “meme”).

Marxism (among other system thinkers’ ideas) may be seen as examples.

Inexorable progress?

Theories based only on assertion and analogy are scientistic rather than scientific.

A common difficulty in discussion of systems is drawing misleading analogies and confusing what ought to be distinguished.


Some leap from discussing system state change to discussing system generation change.

E.g. the early system theorists were much concerned with homeostasis – how a system maintains its state.

But von Bertalanffy also said that systems “develop towards states of increased order and organization", where the term “states” means something very different.

There are two completely different ideas here:

·        Restoring system state after a variation from normal (homeostatic adaptation)

·        Changing from one system generation to the next (evolution).


To put it another way:

·        the state-changing processes of a system (be they biological or designed procedures)

·        the generation-changing process of evolution between system versions (whether by nature or by design).


Some leap from discussing the life of an individual, to the evolution of a species.

Some leap from the evolution of biological forms, to the evolution of human societies and/or sciences.

E.g. Engels defined dialectics as “laws of motion and development of nature, human society and thought."

There are three completely different ideas here:

·        the life history of an organism

·        the history of human societies (especially government systems)

·        the history of human thought (as in scientific knowledge).


Bertalanffy stretched his ideas into proposals about human psychology and the meaning of life.

“Life is not comfortable setting down in pre-ordained grooves of being”.


Contrarily however: scientists believe sharks have been comfortable in their groove for 100 million years.

It may be seen as a triumph of evolution that sharks resolutely refuse to evolve towards a higher form.


“At its best, [life] is élan vital, inexorably driven towards higher forms of existence”.

It is possible that when Bertalanffy proposed systems continually evolve into higher forms, he borrowed the idea from Engels.


Contrarily however: evidence suggests 99.9 percent of all species that have existed on Earth are now extinct.

And many biologists believe we are currently in the throes of a sixth mass extinction.


In any case, how to measure one form of existence is higher than another form of existence”?

Nature has no favourite species; the notion of a higher form seems an ego-centric, or human-species-centric, idea.


Did Bertalanffy have in mind that biological evolution increases complexity?

Suppose we could measure the complexity of a living entity, perhaps by counting its possible states, as Ashby proposed.

There is no obvious reason to presume the measurement would show a human is much more complex than a chimpanzee, elephant or mouse.

Also: some changes improve a system by simplifying it, eliminating waste and making a system more economical.

This might apply in biological evolution as well in designed systems.


(By the way, some assume the primary intention or purpose of an organism is to survive.

But decay and death are essential to life on earth.

The death of a sheep is good for the wolf; and may be good for other sheep also (to prevent over grazing).

Moreover, death is essential to evolution; since without it, life forms could not evolve to fit changing environments.

So, you might argue a purpose of the individual is to die - after passing on its genes.

And that survival is, rather, the primary purpose or intention of genes.)


Inexorable progression in systems thinking approaches?

Some classify social systems into what is presumed to be an inexorable historical sequence.

E.g. a history that starts with family groups and clans, and progresses through feudal societies to democracies.

Some see systems thinking as having a mission to promote a participatory democracy.

Some present systems thinking approaches as evolving and improving.

They see social systems thinking an advanced application or development of general system theory.

You might reasonably view the history of system thinking as running in the opposite direction:

These matters are further explored papers 5 and 6 on the system theory page at

Conclusions and remarks

For more on dialectic materialism, read


This paper has indicated ways in which Marx and Engels may have been naïve about systems in general, and system change in particular.

The effort needed to define, build, test and deploy complex systems, and to change them, is much greater than they envisaged.

The most complex and effective systems emerge from evolution over many years in which trial and error play a large role

The section on the Magna Carta shows that designing and planning changes to deterministic systems can be "of the people, for the people and by the people".


A final suggestion is that both social systems thinkers and enterprise architects can benefit from gaining a deeper understanding of general system theory, and respecting it more than they do.

System theory is good to know, good for the soul, and practically useful in all kinds of thinking about systems.



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