As I explained in the last column Marx’s theory of history centred on production. The way a society organizes the production of the necessities of life constitutes its mode of production, the economic base which shapes its superstructure- its law, politics, religion, philosophy, morality, art etc.
But how does one mode of production change into another? For Marx, himself, and for us today, for everyone who is anti-capitalist, i.e. wants to get rid of the capitalist mode of production, this is the crucial question.
To answer it we must go back to the fact that Marx distinguished two aspects of production: the forces and relations of production. It is the interaction and conflict between these which lays the basis for fundamental social change.
The forces of production are the capacity of a society to produce goods: its resources, labour, knowledge and technology. Examples include: the spears and bows and arrows of stone age hunters; the ox or horse drawn ploughs of the medieval farmer; the textile mills, spinning jennies and steam trains of the industrial revolution; the production lines, power stations and computers of modern industry.
The relations of production are the social relation people enter into in the process of producing. They range from the primitive communist clan of hunters and gatherers, to slave owners and slaves of Ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome, to landlords and serfs or peasants, to capitalist employers and wage workers today.
Marx argues that it is the level of development of the forces of production that shapes the relations of production. ‘ The hand-mill gives you society with the feudal lord; the steam mill society with the industrial capitalist’. The forces of production, however, tend to grow, by no means evenly or at a uniform rate, but over time they tend to advance as human beings discover ways to produce more effectively. At a certain stage in their development the forces of production come into conflict with the existing relations of production (which are also society’s property relations). While at first these relations had assisted the growth of the productive forces, they now become an obstacle, a ‘ fetter’ on their further development. Then , says Marx, ‘ there begins an epoch of social revolution’.
When this contradiction sets in the whole of society is thrown into prolonged crisis. The old ways of doing things no longer work. The old ideas and established institutions start to lose their authority. New critical and revolutionary ideas start to emerge. The crisis is only resolved when a new mode of production with new relations of production is established and society is able to move forward.
This, in essence, was what happened in the transition from feudalism to capitalism in Europe and is what lies behind the general crisis of capitalism today, now operating on a world scale. It is why, despite the existence of productive forces easily capable of supplying everyone on the planet with a decent living, thousands of millions suffer poverty, malnutrition and homelessness. It is why we are beset with endless conflict and wars and why we are threatened with environmental catastrophe. It is a crisis that will be ended only with the establishment of a new mode of production – socialism.
Put just like this ( and, for various reasons, Marx did sometimes put it this way) the whole process can sound mechanical and automatic – economically determined and independent of human action. But nothing could be further from the truth and nothing further from Marx’s real meaning. This is because the conflict between the forces and relations of production is also a conflict between social classes.
Ever since the end of primitive communist hunter-gatherer society, the relations of production have been, at the same time, class relations, relations of exploitation and oppression in which one class ( the class which owns and controls the main means of production) is the dominant or ruling class – in Ancient Society the slave owners, in feudalism the landed aristocracy, in capitalism the bourgeoisie. This class has a vested interest in the existing order which is the basis of its power and privileges. Faced with a challenge from developing productive forces it does not at all say ‘ Our time is up. Let us vacate the stage gracefully’. On the contrary it fights bitterly to defend the status quo - ‘ our way of life’ or ‘ civilisation as we know it’, as they say.
The developing forces of production are also linked to and produce a definite class – under feudalism the growth of manufacture and trade gave rise to the bourgeoisie, under capitalism modern industry gives birth to the working class or proletariat. The resolution of the crisis, and the fate of humanity, depends on the outcome of the struggle between the old ruling class and the new rising class.
This is anything but pre-determined.. In Europe the failure of the bourgeois revolution in Italy and Germany in the 16th century set those countries back three hundred years – they did not even achieve national unification until the 19th century. In China ( and by extension Korea) the old imperial order was able to suppress the development of capitalism with the consequence that they entered the 20th century as deeply impoverished, perennial victims of imperialism. The defeat of the workers’ revolution in Germany in 1918-23 led to the rise of Stalin and Hitler and was paid for in blood by more than 70 million people.
The ruling class has much on its side, wealth, tradition, ideology and in particular state power, which has been fashioned specifically for the purpose of holding down the oppressed classes. The struggle of the revolutionary class has to be both an economic and a political struggle, a struggle for state power. Victory in the struggle depends on political consciousness, mobilization and organization. A significant part of that is what we, as activists, do now.
19 August 2006