Karl Marx’s alternative to capitalism part 21 – forces and relations of production 4

I noted in part 18 of these posts that different views exist on the relationship between the forces and relations of production.  For some, the forces of production have primacy in explaining historical development and changes in the relations of production arise from the development of the productive forces, in the manner Marx describes in the 1859 Preface.

An alternative view is that it is the relations of production, in capitalism the capitalist ownership of the means of production and the competition among them, that is the motor of development.  Yet another view considers that it is contradictions within the relations of production alone that drives historical development, and not between these relations and the forces of production.

The latter two views lend themselves to the possibility that overthrowing of capitalist relations, no matter what the level of development of the productive forces, can lead to socialism, and the last can even encompass the view that simple changing from capitalist relations involves socialism in toto.  This is not a purely theoretical view but is one advanced by various varieties of Stalinism and left nationalism.

This still leaves us with the necessity of showing that Marx is correct to advance the argument the forces of production have primacy in explaining historical development and change in the relations of production arise from the development of these forces.

We have already defined the forces of production and stated that they always exist in a particular social form, that is, always exist within and as part of certain relations of production.  Marx says that these relations, that include the drive to exploit labour more intensively and in greater quantities, driven also by the requirements of capitalist competition, show that these relations of production are forms of development of the forces of production.  However, relations of production do not fetter themselves even if in certain senses they could be considered to develop themselves.

This can be seen for example in a geographical sense – through the growth world-wide of capitalism in previously non-capitalist societies, but also to the degree to which commodity production has penetrated previously non-commodity labour – pre-cooked food and restaurants replacing unpaid domestic labour for example.

These however also require productive forces that allow the practical and material possibility of the massive geographical spread of capitalism, including transport and communications, and the technology for the production of massive quantities of pre-cooked food, itself relying on a level of development of the productive forces that allows significant numbers of workers in many countries a standard of living that allows consumption of food not prepared by themselves.

Neither can it be said that the forces of production fetter the relations – the material forces of production, including division of labour, does not act to restrict commodity production or limit the exploitation of workers.  Rather technological development, modes of labour organisation and division of labour are restricted in their existence due to their employment in commodity production or as aspects of the exploitation of workers as wage labour.  How this evidences itself will be shown in a later post.

So, the contradiction in the mode of production cannot lie solely within the relations of production.  The contradictions within capitalism cannot be understood as purely involving unintended consequences both positive and negative, but as immanent and inherent in the system.  For example, the civilising function of capitalism that has been extensively discussed in these posts is not a by-product of some essentially reactionary character of capitalism.  “The simple concept of capital has to contain its civilising tendencies etc. in themselves; they must not, as in the economics books until now, appear as external consequences.  Likewise the contradictions which are later released, demonstrated is already latent within it.” (Marx, Grundrisse)

The alternative translation of what we have denoted as ‘productive forces’ – Produktivkräfte – is that of productive powers (not forces). Whereas a ‘force’ can be conceived as a thing, independent and standing alone, a power is always an attribute of something else and for Marx, the power in question is specifically that of social labour. Productive forces are thus an attribute of human beings in association, their collective capacities, not merely a set of things such as machinery, raw materials, technology or buildings.  It is the human being itself which is the main productive force and concrete labour (as opposed to labour in its exchange value creating role) that expresses this productive power, most powerfully as the cooperative labour of the whole working class.

The mode of cooperation that labour always involves, including the division of labour, is therefore itself a productive force that can be considered to be developed or fettered by the relations of production.  Marxists insist that the nature and scope of conscious cooperation between the direct producers in society, the working class, is retarded and restricted by capitalism in such a way that the productive powers of society are fettered and limited.

In capitalism, the mode of cooperation of labour and the application of technology are closely tied together so that technology can set the requirements for, and limits of, the division of labour.  This is true not just within the workplace or even between different workplaces:

“The relations of different nations among themselves depend upon the extent to which each has developed its productive forces, the division of labour and internal intercourse. This proposition is generally recognised. But not only the relation of one nation to others, but also the whole internal structure of the nation itself depends on the stage of development reached by its production and its internal and external intercourse. How far the productive forces of a nation are developed is shown most manifestly by the degree to which the division of labour has been carried. Each new productive force, insofar as it is not merely a quantitative extension of productive forces already known (for instance, the bringing into cultivation of fresh land), causes a further development of the division of labour.” (Marx and Engels, The German Ideology)

Back to part 20

Forward to part 22

2 thoughts on “Karl Marx’s alternative to capitalism part 21 – forces and relations of production 4

  1. There is another way of seeing this social relations / forces of production dispute ie what sort of science of history is being proposed by Marx ? When Marx lived in Germany he was educated to think about ‘science’ in terms of Wissenschaft, when he lived in Britain the idea of science was something different, science as intended to be predictive, was already becoming the orthodoxy. The crucial difference is that Wissenschaft is not bound solely to law, exactness and prediction, it is bound to rational evaluation and criticism. In the English speaking world it as taken as normal that science must be value free, this is not the case with the German idea of Wissenschaft.

    The English method strove to make science completely value free, when seizing on the study of capitalism in the mode of the normal English scientific way the study of the effects of technological change and how this built up industry was undertaken without a hint of evaluation and criticism. It was different when it came to the Wissenschaft accounts of early industrial development. No one can really argue that Marx presented his study of the Factory Conditions in the England of the nineteenth century in the name of a value free or a predictive science, rather his approach was always evaluative in the mode of Wissenschaft.

    There had been a strong tendency to adjust what Marx said to the scientific culture and atmosphere of the different national contexts. In France the scientific culture is Cartesian in origin and Althusser and his co-workers adjusted the works of Marx to fit with a positivist scientific culture, hence all of the works of Marx, especially of the the Younger Marx including the German Ideology were deemed to belong to a pre-scientific stage, only when Marx clarified the concept of surplus value was the point of science finally crossed said the French Marxist. Likewise in England and America it is the norm to think of science as something value free, Marx must be abandoning the ethos of science by associating his historical studies with evaluation and social criticism. The tendency in the English speaking intellectual culture is to adjust Marx to fit with the value free science of economics. If Marx is to have any claim on science his thought must be reconstructed to make exact predictions about the future based on the discovery of universal laws, both economic and political, his first scientific critics said that as most of his future predictions were shown to be unproven by later events, his ideas were not conclusions based on of scientific laws . There are many English speaking critics of Marx who say something similar to what was best said by Karl Popper ; that Marxism is not scientific.

    It should be said that in science one can be evaluative and critical without drawing assistance from moral codes, preaching or emotion. Think of how businesses hire workers, they evaluate the skills and knowledge of potential employees. Or think of apples and vegetables moving along the assembly line, some are rejected because they are damaged, because they are too small or too big or the wrong colour, here an evaluation is being undertaken without resort to any moralising about apples and vegetables. This is closer to what Hegel and Marx meant by Wissenschaft. The deep basis of Wissenschaft was grounded in a conception of ontological
    alienation, something Althusser and others excised as humanist, or in English language equivalent moralistic.

    It seems to be me that one can steer ‘marxism’ in different ways, those who focus on the forces of production, tend also to speak about technological progress, economic modernisation, technological long waves and the like, and are prey to making predictions about the near future. Those who place the emphasis on the social relations are more evaluative of capitalism on the basis of its genesis in ontological alienation, something not amenable to reform and progress,the best thing they can say about capitalism in a time of rapid economic growth is that it is becoming ever more decadent, decadence an evaluating term not coined by Marx but deployed by Lukacs who was the first to return to the Marxist concept of alienation. So there at least two conceptions of what a Marxist science of history might look like.

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