Karl Marx’s alternative to capitalism part 47
In Marx’s Preface to a Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, which we have so far used to signpost the nature of Marx’s alternative to capitalism, he writes that on “the economic structure of society, the real foundation . . . arises a legal and political superstructure . . . to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness . . .” When “the material productive forces of society come into conflict with the existing relations of production . . .” there “begins an era of social revolution. The changes in the economic foundation lead sooner or later to the transformation of the whole immense superstructure.”
It is therefore the changes in the economic foundation within capitalism that lead “sooner or later” to the transformation of the “legal and political superstructure.” It is not that this superstructure, including the state, leads to the era of social revolution. What is involved are social changes, which in relation to the creation of socialism; the end of class division and disappearance of the state, cannot be the result of the ‘superstructure’ i.e., the state itself, but of the development of the productive forces and appropriately corresponding relations of production. This might seem obvious when stated after quoting Marx, but this has not prevented a century of claims that a socialist state introduces socialism, the eradication of class division and the withering away of the state itself.
The “superior relations of production” under which this is achieved replace the old when the “material conditions for their existence have matured within the framework of the old society.”
Marx then states that “mankind thus inevitably sets itself only such tasks as it is able to solve, since closer examination will always show that the problem itself arises only when the material conditions for its solution are already present or at least in the course of formation.”
He has already stated that “in studying such transformations it is always necessary to distinguish between the material transformation of the economic conditions of production, which can be determined with the precision of natural science, and the legal, political, religious, artistic or philosophic – in short, ideological forms in which men become conscious of this conflict and fight it out.”
We should therefore know whether and to what extent material conditions are present, “or at least in the course of formation”, for the commencement of the transformation of capitalism. In a previous post I argued that maturation of these material conditions should not be understood as requiring some absolute value but is a function of historical development.
When first clarifying their ideas Marx and Engels noted this in general terms; rejecting the idea that the ‘degree of freedom’ to be achieved was a product simply of people’s views of its necessity:
“In reality, of course, what happened was that people won freedom for themselves each time to the extent that was dictated and permitted not by their ideal of man, but by the existing productive forces. All emancipation carried through hitherto has been based, however, on unrestricted productive forces. The production which these productive forces could provide was insufficient for the whole of society and made development possible only if some persons satisfied their needs at the expense of others, and therefore some — the minority — obtained the monopoly of development, while others — the majority — owing to the constant struggle to satisfy their most essential needs, were for the time being (i.e., until the creation of new revolutionary productive forces) excluded from any development.” (Marx and Engels, The German Ideology)
Given what Marx says in the 1859 Preface about the conditions required for solving the transformation of capitalism, it was open that there may be premature attempts to move to a new society. Engels notes, in his Peasant War in Germany that the leader of the peasants, Thomas Müntzer, lived in an age which was “not ripe” for his ideas:
“Not only the movement of his time, but the whole century, was not ripe for the realisation of the ideas for which he himself had only begun to grope. The class which he represented not only was not developed enough and incapable of subduing and transforming the whole of society, but it was just beginning to come into existence. The social transformation that he pictured in his fantasy was so little grounded in the then existing economic conditions that the latter were a preparation for a social system diametrically opposed to that of which he dreamt. (page 78-79)
If this was obvious of the 16th century, in the Communist Manifesto Marx summarised the later experience of the young working class:
“the first direct attempts of the proletariat to attain its own ends, made in times of universal excitement, when feudal society was being overthrown, necessarily failed, owing to the then undeveloped state of the proletariat, as well as to the absence of the economic conditions for its emancipation, conditions that had yet to be produced, and could be produced by the impending bourgeois epoch alone.”
The material conditions necessary for a new society include a level of productive forces that are “appropriate” for the creation of new relations of production; but since this requires a “social revolution” the transformation involved also requires that this becomes a conscious struggle that is ‘fought out’. We have been told in the 1859 Preface that how we understand this transformation, our consciousness of it, must itself be explained:
“Just as one does not judge an individual by what he thinks about himself, so one cannot judge such a period of transformation by its consciousness, but, on the contrary, this consciousness must be explained from the contradictions of material life, from the conflict existing between the social forces of production and the relations of production.” (Preface 1859)
In the Manifesto Marx notes that:
“The revolutionary literature that accompanied these first movements of the proletariat had necessarily a reactionary character. It inculcated universal asceticism and social levelling in its crudest form.”
“The Socialist and Communist systems, properly so called, those of Saint-Simon, Fourier, Owen, and others, spring into existence in the early undeveloped period, described above, of the struggle between proletariat and bourgeoisie . . .”
“The founders of these systems see, indeed, the class antagonisms, as well as the action of the decomposing elements in the prevailing form of society. But the proletariat, as yet in its infancy, offers to them the spectacle of a class without any historical initiative or any independent political movement.”
“Since the development of class antagonism keeps even pace with the development of industry, the economic situation, as they find it, does not as yet offer to them the material conditions for the emancipation of the proletariat.”
Instead, their consciousness reflects their material reality:
“Historical action is to yield to their personal inventive action; historically created conditions of emancipation to fantastic ones; and the gradual, spontaneous class organisation of the proletariat to an organisation of society especially contrived by these inventors. Future history resolves itself, in their eyes, into the propaganda and the practical carrying out of their social plans.”
“In the formation of their plans, they are conscious of caring chiefly for the interests of the working class, as being the most suffering class. Only from the point of view of being the most suffering class does the proletariat exist for them.”
As this quotation makes clear, given the requirement of maturation of the conditions that will permit new superior relations of production, it is not possible to leap over the development of these conditions; by attempting to disregard the absence of sufficient productive forces or attempting to replace existing relations of production with new ones when the productive forces will not support them, when the existing exploited class is insufficiently developed to abolish its own exploitation and that of exploitation more generally.
Twentieth-century history, in the shape of the Soviet Union and China (the Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution for example), is testament to the accuracy of these claims. These experiences threw up struggles, organisations, programmes and slogans that reflected their precocity but which unfortunately have been unthinkingly repeated without adequate consideration of their original circumstances and therefore their limitations.
Marx makes clear that solving the problems thrown up by such transformation will be possible when the conditions are present or “in the course of formation” with the implication that if they are not present or insufficiently in formation then the requisite tasks necessary for transformation cannot be accomplished.
In such circumstances the tasks revolve around existing development of the forces of production and class relations such that the working class is prepared and made ready to take into its own hands these forces. As we have noted, Marx believed that the material conditions “could be produced by the impending bourgeois epoch alone.”
In The German Ideology Marx and Engels state that the abolition of exploitation “presuppose(s) a great increase in productive power, a high degree of its development. And, on the other hand, this development of productive forces (which itself implies the actual empirical existence of men in their world-historical, instead of local, being) is an absolutely necessary practical premise because without it want is merely made general, and with destitution the struggle for necessities and all the old filthy business would necessarily be reproduced.”
“. . . Communism is for us not a state of affairs which is to be established, an ideal to which reality [will] have to adjust itself. We call communism the real movement which abolishes the present state of things. The conditions of this movement result from the premises now in existence.”
There is no blueprint, there is no ideal state of affairs to be aimed at, and there is no master plan. The movement begins where it is and involves the working class emancipating itself through changing its conditions, and changing itself, based on circumstances that already exist but are constantly developed, along the lines analysed and presented by Marx in Capital, and which we have extensively discussed in previous posts.
This movement does not stop after political revolution, and Marx states that “The proletariat will use its political supremacy to . . . increase the total productive forces as rapidly as possible.” (Communist Manifesto). Only in this way can humanity move from the want and inequality continually and necessarily reproduced under capitalism to society being able to “inscribe on its banners: From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs!” (Critique of the Gotha Programme)
Back to part 46
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