The growth of the capitalist system involves the development of new needs – we did not need the mobile phone until it was invented and many didn’t consider getting one until it got small enough in size and price. This will be true of the new needs we are currently unaware of, that will also arise from the capitalist development of the forces of production.
The productive forces that create these new needs are primarily “the accumulation of the skill and knowledge (scientific power) of the workers themselves . . . and infinitely more important than the accumulation – which goes hand in hand with it and merely represents it – of the existing objective conditions of this accumulated activity. These objective conditions [machinery, equipment, infrastructure etc.] are only nominally accumulated and must be constantly produced anew and consumed anew.” (Marx, Theories of Surplus Value Vol 3)
This process is a fundamental feature of capitalism and thus to the development within it of the conditions for its supersession. It evolves through antagonisms, and in the 1859 Preface to ‘A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy’ Marx states that ‘at a certain stage of development, the material productive forces of society come into conflict with the existing relations of production.’ At this point there ‘begins an era of social revolution.’
For Marx the creation of these conditions, the promise of a new non-exploitative and non-oppressive society, can no more avoid the antagonisms of capitalism, and all its ills, than humanity could avoid belief that the world it inhabits is the creation of a divine being.
“An oppressed class is the vital condition for every society founded on the antagonism of classes. The emancipation of the oppressed class thus implies necessarily the creation of a new society. For the oppressed class to be able to emancipate itself, it is necessary that the productive powers already acquired and the existing social relations should no longer be capable of existing side by side. Of all the instruments of production, the greatest productive power is the revolutionary class itself. The organization of revolutionary elements as a class supposes the existence of all the productive forces which could be engendered in the bosom of the old society.” (Marx, The Poverty of Philosophy, 1847)
This was written early in Marx’s career and, if the last sentence is to be understood strictly, implies that the organisation of the working class supposes that the productive forces have grown to such extent that they cannot grow further within capitalism. While some Marxists believe this stagnation or absolute retardation of capitalist development is the case, or rather repeatedly declare that this must be the case, or is impending, this is very hard, in fact impossible, to defend. The working class continues to grow massively across the world and could not do so, by definition, if the productive forces of the capitalist system were not also growing.
Marx may be thought to repeat this understanding twelve years later in the 1859 Preface to ‘The Critique of Political Economy’ quoted above, and which we looked at over a number of posts in this series as a succinct published summary of his views on these decisive questions.
Here he says that:
“No social order is ever destroyed before all the productive forces for which it is sufficient have been developed, and new superior relations of production never replace older ones before the material conditions for their existence have matured within the framework of the old society.”
G A Cohen in his celebrated book ‘Karl Marx’s Theory of History, A Defence’, rewords the first part of the sentence to read “No economic structure (set of production relations) ever perishes before all the productive forces for which there is room in it have developed. . .”
We will leave aside his replacement of ‘social order’ by the narrower ‘economic structure (set of production relations)’ and we will come back to his translation of ‘sufficient’ as ‘for which there is room’.
Cohen is right to note that this does not say that once all the productive resources have been developed an economic structure (or social order) perishes; it may ‘fossilise’, or decline or end in ‘ruination’ as Marx once alluded to in ‘The Communist Manifesto’. The second part also does not mean that if the material conditions sufficient for a new society have developed within the old one this new society will emerge. It may not, and this will depend on concrete historical circumstances. Marxists have good grounds for believing that the material conditions for a new socialist society that develop within capitalism will engender its emergence.
These grounds include the earlier statement, noted above, that
“At a certain stage of development, the material productive forces of society come into conflict with the existing relations of production or – this merely expresses the same thing in legal terms – with the property relations within the framework of which they have operated hitherto. From forms of development of the productive forces these relations turn into their fetters. Then begins an era of social revolution. The changes in the economic foundation lead sooner or later to the transformation of the whole immense superstructure.”
These grounds are verified not only by an understanding of the dynamics of capitalism, which have been verified empirically (repeated economic and political crises caused by the contradiction between the forces of production and the relations of production within it) but also by the history of class struggle, confirmed by the continued existence of that struggle.
What is ‘up for grabs’ is that these changes “lead sooner or later to the transformation of the whole immense superstructure.” Given the perennial optimism of many Marxists, which unfortunately (?) I don’t share, I consider this might now better be rephrased by taking out the words ‘sooner or’; although given the relative brevity of mature capitalism’s existence this might only be a reflection of a perspective from a human lifespan that is nearer departures than arrivals.
For Marxists, as opposed to analytical philosophers like Cohen, the real issue here is that the productive forces continue to be developed by capitalism and that this might imply two things. First, that the idea that previous attempts at socialist revolution could have been successful is mistaken, and second, that current ideas that socialist revolution is on the agenda (in some historical as opposed to immediate sense) are mistaken for the same reason.
As we have seen, it will not do to avoid this potential difficulty by claiming that capitalism is not developing the productive forces. There are political organisations which have repeated the idea that capitalism has been in crisis more or less the whole period of their own existence but, as I have already noted, the working class has grown enormously in the last period, which means the growth of wage labour, exploitation and the creation of masses of new surplus value upon which capitalist accumulation takes place.
I said I would return to Cohen’s translation of “No social order is ever destroyed before all the productive forces for which it is sufficient have been developed” into “No economic structure (set of production relations) ever perishes before all the productive forces for which there is room in it have developed. . .”
This passage has been translated in a number of ways but it is undoubtedly better that it be understood to mean that the social order of capitalism is insufficient for the development of the productive forces rather than the stage must be reached where there is simply lack of room for these forces to develop.
That latter suggests an absolute barrier which, when reached, will mean that the productive forces will cease to develop. Since we have not, and do not, appear to be approaching such a stage, this would seem to argue that the destruction of capitalism is not on the historical agenda and certainly has not been in the century in which Marx lived or in the twentieth century either. The idea that capitalism could have been overthrown at any point during this time would have been illusory – capitalism had the potential to develop the forces of production massively. It certainly ‘had room’ for them.
The possibility of the overthrow of capitalism rests not on the existence of some absolute obstacle which ceases to provide room for its development but from the contradictions it contains that make capitalism insufficient for the development of the forces of production within it. This is expressed in crises of overproduction, in which the relations of production impose on these forces the necessity for an expansion based on the realisation of massively increased amounts of surplus value. In other words, the expansion of these forces is continually thrown into crisis because the need for this to involve a suitable expansion of profit.
When this doesn’t happen crises of overproduction lead to interruptions in the development of these forces through the typical symptoms of crisis – unemployed labour and instruments of production, and unsold commodities that cannot satisfy the consumption needs of workers or of capitalists for continued and expanded production. The development of capitalism means that this contradiction increases and the capitalist mode of production becomes more and more insufficient for this development.
Each crisis trends towards a greater mass of capital unable to contribute to its own expansion, whether it is expressed in larger and larger numbers of workers unemployed, greater means of production unused or devalued through bankruptcies and reduced capacity utilisation, and a greater number of commodities unsold or sold at reduced prices.
It is not that each crisis must register a successively greater percentage of unemployment or fall in levels of production. We should not seek confirmation of Marx’s analysis through expecting every crisis of overproduction to be worse in these relative respects, as if industrial production must fall more, and unemployment must always be higher, than the Great Depression of the 1930s etc.
It is that capitalism means the accumulation of greater and greater amounts of capital, and the crises that its contradictions create thus tend to throw back, and tend to the destruction of, absolutely greater amounts of capital. The grounds for socialism do not arise from only one pole of this contradiction but also from the development of the forces of production that precede crises and subsequently follow them.
This is what demonstrates the fettering of the forces of production by the relations of production. These relations imply unceasing competition between different capitals and the states they both support and rely upon. This means economic crises become political conflicts, not just involving suppression of subordinate classes but also war between rival capitals and states.
The bloody history of capitalism, especially in the first half of the twentieth century shows the absolute devastation that the contradictions of capitalism can inflict, as the international development of the forces of production runs up against capitalist relations of production centred on national states and Empires. Rival capitalists stand behind these states as they seek through alliances and opposition to advance at the expense of others.
*KMAC: Karl Marx’s Alternative to Capitalism
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