Karl Marx’s alternative to capitalism part 18 – forces and relations of production 1

We have seen the importance of production to individuals and to society and how the relations of production condition our lives and thus how changing these is fundamental to any alternative that seeks to radically transform these lives.

An alternative view is that it is not possible to ascribe any objective primacy in historical explanation to any of the multiple factors that bring about a particular event.  Since multiple factors create history and all are necessary for any particular outcome there can be no fundamental ordering or understanding of historical development.  This view therefore implies that pursuit of any alternative can have no secure foundation because any particular outcome is a combination of causes, each of which is necessary for the existence of that event and its consequences, and it is impossible to control for all these multiple causes.

It is not my purpose to go into a philosophical interrogation of this claim but to point out that Marxism demonstrates the cogency of its alternative not by the attractiveness of its ideas but by their consistency and correspondence to reality; that they explain the real world, how it develops and how it may be changed.  Its correctness therefore arises from real history which must evidence its ideas and the persuasiveness of its alternative. Marxism does not therefore impose formulas on history to which the real world must adhere but establishes the laws through which history develops by looking at history itself. The existence of such laws is demonstrated by interrogation of history itself.

Its claim is therefore that there are some things more important than others to understanding historical development and therefore fundamental in determining how it can be changed and placed under conscious human control, in so far that it can.  The claim by Marx is that it is how people cooperate to reproduce their conditions of life, and the forces of production and relations of production as the key aspects of this process, that can explain its overall development.  These aspects of history have to be identified and their mutually conditioned development explained by history and not by some theory imposed from outside.

The ‘Preface’ of 1859 contains some very short remarks setting out this view:

“In the social production of their existence, men inevitably enter into definite relations, which are independent of their will, namely relations of production appropriate to a given stage in the development of their material forces of production. The totality of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which arises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness . . . 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.”

The key part of this that is often misunderstood is “relations of production appropriate to a given stage in the development of their material forces of production.”  For some this means that that forces of production have primacy in explaining historical development, in that the relations by which people come together to produce are determined by the level of development of these forces of production and that changes in these relations of production arise from the development of the productive forces.  An alternative view is that it is the relations of production, for example, of exclusive capitalist ownership of the means of production plus a working class without such ownership, and the competition among these capitalists, that is the motor of development.  In other words, two diametrically opposite views!

In the last post, I explained what was meant by the relations of production under capitalism.  Turning to the forces of production, these can be considered to be the instruments of production including technology (factories, offices, transport, machines etc. – the physical instruments used to produce material goods and ‘immaterial’ services); raw materials used in production; and labour used in production including its mode of organisation, cooperation and division of labour.

Human labour power is the most basic force of production and since relations of production are composed of people we can see that the forces and relations of production are not physically separate things but different aspects of the way individuals combine in society to produce and reproduce that society.  The most basic force of production under capitalism is therefore the working class.

There is not therefore a set of forces of production upon which a separate set of relations are imposed to make a combined mode of production.  These are two aspects of the one production process with their own features that entail the contradictory development of capitalism as a whole and explain its development.  Just as the commodities produced in capitalism have a use value – they must have some use in order to be bought and sold – and they must have an exchange value – they must have a monetary value that determines whether they are made and sold, and at what price they are sold at; so, the forces and relations of production are aspects of the one process of (re)production.

This means that production is capitalist production for profit, which is derived from the unpaid labour of the worker.  This however can only be profit if the commodities made by the worker are sold, which means the commodities must have a use value, for if they had no use they would not be purchased, and the lower the share of wages in the value created in production the greater must be the consumption of the capitalist and other parasitic classes.  The surplus value created by the worker, the unpaid labour transformed into money, allows the capitalist to purchase more instruments of labour and hire more labour power.

Production is therefore not just the production of material goods and services but the reproduction of class relationships and the relations of production. The forces and relations of production exist as a unity, as aspects of the same process.

The reproduction of classes thus involves not just the hire of labour to make a profit but assumes that the wage can function as a wage because the commodities the worker needs to consume can be purchased with money the worker receives and are thus themselves commodities produced by wage labour.  This is also the case with the instruments of labour which are not self-produced either by the capitalist, and certainly not by the worker, but are themselves commodities produced by wage labour.

Only when this is the case can we really claim that the relations of production and classes typical of capitalism are adequately developed so that the features of capitalism that we will later discuss are expressed and become typical, including separation of the worker from the means of production and their re-uniting only under the control of capitalists, who now monopolise their ownership.  Only to the extent that this is the case can we talk of capitalism and we can only know this by historical investigation.  While elements of wage labour and capital have existed for many centuries, the capitalist mode of production has not.

The first claim by Marx is that certain relations of production are appropriate to, or correspond with, a given stage in the development of the material forces of production.  But in what sense are the forces of production primary?

A second famous quote from Marx sets out in a more specific way than the 1859 Preface his views:

“The specific economic form, in which unpaid surplus-labour is pumped out of direct producers, determines the relationship of rulers and ruled, as it grows directly out of production itself and, in turn, reacts upon it as a determining element. Upon this, however, is founded the entire formation of the economic community which grows up out of the production relations themselves, thereby simultaneously its specific political form. It is always the direct relationship of the owners of the conditions of production to the direct producers — a relation always naturally corresponding to a definite stage in the development of the methods of labour and thereby its social productivity — which reveals the innermost secret, the hidden basis of the entire social structure and with it the political form of the relation of sovereignty and dependence, in short, the corresponding specific form of the state.”[i]

Marx is therefore saying that the level of productivity determines what forms of extraction of surplus from the exploited class are possible. He sets out a general relation between the level of productivity (size of surplus) and the forms of surplus labour possible given that level of productivity.  This form of surplus labour extraction is the basis for sustaining class relations in society and this class society determines the kind of political form the society takes or ‘the form of the relation of sovereignty and dependence.’

Class relations thus grow out of production so must in some way be separate from production for these relations to in turn react upon it, so that the class relations have to correspond with production.

Of course, at any particular time production takes place within class relationships but taken separately, in this sense, it may be considered as simply material production, as production of use values, as production in itself, a process between men and women and nature involving methods of labour.

This is an aspect of the actual mode of production useful in order to understand production as a whole, which also necessarily includes class relations.  The forces and relations of production therefore include the same people and the same processes but understood as different aspects of the one mode of production, aspects that are not simply conceptual but can be demonstrated through real history.

The ability of this production to support any class society, the scope and extent of this class society and the potential to abolish class society altogether, depends upon the productive forces creation of a surplus and the extent of this surplus production.

[i] Marx goes on to say that “This does not prevent the same economic basis — the same from the standpoint of its main conditions — due to innumerable different empirical circumstances, natural environment, racial relations, external historical influences, etc. from showing infinite variations and gradations in appearance, which can be ascertained only by analysis of the empirically given circumstances.”

Back to part 17

Karl Marx’s alternative to capitalism part 15 – the Preface of 1859

The Preface to ‘A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy’ of 1859 is a short couple of pages but, as perhaps one of the most vital expositions of Karl Marx’s interpretation of history, it has not unexpectedly been the subject of much controversy. Since Engels said of Marx, at his graveside, that one of his two fundamental contributions was the materialist theory of history, it would appear that the controversy is quite important.  An interpretation provides not only the grounds and principles upon which we can understand history but also how we can change it.

A second reason is that this Preface of 1859 appears not to be entirely consistent with that other famous declaration of the principles lying behind the course of history, set out in ‘The Communist Manifesto’, that the history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles. The 1859 preface only mentions classes twice and doesn’t mention them in the context of class struggle at all; so not only does it seem that class struggle is not central to historical development but it scarcely matters.

So, before I go on, let’s quote the relevant section of ‘The Preface’:

“In the social production of their existence, men inevitably enter into definite relations, which are independent of their will, namely relations of production appropriate to a given stage in the development of their material forces of production. The totality of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which arises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness. The mode of production of material life conditions the general process of social, political and intellectual life. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness.”

“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.”

“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. 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.”

“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. 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.”

“In broad outline, the Asiatic, ancient, feudal and modern bourgeois modes of production may be designated as epochs marking progress in the economic development of society. The bourgeois mode of production is the last antagonistic form of the social process of production – antagonistic not in the sense of individual antagonism but of an antagonism that emanates from the individuals’ social conditions of existence – but the productive forces developing within bourgeois society create also the material conditions for a solution of this antagonism. The prehistory of human society accordingly closes with this social formation.”

So why should the short couple of pages of ‘The Preface’ be so important to understanding the course of historical development and therefore to the contradictions within capitalism that give birth to the alternative and so explain what this alternative to capitalism is?

The most recent biography of Marx by Gareth Stedman Jones (Karl Marx Greatness and Illusion) spends little time analysing specifically the claims of Marx in relation to history within the Preface, which is rather remiss since he acknowledges it as one of a rather small number of canonical texts by Marx upon which 20th century Marxist organisations were built.  The impression given is that it was written when “Karl’s judgements at this time were increasingly disordered, perhaps even touched by delusion, with mood changes ranging from unreal euphoria through uncontrolled paranoia to fantasies of revenge.”

We are informed that Marx had, in his own words, been “overwhelmed with work’” and had to deal with what Jones describes as “continuing health problems, his wife’s shattered nerves” and “financial desperation.”  Jenny Marx had been unable to post the manuscript of ‘The Critique’ – “as I haven’t even a farthing for postage or insurance”.  She was “‘a nervous wreck’, haunted “by the spectre of final and unavoidable catastrophe.”

An earlier explanation for the ostensible inconsistency, between Marx’s view of history as one of class struggle and it apparently being missing from the Preface, formed the thesis of an article published in 1969: ‘Background and Ulterior Motive of Marx’s “Preface” of 1859’.

This argued that the absence of the role of class struggle within the Preface arose from Marx’s desire to get the book published against the constraints of the Prussian censor, who would undoubtedly be expected to prohibit publication of a text by the notorious Marx in which class struggle and revolution featured prominently.  The argument is that Marx decided to publish anyway despite the Preface hiding, if not silencing, his previous views on their importance.  Its careful wording was therefore an attempt to pull the wool over the eyes of the censor with the consequence perhaps that some wool was pulled over the eyes of the reader, even taking into account whatever ‘hints’ were hidden behind otherwise soothing formulations.

Why he should seek to do so is partially explained by his extended absence in exile from Germany, his political home and home to his biggest and most important band of followers, to which he was prevented from returning to from London, and for whom he could only influence and continue to be recognised from publications.

These had been very few and not recent, having struggled to get published for some years.  Even when he had got published, as with ‘Revelations Concerning the Communist Trial in Cologne’ in 1853, almost all copies were confiscated by the police.  Thus, the argument goes, that the rather abstract and bloodless language of ‘The Preface’ owed a lot to Marx’s desperation to avoid the censor and get published, in so doing establishing a foot in a door which might lead to further publication.

Unfortunately, ‘A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy’ was a publishing failure and not read much today either, another vantage point from which to minimise the importance of the Preface.  Nevertheless, it is argued that the publication of the Preface, for which the whole book is more remembered, meant that Marx felt compelled to defend it, or at least not repudiate it – “lest he destroy his own credibility” – and therefore saddling himself with “high-sounding phrases” that obscured and obfuscated his real goals for generations to come.

In some ways these criticisms are examples of academic approaches to Marx which, despite their erudition, fail to understand the real motives of the man and his political objectives.  Despite a keenness to understand his writings in context, they misunderstand the context so that his personal circumstances are used to prop up an explanation or failure to find complete formulations of the appropriate academic rigour is considered to undermine the sense of what he has written.

So Marx was either slightly unhinged at the time or he hid what he really wanted to say, so we can, to a greater or lesser extent, ignore what he did say.

Yet Stedman Jones acknowledges that Marx’s motive was directly political: “to win a scientific victory for our party’, ‘party’ here meaning those followers of Marx and his ideas however organised.

It is scarcely conceivable that a man who dedicated his life to the political objectives of the working class; who sacrificed so much of himself and his family through his political activity and intellectual endeavours; who sought to do this during this particular time of his life through intensive study to elaborate the theory and politics of the working class; that he should sacrifice all this by writing something which rather than elucidate, actually obscured his politics and his theory. To believe such an explanation lies behind the words of ‘The Preface’ is hardly credible.

The themes of ‘The Preface’ were ones written before, in ‘The German Ideology’, so unless we are expected to believe that this writing was also the product of a ‘disordered’ approach, “perhaps even touched by delusion. . . unreal euphoria [and] uncontrolled paranoia”, we must assume he knew what he was doing.

It is equally inconceivable that, having struggled to get his views published, he would, when he eventually got the opportunity, publish something that he didn’t profoundly believe encapsulated his views.

This is so because it is the conciseness and sharpness of this summary of the Marx view of historical development that has led to the Preface’s influence on later generations of Marxists.  Notwithstanding his undoubted desire to work round the censor, he would not have allowed this to result in his writing presenting something with which he did not agree.  What would be the point in that?

The view that Marx might have wanted in any way to repudiate ‘A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy’ doesn’t appear to withstand scrutiny.  Martin Nicolaus in ‘The Unknown Marx’ wrote that “Only once in his life did he speak with a tone of achievement and a sense of accomplishment about one of his works. Only once did he announce that he had written something which not only encompassed the whole of his views, but also presented them in a scientific manner. That occasion was in the Preface to the Critique of Political Economy (1859) . . .”

If he wanted to retreat in any way from this work why did he quote from it in the first sentence of the first chapter of his most famous work, Capital Volume 1, the first of a number of references, and defend ‘The Preface’ in a footnote within the same chapter?

It is all the more necessary to appreciate the particular importance of ‘The Preface’ because it has been noted that, unlike the usual role of a preface, which sets out the purpose and scope of the rest of a book, this preface was part autobiographical sketch and part summary of views that were not the subject of the rest of the book.  He obviously felt it important to set out this summary of his views and identify himself closely with it.

So, let’s go through the relevant section above to see what it implies for Marx’s view about the alternative to capitalism and how such things as productive forces and productive relations are fundamental to it.

Back to part 14