Karl Marx’s alternative to capitalism part 23 – forces and relations of production 6

Related imageThe contradiction between the forces and relations of production is extreme under capitalism because the relations of production, while tending to promote the unlimited development of the forces of production, force the latter against the limits of these relations.  Capitalism seeks to expand without limit through the creation and appropriation of surplus value expressed most immediately as the need to make profits.  This is enforced through increased exploitation of labour and the competition of different capitals to capture market share.  No previous mode of production has displayed such rapid development of its own logic of expansion, with such power, and with such effect across the world.

Since the material forces of production and the relations of production within which they are encased are simply two aspects of the same thing it is not the case that their contradiction sees one develop and the other not.  The contradictions that develop within them lead to crises expressed both in the fettering of the forces of production and curbing of capitalist social relations, expressed in economic, social and political crises.

Capitalist forces and relations of production, once established, produce relative surplus value through increased productivity of labour that reduces the time required by workers to create the amount of value that is consumed by them through their wage, so increasing the (surplus) value created and appropriated by the capitalist.  This relative increase is surplus value is consistent with rising living standards of workers because relative surplus value only exists by increasing the productivity of labour, increasing the amount of goods produced and a corresponding reduction in their costs.

The greater share of the value of production appropriated by capital allows still greater expansion of production under its control and yet greater appropriation of profit. Capitalist accumulation advances through investment in machines and hiring of labour: both the material forces of production and specifically capitalist relations of production between capital and wage labour increase in scale.

For each individual capital, the limit of production is presented by the whole of the market for its goods, although this cannot obviously be the case for all capitals in that market.  While the goods and services produced are relevant to the capitalist pursuit of profit, this is only the case in so far as they have an exchange value and can be sold for money.  But they must also have a use for their customer, and even with growing real incomes due to the price of goods having fallen, there are limits to how many of a whole range of goods any individual may want or be able to afford.  The increased production arising from development of the forces of production can lead to the overproduction of commodities in relation to the effective demand available that can realise their sale at a profit, and this structure and limitation of demand is determined by the ownership of the means of production and appropriation of the fruits of production, including the surplus product.

This can lead to economic crises as the scale of commodities produced cannot be sold profitably and the contradiction between the greater development of the forces of production, and the capitalist relations within which they grow, is expressed in economic crises of overproduction, evidenced in the cyclical economic crises that have existed since 1825.  If such crises encompass a number of vital or fundamental commodities, and if they severely affect the circulation of capital, for example either the extension of credit or purchase of labour power, recessions or depressions will result in bankruptcies and unemployment.  Both the forces of production are held back or even reduced while some capitalists cease to be capitalists and workers cease to work.  Periodic recessions leave productive forces unused while human needs, which these forces could fulfil, is unmet because the relations of production demand that these forces only be employed at the requisite profit.

Increased productivity of labour arises primarily through the application of science and technology, that leads more and more to the replacement of human labour with that of machines.  While the capitalist pursuit of absolute surplus value continues even today, in forms such as a “long-hours” culture – especially notorious in Japan or “presenteeism” in many offices – there are social and biological limits to this that conflict with the possibilities contained through increases in relative surplus value.  Increased productivity in the production of goods and services consumed by workers can allow their money wage to fall at least relatively, while maintaining or increasing their real wage in terms of the number of commodities they can buy.

In doing so the relative amount of living labour in the value of production may decline so that the source of surplus value in this human labour also declines relatively, which can produce a decline in the share of surplus value in relation to capital advanced, and therefore of profit. “The progressive tendency for the general rate of profit to fall is thus simply the expression, peculiar to the capitalist mode of production, of the progressive development of the social productivity of labour.  (Capital Volume III p318 – 319)

“The rate of self-expansion of the total capital, or the rate of profit, being the goad of capitalist production (just as self-expansion of capital is its only purpose), its fall checks the formation of new independent capitals and thus appears as a threat to the development of the capitalist production process. It breeds over-production, speculation, crises, and surplus-capital alongside surplus-population. Those economists, therefore, who, like Ricardo, regard the capitalist mode of production as absolute, feel at this point that it creates a barrier itself, and for this reason attribute the barrier to Nature (in the theory of rent), not to production. But the main thing about their horror of the falling rate of profit is the feeling that capitalist production meets in the development of its productive forces a barrier which has nothing to do with the production of wealth as such; and this peculiar barrier testifies to the limitations and to the merely historical, transitory character of the capitalist mode of production; testifies that for the production of wealth, it is not an absolute mode, moreover, that at a certain stage it rather conflicts with its further development.”

Back to part 22

Forward to part 24

Karl Marx’s alternative to capitalism part 22 – forces and relations of production 5

In Capital Volume 1 Marx provides an example of how the productive powers of society have come up against restricted relations of production, how they have further developed and in so doing have consequently revolutionised the economic foundation of society.

This involved the movement from what Marx called the formal subsumption of labour under capital to real subsumption.  At first, the existing labour process, including the workers labour power, their technology, means of production, and markets, are taken under ownership by a capitalist; where previously individual workers’ families produced and sold (or not) on their own behalf.   This latter activity is, of course, not capitalist because no worker is exploited (except perhaps that they exploit themselves) and it is impossible to define a workers’ wage separately from any consideration of profit that the family may be considered to have made.

This, Marx calls “formal” subsumption, under which the whole labour process continues much as before, with previously independent workers now working for a capitalist, perhaps using the same methods, with the capitalist now monopolising the means of production and ownership of the product.  The typical example given is of hand-loom weavers, who continued working as before but did so on behalf of a capitalist who puts out the raw material to be worked upon and will take it back in finished form to sell, while the worker and their family carries out their labour in the home.

Considered at this stage, the workers’ means of subsistence may or may not be produced wholly or partly by the workers’ family itself, which if it is, may either give the worker some freedom to refuse demands from the capitalist if they are considered too onerous; or may entail very low wages which on their own would not be enough to maintain the subsistence needs of the worker and family without their own domestic production.  In either case the capitalist must be able to make a profit and may be greatly empowered to do so if he can compel the worker to submit to wage-labour through total reliance on it for his or her livelihood and that of the family.

This is therefore capitalism, or rather capitalism in a very limited and undeveloped form, because in its early forms it can either involve the workers’ reliance on their own production of subsistence needs and/or is based upon existing production techniques that are not developed by the capitalist to extract more surplus labour.

We do not yet have the social forces of production in the form of capitalism.  Such wage labour has existed for centuries without what we could recognise as something called capitalism as a system in existence. Indeed, pure wage labour has gone further than this without being generalised.  It is not therefore the case that we have prior or newly created and fully capitalist relations giving rise to capitalism itself.

Capitalism as such cannot develop on the limited basis it finds in the already existing forces of production. The pre-requisites for capitalism as a system, as a form of truly social production as we now know it, is a capitalist labour process that is the real subsumption of labour under capital, where the instruments of production can only be operated cooperatively and not individually as before.

Only when the forces of production, including the type of division of labour and its organisation, have been radically developed beyond the restrictions of the purely formal subsumption of labour can the whole social relations of production within society become thoroughly imbued with the nature and requirements of capital.  Only then does capitalism become generalised, obligatory and a totality.

Only when labour is combined together, and the potential technology appropriate to such combinations developed, can the productive power of capital be unleashed and we can move from more or less isolated, primitive and undeveloped forms of capitalist exploitation to a whole society of commodity production in which the vast mass of potential labour power is dependent on employment by capital.  In the words of Marx only then do capitalist relations achieve their “adequate form” and they gain their “totality and extent”.

The superior productivity – productive power – of the developing capitalist forces of production can then destroy less efficient methods of production (if it is allowed to) or it uses the state to enforce ‘free trade’ on less efficient productive arrangements. We then have a society in which every need of the worker and capitalist is provided by wage labour working for capital, and gone are the days when such needs were met by the product of one’s own labour or the trading by oneself of one’s own products for those not self-made.  While the latter limits the organisation and division of labour including the application of technology, the employment of wage labour cooperatively together in one place opens up an enormous vista of expanding productivity.

With the real subsumption of labour the expansion of capital involves enormously increased accumulation of labour and the instruments of labour; a previously inconceivable increased division of labour; the centralization and concentration of capital on an gigantic scale and the development of specifically capitalist forms of crisis, which no longer involve a shortage of production but are the result of too much production, overproduction of commodities that cannot be sold profitably.

Before long the exploitation of labour increases not because the working day is extended and its intensity increased, although tendencies to this never cease to be the case under capitalism, but because the division of labour and technology increases labour productivity, so cheapening the products of labour consumed by the worker and therefore reducing the time the worker must labour to reproduce her own wage while increasing the time in which she works to create profit for the capitalist.

By such a process new products and methods of production are created, adding to workers’ needs and the means by which these needs are satisfied, with the latter determining the former.  The versatility required of the working class is much increased and the ‘civilising’ process of capitalism can be seen to operate, while the exploitation of labour increases at the same time. In fact, within the massive increase in the productivity of social labour they are aspects of the same process.

The productive forces are developed enormously under the spur of the prevalent relations, these relations having been given full reign by the power of the productive forces corresponding and adequate to their particular form.

But it is Marx’s contention that such correspondence and adequacy is historically limited, just as the previous relations of production were adequate to a certain level of productive forces, but which had to give way when these subsequently became fetters.

Previous isolated wage-labour relations were limited because the productive forces were not sufficient for any further development and/or the production based on wage labour was not for profit but for the increased consumption of the ruling classes.

A society based on generalised commodity production requires productive forces more powerful than were then employed.  It is not therefore possible to consider internal contradictions within relations of production as adequate to an explanation of historical development and certainly not of historical progress.  The contradiction in feudalism between feudal lord and peasant did not develop a new mode of production (peasant or otherwise); when this new mode did arise it involved development of productive forces that neither class could become the bearer of.

A theory of historical development that considered only relations of production, and subsumed what may be considered the forces of production within them, would efface the reality that production is a result of material processes and constructions that social relations assume but do not define.  It leads to a view that the social relations of capitalism are embodied in the material elements of production so that what is materially required for production is already assumed to be capitalist in nature.

So, capital for example, becomes machines and equipment, and people have ‘human capital’, when capital is really a relation between capitalist and worker in which the latter works for the former and the former owns what has already been assumed to be ‘capital’ – the machines and equipment, product of labour and use of labour power.  Such a view distorts the fact that worker ownership of this ‘capital’ does not necessarily mean they also become capitalists. A society in which the means of production are owned by those who work it is a socialist one, in which the working class ceases to be a class because they no longer work for capitalists.  Incomplete development of such a society may be one considered to be in transition and considered just such a transitional society.

Neither should workers be confused that the skills and knowledge they acquire and with which they may acquire higher wages makes them in any sense a capitalist, earning any profit on their skill – this skill does not allow them to make any money out of other people’s work.

The distinction between forces and relations of production are therefore necessary to understanding capitalism and the possibility of an alternative to it.

Back to part 21

Forward to part 23

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

Karl Marx’s alternative to capitalism part 20 – forces and relations of production 3

History develops through the contradiction between the forces and relations of production, the forces representing the material, including human, organisation of productive powers and the relations representing the social relations between the classes entailed by the productive forces.

Socialists have always recognised that socialism will have more developed and powerful productive forces than capitalism and will have radically different relations of production, within which classes themselves will disappear.

So, in general terms, Marx identifies human progress in history as the development of individuals and society’s productive powers, their productivity.  At any point in time these productive powers take on a particular form, with a particular configuration of classes corresponding to the historical development of the productive forces.

In general terms, it can also be said that humanity seeks to reduce the burden of labour while securing its reproduction with the highest possible quality of life, in other words there is an incentive to develop the forces of production.  This however is constrained, or rather is developed, through the relations that humans have with each other, as we have said – all human labour is social labour – and this social labour gives rise to particular classes.  The form that these classes take determines the “forms of development of the productive forces”, as Marx says in the 1859 Preface.

In capitalism, the capitalist class seeks to maximise profit through the extraction (as exploitation) of surplus labour, and in so far as this means maximising production it has been a powerful spur to the development of humanity’s productive powers.  Capitalism strives to develop the social surplus, the surplus of production over and above that consumed by the direct producers, the working class, so that this can be accumulated as profit.  As the capitalist class exists as many fractions and individual units, this drive to maximise the surplus is also driven forcefully by capitalist completion which, on pain of extinction by their rivals, the different units must accept and follow.

Contradictions arise from production for use and production for profit, as the commodities produced are both useful to their purchasers, being use values, and have exchange value, that is they have commensurate values, which different use values do not, that allows their exchange with each other on account of their all being the products of human labour.

Marx in Capital explains how this contradiction lies at the heart of the development of the capitalist system and its contradictions.  It is therefore clear that this contradiction at the level of society is expressed in the contradiction between the forces of production and relations of production, in production for use and production as a consequence of the capitalist nature of society and pursuit of profit.  So also it is clear that this can be understood as the conflict between the different classes that inhabit these relations of production, or rather embody these relations.

It’s therefore also clear that criticising Marx for saying in one place, like The Communist Manifesto, that history is the history of class struggle, but saying in another place, the 1859 Preface, that history is the history of the contradiction between the forces and relations of production, is to fail to recognise how these concepts arise and relate to each other in historical development.

Understanding that they are all aspects of a Marxist understanding of historical development is important and it is my argument that, for many Marxists, history understood as the history of class struggle has made them at least partially sighted as to the import of the contradiction between the forces and relations of production.  For example, while it is correct to see class struggle between workers and capitalists as a battle simply to be won, it is also clear that the development of the forces of production, i.e. the development of capitalism, is not something to be deplored, or more often ignored, on the basis that this might signal acceptance of some still progressive content to capitalism.  To recognise this progressive side would be no more than continued recognition that capitalism produces not only for profit but also for use, since commodities must have both a use value and an exchange value.

This is also reflected in the tendency to see crises at every time and everywhere, when by definition the forces of production are not developing as they could, while failing to appreciate what has developed, what has “matured within the framework of the old society”, and that heralds not simply crisis but the ready potential of an alternative.  In my life time Marxists have gone from disseminating their ideas through typed-up, ink-smudged duplicated leaflets produced on Gestetner machines to internet blog posts created on powerful laptops stored in massive data servers, all the while proclaiming capitalist crisis and stagnation!

The simple focus on class struggle and political revolution, without stating how the contradiction between the forces and relations of production also signals the end of capitalism, has encouraged a failure to look reality in the face, to ignore the continuing growth of capitalism, in favour of a reactionary dismissal of actual progressive developments in society, understood in the way Marx did and as explained above i.e. the continuing development of the forces of production.  For those who like their politics and theory orthodox, one attraction of such recognition is to accept that Marx’s analysis in the 1859 Preface retains its validity.

The corollary of this is that the relations of production still act as “forms of development” of the productive forces” in the words of Marx, with all the attendant civilising achievements and barbarism that this has entailed for the last two hundred or so years.  As stated a number of times, capitalist progress is still progress, even if we understand as Marxists that it can only be through exploitation, inequality, violence and destruction, and that the full potential of humanity can only be realised through its supersession, which is not its simple destruction.

The alternative is to see capitalism as a system in stagnation, and for a longer or shorter future period – permanently in such a condition.  Beside this not at all corresponding to Marx’s analysis – which of course can be considered out of date if one wants to hold this view – this alternative implies that history has in some sense either halted or gone into reverse.  At the very least, the understanding by Marx of the drive to increase the forces of production contained within capitalism would have had to have been drastically impaired.  The stagnation of capitalism would, according to Marx, also imply that its progressive features, including the development of a class conscious working class, could not be expected either.  There is, after all, no reason to expect a stagnant capitalism, with attendant degenerating social relations, to be the herald of socialism.

Since the development of the productive forces that undoubtedly has occurred has taken place in a certain social form, a certain set of productive relations, it is understood by most people in the world that the economic development that we have witnessed historically is the growth of capitalism and due to it.  To believe that the material gains that workers have achieved over the past 100, 50 or 25 years is due only to their own struggles or through (in certain countries where it exists) a welfare state, is to entertain unconscious belief in the efficacy of reform of the system and the potential beneficence of the capitalist state. Above all, in this context, it misses the dynamic development of capitalism upon which the Marxist conception of socialism rests.

Of course, Marx said the relations of production can retard the forces of production; that these forces can “come into conflict with the existing relations of production”, which become a “fetter’ on the forces.  We still have to understand what these forces are, how they come to be fettered, if they do, despite the massive growth of capitalism, and how in this process we can still hold to the view that within capitalism, within this fettering, there develops the alternative to capitalism, one that does not simply arise more or less out of nothing from a purely political revolution, but one developed within the base and heart of the system.

Back to part 19

Forward to part 21

Karl Marx’s alternative to capitalism part 19 – forces and relations of production 2

If the production of a surplus over more or less immediate consumption by those who work in a society is small or too hazardous or costly to collect, or slavery (for example) was a better option, development of other classes would be stymied, because any surplus would be inadequate to allow the generalised development of other classes and the instrument of their rule – the state.  This includes not just non-producing classes that live off the labour of others but those engaged in production of goods not strictly required for consumption, such as handicrafts or luxury items.

A small surplus that periodically disappeared could not support any permanent class that did not work but lived off the products of the labour of others.  This class would be unable to develop its own consumption to allow it to develop the ostentatious wealth to be found today as the artefacts in museums, or to build themselves palaces or Cathedrals and churches that validate the divinity of the rulers.

Historically, the non-existence of a sustainable surplus has meant an egalitarian society simply because appropriation of wealth would leave the labourer who produced the wealth unable to reproduce themselves.  No parasitic ruling class could develop because everyone had to work to ensure survival of the community. As productivity improved this surplus was able to support a ruling class that lived off the labour of others and the greater and more sustainable the surplus the greater the social and political edifice that could be created by the ruling class to support its rule.

Sharp increases or deterioration in the level of surplus could lead the ruling classes to either seek to maintain their level of consumption by increasing their exploitation of the exploited classes, or by relaxing it in order that the producing classes may recover, and some historical debate revolves around the conditions that lead to one or the other approach in particular periods in particular places.

On the other hand, the capitalist development of production continually revolutionises the means of production and constantly seeks to expand consumption, even when this may be considered harmful to humanity, either directly or through the destruction of nature. This expansion creates huge deposits of wealth and the most outrageous extravagance, which recent research has suggested the majority of people massively underestimate.

Finally, the development of society’s productive potential can open up the possibility that it is no longer necessary that the level of surplus be monopolised by one class, and that its extent is so great that all can share in the surplus created by the productive forces.  Relations of production based on class are no longer necessary in order to divide an inadequate surplus that compels some to work on behalf of others.

It is the Marxist case that capitalism has developed the forces of production to such an extent that the potential surplus that can be produced allows the disappearance of exploiting and exploited classes.  A social revolution led by the working class can lead to the abolition of all classes, not immediately and all at once, but over a historical period, achieved through further development of the forces of production, possible through more appropriate relations of production – fully cooperative production by the associated producers.

For critics of Marxism the existence of egalitarian societies in the past really is history, and irrelevant, or alternatively an opportunity to level the old charge that socialism is about levelling down.  That so many differently organised societies – from different types of feudalism to different types of oriental despotic societies – can exist with not so very different levels of surplus extraction, is held to cast doubt that the analysis of Marx has much use in understanding society.

Finally, the view that Marx’s understanding opens up the possibility of a radically egalitarian society in the future is labelled utopian.  To sum up – history is deliberately narrowed to blinker appreciation of the full course of its development or its future possibilities.

For Marxists, the explanatory power of the contradiction between the forces of production and relations of production is not limited to the scale of surplus extracted and the implications of this for the form of class rule, if any.  The development of the forces of production, whether it be the replacement of living labour power by machines or, it is increasingly speculated today, by robots, is a powerful contributor to the class struggle, as workers seek to protect their employment and the conditions of that employment, including their wages, which are threatened by reduction due to de-skilling.

Machines make humans agents of their needs and requirements, rather than being the creation of humanity for the purpose of relieving it of the worst aspects of labour.  This results in more intensive exploitation as the restful pores within the working day are filled by more intensive and continuous labour, with work sometimes filling all 24 hours of the day.  On the other hand, new forces of production develop new skills and, as we have seen, the possibility of an entirely new society.

The development of the forces of production fundamentally involves the development of the working population, the greatest productive power, both within historically developed societies, through for example more women participating in the non-domestic labour process, and geographically, as more and more previously undeveloped countries become the home of growing capitalist production.  We are familiar with the development of East Asia and China and also of India, but one can now read reports in business papers noting the potential development of industrialisation in Africa..

For some decades now humanity has become increasingly aware that the uncontrolled increase in productive forces, which pay no heed to the full material effects of their growth, threatens humanity through degrading the planetary environment in which we live.  However, while the forces of production develop, it is the relations of production which are key to making a qualitative change to the mode of production as a whole.  Humanity’s interface with nature, whilst being itself a vital part of that nature, can only be made complementary and supportive if the relations of humanity to itself are not exploitative and antagonistic.

In these many ways, we see the primacy of the development of the forces of production, not as some autonomous force derived from a disembodied internal logic of the system but from the effects of their material growth, derived from the class relations in which they are sited, and which in turn affects these class relations.  Much of the misunderstanding of the contradiction between the forces and relations of production arises from an analytical failure that views them as wholly separate, with material forces such as technology on one side and human relations on the other.

A second misconception is to see the development of the forces of production in history almost automatically and inevitably resulting in changed productive relations.  Automatically – no, inevitably – perhaps, but the latter does not mean linear or inevitable progress, and productive forces can be fettered, to use Marx’s term, for a very long time.  Marx did not claim to have a “master key of a general historico-philosophical theory” the virtue of which was that it “consists in being supra-historical.”

The relationship between the forces and relations of production will be developed more in the next post.

Back to part 18

Forward to part 20

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

Forward to part 19

Karl Marx’s alternative to capitalism part 17 – social classes

The relations established when people produce together is fundamental to the overall position they occupy in society. These relations of production are therefore fundamental to all the social and political questions faced by individuals.

Yet in mainstream conceptions of politics these fundamental relations do not exist – rent, profit and wages are all the expressions of relations of production but they are simply treated as a given, and the distribution of population in receipt of them also simply assumed.  Instead of examining the foundations of society, what already exists is simply assumed to be natural.

The class categories that are employed, such as ‘middle class’, are politically loaded to express either neutrality between those who work and those who own capital, and/or beg the question of what these people are in between.  Old class categories such as A, B, C1, C2, D and E are recognised as outdated even in their own terms while newer categories such as these don’t explain anything, while smothering fundamental divisions.  In Britain, and also Ireland, cultural expressions of class such as speech come to represent class, again without explaining it. Politics, as marketing, packages people into all sorts of random categories, from ‘squeezed middle’ to ‘just about managing’ to ‘people who get up early in the morning’ and ‘hard working families.’   How could real alternatives to what exists arise from such misconceptions?

All these categories appear as more or less random aspects of the lives of working people who above all else have to work for a living but cannot be categorised as such, cannot be informed that their fundamental characteristic is one of class defined by relations of production.  Other divisions heaped upon them, such as those based on religion or race, help make this a reality while these and other basic divisions such as sex overlay such division, adding, reinforcing and obscuring all at the same time but never replacing or eradicating.

Identification of new categories of social existence – be they defined in workers’ roles as consumers, the ‘affluent worker’, or as producers, ‘professionals’ or ‘precariat’ – might reflect some reality of capitalist development but never at the most fundamental level.

Marx doesn’t reject the reality behind these categories but sees their elaboration as the working out of the contradictory development of capitalism:

‘Incidentally, . . . although every capitalist demands that his workers should save, he means only his own workers, because they relate to him as workers; and by no means does this apply to the remainder of the workers, because these relate to him as consumers. In spite of all the pious talk of frugality he therefore searches for all possible ways of stimulating them to consume, by making his commodities more attractive, by filling their ears with babble about new needs. It is precisely this side of the relationship between capital and labour which is an essential civilising force, and on which the historic justification—but also the contemporary power—of capital is based.’ (Marx, Grundrisse)

This property of capitalism is not incidental, as Marx notes, ‘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 merely as external consequences. Likewise, the contradictions which are later released, demonstrated as already latent within it.’

The unavoidable development of capitalism by its nature contains contradictions that are fundamental to it, and being fundamental, involve progress that presages its supersession by an alternative social system, based on its massive increase in the productivity of labour.  This gives rise to variations in the roles of workers in production and to their relation to, and aspirations for, the fruits of the productivity of labour in their role as consumers.

The relations of production therefore define the classes which individuals belong to, even if they have not the slightest notion that this is the class position they occupy or even misinterpret their class interests, whether due to racism, nationalism or whatever.  In reality most people do understand that they occupy a particular class position, and are members of a class, although fewer then define themselves and their social and political interests with class politics consistent with this position.

This is truer of individuals within the working class than capitalist class, whose members generally have a much higher level of consciousness of their membership of their class and appreciation of what political interests they therefore must pursue as a result. While socialists usually concern themselves with the point of view of the oppressed and exploited class and their political ideas; when it comes to the consciousness of the exploiting classes, the decisive role of production and productive relations on the form of political consciousness is much more apparent.

The rich are more conscious of their wealth and its source, because they have it, than those who actually created it but do not.  They are more conscious of who they continue to get it from, and their competitors for it, from within their class and from other classes.

This, however, does not also prevent some of them from misinterpreting their class interests or making erroneous political calculations. Not everything individual capitalists do reveals their essential ‘true’ nature and ‘true’ interests.  This is one reason why socialists should not simply seek the opposite of what one political representative or section of the capitalist class happens to advance at any particular time, but seek to identify and advance the political interests of the whole working class independently, taking account of the whole constellation of class relations.

Today, we only need to think of the numerous and varied state, state-sponsored and private think tanks proclaiming the benefits of capitalism, forecasting its development, developing policies for it and providing consultants to implement changes, to appreciate the level of class consciousness of the capitalist class, and also its variety of outlooks.

Classes are therefore collectives and not simply an addition of atomised individuals.  Atomised individuals as such do not exist, as we are all products of families, friends, work colleagues, and those we interact with on a daily basis.  More than that, our lives are products of millions of people we will never meet who set rules by which we live, through laws, regulations and standards.

Literally millions of people impact on our lives in a way that we take for granted most of the time, as we must or we would spend our time thinking of nothing else.  The cooperation among millions of people to ensure our society works, produces and consumes, that we may continue to live, grows and grows every year.

When we enter the world we do not choose how we do so and do not choose to which class we belong.  Only in young people’s sci-fi films, such as ‘Divergent’, is it possible to pick how one wants to live in society and the role we want to play.  Our position in society constrains our choices and conditions how we lead our lives, so determining our view of the world, which we can never look at totally afresh, free of any preconceptions.  What we can do is become as conscious as possible of what these are.

When Marxists therefore define a society as capitalist we mean certain things which must be studied in order to be fully understood.  Even the idea of capitalism as an example of a particular set of relations of production must be determined through research and study involving understanding the practical reality of individuals’ everyday lives.  The limits of such explanation must be determined in the process, and cannot be taken as completed or timeless without need for continual rethinking and development, just as the world changes and develops itself.

In capitalism, the relations of production define the existence of a class that has to sell its labour power in order to live and, in order that they produce for society, that they be combined with the means of production.  These means of production include factories, offices, transport, shops, warehouses, docks, mines and all machinery and equipment of every kind that workers employ when they work.  The latter are owned by a separate class of capitalists, and sometimes the state rather than private corporations.

Just as there are no individuals who can properly be understood apart from the world they inhabit, with its many other individuals, so classes cannot be understood at the individual level.  A worker may negotiate a pay rise with an employer, but what makes the worker a member of a class is that they cannot survive without selling their capacity to work to a capitalist.  Similarly, a capitalist is just such a person because they own the office or factory and the worker does not.  They have the money to pay the worker for her capacity to work on their behalf.  This work is carried out not because of the consumption needs of the capitalist but because he wants to make a profit from the labour performed by the worker.

A well-paid worker, or someone who considers themselves middle class, can hire childminders or even a few hours of a person to clean their house, but they will never get rich doing so because the childminder or cleaner is not paid in order to make a profit.  The money paid in wages to the childminder or cleaner is not therefore capital aimed at procuring profit.  No matter how well paid the worker is, she will not be better off financially from having paid wages to childminders or cleaners.

The capitalist on the other hand will hope to make a profit and become richer through paying wages to his workers, who can indeed be childminders or cleaners, whose services are sold to others, and who are paid less by the capitalist than the value of the labour they perform on his behalf.

The worker on the other hand, no matter how affluent she is likely to become, cannot abstain from selling her labour power because she has no other source of income.  For the vast majority neither savings nor family support can substitute for their wage or salary.

In such a society, the need to sell one’s labour power exists because the ability to cosume at the prevailing standard of living expected in that society cannot be achieved through the worker labouring on her own behalf or through ownership of capital in any form, be it money or material means of producing commodities.

At the beginnings of capitalism peasants or farmers who owned or had customary rights to land could provide for themselves and did not need to sell their ability to work to someone else.  Capitalism sometimes drove them from their land in order to make them dependent on selling their labour power to capitalists.  Ironic then, that capitalist ideologues condemn workers for not standing on their own two feet while their system originates, and can only stand on its feet, through depriving the labouring population of its independent ownership of the means of production.

These are the characteristic relations of production under capitalism.  These relations dominate people’s lives because they determine what they do eight or more hours a day; what income and security they can provide for their families; what levels of consumption they can aspire to; and what general social characteristics they will share with neighbours and friends.  In short, all these social characteristics are entwined with the relations of production, which are therefore infused into every aspect of our lives.  Our culture as expressed in everyday behaviour is not reducible to our relations of production but neither is it separate from these relations, which define the fundamental social relationships of which our daily lives consist.

This is what is meant by the first section, quoted in an earlier post, of the ‘Preface’ of 1859 drafted by Marx:

“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.”

Back to part 16

Forward to part 18

Karl Marx’s alternative to capitalism part 16 – the production of life

Marx’s alternative is undoubtedly the most radical alternative to capitalism, which can mislead some to reject it on the grounds that it must therefore be utopian.  Years of reaction have drastically reduced expectations among those who oppose the worst aspects of capitalism and much of the anti-capitalism of the last few decades has not actually been anti-capitalist at all, never mind socialist.

In fact, it is the far-reaching character of Marx’s alternative that makes it a real alternative because it is based on capitalism’s own revolutionary character, a character that encompasses its civilising mission and the repeated crises that demonstrate its contradictions and potential for replacement.

The depth and comprehensiveness Marxism seeks is both a barrier to its initial acceptance and absolutely necessary in order to understand its presentation of an alternative to capitalism.  Many come to reject capitalism through its immediate exploitation and cruelty, through appreciation of its inhumanity and destruction, understanding this opposition in terms of moral judgements that stand apart from the crude and degrading material requirements of the system.

Marxism by contrast starts from these material requirements, ones that are required of any social system, but which take a particular social form within capitalism.  It seeks to understand both requirements and particularly how the working of capitalism paves the way for its supersession.  Marxists do not therefore condemn capitalism only for its cruelty, destruction, exploitation and inhumanity, but also because, in its development of the needs and capacities of humanity, these are in turn restricted and disfigured by it, when capitalism itself has created the grounds for all these needs to be met and capacities to be developed.  If this were not the case there would be little point in opposing an exploitation or oppression that was inescapable and could not be replaced.  At the same time, Marxism realises that what is required is replacement of the system, not mere adjustment or reform.

Exploitation and oppression is built into the structure of capitalism, and is at the core of Marx’s understanding of historical development including the development towards socialism.

For Marx “History does nothing, it “possesses no immense wealth,” it “wages no battles.” It is man, real living man, that does all that, that possesses and fights; “history” is not a person apart, using man as a means for its own particular aims; history is nothing but the activity of man pursuing his aims.” (Marx and Engels ‘The Holy Family’).  And by ‘man’ we should understand all of humanity.

This means that both the oppressive and civilising characteristics of capitalism are not something disembodied, inflicted upon humanity from without.  Both aspects arise from the actions of humanity itself resulting from the form of society inhabited, given to it and which it only imperfectly understands.

“Man can be distinguished from animals by consciousness, by religion or anything else you like. They themselves begin to distinguish themselves from animals as soon as they begin to produce their means of subsistence.”(Marx and Engels ‘The German ideology’)

Humanity is therefore ‘a tool-making animal’.  Direct and individual acquisition, or appropriation of naturally occurring items, that can be consumed directly by nonhuman primate populations, differs from the social production through the expenditure of energy among human populations. This capacity comes to define and redefine human organisation.

“Labour, then, as the creator of use-values, as useful labour, is a condition of human existence which is independent of all forms of society; it is an eternal natural necessity which mediates the metabolism between man and nature, and therefore human life itself” (Marx, Capital Volume I). People must work no matter what type of society they live within; how they do this defines the human community within which they exist.

Those that work with nature to ensure the continued existence and reproduction of humanity, at whatever level of development it has achieved, act upon external nature and change it, and in this way simultaneously change their own nature.

“When the worker co-operates in a planned way with others, he strips off the fetters of his individuality, and develops the capabilities of his species.”  (Capital Volume I)  For Marx, humanity, in the shape of those who work, who will liberate it from oppression and exploitation, “must pass through long struggles, through a series of historic processes, transforming circumstances and men.”

Of course, if they do not, workers can become “apathetic, thoughtless, more or less well-fed instruments of production . . . degraded to one level mass of broken wretches past salvation.”  We constantly come across the extremes of both: working people who inspire and those whose apathy and ignorance dismays and demoralises.

However, it is work itself, which by definition working people must by and large perform, which forces upon them, by necessity, considerations that can lift them above apathy and degradation.  Work is therefore central to how human society is structured, how it reproduces itself, how it develops new forms, how it understands itself, and how it can change human perceptions and desires for potential new forms of social organisation.

So, what is particular about human labour?  “[Let us] presuppose labour in a form in which it is an exclusively human characteristic. A spider conducts operations that resemble those of a weaver, and a bee puts to shame many an architect in the construction of her cells. But what distinguishes the worst architect from the best of bees is this, that the architect raises his structure in imagination before he erects it in reality. At the end of every labour-process, we get a result that already existed in the imagination of the labourer at its commencement. He not only effects a change of form in the material on which he works, but he also realizes a purpose of his own that gives the law to his modus operandi, and to which he must subordinate his will. And this subordination is no mere momentary act. Besides the exertion of the bodily organs, the process demands that, during the whole operation, the workman’s will be steadily in consonance with his purpose. This means close attention. The less he is attracted by the nature of the work, and the mode in which it is carried on, and the less, therefore, he enjoys it as something which gives play to his bodily and mental powers, the more close his attention is forced to be” (Marx, Capital Volume 1)

To the extent that the worker is compelled to labour for a purpose that is not hers, that she may even oppose or detest, such labour is against her nature as a conscious being and her freedom to express her consciousness in whatever way she wishes.  Her views and awareness of compulsion and lack of freedom, which she will see as inhuman and against her human nature, may lead to resistance and ultimately revolt against such a society that entails such constraints.

Since labouring is a social activity – no one can or does work alone – the rebellion by a worker against the drudgery and oppression of work reflects not just the constraints on the realisation of this worker’s own purposes but the purposes of everyone with whom she works, the purposes of her fellow workers, and in an extended sense of all those who work, the working class as a whole.  This is true whether she is conscious of her membership of a class or not.  Thus does capitalism, at a very basic level, engender opposition to its inhuman workings.  The more accomplished its civilising role has been, the more conscious will workers be of constraints and more capable of seeking to remove them.

This recognition of the most fundamental need of people to work together upon nature to ensure their existence at whatever level of development they have reached is sometimes viewed as so fundamental that it has no specific or practical significance for understanding contemporary problems and issues.  But a moments’ thought disposes of this.

“All production is appropriation of nature on the part of an individual within and through a definite form of society.”  “Human life has from time immemorial rested on production, and, in one way or another, on social production, these relations we call, precisely, economic relations.”  So not just the products of labour, or how that work takes place, but also the form of society itself is determined by the relations in which people come together to labour in production.

Unemployment, the threat of it and insecurity it evokes; the lack of decent work and of low pay; of poor conditions, pensions and welfare rights; of zero hours’ contracts, food banks and reliance on benefits; the allocation of the labour of society that does not value or provide for sufficient health and education.  All these aspects of society are simply elements of how humanity allocates its labour in order that humanity maintain its existence in the fashion that it has been born into. How people work and produce together is therefore fundamental.  For Marx material production “is the basis of all social life, and therefore of all real history.” (Capital Volume 1 p 286)

Marx describes the general process in his booklet ‘Wage, Labour and Capital’:

“In the process of production, human beings work not only upon nature, but also upon one another. They produce only by working together in a specified manner and reciprocally exchanging their activities. In order to produce, they enter into definite connections and relations to one another, and only within these social connections and relations does their influence upon nature operate – i.e., does production take place.”

“These social relations between the producers, and the conditions under which they exchange their activities and share in the total act of production, will naturally vary according to the character of the means of production. With the discovery of a new instrument of warfare, the firearm, the whole internal organisation of the army was necessarily altered, the relations within which individuals compose an army and can work as an army were transformed, and the relation of different armies to another was likewise changed.”

“We thus see that the social relations within which individuals produce, the social relations of production, are altered, transformed, with the change and development of the material means of production, of the forces of production. The relations of production in their totality constitute what is called the social relations, society, and, moreover, a society at a definite stage of historical development, a society with peculiar, distinctive characteristics. Ancient society, feudal society, bourgeois (or capitalist) society, are such totalities of relations of production, each of which denotes a particular stage of development in the history of mankind.”

Back to part 15

Forward 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

Forward to part 16

Karl Marx’s alternative to capitalism – part 14

The socialist society envisaged by Karl Marx can only be built on the achievements of capitalism and what has been called its civilising mission.  This progress rests on an enormously increased productivity of labour, which has reached such a level that the productive forces of society now realistically promise a society that more and more meets the needs of all its members, with inequality and insecurity vastly reduced and material poverty eliminated.

Within capitalism, progress inevitably involves increased exploitation since exploitation of labour is how this society increases productivity.  But progress there has undoubtedly been and without it socialism would not be possible.

Capitalism has created this possibility but capitalism now stands in its way.

When I first became interested in socialist politics in the mid-seventies I used to visit the Communist Party bookshop on High Street in Glasgow.  I remember picking up a CP pamphlet extolling the virtues of the ‘socialist’ countries of Eastern Europe and the USSR.  It set out the daily calorific intake of the average citizen in a number of these countries with East Germany the top performer.

Even at the time this jarred and seemed somewhat disappointing.  I was by no means rich.  I lived in a tenement with an outside toilet and shared a bedroom with my sister, while my mother slept in the living room.  But I never once thought that I was going to suffer from a lack of calories; in fact I barely thought about food and was too busy running around to worry about it.

Now of course, in the space of less than a lifetime, a problem in the most developed capitalist societies is not a lack of calories for the average working class person, which I knew from my Scottish granny had been a problem in the past, but too many calories!

Reading some material on inequality and its effects, as argued in the book ‘The Spirit Level’, I came across some quotes that illustrated how very different the problem is now.  Now the stereotypical poor person is overweight or obese, or rather the latter are nearly always working class or poor, while the equivalent rich person is slim and healthy.  The capitalist food and drink industry specialises in feeding fatburgers and sugar-filled drinks to the poor while offering exotic sounding pulses, vegetables and bottled water in delicatessens for the discerning middle class.

I exaggerate of course; this is a distorted caricature albeit with a grain of truth, but the most important truth is that in many countries, for the vast majority of the population, an adequate food supply is not a problem.  Problems with its supply lie elsewhere, including in the exploitation of the humanity and nature that ensures its production.

While the productive forces of society more and more are capable of offering increased economic security, freedom from social stress and worry, and a promise of a fulfilling life, capitalism is more and more demanding that this promise can be offered for only some and on more and more unacceptable terms.  These terms include zero hour contracts, massive increases in debt, an absence of rights in the workplace and increasing threats to political rights outside it.  Working into your seventies is now the prospect for those in their youth and young adulthood.

Nevertheless, despite all this, it is unquestionable that progress has been made.  Had it not, then on what grounds could we claim that all these impositions and threats are unnecessary?  That an alternative is eminently possible?

A second aspect of this progress is that because it is capitalist progress it is accompanied by repeated crises, which can lead to sometimes dramatic falls in living standards for some, and constant insecurity and increased exploitation for many others; who are required to work longer and harder and with relatively less remuneration while having less and less security over their employment.

The financial crisis has come and many think it has also gone, with the answer to it being austerity and the bankers going back to business as usual.  Severe world-wide recession threatened after 2008, followed by crisis in the Eurozone and crises in developing countries as commodity prices fell.  This was only partially offset by continued growth in China, which is now also threatened by a similar credit boom and overcapacity

From being the fastest growing country in the west, the UK is now slowing dramatically while the Irish State, although it crashed, is now supposedly booming.  These booms and busts make crisis appear a constant threat, the boom period demonstrating the legitimacy of capitalism and the bust demonstrating the difficulty of, and for, an alternative.

For many these crises are proof that the contradictions of capitalism are insurmountable, are intrinsic to the system and cannot be escaped.  Just as progress under capitalism is built upon exploitation, so it is also achieved through crises.  It is crises that most violently reorganises production and ensures its further development.  Crises therefore not only express the irrationality of capitalism but also its rationality, its ability to achieve further development through destruction.

The most common alternative understanding is one that proposes that the system can be cleansed of its most irrational aspects while also ensuring that the growth that characterises capitalism can continue, and even increase.  The private greed that disfigures the system can be ameliorated by the state, which can be regarded as the representative of society as a whole and can act on its behalf.  Freeing this state from direct and indirect control of the 1% is therefore the most important task.

Marxists question this alternative and point out that inequality is not primarily a feature of market outcomes, of inequality of income, of working conditions, employment, housing and general welfare.  It is a question of utter and complete inequality in the conditions of production that generates income inequality and all the other inequalities that condition the general welfare of the majority of society.  What is distributed, and is considered fair distribution, is determined by how the wealth of society is produced in the first place.

Marx put it like this – “before distribution can be the distribution of products; it is (1) the distribution of the instruments of production, and (2), which is a further specification of the same relation, the distribution of the members of society among the different kinds of production. (Subsumption of the individuals under specific relations of production).  The distribution of products is evidently only a result of this distribution, which is comprised within the process of production itself and determines the structure of production.”

If the means by which the wealth in society is produced is not owned in common, by everyone, but by a small number so becoming a separate class, then the distribution of income and wealth that flows from this production will primarily benefit this class.

This is why we have massive increases in productivity and material wealth but it is accompanied by increased exploitation and inequality. Why it is accompanied by crises, in which private appropriation of the fruits of production, and of the means of production itself, conflict with the greater and greater cooperation required to make this production possible.

Nor do Marxists believe that the state is the true representative of society as a whole.  It is not ‘captured’ by the 1%, its functions are determined by the structure of society as a whole, by the fact that the means of production belong to a separate tiny class.  The state can adjust, within limits, inequality of income, housing and working conditions but it cannot fundamentally adjust the ownership of production that is the guarantee of general inequality.  In acting to defend the regular and ordered functioning of society, it must by this fact alone defend society’s fundamental structure, lest any radical change threaten its stability or the stability of the state itself.

And even if this were not the case, the argument for a socialism based on ownership of production by the state has floundered on the experience of the ‘socialist’ states in Eastern Europe and the USSR, which, before their collapse, could boast that their system fed their people.

Marx’s alternative is not based on the state, which is the instrument of capitalist rule, but is based on the progress that capitalism has created, it development of the productivity of labour and most importantly on the labour itself that performs this productive work.  Marx’s alternative is therefore based on the working class and its potential to control society.

Crises demonstrate the necessity of an alternative but in themselves do not create that alternative.  They can demonstrate what is wrong, but it is what it is possible to replace this system with that is the question.  Only if the contradictions which give rise to crises contain within themselves their progressive resolution is it possible for there to be a progressive alternative to capitalism.  So, what is the nature of the contradiction that Marx identified that promises that a fundamentally different society is possible?

Back to part 13

Forward to part 14