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 7 – crises and contradictions i

white-america-1-e1448033371744Last year an academic paper noticed that there has been a marked increase in mortality among white middle aged men and women in the United States between 1999 and 2013.  The effect of this has been dramatic: if the previous decline in mortality among this group of people had continued as before there would have been almost half a million fewer deaths during these years.

There has also been an increase in morbidity among this section of the population, reflected in increased self-reporting of poor health, pain and psychological stress.  Nor can this be put down to the well-known increase in obesity among some sections of the American population because this decline in the health of middle-aged men and women has affected both the obese and non-obese, with the former accounting for only a small fraction of the overall deterioration in health.  This worsening has particularly hit those with a poorer education, those with only a high school degree or less, and is primarily the result of increases in the rates of suicide, drug and alcohol poisoning and chronic liver disease and cirrhosis.

fd2a8a276c172deed75f43e23ef7b229The significance of this is even more noteworthy because this segment of the US working class was part of the embodiment in the middle of the twentieth century of the American dream and therefore of the capitalist vision epitomised during the American century.  Visions of white families in suburbs, owning automobiles and domestic appliances, in new homes with pretty gardens and white picket fences were a domestic ambition so strong it fired the imagination not only of American workers but millions of the poor across the world who wished to become American.  An ambition millions succeeded in achieving.

In the twenty first century this dream is collapsing amid widening inequality, stagnant wages, deindustrialisation and an increase in economic insecurity, with precarious employment and pensions reliant on the vagaries of the stock market.  It is reflected in large increases in disability; falling participation in the labour market, particularly among women and addiction to prescription painkillers where for every death in 2008 due to addiction there were 10 admissions for abuse, 32 emergency department visits, 130 people who were abusers or dependent and 825 non-medical users of the drugs.

I remember seeing a programme on the collapse of the Soviet Union which noted that a French researcher had predicted its fall due to an increase in infant mortality.  No one is predicting the collapse of US capitalism but things are really bad when people stop living longer and start dying earlier.

In my previous posts in this series on Marx’s alternative to capitalism I have noted the prodigious development of the capitalist system across the globe and its achievement of what Marx called its ‘civilising mission’.  This, I showed, was evidenced by increasing life expectancy, better health, higher levels of education, higher living standards and the sheer increase in numbers of the working class and the world’s population. In fact five out of six of my posts were an attempt to substantiate the argument that the civilising mission of capitalism continues into the twenty first century.

But surely this is now blown apart by this example of the death of the American dream, something inconceivable 60 years ago?

A few years ago I met an American socialist who I believe was from Detroit who was not so much arguing but simply incredulous that anyone could believe other than that capitalism was in crisis and failing badly

But world capitalism is not Detroit.

Accepting this point however, is it not the case that socialists should be pointing out the failures of capitalism, its crises and its contradictions?  After all, if capitalism is to be overthrown and replaced it must be because in some way it has failed.  Surely a capitalism that keeps on developing and retains a ‘civilising mission’ is not one that will suffer this fate? 

Should socialists not criticise capitalism and certainly not heap praise on it and its achievements?

Marx himself, although he praised capitalism’s prodigious development of the productive forces and the human capacities it had unleashed, hardly spared it his condemnation. Development brings industrialisation and the goods and services that change peoples’ lives for the better but it is built on exploitation of humanity and degradation of the planet’s resources and ecosystem.  Capitalist industrialisation brings the capitalist phenomenon of periodic or partial unemployment on a massive scale – “it makes an accumulation of misery a necessary condition, corresponding to the accumulation of wealth.” (Marx)

So the International Labour Organisation estimated that there were 218 million unemployed workers in 2009 and that of the 1.4 billion wage workers in 2011 many are only employed part time or precariously employed and a further 1.7 billion are “vulnerably employed”, being “own-account” workers (including street workers in poorer countries or those engaged in subsistence agriculture) and “contributing family workers” (those who worked unpaid in the home).  “In most of the world, open unemployment is not an option; there is no safety net of unemployment compensation and other social welfare programmes.  Unemployment means death, so people must find work, no matter how onerous the conditions” (Michael Yates, all quoted in ‘The Global Reserve Army of Labour and the New Imperialism’)

So why the series of posts on capitalism’s ‘civilising mission’?

The short answer is that the arguments set out above are mistaken.  The slightly longer answer is that they are wrong because they are one-sided.  The longer response again is that the whole answer is not simply an addition of capitalism’s achievements and its failures, of its successes and crises, or more simply of its good bits and its bad bits.  Even to understand its contradictions is not to think of a good side and a bad side in opposition.

To seek simply to condemn capitalism requires a standard by which it should be judged to have failed – it must have failed against some criteria.  Even if there were ‘good bits’ to capitalism to weigh in the balance against its ‘bad bits’, which together would allow one to make a judgement, some measuring criteria would be required by which to determine the relative weight and importance of its good and bad aspects.

But what would these criteria be?  They could be derived from what capitalism itself claims to defend, uphold and promote – economic growth, political equality, equality of opportunity, individual freedom, efficiency, modernisation and progress.  It would then be possible to, indeed socialist regularly do, expose these claims as hypocritical, false, misleading, one-sided and often simply untrue.  But this would be to limit one’s case to the criteria that capitalism’s defenders themselves identify as important and socialists usually find themselves making arguments that go beyond what capitalism can accommodate and what its supporters will consider legitimate.

Appeals to loftier ideals such as justice or fairness beg the question of how such things are to be defined and how realistic or practical any definition is, given the real world we live in.  A definition of justice that cannot possibly exist in the real world is not just because these criteria must apply to a world which is possible.  A just and fair world that cannot exist is neither just nor fair.  The civilising mission of capitalism is therefore not one of the ‘good’ sides of capitalism against which the bad must be weighed.  This civilising role of capitalism is itself grounds on which the alternative to capitalism rests.

I have tried to make this easier to appreciate by pointing out that the amazing economic growth of capitalism has produced an ever larger world working class without which, obviously, there can be no socialism.  And without a working class that has developed a relatively high cultural level we cannot expect socialism either.  The civilising mission of capitalism has created both.

This is generally understood among some Marxists only in the sense that unless the productive forces have developed sufficiently there will not be the level of resources necessary to ensure that inequality will not breed class divisions after any successful socialist revolution.  If society cannot develop sufficient levels of consumption to satisfy the needs of everyone then class divisions will re-emerge.  Society’s productive powers will be distributed so that these are owned by a separate class because society as a whole cannot address the needs of everyone. 

Leon Trotsky explained how this laid the foundation for the development of Stalinism after socialist revolution in Russia in 1917:

“The basis of bureaucratic rule is the poverty of society in objects of consumption, with the resulting struggle of each against all. When there is enough goods in a store, the purchasers can come whenever they want to. When there is little goods, the purchasers are compelled to stand in line. When the lines are very long, it is necessary to appoint a policeman to keep order. Such is the starting point of the power of the Soviet bureaucracy. It “knows” who is to get something and who has to wait.

A raising of the material and cultural level ought, at first glance, to lessen the necessity of privileges, narrow the sphere of application of “bourgeois law”, and thereby undermine the standing ground of its defenders, the bureaucracy. In reality the opposite thing has happened: the growth of the productive forces has been so far accompanied by an extreme development of all forms of inequality, privilege and advantage, and therewith of bureaucratism. That too is not accidental.

In its first period, the Soviet regime was undoubtedly far more equalitarian and less bureaucratic than now. But that was an equality of general poverty. The resources of the country were so scant that there was no opportunity to separate out from the masses of the population any broad privileged strata. At the same time the “equalizing” character of wages, destroying personal interestedness, became a brake upon the development of the productive forces. Soviet economy had to lift itself from its poverty to a somewhat higher level before fat deposits of privilege became possible. The present state of production is still far from guaranteeing all necessities to everybody. But it is already adequate to give significant privileges to a minority, and convert inequality into a whip for the spurring on of the majority. That is the first reason why the growth of production has so far strengthened not the socialist, but the bourgeois features of the state.” (The Revolution Betrayed)

So there are two reasons why socialists in particular should welcome the development of the productive forces that capitalism is responsible for – the material foundations for socialism in terms of sufficient consumption for everyone in society and the growth of the working class that develops as these productive forces develop.

To these are added the civilising mission of capitalism through the productive forces developing new and higher needs that lead to a higher cultural level among the working class, on which basis it becomes more and more fit to become the ruling class of a new society.

The development of the productive forces must also be welcomed for other reasons which we shall come to in future posts.  What is important for the argument here is that the development of capitalism’s productive forces is necessary for the future of socialism.  As Marx explained in a letter written two years before his death:

“The doctrinaire and necessarily fantastic anticipations of the programme of action for a revolution of the future only divert us from the struggle of the present.  . . . Scientific insight into the inevitable disintegration of the dominant order of society continually proceeding before our eyes, and the ever-growing passion into which the masses are scourged by the old ghosts of government – while at the same time the positive development of the means of production advances with gigantic strides – all this is a sufficient guarantee that with the moment of the outbreak of a real proletarian revolution there will also be given the conditions (though these are certain not to be idyllic) of its next immediate modus operandi [form of action].”

In this quote Marx does not seek to place class struggle and the development of the productive forces, which can only mean the development of capitalism, as opposites but welcomes both as positive factors leading to socialist revolution.  Yet many socialists cannot think how the development of capitalism assists its eventual overthrow and can only conceive that capitalism must be in perpetual crisis, feeling that without this not only is there no prospect for socialism but no rationale for it either.  But if this were true then the prodigious development of capitalism over the last two centuries or so would have proved the advent of socialism impossible.

It is enough to recognise that such a viewpoint, which leads to denying capitalism’s continuing growth, divorces socialists from some of the concerns of workers who experience its reality, its ‘good’ and ‘bad’ sides, without ideological blinkers. If it were indeed true that only capitalism’s failures or crises were grounds for socialism then we would have to recognise that those grounds are not enough.

So, the marked increase in mortality among white middle aged men and women in the United States between 1999 and 2013 is all the more remarkable because it contrasts sharply with the experience of other demographic groups.  Mortality declines among Hispanics and black non-Hispanics continued to decline, as they did for this segment of the population in France, Germany, UK, Canada, Australia and Sweden.

mortality

All-cause mortality, ages 45–54 for US White non-Hispanics (USW), US Hispanics (USH), and six comparison countries: France (FRA), Germany (GER), the United Kingdom (UK), Canada (CAN), Australia (AUS), and Sweden (SWE).

Back to Part 6

Forward to Part 8