This may prove a challenging post.
The French philosopher Louis Althusser (1918-1990) considered this subject — the question of which aspect of the mode of production has primacy — to be a difficult one to posit, let alone answer.
He begins his essay, On the Primacy of the Relations of Production Over the Productive Forces, (a title which obviously gives away his position), with this thought:
Things must be as clear as possible when it comes to the absolutely fundamental thesis of the primacy of the relations of production… Why ‘as clear as possible’ rather than ‘perfectly clear’? Why this limitation and a reservation of this kind? [emphasis in original]
He then goes on to list four distinct reasons why this subject is so hard to articulate clearly. These are:
1) the historical experiences associated with the debate
2) the confusion of bourgeois ideology; particularly the supposed “impetuous development of the sciences and technology”.
3) Marx’s famous 1859 Preface to the Critique
4) and finally, “because it is very hard to formulate the question in fully elaborated form.”
Before we begin allow me to say that although I am about to disagree with Althusser’s conclusions on this subject, I closely identify with his struggles and frustrations in attempting to communicate these ideas. Elsewhere, he expresses the frustration that it is impossible to “talk about everything at once.” I know exactly how he felt.
After listing his obstacles, Althusser continues:
That said, here is the thesis in question, to which I give the following precise form: ‘Within the specific unity of the productive forces and the relations of production constituting a mode of production, the relations of production play the determining role, on the basis of, and within the objective limits set by, the existing productive forces.’
He clearly took great care in formulating this thesis. Let us take similar care to understand him. To begin, why was this subject so important to him? Why call it “the absolutely fundamental thesis”?
Althusser writes that, “One could, in fact, write a history of the Marxist worker’s movement by considering the answer given to the following question: Within the unity productive forces/relations of production, to which element should we assign primacy, theoretically and politically?”
All history of socialist or communist movements around the world, according to Althusser, turn upon this one understanding. How so? Because the position one adopts becomes the basis for the logically consistent development of one’s politics. To act rationally is to act as one thinks. Thus, a belief in the primacy of the relations of production gives rise to revolutionaries like Lenin or Mao, individuals who led their largely pre-industrial peasantry to victory without the help of a modern technological base. Belief in the primacy of the means of production yields a Stalin, a man who “fell short of Lenin’s politics.” A man who sought to build the industrial might of his nation to counter the “imperialist encirclement and aggression” and in the process reducing Man to nothing more than a “component of the productive forces.”
So, for Althusser, how one proceeds as a revolutionary depends on this absolutely fundamental thesis. He excuses the 1859 preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy as too brief to include mention of the state, or class struggles as the “motor” of human history, and finds it regrettable that one is left with the impression that the subject is “evoked only in connection with the contradiction between productive forces and relations of production.” He tends to blame the structure of the Preface on on Marx’s re-reading of Hegel and his re-infatuation with Hegelian dialectics.
He concludes his assertion of the primacy of the relations of production by reminding us that once the revolutions were accomplished in Russia and China the new relations of production were able to rapidly upgrade their means of production, since the technology was advanced at the international level. He takes great pains to restate the precise formulation of his posited thesis, “Within the specific unity of the productive forces and the relations of production constituting a mode of production, the relations of production play the determining role, on the basis of, and within the objective limits set by, the existing productive forces.’ [bold highlights mine]. He is emphasizing the idea that since the technology exists, and is available, it can be acquired after the new relations of production are instituted. Consequently, there can be no question of the primacy of the relations of production over the means of production.
Thus far Althusser.
I disagree with his conclusions.
Today we see clearly that the Rise of the Robots sheds new light on both the 1859 Preface, and our understanding of Althusser’s absolutely fundamental thesis. I would still uphold his premise of the fundamental nature of this issue, and of the importance of a proper theoretical understanding as a basis for our actions. But times have changed and new evidences call for new interpretations and new answers to his question.
For one thing, the Rise of the Robots makes abundantly clear how developments in the means of production can become agents of social change. Prior to this level of technological development, no one could be expected to foresee the means of production themselves as having the qualities of agency. Thus it was assumed that relations must, in the final analysis, effect change.
The eroding foundations theories of both Joseph Schumpeter and Daniel Bell erred because they placed the locus of revolutionary impetus within the superstructure of society. In Schumpeter’s case it was disaffected intellectuals and in Bell’s a hedonistic culture. Althusser correctly discerns that the locus of change is within the base, the mode of production itself. But he ascribes primacy to the wrong element. It is, as the Rise of the Robots makes abundantly clear, the development of the productive forces which precipitates the conflict. And, looking deeper, it is the growing conflict thus engendered which generates the magnitude of pressure which necessitates social change. The base erupts, or more exactly dirempts, that is, tears violently apart. There is no longer a structural correspondence between the means of production and the relations of production.
But so far we have only accounted for the magnitude of force necessary to effect social change; we have said nothing about the direction of this dynamic force. The direction of the resultant social change is determined by forces originating in the superstructure. There is nothing deterministic about technological dynamism. Direction is the resultant of the sum of ideological vectors acting upon the line of magnitude; how various interest groups exploit the opportunity.
I warned you this wasn’t going to be easy. I propose a re-formulation of Althusser’s absolutely fundamental thesis. Here are two preliminary attempts at this. Do either help make the thesis clear? Which do you prefer, this:
All levels of society contribute to the impetus for social revolution. Within the base, advancements in the means of production precipitate conflicts with the relations of production. The inherent revolutionary nature of capitalism at work within the means of production runs counter to the institutional path dependencies found in the relations of production. This conflict ultimately provides the magnitude of revolutionary impetus but no direction. Direction emerges as the resultant sum of all applied ideological vectors emanating from the superstructure. Chief among these vectors is the reactionary. This is the tendency which must be overcome.
An exogenous force with sufficient magnitude to alter the structure of capitalist society will never arise. The requisite magnitude of force will arise endogenously, from the diremption of the capitalist mode of production; this occurrence is itself a natural product of capitalist development. This magnitude is sufficient but lacks direction. Exogenous vectors, arising from the ideological superstructure of society, contribute their magnitudes and directions to produce a resultant, which provides an exogenously-produced direction to the endogenously-generated magnitude creating the true vector of social change.
If neither work for you, can you come up with a better statement?