In an earlier post I presented this excerpt from the preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, without comment. If you’ve never encountered this writing before you may prefer to read it without my comments first, to form your own opinion. If so, you’ll find it here.
For the rest of us, here is the same excerpt with my annotation:
The general conclusion at which I arrived and which, once reached, became the guiding principle for my studies, can be summarized as follows.
I once read a criticism of Marx which complained that he wasn’t really an honest researcher; that he had an ideological ax to grind and just went about looking for proof of what he already believed. I think this criticism is superficial, however, if Marx did have an ideological ax, we would find it in this statement, in what he refers to as his “guiding principle,” that is, the proposition of historical materialism. This gives us a new perspective on how to approach the body of Marx’s work. He is about to disclose his overall “guiding principle,” the central theme of his work.
In the social production of their life, men enter into definite relations that are indispensable and independent of their will, relations of production which correspond to a definite stage of development of their material productive forces. The sum total of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which rises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness…It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness.
This section lays out the historical materialist proposition of base and superstructure. Marx takes the position that real-world material needs and the basic struggle for survival take precedence in human affairs. In the struggle against scarcity human societies sensibly employ the most effective means at their disposal to meet their needs. Individuals, whether they like it or not, must enter into relations with others to provide for their own needs and consequently, the survival of the society itself. It only makes sense that these relations make the most efficient use of the means of production at the society’s disposal. Thus, the level of technology achieved by the society prescribes the efficient form of social relations to exploit that technology. These two elements constitute the mode of production and form the base of society. Additional measures are added to support and protect this base. These legal and political measures constitute the superstructure of society. In a properly functioning society, the superstructure exists to enhance the workings of the base.
The consciousness of men, Marx declares, is determined by the real-life circumstances in which they are grounded. Their real-life circumstances are not determined by their consciousness. This conclusion has been completely misunderstood since the day Marx penned it. These words broach the whole complex and convoluted argument about technological determinism. I won’t drag you through all that (but you can pursue it in this Wikipedia entry, if you like). Suffice it here to say that Marx was no hard determinist. Later, in the Critique itself, he clearly states that:
There is in every social formation a particular branch of production which determines the position and importance of all the others, and the relations obtaining in this branch accordingly determine the relations of all other branches as well. It is as though light of a particular hue were cast upon everything, tingeing all other colours and modifying their specific features; or as if a special ether determined the specific gravity of everything found in it.
The effect of technology on social development is thus the primary, but not sole, determinant. Engels, in a letter to J. Bloch written in 1890 provides further clarification:
According to the materialist conception of history, the ultimately determining element in history is the production and reproduction of real life. Other than this neither Marx nor I have ever asserted. Hence if somebody twists this into saying that the economic element is the only determining one, he transforms that proposition into a meaningless, abstract, senseless phrase.
What Marx is saying is that the social consciousness of a given epoch arises from and is colored by its real socio-economic conditions. Although this subject easily devolves into a dense philosophical quagmire, it need not. The important thing to grasp is the idea that each age has its own way of looking at the world. How could the medieval mind envision the values of modern liberal democracies? (This idea was wonderfully satirized in an SNL skit starring Steve Martin as Theodoric of York Medieval Judge.) Immersed, as we are, in a fully developed capitalist society it is difficult for most to envision a future in which technological post-scarcity gives rise to a society with truly Communist values.
At a certain stage of their development, the material productive forces of society come in conflict with the existing relations of production, or — what is but a legal expression for the same thing — with the property relations within which they have been at work hitherto. From forms of development of the productive forces these relations turn into their fetters. Then begins an epoch of social revolution.
Marx is revealing here a general rule of social transformations. It is particularly applicable to the Rise of the Robots and the end of the capitalist system. The superstructure of society changes relatively slowly. Its natural purpose is to preserve the status quo and defend existing interests. The base, the means of production and the technological advancements the society achieves, progresses relatively rapidly. This is evident today in the exponential growth observed in general-purpose disruptive technologies. At a certain stage of their development, Marx explains, these productive forces outgrow the old social arrangements. New arrangements are required if the productive forces are to be allowed to continue to develop. This conflict provides the magnitude of the motive force necessary for social revolution. This dynamo must be harnessed and directed to be beneficial but the pressure for change is generated endogenously. The property relations of the old order become the specific obstacle hindering further advancement. This is a point not to be missed. The Rise of the Robots will, in one way or another, require new legal expressions of property rights if the potential of these technologies is to be realized. Proposals for such changes are already being made. Changes in patent rights, restrictions on inherited wealth, basic minimum income, universal stock distributions, and other ideas are currently on the table for how to deal with the coming changes. The ultimate solution is, of course, the universal ownership and control of the means of production. This way the class struggles ensuing any redistributive policy are eliminated.
With the change of the economic foundation the entire immense superstructure is more or less rapidly transformed. In considering such transformations a distinction should always be made between the material transformation of the economic conditions of production, which can be determined with the precision of a natural science, and the legal, political, religious, esthetic, or philosophic — in short, ideological forms in which men become conscious of this conflict and fight it out. Just as our opinion of an individual is not based on what he thinks of himself, so we cannot judge of such a period of transformation by its own consciousness; on the contrary, this consciousness must be explained rather from the contradictions of material life, from the existing conflict between the social productive forces and the relations of production.
If there are any lingering doubts about Marx’s deterministic leanings they are dispelled by this passage. The economic base is transformed and the superstructure follows suit. There is a causal linkage here, but these two phenomenon must be understood independently. On the one hand, the technological transformation of the means of production, the actual rate of innovation and adoption, can be quantified and measured. Predictions can be made regarding timetables and the like. Companies can use such data to ascertain whether their latest product will be obsolete by the time their R&D is complete, for example. On the other hand there is the wild unknown. We cannot quantify the transformation of the superstructure in the same manner. It is a fight between various competing interests. Which path society will happen upon in response to these changes is anybody’s guess. Marx goes on, however, to offer a valuable insight for anyone choosing to become a part of the fight. If you want to properly understand what is happening in this time of transformation you must understand that the force driving this change is this conflict between the newly emerging means of production and the old relations of production with their rapidly obsoleting property rights. Proper prognosis can only follow proper diagnosis. The proper prescription for action is marked by the resolution of this conflict.
No social order ever perishes before all the productive forces for which there is room in it have developed; and new higher relations of production never appear before the material conditions of their existence have matured in the womb of the old society itself. Therefore mankind always sets itself only such tasks as it can solve; since, looking at the matter more closely, it will always be found that the task itself arises only when the material conditions for its solution already exist or are at least in the process of formation.
Here is a simple point which has often been ignored in the history of those revolutionary struggles which self-identify as Marxist. Revolution occurs in the fullness of time. Capitalism isn’t finished yet, or rather we are not yet finished with capitalism. We are merely on the verge of the development of the productive forces which will transform the economic base and thus revolutionize society. Capitalism, with its dynamic engine of creative destruction, is the proper vehicle to bring us to where we need to be. Its full productive force is not yet spent. We can glean from various quantitative analyses of technological innovation (this study from Oxford University, for example) that societal conflict will escalate over the course of the next two to three decades. Capitalism will still be in place through this period. Schemes to overthrow capitalism prematurely are misguided and doomed to failure. For the present time a superstructure of democratic socialism is appropriate and sufficient. This approach both mitigates the pain and damage inflicted by the death throes of the capitalist system and eases the birth pains of the future socialist order. The true revolutionary is more a nurse and midwife, encouraging the healthy development and facilitating the successful birth of the new society. As Marx assures, the form of this new society is already emerging and intimations of it can be gained if we look carefully. An entire section of this website, called The Excellent Situation, is being created to explore these developments.
In broad outlines Asiatic, ancient, feudal, and modern bourgeois modes of production can be designated as progressive epochs in the economic formation of society. The bourgeois relations of production are the last antagonistic form of the social process of production — antagonistic not in the sense of individual antagonism, but of one arising from the social conditions of life of the individual; at the same time the productive forces developing in the womb of bourgeois society create the material conditions for the solution of that antagonism. This social formation brings, therefore, the prehistory of human society to a close.
Here Marx gives a quick, sweeping overview of human civilization from a historical materialist perspective. The various epochs are classified by the economic base of the society. As the productive forces of each epoch develop the next social formation emerges to accommodate them. Marx sees these epochs as progressive, that is working towards an ultimate goal. He even defines that goal. The sum product of all human work and development, all of our striving and struggle is the attainment of a social formation that is congruent with true human dignity. All previous social formations were based on class antagonisms, of the powerful exploiting the weak. Men were seen and treated as objects, as means to another’s ends. The capitalist system has within it the power to bequeath a new, higher formation. Class antagonisms cease; mankind is freed. The prehistory of human society comes to a close; truly human history begins.
It is a beautiful vision. A vision worth fighting for.