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New Left Review I/147, September-October 1984


Ellen Meiksins Wood

Marxism and the Course of History

There was a time, not very long ago, when one of the most serious and frequent criticisms levelled against Marxism was that it subscribed to a mechanical and simplistic view of history according to which all societies were predestined to go through a single, inexorable sequence of stages from primitive communism to slavery to feudalism, and finally to capitalism which would inevitably give way to socialism. What was at issue was not simply the value of Marxism as a theory of history and its alleged inability to account for the variety of historical patterns on display in the world, but also the viability of the socialist project itself. Since Marxism was so clearly wrong about the unilinear course of history, surely it was equally wrong about the inevitability—indeed, the possibility—of socialism.

Now that this view of history has been widely disowned by Marxists, not only in the West but even in the East, now that it has been acknowledged by many Marxists as an aberration, which had less to do with Marxist theory than with Stalinist dogma and was always incompatible not only with Marx’s own understanding of history but with the fundamental principles of historical materialism and its conception of class struggle, the ground of criticism has shifted. We are now being told that without a mechanically deterministic and unilinear history, Marxism cannot exist at all. Having lost hold of its lifeline, its albeit profoundly mistaken conception of history, Marxism is dead. And whither Marxist history, so too goes the socialist project, since there can no longer be any grounds for believing that history has laid the foundation for socialism.

The Times Literary Supplement, has been a particularly popular venue for these pronouncements of death. In the past two years, at least three exceptionally long reviews have been largely devoted to these themes: two typically provocative and often incisive, though deeply flawed, analyses by Ernest Gellner, which belong to a different genre from the lurid anti-Marxist tirades more usual in the TLS [1] For example, J. H. Hexter on Christopher Hill, David Landes on Eric Hobsbawm, J. P. Kenyon on Past and Present, Kenneth Minogue on Sartre, William Letwin on the Transition Debate, Geoffrey Marshall on Ralph Miliband, Leopold Labedz on E. H. Carr and Isaac Deutscher.; and a smugly ill-informed right-wing polemic by John Gray. It should be said, however, that critics of Marxism have not been alone in believing that something vital has been lost with the unilinear conception of history and that the socialist faith suffered a serious blow when it was compelled to give up the simple belief in a universal pattern of history characterized in particular by an inexorable growth of productive forces. This consideration must certainly have figured in G. A. Cohen’s attempt to revive a technological-determinist Marxism, and a similar view has recently appeared in nlr. Eric Hobsbawm, in ‘Marx and History’, has argued that in the absence of such a universal historical pattern, the materialist conception of history ‘as a way of changing the world’ loses two important things: ‘a) the sense that the triumph of socialism is the logical end of all historical evolution to date; and b) that it marks the end of “pre-history” in the sense that it cannot and will not be an “antagonistic” society.’ [2] Eric Hobsbawm, ‘Marx and History’, NLR 143, January–February 1984, p. 45. Unable to sustain a unilinear view but unwilling to give up what he takes to be its fruits, Hobsbawm proposes a compromise in the form of the proposition that ‘all development is mixed development.’ [3] Ibid., p. 47.

It will be argued in what follows that (while we must take seriously Hobsbawm’s valuable discussion of the need to appreciate the complexities of ‘mixed development’) there is no need to rescue the Marxist theoretical and political project from its loss of unilinearity. No rescue operation is required because no grievous injury has been sustained. On the contrary. In fact, the assumptions underlying both Hobsbawm’s unease and the very differently motivated triumph of the critics are profoundly questionable: that Marxism, for one reason or another, needs a (more or less) unilinear conception of history conceived as a universal pattern of systematic and constant growth of productive forces; and that the socialist project is deeply compromised by the failure of such a view, because on this conception of history depends the conviction that the inevitable rise of capitalism will prepare the ground for socialism with equal inevitability.

Universal History vs. the Specificity of Capitalism

John Gray, reviewing no less than fourteen recent books dealing with various aspects of Marxism, draws our attention to one of the ‘most disastrous errors’ of Marxist thought. Although Marx professed to acknowledge the particularities of specific cultures and the unevenness of economic development, Gray maintains, he nevertheless ‘subscribed to a belief in something like a law of the increasing development over human history of productive forces. He asserted this not just as a brute historical fact nor yet as a mere trend, but as the unifying principle of human history.’ [4] John Gray, ‘The System of Ruins’, TLS, 30 December 1983, p. 1460. On this rock, the whole Marxist project has foundered. Any attempt to sustain such a view (Gray specifically mentions Cohen’s recent effort as the best of its kind) ‘ . . . has to confront, however, the inconvenient fact that the systematic and continuous expansion of productive forces over many centuries appears to have occurred within capitalist Europe and its offshoots and nowhere else. Explaining the singularity of capitalist development generates a most fundamental criticism of the Marxian scheme of historical interpretation. For, contrary to Cohen’s attempted reconstruction of historical materialism in Darwinian functionalist form, a mechanism for filtering out inefficient productive arrangements exists only within the capitalist mode of production. Within a capitalist market economy, there is a powerful incentive for enterprises to innovate technologically, and to adopt innovations pioneered by others, since firms which persist in using less efficient technologies will lose markets, reap dwindling profits and eventually fail. Nothing akin to this selective mechanism of market competition existed in the Asiatic mode of production, and it has no replica in existing socialist command economies. Cohen’s defence of the Development Thesis is bound to fail because it attempts to account for the replacement of one productive mode by another by invoking a mechanism which features internally in only a single mode of production, market capitalism.’

Gray is so precisely on the mark in his insistence on the singularity of capitalism and his characterization of that system as uniquely driven by a ‘powerful incentive’ to revolutionize productive forces, that it seems churlish to point out that Marx thought of it first (and in terms far less simplistic and question-begging than Gray’s own). [5] There is sometimes a tendency to exaggerate the degree of ‘stagnation’ characteristic of other societies, especially those of the East. Nevertheless, it remains true that the development of capitalism in the West has been marked by a unique drive to revolutionize the forces of production, specifically to develop technologies and means of labour whose object is to increase labour productivity and cheapen commodities (as distinct, for example, from enhancing their durability or aesthetic qualities). Indeed, this can be said to be the heart of Marx’s analysis. Marx’s account of capitalism has as one of its principal objects an explanation of this ‘powerful incentive’, the unique imperatives that impel capital to constant self-expansion and create the uniquely capitalist drive to increase labour-productivity. The uniqueness of capitalism in this respect, far from constituting an embarrassment to Marxism, is the very core of its theoretical being. It was Marx who first provided a systematic explanation of this unique phenomenon; indeed it was Marx who recognized that it required an explanation and could not be taken for granted as inscribed in human nature—whether in the natural development of human reason, or in the inclination to ‘truck, barter and exchange’, or in human acquisitiveness and/or indolence. And it is still Marxists who are making the most serious efforts to develop and improve this explanation.

In contrast, the conventional ‘bourgeois’ accounts of economic and technological development have, since the very beginnings of classical political economy, tended to rely, implicitly or explicitly, on unilinear, ‘stagist’ conceptions of progress in which the improvement of the ‘practical arts’ and material prosperity has inexorably accompanied the unfolding of human nature, as humanity has evolved from primitive pastoralism (or whatever) to modern ‘commercial’ society. Contemporary economists may have jettisoned the historical and moral perspectives of their predecessors, but they are if anything even more dependent on hidden assumptions about the natural acquisitiveness of human beings, the ‘unlimited’ character of human desires, the necessity of accumulation, and hence the natural tendency to improve the forces of production.

Capital’s Thirst for Surplus Value

Cohen’s argument that capitalism is simply the product of a perennial and universal tendency inscribed in human nature to ‘economize effort’ begs the very questions that Marx himself placed at the heart of his analysis, questions about the uniqueness and the sources of the capitalist dynamic. Throughout Capital and elsewhere, Marx emphasizes the particularity of the capitalist drive to revolutionize productive forces: ‘modern industry’, created by capital, is ‘revolutionary’ ‘while all other modes of production were essentially conservative’, [6] K. Marx, Capital Vol. 1, Moscow 1971, p. 457. having instruments, techniques, and methods of organizing labour which, once established, tended to ‘petrify’; [7] Ibid., p. 456. the capitalist class requires constant change in production, while previous classes required stability: ‘The bourgeoisie cannot exist without continually revolutionizing the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production and all the social relations. Conservation, in an unaltered form, of the old modes of production was on the contrary the first condition of existence for all earlier industrial classes.’ [8] Communist Manifesto, also quoted in Capital Vol. 1, Moscow 1971, p. 457.

Even more significant than all this, however, is Marx’s view that the particular object of technological change under capitalism is specific to that system, differing from any universal object that might be attributed to humanity in general, such as, precisely, ‘economizing effort’ or ‘lightening toil’. Marx repeatedly insists that the capitalist development of productive forces is not intended to decrease ‘labour-time for material production in general’, but to increase ‘the surplus labour-time of the working classes.’ [9] Capital Vol.3, p. 264. ‘So far as capital is concerned, productiveness does not increase through a saving in living labour in general, but only through a saving in the paid portion of living labour . . .’ [10] Ibid., p. 262. Commenting on J. S. Mill’s remark that ‘It is questionable if all the mechanical inventions yet made have lightened the day’s toil of any human being’, Marx observes that this is ‘by no means the aim of the capitalist applications of machinery. Like every other increase in the productiveness of labour, machinery is intended to cheapen commodities, and, by shortening that portion of the working-day in which the labourer works for himself, to lengthen the other portion that he gives, without an equivalent, to the capitalist. In short, it is a means of producing surplus-value.’ [11] Capital Vol. 1, p. 351. In other words, even if there is a general tendency inherent in human nature to seek means of ‘economizing effort’ or ‘lightening toil’, the specific drive of capitalism to revolutionize productive forces is not reducible to it. We are still left with the problem of determining the source of an impulse specific to capitalism. In short, we must distinguish fundamentally between any general tendency toward the improvement of productive forces (about which more in a moment) and the specific tendency of capitalism to revolutionize the forces of production.

A stress on the uniqueness of capitalism and its developmental drive—and the denial of unilinearism that this implies—is therefore not an aberration or a momentary, if fatal, lapse in Marxism. It is deeply embedded in and intrinsic to Marx’s own analysis from the start. This alone should put us on guard against any easy assumption that the ‘abandonment’ of a unilinear technological determinism strikes at the heart of the Marxist project. How, then, can this emphasis be made to accord not only with a general Marxist theory of history but also with the Marxist conviction that socialism is the ‘logical end’ of a general historical process?

Gellner’s False Alternatives

We must ask, first, what counts as a ‘general theory’ of history. Ernest Gellner gives us little choice. At least for Marxists, it is all or nothing, unilinearism or chaos, predestination or the abyss. If Marxists cannot spell out a universal and inexorable sequence of specific historical stages, they cannot claim, it would seem, to explain historical processes at all. They can discover no patterns or logic in history; they can only describe a chaotic and arbitrary mixture of contingencies: ‘The abandonment of unilinearism raises problems which are very deep. If it is disavowed and not replaced by anything, one may well ask whether one is left with any theory at all, or merely with the debris of a theory. Marxism is supposed to be a theory of historical change, providing a key to its motive force and, presumably, its overall pattern. If any kind of society can follow any other kind, without any constraints, if societies may stagnate for ever, what kind of meaning can be attached to the attribution of primacy to the forces of production, or indeed to anything else? If there are no constraints on the possible patterns of change, what point is there in seeking the underlying mechanism or the secret of constraint, when no constraint exists to be explained? If anything is possible, what could a theory explain, and what theory could be true? Those Western Marxists who blithely disavow unilinealism, as a kind of irritating and unnecessary encumbrance, without even trying to replace it with something else, do not seem to realize that all they are left with is a label, but no theory. Though unilinealism is indeed false, its unqualified abandonment leaves Marxism vacuous.’ [12] Ernest Gellner, ‘Along the Historical Highway’ (a review of Eero Loone’s Sovremennaia Filosofia Istorii), TLS, March 16, 1984, p. 279.

This seems an extraordinary misunderstanding not only of Marxism but of what is entailed by historical theory and explanation. Is it really true that, in the absence of unilinearism, ‘any kind of society can follow any other kind, without constraints’? Does the ‘abandonment’ of unilinearism really mean that ‘anything is possible’? If Marxists refuse to accept that human history consists of an inexorable progress from primitive communism through slavery and feudalism to capitalism, are they really obliged to accept, for example, that capitalism can emerge from a pastoral society, that ‘modern industry’ can spring directly from primitive agriculture, that a hunting and gathering economy can sustain a feudal structure? Are they obliged to acknowledge that a system of production that generates little surplus can sustain a massive state or religious establishment and a luxurious material culture? Is there really nothing left in Marxist theory, failing unilinearism, that would deny the possibility of all these historical anomalies? With such a Manichaean view of the alternatives, it is hard to see how any theory—or indeed any historical explanation—is possible at all. Does Marxism really need unilinearism in order to have a ‘theory of historical change’? In fact, is unilinearism a theory of change at all, or is it precisely an attempt to avoid explaining historical change by preempting the question with a mechanical sequence of stages, while the object of Marxist theory without unilinearism is precisely to offer a ‘key’ to the motive forces of historical process?

Marx did at least two important things: he provided a point of entry into historical processes, a guide to what is essential, a means of discovering a ‘logic of process’ in history, by means of his general principles concerning the centrality of productive activity in human social organization, the proposition that the ‘innermost secret’ of the social structure is the specific form in which ‘surplus labour is pumped out of the direct producers’, [13] Capital Vol. 3, p. 791. and the generalization that up to now history since primitive communism has been the history of class struggle. And he provided a monumentally detailed and fruitful specific application of these general principles to the analysis of capitalism, its particular development and ‘laws of motion’. His theory of history does not take the form of propositions like ‘primitive communism is (must be) followed by slavery . . . etc.’ (which is less a theory or a key to the forces of change than a proclamation), but rather something like ‘the fundamental key to the development of feudalism (say) and the forces at work in the transition to capitalism is to be found in the specific mode of productive activity characteristic of feudalism, the specific form in which surplus was pumped out of the direct producers, and the class conflicts surrounding that process of surplus-extraction.’ Surely there are more than enough ‘constraints’ here.

The Development of Productive Forces

Where, then, do the forces of production figure in all this? [14] The concept of productive forces can include more than simply ‘material’ forces and technologies; but what is usually in question in these debates are the instruments, techniques, and organizational forms which have the effect of increasing productive capacity. The proposition that history is simply the inexorable progress of productive forces is vacuous and by itself inconsistent with Marx’s analysis of capitalism. It can accommodate a whole range of possibilities, from the revolutionizing of productive forces under capitalism to the tendency of productive forces to ‘petrify’ in pre-capitalist societies. The sense in which it is true is very limited in its explanatory value and begs the critical question of capitalist development. Of course it is indisputable that in a very broad perspective, there has been, as Hobsbawm says, ‘an inevitable evolutionary trend for the material productive forces to develop . . .’; [15] Hobsbawm, p. 44. but this need mean no more than that changes in the forces of production tend to be progressive and cumulative, that once an advance occurs it is rarely lost, and that regression is over the long term exceptional. If this is so, it is still possible to characterize these developments as evolutionary and ‘directional’ (not teleological), insofar as there is a general progressive tendency and each development is accompanied by new possibilities, as well as new needs. This, however, tells us nothing about the likelihood, frequency, rapidity, or extent of change; nor does it contradict the view, expressed by Marx, that ‘petrification’ has been more the rule than the exception. Technological change and improvements in labour productivity are not the only ways in which societies have adapted to their material needs, or even to the exploitative demands of dominant classes; and systems of production do not necessarily contain a compulsion to be succeeded by more ‘productive’ systems. It is, again, a specific characteristic of capitalism to demand the constant transformation of productive forces as its principal form of adaptation. If that compulsion has become a more general rule, it is because one of the chief consequences of the capitalist impulse has been an unprecedented capacity—and need—to drive out, or impose its logic upon, other social forms. While, therefore, the evolution of productive forces is an important datum in the understanding of historical process, there are severe limits to its explanatory force. Above all, the observation that history has been generally marked by a progressive development of productive forces, cannot be taken to mean that historical movement and social change are impelled by a drive to improve the forces of production, or that social forms rise and decline according to whether they promote or obstruct such improvement. [16] Erik Olin Wright, in a reply to Anthony Giddens’s critique of Marx’s theory of history (‘Giddens’s Critique of Marx’, NLR 138 March/April 1983, especially pp. 24–29), shows how a more limited proposition about the development of productive forces (such as the one being proposed here), which makes no excessive explanatory claims and no unwarranted assumptions about the compulsion of less productive social forms to be succeeded by more productive ones, is still consistent with the cumulative, evolutionary, and ‘directional’ character of social development. He offers some cautious suggestions about why the development of productive forces is cumulative, without making claims for a universal drive to improve productive capacities. And, while he accepts that direct producers in general have an interest in reducing unpleasant toil, he denies that there is any ‘systematic pressure’; in fact, he suggests that, if in pre-class societies such an impulse—albeit a ‘very weak’ one—may have the effect of encouraging the improvement of productive forces, or at least the acceptance of those introduced from elsewhere, the desire to lighten toil is not the operative principle where class exploitation exists (p. 28). In other words, his account of Marxist ‘evolutionism’ seems generally compatible with the argument outlined here. At any rate, it is a useful corrective to the extravagant claims often made for the development of productive forces.

What, then, of the proposition that history is propelled forward by the inevitable contradictions between forces and relations of production, contradictions that emerge as developing productive forces come up against the ‘fetters’ imposed by production relations and ‘their relatively inflexible superstructural expressions’? [17] See Robert Brenner, ‘The Origins of Capitalist Development’, NLR 104, July–August 1977, pp. 59–60. Since (among other things) this proposition begs the question of whether and to what extent productive forces do and must develop in the first place, it may seem, on the face of it, hardly less vacuous than the general law of technological development in its simpler form. It can certainly be said that there is a minimum level of productive forces without which any set of production relations cannot be sustained, and it is also true that any set of production relations can permit or encourage only so much change in the forces of production and only in a limited range of forms. But it would be quite another matter to suggest that there is a particular set of productive forces to match every set of production relations (or vice versa), or that development in one must go step by step in tandem with the other. Productive forces establish the ultimate conditions of the possible, but the range of production relations that can be sustained by any set of productive forces is quite broad; and the various changes in production relations that have occurred cannot be explained simply by reference to the development of productive forces, either in the sense that the former have followed the latter or in the sense that the former have changed ‘in order to’ remove obstacles to the development of the latter.

Contradictions Specific to Capitalism

It must be said that both Marxists and their critics have placed an enormous burden upon Marx’s short-hand aphorisms—notably those about the contradictions between forces and relations of production, and those about ‘base’ and ‘superstructure’—without taking account of how rarely they appear or with what poetic allusiveness and economy of expression, and without putting into the balance the weight of his whole life’s work and what it tells us about his theoretical principles. Nevertheless, the formula concerning the contradictions between forces and relations of production does seem to have a more specific and fruitful meaning, if we cease to treat it as a general law of history—a law so general as to be vacuous—and regard it as an expression of a law of capitalist development, a principle internal to the capitalist mode of production from its inception to its decline, a statement about its specific dynamic and internal contradictions. Indeed it is precisely, and only, in this specific application that the principle receives any detailed elaboration from Marx himself—and in such a way that it appears not as a general law but as a characteristic specific to capitalism, an account of precisely those contradictions that are associated with the uniquely capitalist drive to revolutionize productive forces. For example: ‘The real barrier of capitalist production is capital itself. It is that capital and its self-expansion appear as the starting and the closing point, the motive and the purpose of production; that production is only production for capital and not vice versa, the means of production are not mere means for a constant expansion of the living process of the society of producers. The limits within which the preservation and self-expansion of the value of capital resting on the expropriation and pauperization of the great mass of producers can alone move—these limits come continually into conflict with the methods of production employed by capital for its purposes, which drive towards unlimited extension of production, towards production as an end in itself, towards unconditional development of the social productivity of labour. The means—unconditional development of the productive forces of society—comes continually into conflict with the limited purpose, the self-expansion of the existing capital. The capitalist mode of production is, for this reason, a historical means of developing the material forces of production and creating an appropriate world market and is, at the same time, a continual conflict between this its historical task and its own corresponding relations of social production.’ [18] Hobsbawm, p. 44.

The formula thus sums up both the unique principles of motion within capitalism, its dynamic internal contradictions, and also the possibilities contained within capitalism for the transformation of society: ‘The contradiction between the general social power into which capital develops, on the one hand, and the private power of the individual capitalists over these social conditions of production, on the other, becomes ever more irreconcilable and yet contains the solution of the problem, because it implies at the same time the transformation of the conditions of production into general, common, social conditions. This transformation stems from the development of the productive forces under capitalist production, and from the ways and means by which this development takes place.’ [19] Capital Vol. 3, p. 250.

The formula about the contradiction between forces and relations of production can, with caution, be used to illuminate, as it were retrospectively, the transition from feudalism to capitalism, insofar as it suggests that the emergence of a mode of production whose internal principle of motion and historic consequences are the revolutionizing of productive forces had as its necessary condition a transformation in the relations of production and class. But we should not mistake the meaning of such retrospective formulations, in which historical consequences are described as if they were causes. This is one of Marx’s favourite modes of analysis and expression—as in the famous proposition that ‘Human anatomy contains a key to the anatomy of the ape’; and it is often mistaken for teleology. In this case, the formula should not obscure the fact that the drive to transform productive forces was not the cause but the result of a transformation in the relations of production and class. [20] Ibid., p. 264. It has recently been argued that Marx was mistaken in regarding this development as preparing the ground for socialism, because he allegedly failed to consider the conflictual nature of the capitalist labour-process and the relations of domination and struggle inherent in it. (Chantal Mouffe, ‘Working Class Hegemony and the Struggle for Socialism’, Studies in Political Economy 12, Fall 1983, esp. pp. 13–17.) This remarkable misunderstanding of Marx’s argument is discussed in a forthcoming article by Peter Meiksins and Ellen Meiksins Wood, ‘Beyond Class? A Reply to Chantal Mouffe’. A brief reply to the argument that the working class has no ‘fundamental interest’ in socialism is also offered in this article.

If the formula is fruitful as an account of capitalism, as a general law of history it is rather empty and is not rendered more informative by the teleological proposition that capitalism emerged because history requires the development of productive forces and the development of productive forces requires capitalism. Nor is this question-begging formulation Marx’s own. When Marx speaks of the ‘historical task’ of capitalism, he is not identifying the causes or explaining the processes that gave rise to capitalism; he is making a statement about the effects of capitalist development, and specifically from the point of view of socialism. ‘The capitalist mode of production presents itself to us historically, as a necessary condition to the transformation of the labour-process into a social process’ [21] ‘The production of relative surplus-value, revolutionizes out and out the technical processes of labour, and the composition of society. It therefore presupposes a specific mode, the capitalist mode of production, a mode which, along with its methods, means, and conditions, arises and develops spontaneously on the foundation afforded by the formal subjection of labour to capital. In the course of this development, the formal subjection is replaced by the real subjection of labour to capital.’ (Capital Vol. 1, pp. 477–8.) In other words, a transformation in the social relations of production, which gave rise to the ‘formal subjection’ of labour to capital—the transformation of producers into wage-labourers directly subject to capital, without at first transforming the means and methods of production—set in train a process which had as its eventual consequence the revolutionizing of productive forces. Capitalist relations carried a compulsion to increase surplus-value; and, as the production of absolute surplus-value gave way to relative surplus-value, the need to increase labour-productivity was met by completely transforming the labour-process, the ‘real subjection’ of labour to capital. The revolutionizing of productive forces was thus only the end of a complex process that began with the establishment of capitalist social relations. tells us something about what capitalism has done to make possible the transition to socialism. It tells us little about the laws of history in general—and it still remains to explain how a system came to be established which had as its inherent principle the transformation of production.

Appropriation and Class Struggle as ‘General Trends’

On this score, Marx maintains that the critical factor is ‘the historical process of divorcing the producer from the means of production’, in particular, the process whereby peasant producers were expropriated from the soil. [22] Capital Vol. 1,p. 317. Although Marx has a few things to say about this process, it has remained for later historians to explain how and why it took place and how it gave rise to capitalist relations and the consequent imperatives to revolutionize the material forces of production. These questions have, in fact, been the subject of some of the most fruitful recent work in Marxist historiography, notably in the ‘Transition Debate’ and the work of Robert Brenner. If, then, we must discover in Marx a systematic statement of a very ‘general trend’ in history, a single direction in which all human history has, broadly speaking, tended, then his remarks on the increasing separation of direct producers from the means of their own labour, subsistence, and reproduction are both more systematically developed (see, in particular, the discussion of pre-capitalist formations in the Grundrisse) and more useful than technological determinism.

What makes this process especially difficult to formulate as a ‘law’, however—at least in a form that would satisfy Gellner—is that intrinsic to the process of expropriation is the process of class struggle, whose specific outcome must, by definition, remain unpredictable. Marxist theory can point us in the direction of class struggle as the operative principle of historical movement and provide the tools for exploring its effects, but it cannot tell us a priori how that struggle will work out. And, indeed, why should it? What Marxist theory tells us is that the productive capacities of society set the limits of the possible, and, more specifically, that the particular mode of surplus-extraction is the key to social structure. It tells us, too, that class struggle generates historical movement. None of this makes history accidental, contingent, or indeterminate. For example, if the outcome of class struggle is not predetermined, the specific nature, conditions, and terrain of struggle, and the range of possible outcomes, certainly are historically determinate: struggles between wage-labourers and industrial capitalists over the extraction of surplus value are, needless to say, necessarily different from struggles between peasants and feudal landlords over the appropriation of rent. Each of these struggles has its own inner logic, quite apart from the additional specificities of time and place. A specific application of these principles has provided an explanation of how capitalism emerged, how capitalist relations have generated a compulsive drive to revolutionize productive forces (among other things), how the imperatives of capital accumulation have tended to generalize the logic of capitalism and to submerge other modes of production, while creating the conditions that place socialism on the agenda.

History and the Necessity of Socialism

How, then, is the socialist project affected by the denial of unilinearism and technological determinism? Both Gellner and Hobsbawm seem to be arguing that, without such a view of history, the socialist movement lacks certain vitally important convictions, notably that socialism is not simply the arbitrary conclusion of a unique and contingent historical process but the outcome of a universal historical logic as well as a response to universal needs and aspirations—though Hobsbawm would undoubtedly, and justly, take exception to Gellner’s messianic formulation (and much else in his tendentious characterization): ‘Marxism is a collective soteriology. It is a faith which, though it promises no salvation to individuals, does very emphatically offer it to humanity at large. It differs from Christianity in at least two further respects: salvation is not selective, nor conditional on merit or selection, but will descend upon all of us without distinction, if we are still here when the time comes. It will come without conditions or, for that matter, consultation. We will be saved whether we like it or not . . . The potential for an eventual and indeed inescapable salvation is built into the present. The entelechy of salvation, the acorn/oak tree vision of social change, is central to Marxism, and constitutes an important part of its appeal.’ [23] Ibid., p. 668. With the ‘newer model Marxism’, which disowns uni-linearism, history becomes pure accident, Gellner maintains (in keeping with his rather curious notion of what is entailed by a theory of history); and ‘the promise of salvation is replaced by a merely contingent, humiliatingly accidental and extraneous possibility of salvation.’

There is much in this statement that is both wrong and objectionable (where, incidentally, does class struggle come into it?); but let us leave all that aside and take up the general question raised by Gellner’s account. Before we attack the problem of the necessity and universality of socialist emancipation, however, let us look at the narrower question of the relation between capitalism and socialism and the senses in which capitalism can be said to have prepared the ground for socialism.

We have already noted the various ways in which, according to Marx, the dynamic of capitalism and its specific drive to transform production have created contradictions and possibilities for further, socialist transformations of production. Socialism can even be regarded as the means by which the forces of production will break the ‘fetters’ of capitalism and develop to a higher level, provided that we understand precisely what this means: socialism will liberate the creative capacities of humanity from the imperatives of exploitation and specifically the compulsions of capitalist self-expansion—which is something different from simply continuing capitalist development by permitting an even more ‘unconditional’ revolutionizing of productive forces of the kind that capitalism has set in train. In fact, socialism will develop the forces of production precisely by putting an end to the specifically capitalist impulse. This is worth stressing. It is vitally important to have a more precise understanding of the sense in which socialism will encourage the development of productive forces, in order to dissociate the socialist project from the logic of capitalist accumulation and from the technological determinism according to which the historic mission of socialism is apparently just to improve upon capitalist development and ‘pro-gress’. This kind of misunderstanding not only puts in question the liberating effects of socialist production but also, among other things, creates a suspicion among people increasingly sensitive to environmental dangers that Marxism, no less than capitalism, is an invitation to ecological disaster.

If, however, the development of productive forces plays an important part in the Marxist view of the transition to socialism, these factors cannot account for a positive impulse toward socialism, residing within capitalism, nor can they explain the sense in which socialism is what Hobsbawm calls the ‘logical end to all historical evolution to date’. Capitalism lays the foundations for socialism not only by creating contradictions and possibilities, but also by producing a positive impulse toward the socialist project and a social agent capable of carrying it out. It does this because it is characterized by a system of exploitation in which the exploited class, having no property to protect and no exploitative powers to entrench, cannot serve its own class interests thoroughly without eliminating class altogether. Since the abolition of class is the core of the socialist project, capitalism is its predecessor above all in the sense that the capitalist system creates a class which contains within itself the possibility of a classless society, a class whose specific interests and capacities coincide with socialist objectives and the emancipation of all humanity from class. [24] Ernest Gellner, ‘Stagnation Without Salvation’ (a review of Stephen P. Dunn’s The Fall and Rise of the Asiatic Mode of Production), TLS, 14 January 1983, p. 27.

If, then, capitalism offers less than an absolute promise of socialism (the necessity of struggle and its lack of guarantees cannot be evaded in the transition to socialism any more than at other historical moments), it offers more than a mere possibility (though would the emergence of a ‘mere’ possibility where none existed before really be such an inconsiderable thing?): capitalism has created conditions in which the freedom from exploitation and class can be more than an abstract ideal or a vague aspiration. It has created conditions in which socialism can be the concrete and immediate object of class struggle. It has placed socialism ‘on the agenda’.

It is because socialism is the end of all classes, and not because it is the terminus of technological determinism, that it is ‘the logical end of all historical evolution to date’. [25] It is worth noting that this restricted understanding of Marxism as a kind of technological determinism is implicit in some arguments that have recently been made against the notion that the working class is the principal agent of the transition to socialism. The arguments of André Gorz, for example, and Chantal Mouffe are both largely based on a misrepresentation of Marx, criticizing his conception of the revolutionary proletariat without confronting the essential questions that it poses. Having first reduced the class antagonism between capital and labour to little more than a mechanical contradiction between forces and relations of production, and the ‘historic mission’ of the working class to little more than the collective management of productive forces developed by capitalism (see, for example, Mouffe, p. 10), they dismiss these notions without ever addressing the central issues of exploitation and class struggle. But that is another story. Herein too lies its universality—insofar as history since the emergence of class society has been the history of class struggle. In this respect, the specificity and ‘contingency’ of capitalism do not affect the universal quality of the socialist ‘promise’. What is most significant about capitalism is not so much that it represents the highest development of productive forces to date, but that it is, so to speak, the highest development of exploitation, with the most final (though never complete) polarization of classes, the last stage in the separation of producers from the means of production. Capitalism is the last phase of ‘pre-history’ because it is characterized by class relations that have as their ‘logical’ outcome the abolition of all class relations. The historical trajectory that produced this particular configuration of classes may have been relatively local and specific, but class struggle and the aspiration to be free of exploitation have not. Furthermore, as capitalism has drawn the world into the ambit of its expansionary logic, the conditions and terrain of class struggle everywhere have changed and every class struggle has come closer to the threshold of the last one. The proposition that history has been the history of class struggle, and the definition of socialism as the abolition of class, contain all the universal ‘logic’ that the socialist project requires.




[1] For example, J. H. Hexter on Christopher Hill, David Landes on Eric Hobsbawm, J. P. Kenyon on Past and Present, Kenneth Minogue on Sartre, William Letwin on the Transition Debate, Geoffrey Marshall on Ralph Miliband, Leopold Labedz on E. H. Carr and Isaac Deutscher.

[2] Eric Hobsbawm, ‘Marx and History’, NLR 143, January–February 1984, p. 45.

[3] Ibid., p. 47.

[4] John Gray, ‘The System of Ruins’, TLS, 30 December 1983, p. 1460.

[5] There is sometimes a tendency to exaggerate the degree of ‘stagnation’ characteristic of other societies, especially those of the East. Nevertheless, it remains true that the development of capitalism in the West has been marked by a unique drive to revolutionize the forces of production, specifically to develop technologies and means of labour whose object is to increase labour productivity and cheapen commodities (as distinct, for example, from enhancing their durability or aesthetic qualities).

[6] K. Marx, Capital Vol. 1, Moscow 1971, p. 457.

[7] Ibid., p. 456.

[8] Communist Manifesto, also quoted in Capital Vol. 1, Moscow 1971, p. 457.

[9] Capital Vol.3, p. 264.

[10] Ibid., p. 262.

[11] Capital Vol. 1, p. 351.

[12] Ernest Gellner, ‘Along the Historical Highway’ (a review of Eero Loone’s Sovremennaia Filosofia Istorii), TLS, March 16, 1984, p. 279.

[13] Capital Vol. 3, p. 791.

[14] The concept of productive forces can include more than simply ‘material’ forces and technologies; but what is usually in question in these debates are the instruments, techniques, and organizational forms which have the effect of increasing productive capacity.

[15] Hobsbawm, p. 44.

[16] Erik Olin Wright, in a reply to Anthony Giddens’s critique of Marx’s theory of history (‘Giddens’s Critique of Marx’, NLR 138 March/April 1983, especially pp. 24–29), shows how a more limited proposition about the development of productive forces (such as the one being proposed here), which makes no excessive explanatory claims and no unwarranted assumptions about the compulsion of less productive social forms to be succeeded by more productive ones, is still consistent with the cumulative, evolutionary, and ‘directional’ character of social development. He offers some cautious suggestions about why the development of productive forces is cumulative, without making claims for a universal drive to improve productive capacities. And, while he accepts that direct producers in general have an interest in reducing unpleasant toil, he denies that there is any ‘systematic pressure’; in fact, he suggests that, if in pre-class societies such an impulse—albeit a ‘very weak’ one—may have the effect of encouraging the improvement of productive forces, or at least the acceptance of those introduced from elsewhere, the desire to lighten toil is not the operative principle where class exploitation exists (p. 28). In other words, his account of Marxist ‘evolutionism’ seems generally compatible with the argument outlined here. At any rate, it is a useful corrective to the extravagant claims often made for the development of productive forces.

[17] See Robert Brenner, ‘The Origins of Capitalist Development’, NLR 104, July–August 1977, pp. 59–60.

[18] Hobsbawm, p. 44.

[19] Capital Vol. 3, p. 250.

[20] Ibid., p. 264. It has recently been argued that Marx was mistaken in regarding this development as preparing the ground for socialism, because he allegedly failed to consider the conflictual nature of the capitalist labour-process and the relations of domination and struggle inherent in it. (Chantal Mouffe, ‘Working Class Hegemony and the Struggle for Socialism’, Studies in Political Economy 12, Fall 1983, esp. pp. 13–17.) This remarkable misunderstanding of Marx’s argument is discussed in a forthcoming article by Peter Meiksins and Ellen Meiksins Wood, ‘Beyond Class? A Reply to Chantal Mouffe’. A brief reply to the argument that the working class has no ‘fundamental interest’ in socialism is also offered in this article.

[21] ‘The production of relative surplus-value, revolutionizes out and out the technical processes of labour, and the composition of society. It therefore presupposes a specific mode, the capitalist mode of production, a mode which, along with its methods, means, and conditions, arises and develops spontaneously on the foundation afforded by the formal subjection of labour to capital. In the course of this development, the formal subjection is replaced by the real subjection of labour to capital.’ (Capital Vol. 1, pp. 477–8.) In other words, a transformation in the social relations of production, which gave rise to the ‘formal subjection’ of labour to capital—the transformation of producers into wage-labourers directly subject to capital, without at first transforming the means and methods of production—set in train a process which had as its eventual consequence the revolutionizing of productive forces. Capitalist relations carried a compulsion to increase surplus-value; and, as the production of absolute surplus-value gave way to relative surplus-value, the need to increase labour-productivity was met by completely transforming the labour-process, the ‘real subjection’ of labour to capital. The revolutionizing of productive forces was thus only the end of a complex process that began with the establishment of capitalist social relations.

[22] Capital Vol. 1,p. 317.

[23] Ibid., p. 668.

[24] Ernest Gellner, ‘Stagnation Without Salvation’ (a review of Stephen P. Dunn’s The Fall and Rise of the Asiatic Mode of Production), TLS, 14 January 1983, p. 27.

[25] It is worth noting that this restricted understanding of Marxism as a kind of technological determinism is implicit in some arguments that have recently been made against the notion that the working class is the principal agent of the transition to socialism. The arguments of André Gorz, for example, and Chantal Mouffe are both largely based on a misrepresentation of Marx, criticizing his conception of the revolutionary proletariat without confronting the essential questions that it poses. Having first reduced the class antagonism between capital and labour to little more than a mechanical contradiction between forces and relations of production, and the ‘historic mission’ of the working class to little more than the collective management of productive forces developed by capitalism (see, for example, Mouffe, p. 10), they dismiss these notions without ever addressing the central issues of exploitation and class struggle. But that is another story.

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