Front Page Titles (by Subject) 3.: The Materialist Conception of History in Outline - The Illusion of the Epoch: Marxism-Leninism as a Philosophical Creed
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3.: The Materialist Conception of History in Outline - H.B. Acton, The Illusion of the Epoch: Marxism-Leninism as a Philosophical Creed 
The Illusion of the Epoch: Marxism-Leninism as a Philosophical Creed (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2003).
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The Materialist Conception of History in Outline
In this section I propose to deal with the fundamental elements of the Marxist theory of history, and to leave details of the theory of ethics and politics for discussion in the next chapter.
According to the Marxist theory of Historical Materialism, the form assumed by human society is influenced by such factors as geographical environment and the level of population, but is determined by what Marx, in the Preface to his Critique of Political Economy, called “the material conditions of life,” in which the “legal relations and forms of state,” as well as religious, philosophical, and artistic ideas, are “rooted.” In order, however, to understand this very general statement of the view, we must first see how the Marxists analyze the notion of “the material conditions of life.”
What, on the Marxist view, differentiates man from the other animals is that whereas the other animals keep themselves alive by making use of the physiological equipment they are born with so as to seek and find their food and shelter, men produce their food and shelter (their “means of subsistence”) by the use of instruments (tools) which are not parts of their original physiological equipment. Even though other animals make such shelters as nests, hives, and webs, these works of theirs remain much the same from one generation to another. But human beings, through the use of tools, produce works which permit of indefinite improvement by succeeding generations. The tools which one generation has made and used are handed on to the next. The new generation starts where the previous one had left off, and may in its turn transmit improved tools to its successors. The skill, experience, and tools thus received and used Marx called “productive forces.” “Productive forces,” on his view, are not individual products. Any improvements made by individuals are made on the basis of what is already current in the society to which the individual belongs. The man who, for example, improves on a spade, is improving something which is itself the result of many men’s work in past epochs. “The individual and isolated hunter or fisher who forms the starting-point with Smith and Ricardo belongs to the insipid illusions of the eighteenth century. They are Robinsonades. . . .”38 Thus each generation of men inherits a set of productive forces which are social in their origin.
“Productive forces,” however, are social in their use as well as in their origin. A man who digs with a spade may be digging his own field, but he is able to do this only because there is a social organization that permits individuals to own fields, and perhaps to sell what they produce in them. The individual who uses some socially inherited instrument of production to produce goods that he sells to others, is dependent upon the readiness of other people to buy from him or to barter with him. Thus an individual tool user does not merely use a particular instrument to change the parts of nature he applies it to; he uses it within the context of a social organization. Spades, ploughs, canoes, or looms are not merely instruments by means of which an individual man breaks the earth, gets fish, or makes cloth. The breaking of the earth, the fishing, and the weaving involve relations of men to one another, in operating the tool (as with a large canoe), in disposing of the product (as with the wheat that the plough prepares for), or in both (as with the cloth woven in the cottage and sold to a merchant). Thus the men who brought the “blue stones” from Pembrokeshire to Stonehenge showed their mastery over natural forces, but their task could not have been accomplished without a most elaborate organization among the men themselves, though we do not know what it was. Associated with the “productive forces,” therefore, are what Marx called “productive relationships.” “Productive relationships” are the ways in which men are related to one another as they operate the “productive forces.”
According to the Marxists, specific types of “productive relationship” are linked with each main type of “productive force.” They hold that there are five main levels of productive force, and with these, it would seem, five main types of productive relationship must be associated. There was the era of stone tools, with which was associated a primitive communism in the means of production and in the distribution of the product. “Here,” writes Stalin, “there was no exploitation, no classes” (sic).39 When metal tools were first used, society divided into masters and slaves. (“It was iron and corn,” Rousseau had written, “which civilized man and ruined the human race.”) The windmill is mentioned by Marx on one occasion as the technological basis of feudalism. Corresponding to the production of goods in factories with power-driven machinery was the industrial capitalist order of society, though an earlier form of capitalism had existed prior to the introduction of such machinery. Capitalist society will be replaced by a socialist order as the highly elaborate productive forces that result from the application of modern science bring about control and ownership by the community as a whole.
Before I pass on to further aspects of the theory, it is necessary to make it clear that my outline of the Marxist theory is based on the belief that it is fundamentally a technological theory of history. Many but not all interpreters of Marx and Engels adopt this interpretation. There are, as Professor Bober points out,40 serious difficulties in it. For example, Marxists do not show in detail precisely how technological changes bring each new epoch into being. Engels, in The Origin of the Family, appears to argue that it was the use of iron that caused the advent of the ancient slave society, but he mentions other causes, too, that are not technological. Marx, in a famous epigram in the Poverty of Philosophy says that “the windmill gives you society with the feudal lord,” but I am not aware of any detailed attempt to substantiate this. Again, in Capital, volume 1, Marx says that in the earliest phase of capitalism men work for wages in small factories, but the difference between this and what went before seems to be one of scale rather than of technique. It is at a later stage of capitalism, that of modern industry, a phase that began toward the end of the eighteenth century, that technological changes had great influence. In explaining this Marx writes: “The machine that gives rise to the industrial revolution is one which replaces the worker handling a single tool, by a mechanism operating simultaneously a number of identical or similar tools, and driven by a single motive power, whatever the form of that power may be.”41 This would seem to be a more careful statement of the epigram in the Poverty of Philosophy that the steam mill gives you society with the industrial capitalist. Marx does, however, state the technological view very strongly, in general terms, in a long footnote in Capital, volume 1, from which I cite the following: “Technology reveals man’s dealings with nature, discloses the direct productive activities of his life, thus throwing light upon social relations and the resultant mental conceptions. Even the history of religion is uncritical unless this material basis be taken into account. Of course it is much easier, from an analysis of the hazy constructions of religion, to discover their earthly core than, conversely, to deduce from a study of the material conditions of life at any particular time, the celestial forms that these may assume. But the latter is the only materialistic method, and therefore the only scientific one.”42 Stalin, in Dialectical and Historical Materialism, is rather vague about the matter. He gives a brief account of the development of technology and of its association with the various historical epochs, but he does not make it quite clear how the technologies and social systems are connected. However, he makes a point of arguing that technological innovators are unaware of how their inventions will affect society, that the men who introduced iron did not know that they were preparing the way for slavery, that the men who started “large manufactories” never imagined that royalty and aristocracy would be destroyed by them. This appears to support the technological interpretation, if we are prepared to regard “large manufactories” as technological innovations. In fact, they do not seem to be new inventions, in the sense in which metal tools or steam engines once were, but only expansions of something already in being. This, of course, may well be an example of the transformation of quantitative changes into a change of quality, and I shall discuss it as such later. My main reason for accepting the technological interpretation of the theory is that it does at least purport to provide a definite theory of history, whereas the alternatives are almost too vague to discuss. Furthermore, if we accept it, we are able to understand the importance in Marx’s argument of his view that man is a tool-making animal. Anyone who reads part 4 of Capital, volume 1, will see that Marx attempted to investigate the origins of industrial society as a historian, trying to find out what really happened and to make some sense of it. This part of his work has value independently of the Materialist Conception of History.
The main point, then, of the Materialist Conception of History is as follows. The basis of any human society is the tools, skills, and technical experience prevalent in it, i.e., the productive forces. For any given set of productive forces there is a mode of social organization necessary to utilize them, i.e., the productive relationships. The sum total of productive relationships in any society is called by Marx its “economic structure.” This, he holds, is the real basis on which a juridical and political superstructure arises, and to which definite forms of social consciousness correspond. Radical changes in the basis sooner or later bring about changes in the superstructure, so that the prime cause of any radical political or moral transformation must be changes in the productive forces. In effect, the idea is that human society has a “material basis” consisting of the productive forces and associated productive relationships. This is also called the “economic structure.” This, in its turn, determines the form that must in the long run be taken by the legal and political institutions of the society in question. Less directly but no less really dependent on the economic structure of society are its moral and aesthetic ideas, its religion, and its philosophy. The key to the understanding of law, politics, morals, religion, and philosophy is the nature and organization of the productive forces.
There are three further aspects of the theory that must be briefly touched on before I come to discuss it in detail.
In the first place it must be emphasized that Marxists do not assert that the superstructure has no influence whatever on the development of a society. On the contrary, they hold that there is interaction between basis and superstructure, and that such interaction is only what would be expected in a dialectical system.
In the second place, the Marxist theory of classes forms an important element in the doctrine of Historical Materialism. Briefly, the theory is that each main arrangement of the productive forces calls into existence its own form of the division of labor, and that this, in its turn, leads to a division of society into classes. Corresponding to each form of the division of labor there is a division of society dominated by a single class—slave owners in ancient society, feudal landowners in the Middle Ages, the bourgeoisie in modern times. Both the political and intellectual life of society is dominated by the class that has the upper hand in making use of the productive forces and is thus able to exploit the rest. Furthermore, within each governing class there is division of labor between the thinkers and the men of action. The thinkers of each governing class are “its active, conceptive ideologists, who make the perfecting of the illusion of the class about itself their chief source of livelihood.”43 When the proletarian class, the class with the broadest basis, has finally consolidated its power, class divisions will have been overcome and the division of intellectual from physical labor will have been brought to an end. Then the ideological “false consciousness” will have disappeared, to be replaced by a permanent union of theory and practice.
In the third place, the theory of Historical Materialism is a theory of revolutions. The source of social revolution, on the Marxist view, is the qualitative “leap” to a new form of productive force, such as the “leap” to steam-powered machinery which was the real basis of the bourgeois revolution against the feudal system. When one of these qualitative changes in the productive forces has first manifested itself, the old forces of production and the old political and ideological forms continue to exist for a while. Hand-looms, for example, continue to exist alongside power-looms, Parliament remains unreformed, and landowners are still regarded with veneration. But as the new productive forces are developed, they render the old ones obsolete, and new ideologies develop critical of those that had prevailed earlier; at the same time the new class that is interested in the new productive forces begins to demand new political and legal institutions to give scope for its own development. The bourgeois capitalists, for example, dispute the political supremacy of the landowners, and do so in terms of the new ideology of laissez-faire economic theory. Conversely, widespread criticism of a given order of society is a sign that that order is in process of being replaced by a new “progressive” one. A “progressive” class is a class that controls the new productive forces that are ousting the obsolete ones. Thus the moral protests of “progressive” publicists are signs that the old order is in fact giving place to a new one. The “reactionary” defenders of the old order will, of course, cling as long as they can to their political power and to the moral and religious notions that go with it, but their plight is hopeless, since the ultimately determining social influences are the productive forces, and if qualitatively new productive forces have been brought into operation, the whole of society will be transformed in accordance with them.
It will have been noticed that Stalin, in his compressed statement of this theory of revolution, says that the new productive forces may for a time develop while productive relationships appropriate to the old productive forces continue in existence and so give rise to social “contradictions.” This simplified view does bring out what is essential in the theory, but in fact the Marxist theory allows for various types of disproportion in social development. The new productive forces could conflict both with the political and legal relationships and with the moral, religious, and philosophical ideologies of the society in question. Or the legal and political relationships could be brought into line with the new productive forces while the ideological superstructure still remained unreconciled with them. It is conceivable, too, that the ideological superstructure might be brought into line with the new productive forces before the legal and political relationships had become so adapted—this last would be the condition in which men’s minds and hearts already approved a new social order although the political revolution lagged behind. In our next section we shall have to consider how these different tiers or layers could be connected.
As I have been making a point of comparing the Marxist views with those of Comte and other contemporary nineteenth-century thinkers, it may be of interest to notice the theory of revolution that Comte had expounded in 1838. “By a necessity that is as evident as it is deplorable,” writes Comte, “and is inherent in the weakness of our nature, the passage from one social system to another can never be a direct and continuous one; it always presupposes, for the space of at least several generations, a sort of more or less anarchic interregnum, the character and duration of which depend on the intensity and the extent of the renovation to be secured; thus the most marked political advances essentially consist in the gradual demolition of the old system, the chief bases of which had been constantly undermined beforehand. This preliminary upsetting is not only inevitable by reason of the strength of the antecedents that bring it about, but is also quite indispensable, both to allow the elements of the new system, which up to this point had been slowly and silently developing, to receive, little by little, their political establishment, and to give a stimulus toward reorganization by means of knowledge of the inconveniences of anarchy. . . . Without this prior destruction, the human mind would never be able to reach a clear conception of the system that is to be brought into being.”44 The notion that is clearly common to Positivism and to Marxism is that of a new society starting its growth within the old one that it will finally destroy. Comte’s “anarchic interregnum” corresponds to the Marxist “leap,” though Comte, as I understand him, does not regard this as such a clear-cut affair as Marx appeared to do. Comte brings to light also the most important problem of how the members of one type of society could foresee the type of society that is to replace that in which they themselves live. His view seems to be that as men come to dismantle the old society they will find a new one developing in which will appear in embryo form the lineaments of that which is to come. It was, he thought, from an examination of the essential features of science and industry, already existing in dying feudalism, that an idea of the future could be obtained. This conception is clearly most important for the Marxist view, since if there were an absolute novelty the other side of a “leap,” then it could not possibly be predicted, whereas a new society, once it has found its way, by whatever means, into the old one, may conceivably bear marks that the whole society may some day exhibit. I should also mention that Comte, in the section from which the above passage is quoted, also argued that the dying feudal society was unsettled by “fundamental inconsistencies”; for once it made any compromise with the new scientific ideas, and once it allowed some scope to modern industry, it had abandoned the only basis from which they could be consistently attacked. This is an earlier version of the theory that their “contradictions” bring dying societies to their destruction.
[38. ]Critique of Political Economy, trans. Stone, pp. 265–66.
[39. ]Dialectical and Historical Materialism. History of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, p. 124.
[40. ]M. M. Bober, Karl Marx’s Interpretation of History (2nd edition, revised, 1950, Cambridge, Mass.), pt. 1, chaps. 1 and 3.
[41. ]Capital, p. 396.
[42. ]Ibid., p. 392.
[43. ]The German Ideology, p. 40.
[44. ]Cours de philosophie positive, leçon 46 (edition of 1864, Paris), pp. 35–36.