Decadence of capitalism (ii): What scientific method do we need to understand the present social order...?

Printer-friendly versionSend by email

In the first part of this series , we looked at the pattern of world wars, revolutions, and global economic crises that are the manifestations of capitalism's entry into its epoch of decline in the early part of the 20th century, and which have posed mankind with the historic alternative: the advent of a higher mode of production or a relapse into barbarism. But to understand the origins and causes of the crisis facing human civilisation, only a theory that encompasses the entire movement of history will suffice. But general theories of history are no longer much in favour among official historians, who, as the epoch of capitalism's decline unfolded, have been increasingly at a loss to offer any overview, any real insight into the sources of the spiral of catastrophes that have marked this period. Grand historical visions are frequently dismissed as the province of 19th century German idealist philosophers like Hegel, or over-optimistic English liberals who, in the same era, developed the idea of history as a continuous story of progress from darkness and tyranny to the marvellous freedom enjoyed by the citizens of the modern constitutional state.

In fact this incapacity even to consider the historical movement as a whole is characteristic of a class which no longer stands for historical progress and whose social system can offer no future to humanity. The bourgeoisie could look back, and forward, on a large scale, when it was convinced that its mode of production represented a fundamental advance for humanity in comparison to previous social forms, and when it could regard the future with the increasing confidence of an ascendant class. The horrors of the first half of the 20th century dealt a death-blow to this confidence. Not only did symbolic place-names like the Somme and Paschendale, where tens of thousands of young conscripts were butchered in the First World War, or Auschwitz and Hiroshima, synonymous with the mass murder of civilians by the state, or equally symbolic dates like 1914, 1929 and 1939, call into question all prior assumptions about progress, above all at the moral level; they also alarmingly suggested that the present order of society might not be as eternal as it had once seemed. In sum, faced with the prospect of its demise - either through the collapse of its order into anarchy or, which for the bourgeoisie amounts to the same thing, through its overthrow by the revolutionary working class - bourgeois historiography prefers to put on blinkers, losing itself in the narrow empiricism of brief time-spans and local events, or to develop theories like relativism and post-modernism, which reject any notion of a progressive development from one epoch to another and any attempt to uncover a pattern of development in human history. Furthermore, this repression of historical consciousness is reinforced every day in the sphere of popular culture, reinforced by the desperate needs of the market: everything of value must be now and new, coming from nowhere and going nowhere.

Given the small-mindedness of much of the established learning, it is little wonder that so many of those who still pursue the quest to grasp the pattern of history as a whole are seduced by the snake-oil salesmen of religion and occultism. Nazism was an early manifestation of this trend - a farrago of occultist theosophy, pseudo-Darwinism, and racist conspiracy theory which offered a catch-all solution to all the world's problems, effectively removing any further need for thought. Islamic and Christian fundamentalism, or the numerous conspiracy theories about the secret societies who manipulate history, play the same role today. Official bourgeois reason not only fails to offer any answers to the problems of the social sphere - it has largely given up even asking the questions, leaving the field free for unreason to cook up its own mythological solutions.

The ruling wisdom is to some extent aware of all this. It is prepared to recognise that it has indeed suffered a loss of its old self-confidence. Rather than positively singing the praises of liberal capitalism as the finest achievement of the human spirit, it now tends to portray it as the best of a bad bunch, flawed certainly, but greatly preferable to all the forms of fanaticism that appear to be arrayed against it. And in the camp of the fanatics it not only ranges fascism or Islamic terrorism, but also marxism, now definitively refuted as a brand of utopian messianism. How many times have we been told, usually by third-rate thinkers who have the air of saying something new: the marxist view of history is merely an inversion of the Judaeo-Christian myth of history as a story of salvation; primitive communism is the Garden of Eden, future communism the paradise to come; the proletariat is the Chosen People or the Suffering Servant; the communists are the prophets. But we are also told that these religious projections are far from harmless: the reality of "marxist rule" has shown where all such attempts to realise heaven on earth must end up: in tyranny and labour camps, the mad project to mould imperfect mankind to its vision of perfection.  

And indeed, to support this analysis, we have the apparent trajectory of marxism in the 20th century: who can deny that Stalin's GPU reminds us of the Holy Inquisition, or that Lenin, Stalin, Mao and other Great Leaders have been turned into new gods? But this evidence is deeply flawed. It rests upon the greatest perjury of the century: that Stalinism equals communism, when in fact it is its total negation. If Stalinism is indeed a form of the capitalist counter-revolution, as all genuinely revolutionary marxists hold, then the argument that the marxist theory of history must lead inevitably towards the Gulag must be put into question.

And we can also respond, as Engels did in his writings on the early history of Christianity, that there is nothing strange about the similarities between the ideas of the modern workers' movement and the sayings of the Biblical prophets or the early Christians, because the latter also represented the strivings of oppressed and exploited classes and their hopes for a world based on human solidarity instead of class domination. Because of the limitations imposed by the social systems in which they appeared, these early communists could not go beyond a religious or mythic vision of the classless society. This is no longer the case today, because historical evolution has made communist society a rational possibility as well as an urgent necessity. Thus rather than viewing modern communism in the light of old myths, we can understand old myths in the light of modern communism.

For us, marxism, historical materialism, is nothing if not the theoretical outlook of a class which, for the first time in history, is both an exploited class and a revolutionary class, a class which carries a new and higher social order in itself. Its effort and indeed its need to examine the pattern of the past and the perspectives for the future can thus be unclouded by the prejudices of a ruling class, which is always, in the end, compelled to deny and obscure reality in the interests of its system of exploitation. Marxist theory is also, in contrast to the poetical strivings of previous exploited classes, founded on a scientific method. It may not be an exact science in the same category as some of the natural sciences, because it cannot shrink humanity and its vastly complex history into a series of repeatable laboratory experiments - but then the theory of evolution is also subject to similar constraints. The point is that marxism alone is capable of applying the scientific method to the study of the existing social order and to the social orders that preceded it, rigorously using the best scholarship that the ruling class can offer but going beyond them and adumbrating a higher synthesis.

Preface to the Introduction to the Critique of Political Economy

In 1859, while deeply involved in the work that would give rise to Capital, Marx wrote a brief text that gives a masterly summary of his entire historical method. It was in the Preface to a work called Introduction to the Critique of Political Economy, a work which in itself was largely superseded or at least overshadowed by the appearance of Capital. Having given us a condensed account of the development of his thought from his first studies in law to his present preoccupation with political economy, Marx comes to the nub of the matter - the "guiding principles of my studies". Here the marxist theory of history is summarised with masterly precision and clarity. We therefore intend to examine this passage as closely as possible in order to lay the bases for a real understanding of the epoch in which we are living.                    

We have included the most crucial passage from this text in full as an appendix to this article, but from here we intend to look in detail at each of its component parts. 

Relations of production and forces of production

"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"

Marxism is frequently caricatured by its critics, conventionally bourgeois or pseudo-radical, as a mechanistic, "objectivist" theory which seeks to reduce the complexity of the historical process to a series of iron laws over which human subjects have no control and which drags them like a juggernaut to a fatefully determined ultimate result. When not being told that it is another form of religion, we are informed that marxist thought is a typical product of the 19th century's uncritical worship of science and its illusions in progress, which sought to apply the predictable, verifiable laws of the natural world - physical, chemical, biological - to the fundamentally unpredictable patterns of social life. Marx is then portrayed as the author of a theory of inevitable and linear evolution from one mode of production to another, leading inexorably from primitive society, through slavery, feudalism and capitalism to communism. And this entire process is all the more predetermined because it is supposedly caused by a purely technical development of the productive forces.

As with all caricatures, there is a grain of truth in this picture. It's true, for example, that during the period of the Second International, when there was a growing tendency for the workers' parties to become "institutionalised", there was an equivalent process at the theoretical level, a vulnerability to the dominant conceptions of progress and a certain tendency to envisage "science" as a thing in itself, detached from the real class relations in society. Kautsky's idea of scientific socialism as an invention of the intellectuals which then had to be injected into the proletarian mass was one expression of this tendency.  It is even more the case that, in the 20th century, when so much of what had once been marxism now became an open apology for the capitalist order, mechanistic visions of historical progress now became officially codified. There is no clearer demonstration of this than in Stalin's primer of "Marxism-Leninism", the History of the CPSU (Short Course) where the theory of the primacy of the productive forces is put forward as the materialist view of history:

"The second particularity of production is that its changes and its development always begin with changes and developments in the productive forces and, above all, the instruments of production. The productive forces are, consequently, the most dynamic and revolutionary element in production. First, the productive forces of society modify themselves and develop; then, in relation to and in conformity with these modifications, the relations of production between men, the economic relations, are also modified".

This conception of the primacy of the productive forces coincided very neatly with the fundamental project of Stalinism: to "develop the productive forces" of the USSR at the expense of the proletariat and with the aim of making Russia a major world power. It was entirely in Stalinism's interest to present the piling up of heavy industrial plant that took place during the 1930s as so many steps towards communism, and to prevent any inquiry into the underlying social relationship behind this "development" - the ferocious exploitation of the class of wage labourers, in other words, the extraction of surplus value with a view to the accumulation of capital.  

For Marx, this whole approach is negated by the first lines of the Communist Manifesto, which presents the class struggle as the dynamic force in historical evolution, in other words, the struggle between different social classes ("freeman and slave, patrician and plebeian, lord and serf, guild-master and journeyman") over the appropriation of surplus labour. It is negated no less plainly in the opening lines of our citation from the Preface: "in the social production of their existence, men inevitably enter into definite relations..." It is human beings of flesh and blood who "enter into definite relations",  who make history, not "forces of production",  not machines, even if there is necessarily a close connection between the relations of production and the productive forces that are "appropriate" to them. As Marx puts it in another famous passage from the 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte: "Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past".

Note carefully: in conditions not of their own choosing; men enter into definite relations "independent of their will". So far, at least. Under the conditions which have predominated in all hitherto existing forms of society, the social relations which human beings form among themselves have been more or less unclear to them, more or less clouded by mythological and ideological representations; and by the same token, with the advent of class society, the forms of wealth that men engender through these relations tend to elude them, to become an alien force standing above them. In this view, human beings are not passive products of their environment or of the tools that they produce to satisfy their needs, but at the same time they are not yet masters of their own social forces or of the products of their own labour.

Social being and social consciousness

"It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness... 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".

In sum, men make history, but not yet in full consciousness of what they are doing. Hence, when studying historical change, we cannot content ourselves with studying the ideas and beliefs of an epoch, or with examining the modifications in the systems of government or law; to grasp how these ideas and systems evolve, it is necessary to go to the fundamental social conflicts that lie behind them.   

Again: this approach to history does not dismiss the active role of consciousness, of belief and of legal/political formations, their real impact on the social relations and the development of the productive forces. For example, the ideology of the slave-holding class of antiquity was one in which labour was held in utter contempt, and this attitude played a direct part in preventing the very considerable scientific advances made by Greek thinkers from translating itself into the practical development of science, into the invention and actual putting into general operation of tools and techniques that would have increased the productivity of labour. But the underlying reality behind this barrier was the slave mode of production itself: it was the existence of slavery at the heart of classical society's creation of wealth which was the source of the slaveholder's contempt for labour and their understanding that if you wanted to increase the surplus product, you had to supply more slaves.

In later writings, Marx and Engels had to defend their theoretical approach from both open critics and misguided supporters who interpreted the dictum that "social being determines social consciousness" in the crudest possible way, for example, by pretending that it meant that all members of the bourgeoisie were fatally determined to think in one way because of their economic position in society, or even more absurdly, that all members of the proletariat are bound to have a clear consciousness of their class interests because they are subject to exploitation. Such reductionist attitudes were precisely what led Marx to claim that "I am not a Marxist". There are numerous reasons why, among the working class as it exists in the "normality" of capitalism, only a minority recognise their real class situation: not only differences in individual histories and psychologies, but, more fundamentally, the active role played by the dominant ideology in preventing the dominated from grasping their own class interests - a dominant ideology which has a far longer history and effect than the immediate propaganda of the ruling class, since it is deeply internalised in the minds of the exploited "The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living", as Marx phrased it straight after the passage from the 18th Brumaire about men making history in conditions not of their choosing.  

In fact, Marx's comparison between the ideology of an epoch and what an individual thinks about himself, far from expressing Marx's reductionism, actually shows a psychological depth: it would be a poor psychoanalyst who showed no interest in what a patient was telling him about his feelings and convictions, but it would be an equally poor one who stopped short at the patient's immediate awareness of himself, ignoring the complexity of hidden and unconscious elements in his overall psychological profile. The same goes for the history of ideas or "political" history. They can tell us much about what was happening in a past epoch, but in themselves they only give us a distorted reflection of reality. Hence Marx's rejection of all historical approaches which remain at the surface appearance of events:

"In the whole conception of history up to the present this real basis of history has either been totally neglected or else considered as a minor matter quite irrelevant to the course of history. History must, therefore, always be written according to an extraneous standard; the real production of life seems to be primeval history, while the truly historical appears to be separated from ordinary life, something extraterrestrial. With this the relation of man to nature is excluded from history and hence the antithesis of nature and history is created. The exponents of this conception of history have consequently only been able to see in history the political actions of princes and States, religious and all sorts of theoretical struggles, and in particular in each historical epoch have had to share the illusion of that epoch. For instance, if an epoch imagines itself to be actuated by purely "political" or "religious" motives, although "religion" and "politics" are only forms of its true motives, the historian accepts this opinion. The "idea," the "conception" of the people in question about their real practice, is transformed into the sole determining, active force, which controls and determines their practice. When the crude form in which the division of labour appears with the Indians and Egyptians calls forth the caste-system in their State and religion, the historian believes that the caste-system is the power which has produced this crude social form".[1]

Epochs of social revolution

We now come to the passage from the Preface that most clearly leads to an understanding of the present historical phase in the life of capitalism:  "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 term - 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."

Here again Marx shows that the active element in the historical process is the social relationships that human begins enter into to produce the necessities of life. Looking back over the movement from one social form to another, it becomes evident that there is constant dialectic between periods in which these relations give rise to a real development of the productive forces, and periods in which these same relations become a barrier to further development. In the Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels showed that capitalist relations of production, emerging out of decaying feudal society, acted as a profoundly revolutionary force, sweeping away all the stagnant, static forms of social and economic life that stood in its way. The necessity to compete and produce as cheaply as possible compelled the bourgeoisie to constantly revolutionise the forces of production; the ceaseless necessity to find new markets for its commodities forced it to invade the whole globe and create a world in its image.

In 1848, capitalist social relations were clearly a "form of development", and they had as yet only established themselves firmly in one or two countries. However, the violence of the economic crises of the first quarter of the 19th century initially led the authors of the Manifesto to conclude that capitalism had already become a fetter on the development of the productive forces, placing the communist revolution (or at least a rapid transition from bourgeois to proletarian revolution) on the immediate agenda.

"In these crises, a great part not only of the existing products, but also of the previously created productive forces, are periodically destroyed. In these crises, there breaks out an epidemic that, in all earlier epochs, would have seemed an absurdity - the epidemic of over-production. Society suddenly finds itself put back into a state of momentary barbarism; it appears as if a famine, a universal war of devastation, had cut off the supply of every means of subsistence; industry and commerce seem to be destroyed; and why? Because there is too much civilisation, too much means of subsistence, too much industry, too much commerce. The productive forces at the disposal of society no longer tend to further the development of the conditions of bourgeois property; on the contrary, they have become too powerful for these conditions, by which they are fettered, and so soon as they overcome these fetters, they bring disorder into the whole of bourgeois society, endanger the existence of bourgeois property. The conditions of bourgeois society are too narrow to comprise the wealth created by them".[2]

With the defeat of the 1848 revolutions and the enormous expansion of world capitalism that got underway in the ensuing period, they were to revise this view, even if they could still understandably be impatient for the advent of the long-awaited era of social revolution, the day of reckoning for the arrogant order of world capital. But what is central to this approach is the basic method: the recognition that a social order could not be swept away until it had definitively entered into conflict with the development of the productive forces, precipitating the whole society into a crisis which was not a momentary one, not a crisis of youth, but an entire "era" of crisis, of convulsion, of social revolution; in other words, a crisis of decadence.    

In 1858, Marx again returned to this question: "The proper task of bourgeois society is the creation of the world market, at least in outline, and of the production based on that market. Since the world is round, the colonisation of California and Australia and the opening up of China and Japan would seem to have completed this process. For us, the difficult question is this: on the Continent revolution is imminent and will, moreover, instantly assume a socialist character. Will it not necessarily be crushed in this little corner of the earth, since the movement of bourgeois society is still, in the ascendant over a far greater area?"[3]

What's interesting about this passage is precisely the questions it poses: what are the historic criteria for determining the passage to an epoch of social revolution under capitalism? Can there be a successful communist revolution as long as capitalism is still a globally expanding system? Marx was premature in thinking that the revolution was imminent in Europe. In fact, in a letter to Vera Zasulich about the problem of Russia, written in 1881, he again seems to have modified his view: "the capitalist system is past its prime in the West, approaching the time when it will be no more than a regressive social regime".[4] Thus over 20 years later than 1858, the system is still only "approaching" its "regressive" period even in the advanced countries. Again, these express the difficulties Marx faced given the historic situation in which he lived. As it turned out, capitalism still had before it one last phase of real global development, the phase of imperialism, which would also usher in a period of convulsions on a world scale, indicating that the system as a whole, and not simply one part of it, had plunged into its crisis of senility. However, Marx's preoccupations in these letters show how seriously he took the problem of basing a revolutionary perspective on deciding whether or not capitalism had reached this stage.   

Abandoning outworn tools: the necessity for periods of decadence

"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 this next passage, Marx further stresses the importance of basing a perspective for social revolution not on the purely moral abhorrence inspired by a system of exploitation, but on its inability to develop the productivity of labour and, in general, the capacity of human beings to satisfy their material needs.

The argument that a society never expires until it has worn out all capacity for development has been used to argue against the idea that capitalism has reached its period of decadence: capitalism has clearly grown since 1914 and we can't say it is decadent until all growth ceases.  It's true that a great deal of confusion has been caused by theories such as Trotsky's in the 1930s, who asserted that the productive forces had ceased to grow. Given that capitalism was in the throes of its greatest ever depression at the time, this view seemed plausible; furthermore, the idea that decadence is marked by a complete halt in the development of the productive forces, and even a regression, can to some extent be applied to previous class societies where the crisis was always the result of underproduction, an absolute inability to produce enough to sustain society's basic needs (and even in those systems, the process of "descent" was never without phases of apparent recovery and even vigorous growth). But the basic problem with this view is that it ignores the fundamental reality of capitalism - the necessity for growth, for accumulation, for the expanded reproduction of value. As we shall see, in the system's decadence, this necessity can only be met by tampering more and more with the very laws of capitalist production, but as we shall also see, the point will probably never be reached when capitalist accumulation becomes absolutely impossible. As Rosa Luxemburg pointed out in The Anticritique, such a point was "a theoretical fiction, because capital accumulation is not just an economic but also a political process".[5]  Furthermore, Marx had already posited the notion of growth as decay: "The highest development of this basis itself (the flower into which it transforms itself; but it is always this basis, this plant as flower; hence wilting after the flowering and as a consequence of the flowering) is the point at which it is itself worked out, developed, into the form in which it is compatible with the highest development of the forces of production, hence also the richest development of individuals. As soon as this point is reached, the further development appears as decay, and the new development begins from a new basis".[6]

Capitalism has certainly developed sufficient productive forces for a new and higher mode of production to arise. In fact from the moment the material conditions for communism have been developed, the system enters into decline. By creating a world economy - fundamental for communism - capitalism also reached the limits of its healthy development. The decadence of capitalism is thus not to be identified with a complete cessation of production, but by a growing series of convulsions and catastrophes which demonstrate the absolute necessity for its overthrow. 

Marx's main point here is the necessity for a period of decadence. Men do not make revolutions for mere pleasure, but because they are obliged by necessity, by the intolerable suffering brought about by the crisis of a system. By the same token, attachment to the status quo is deeply rooted in their consciousness, and it can only be the growing conflict between that ideology and the material reality they face that will lead men to challenge the prevailing system. This is above all true for the proletarian revolution, which for the first time requires a conscious transformation of every aspect of social life. 

Revolutionaries are sometimes accused of adhering to the idea of "the worse the better": the idea that the more the masses suffer, the more they are likely to be revolutionary. But there is no mechanical relation between suffering and revolutionary consciousness. Suffering contains a dynamic towards reflection and revolt, but it also contains one that can wear down and exhaust the capacity for revolt, or else it can just as easily lead to the adoption of utterly false forms of rebellion, as the present growth of Islamic fundamentalism shows. A period of decadence is necessary to convince the working class that it needs to construct a new society, but on the other hand an indefinitely prolonged epoch of decadence can threaten the very possibility of a revolution, dragging the world through a spiral of disasters that serve only to destroy the accumulated productive forces, and in particular, the most important productive force of all, the proletariat. This is indeed the danger posed by the final phase of decadence, the phase we refer to as decomposition, which has in our view already begun.

This problem of society rotting on its feet is particularly acute in capitalism because, in contrast to previous systems, the maturation of the material conditions for the new society - communism - does not coincide with the development of new economic forms within the shell of the old social order. In the decline of Roman slavery, the development of feudal estates was often the work of members of the old slave-owning class who had distanced themselves from the central state in order to avoid the crushing burdens of its taxes. In the period of feudal decadence, the new bourgeois class arose in the towns - which had always been the commercial centres of the old system - and set about laying the foundations of a new economy based on manufacturing and trade. The emergence of these new forms was both a response to the crisis of the old order and a factor pushing more and more towards its final demise.

With the decline of capitalism, the productive forces it has set in motion certainly enter into growing conflict with the social relations under which it operates. This is expressed above all in the contrast between capitalism's enormous productive capacity and its inability to absorb all the commodities it produces: in short, in the crisis of overproduction. But while this crisis makes the abolition of commodity relations more and more urgent, and the operation of the laws of commodity production more and more distorted, it does not result in the spontaneous emergence of communist economic forms. Unlike previous revolutionary classes, the working class is a propertyless, exploited class, and cannot build its own economic order inside the framework of the old. Communism can only be the result of a more and more conscious struggle against the old order, leading to the political overthrow of the bourgeoisie as the precondition for the communist transformation of economic and social life. If the proletariat is unable to raise its struggle to the necessary heights of consciousness and self-organisation, then the contradictions of capitalism will lead not to the advent of a higher social order, but to "the mutual ruin of the contending classes."  

Gerrard, July 2008


Appendix

Preface to the Introduction to the Critique of Political economy

The complete passage from the Preface is as follows:

The general conclusion at which I arrived and which, once reached, became the guiding principle of my studies can be summarised as follows.

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.

http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1859/critique-pol-economy/preface.htm

 

 



[1]. The German Ideology. Part I. "Feuerbach", Chapter I.1 "Ideology in general, German ideology in particular"

 

[2]. Communist Manifesto, Chapter I, "Bourgeois and Proletarians".

 

[3]. Marx to Engels, 8 October 1858, Collected Works, Vol. 40, p.347, Lawrence and Wishart.

 

[4]. Cited in Shanin, Late Marx and the Russian Road, KP, p103). See Collected Works, Vol. 24, p. 362, footnote c for a slightly different translation.

 

[5].  p146, Monthly Review Press, 1972.

 

[6]. Grundrisse p 541. Penguin edition