Decadence of capitalism (iv): From capitalism to the end of prehistory

Printer-friendly version

In preceding articles in this series, we have looked in detail at Marx's summation of the historical materialist method in the Preface to the Critique of Political Economy. We have now reached the last section of this summation: 

"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".

The universality of Marx's method

We will come back later to the specific antagonisms which Marx considered to be inherent in capitalist society, and which provide the basis for his verdict that capitalism, like previous forms of class exploitation, can only be considered to be a transitory social formation. Before proceeding, however, we want to respond to a charge that has been raised against marxists who have tried to locate the ascent and decline of capitalist society in the context of the succession of previous modes of production - in other words, to use the marxist method to examine capitalism as a moment in the entire drama of human history. In discussions with elements of a new generation coming to revolutionary positions (for example in the internet discussion forum, such an approach has been criticised for offering no more than a "metaphysical narrative", leading to essentially messianic conclusions; elsewhere in the same forum[1] our efforts to draw conclusions about the ascent and decline of capitalism from a far more general historical perspective is seen as an example of an enterprise that Marx himself repudiated: the search for a "general historico-philosophical theory, the supreme virtue of which consists in being super-historical."

This quote from Marx is often taken out of context to support the view that Marx never tried to elaborate a general theory of history, but only aimed to analyse the laws of capitalism. So what was the context of this quote?

It's from a letter from Marx to the editor of the Russian journal Otyecestvenniye Zapisky (November1877), responding to "a Russian critic" who tried to portray Marx's theory of history precisely as a dogmatic and mechanical schema, in which every nation is predetermined to go through exactly the same pattern of development that Marx analysed with regard to the rise of capitalism in Europe. His critic "feels himself obliged to metamorphose my historical sketch of the genesis of capitalism in Western Europe into an historico-philosophic theory of the marche generale [general path] imposed by fate upon every people, whatever the historic circumstances in which it finds itself".  And indeed, this tendency was very strong among the original Russian marxists, who often tended to present marxism as a simple apology for capitalist development, and who assumed that Russia must necessarily go through its own bourgeois revolution before being able to pass over to the stage of the socialist revolution. It was this trend which resurfaced later on in the form of Menshevism. 

In the letter in question, Marx actually comes to a very different conclusion:

"In order that I might be qualified to estimate the economic development in Russia to-day, I learnt Russian and then for many years studied the official publications and others bearing on this subject. I have arrived at this conclusion: If Russia continues to pursue the path she has followed since 1861, she will lose the finest chance ever offered by history to a nation, in order to undergo all the fatal vicissitudes of the capitalist regime".

In sum: Marx certainly did not consider that his method for analysing history in general could be applied rigidly to each country taken separately, and that his theory of history was not a rigid system of "universal progress", describing a linear, mechanical process which must always lead in the same progressive direction (even if what was called marxism certainly became that in the hands of the Mensheviks and later of the Stalinists). He had reason to consider that Russia might be spared the horrors of a capitalist transformation by the conjunction between a proletarian revolution in the advanced western countries and the traditional communal forms at the basis of Russian agriculture. The fact that things turned out somewhat differently does not invalidate Marx's open-ended approach. Furthermore: his method is concrete and involves consideration of the actual historical circumstances in which a given social form appears. In the same letter, Marx gives an example of the way he works: "In several parts of Capital I allude to the fate which overtook the plebeians of ancient Rome. They were originally free peasants, each cultivating his own piece of land on his own account. In the course of Roman history they were expropriated. The same movement which divorced them from their means of production and subsistence involved the formation not only of big landed property but also of big money capital. And so one fine morning there were to be found on the one hand free men, stripped of everything except their labour power, and on the other, in order to exploit this labour, those who held all the acquired wealth in possession. What happened? The Roman proletarians became, not wage labourers but a mob of do-nothings more abject than the former ‘poor whites' in the southern country of the United States, and alongside of them there developed a mode of production which was not capitalist but dependent upon slavery. Thus events strikingly analogous but taking place in different historic surroundings led to totally different results. By studying each of these forms of evolution separately and then comparing them one can easily find the clue to this phenomenon, but one will never arrive there by the universal passport of a general historico-philosophical theory, the supreme virtue of which consists in being super-historical"

But what this example does not show is that Marx's theory excluded any attempt to draw out the general dynamic of social formations prior to capitalism, and that therefore any general discussion about the ascent and decadence of social systems is a nonsensical and futile enterprise. The huge amount of energy Marx put into studying the Russian "commune" and the general question of primitive communism in his later years, and the amount of space covered by the analysis of pre-capitalist social forms in the Grundrisse and elsewhere clearly counts against this proposition. The example of the letter shows that Marx insisted on studying a given social formation separately prior to making comparisons, and in this way "finding the clue" to the phenomenon in question; it does not show that Marx refused to go from the particular to the general when it came to understanding the movement of history. 

Above all, the charge that attempts to locate capitalism in the context of the succession of modes of production is a "super-historical" project is refuted by the approach in the Preface to the Critique of Political Economy, where Marx outlines his general approach to historical evolution, and where he very clearly announces the scope of his investigation. In the previous article, we examined the passage dealing with previous social forms (primitive communism, Asiatic despotism, slavery, feudalism, etc), and showed how certain general conclusions could indeed be drawn about the reasons for their ascent and decline - to be precise, the establishment of social relations of production which acted now as a spur, now as a barrier to the development of the productive forces. In the passage we are looking at here, Marx uses a mere phrase - but one so full of significance - to underline the fact that the scope of his investigation is the whole of human history: "The prehistory of human societies ends with this formation". What exactly does Marx mean by this term? 

End of history or end of prehistory?

When the eastern bloc collapsed in 1989, the ruling class in the west launched itself into a massive propaganda campaign based around the slogan "communism is dead" and exulting in the conclusion that Marx, the "prophet" of communism, had been finally discredited. The "philosophical" gloss on this campaign was supplied by Francis Fukayama, who had no hesitation in announcing "the end of history" - the definitive triumph of liberal democratic capitalism, which would, in its admittedly flawed but basically human way, bring an end to war and poverty and free mankind from the burden of earth-shattering crises. "What we may be witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period of post-war history, but the end of history as such... That is, the end point of mankind's ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government".[2]

The two decades that followed these events, with all their attendant military barbarism and genocides, with the growing gap between rich and poor on a global scale, with the increasing evidence that we are facing an environmental disaster of planetary proportions, soon began to undermine Fukayama's complacent thesis, which he himself began to qualify, along with his uncritical support for the ruling Neo-Con faction in the US state. And today, with the outbreak of a profound economic crisis in the very heart of triumphant liberal democratic capitalism, such claims can only be the object of ridicule - and meanwhile, Marx and his vision of capitalism as a system wracked by crisis can no longer be dismissed as a remnant of some long-past Jurassic era. 

Marx himself remarked very early on that the bourgeoisie had already come to the conclusion that its system was the end of history, the pinnacle and final goal of man's striving and the most logical expression of human nature. Even a revolutionary thinker like Hegel, whose dialectical method was based on the recognition of the transience of all historical stages and expressions, fell into this trap when he saw the existing Prussian regime as the final resting place of the Absolute Spirit.

As we have seen in the previous articles, Marx repudiated the notion that capitalism, based on private property and the exploitation of human labour, was the perfect expression of human nature, pointing out that the original human social organisation had been a form of communism, and identifying capitalism as only one in a series of class-divided societies that had succeeded the dissolution of primitive communism, no less doomed to disappear as the result of its own inherent contradictions.

Capitalism - the final episode in the series  

But capitalism was indeed the final episode of this series, "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".

And why was this? Because "the productive forces developing within bourgeois society create also the material conditions for a solution of this antagonism".

The term "productive forces" has come to be regarded with some suspicion since Marx used it. Understandably so, because (as we explained in a previous chapter) the perversion of marxism by the Stalinist counter-revolution has given a sinister meaning to the notion of developing the productive forces, conjuring up images of Stakhanovite exploitation and the construction of a monstrously top-heavy war economy. And in the last few decades, the rapid evolution of the ecological crisis has emphasised the terrible price mankind has paid through the continuation of capitalism's frenzied "development".

For Marx, the productive forces are not to be understood as some autonomous power determining human history - that is only true in so far as they are the product of alienated labour and have escaped the hands of the species which developed them in the first place. But by the same token, these forces, set in motion by particular forms of social organisation, are not inherently hostile to mankind, as in the anti-technological nightmares of the primitivists and other anarchists. On the contrary: at a certain stage of their costly and contradictory development, they are key to the liberation of the human species from millennia of toil and exploitation, providing that mankind can reorganise its social relations to the point where the immense productive power evolved under capitalism can be used to satisfy real human need.

Such a reorganisation is indeed possible because of the existence, within capitalism, of a "productive force", the proletariat, which is for the first time both an exploited class and a revolutionary one, in contrast, for example, to the bourgeoisie, which though revolutionary in opposition to the old feudal class, was itself the bearer of a new form of class exploitation.  The working class has no interest in setting up a new system of exploitation because it can only free itself by freeing humanity in general. As Marx put it in The German Ideology:

"In all revolutions up till now the mode of activity always remained unscathed and it was only a question of a different distribution of this activity, a new distribution of labour to other persons, whilst the communist revolution is directed against the preceding mode of activity, does away with labour, and abolishes the rule of all classes with the classes themselves, because it is carried through by the class which no longer counts as a class in society, is not recognised as a class, and is in itself the expression of the dissolution of all classes, nationalities, etc. within present society".

But this also means emancipating mankind from the scars of thousands of years of class rule, and beyond that, from the hundreds of thousands of years in which mankind has been dominated by material scarcity and the struggle for survival.

  Mankind thus comes to a definite point of rupture with all previous historical epochs. This is why Marx talks about the end of "prehistory".  If the proletariat succeeds in overthrowing the rule of capital and, after a more or less long period of transition, in creating a fully communist world society, it will have made it possible for future generations of human beings to make their own history in full consciousness. A passage from Engels in Anti-Duhring makes this point very eloquently: 

"With the seizing of the means of production by society, production of commodities is done away with, and, simultaneously, the mastery of the product over the producer. Anarchy in social production is replaced by systematic, definite organisation. The struggle for individual existence disappears. Then, for the first time, man, in a certain sense, is finally marked off from the rest of the animal kingdom, and emerges from mere animal conditions of existence into really human ones. The whole sphere of the conditions of life which environ man, and which have hitherto ruled man, now comes under the dominion and control of man, who for the first time becomes the real, conscious lord of nature, because he has now become master of his own social organisation. The laws of his own social action, hitherto standing face-to-face with man as laws of Nature foreign to, and dominating him, will then be used with full understanding, and so mastered by him. Man's own social organisation, hitherto confronting him as a necessity imposed by Nature and history, now becomes the result of his own free action. The extraneous objective forces that have, hitherto, governed history, pass under the control of man himself. Only from that time will man himself, more and more consciously, make his own history - only from that time will the social causes set in movement by him have, in the main and in a constantly growing measure, the results intended by him. It is the ascent of man from the kingdom of necessity to the kingdom of freedom".

In such passages, Marx and Engels reaffirm the vast sweep of their historical vision, showing the underlying unity of all hitherto existing epochs of human history, and showing how the historical process, for all that has proceeded more or less unconsciously, blindly, is yet creating the conditions for a qualitative step no less fundamental than the first emergence of man from the animal kingdom.

This grandiose vision was reiterated by Trotsky over 50 years later, in a lecture to Danish students on 27th November 1932, not long after his exile from Russia. Here Trotsky calls on the material supplied by the human and natural sciences, in particular the discoveries of psychoanalysis, to indicate more precisely what this step implied for man's inner life: "Anthropology, biology, physiology have accumulated sufficient data to place before humanity in its full magnitude the task of its own physical and spiritual perfection and growth. Psychoanalysis, no matter how one relates to one or another of its conclusions, has undoubtedly through Freud's genius given access to the well called the psyche or, poetically, ‘the soul' of man. And what was found? Our conscious thought comprises only a fraction of the dark psychic forces at work in man himself. Research divers descend into the depths of the ocean and photograph the most obscure fish. Man's thought, having descended into the depths of his own spiritual well, must illuminate the most hidden motive forces of the psyche and subject them to reason and will. Once having gotten control over the anarchic forces of its own society, humanity will get at itself in the chemist's mortar and retort. For the first time humanity will see itself as raw material or, at the very best, as a physical and psychic half-product."[3]

In both these passages, there is a clear unity established in all epochs of history hitherto: during this immense arc of time, man is a "physical and psychical half-product" - still, in a sense, a species in transition from the animal kingdom to a fully human existence.

Capitalism alone of previous class societies could be the prelude to such a qualitative leap, because it has developed the productive forces to the point where the fundamental problems of mankind's material existence - the provision of life's necessities for everyone on the planet - can at last be resolved, allowing human beings the freedom to develop their creative capacities without limit, and to finally achieve their real, hidden potential. And here the real meaning of "productive forces" becomes apparent: the productive forces are fundamentally the creative powers of mankind itself, which have hitherto only expressed themselves in a limited and distorted manner, but which will truly come into their own once the limitations of class society have been transcended.

More than this: communism, a society without private property and exploitation, has become the only possible basis for the development of mankind, since the contradictions inherent in generalised wage labour and commodity production are threatening mankind with the disintegration of all social bonds and even the destruction of the very foundations of human life. Mankind will live in harmony with itself and with nature, or it will not live at all. Marx's assessment in The German Ideology, written in capitalism's youth, becomes far more urgent and unavoidable the longer capitalism sinks into its decay:  "Thus things have now come to such a pass that the individuals must appropriate the existing totality of productive forces, not only to achieve self-activity, but, also, merely to safeguard their very existence"

Communism thus resolves the basic conundrum of human history - how do we ensure the necessities of life in order to enjoy life to the full. But unlike capitalist ideology, the communist viewpoint does not see communism as a static end point. In the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844, Marx certainly presents communism as the "solution to the riddle of history", but he also sees it as a starting point from which the true history of mankind can get underway:  "Communism is the position as the negation of the negation, and is hence the actual phase necessary for the next stage of historical development in the process of human emancipation and rehabilitation. Communism is the necessary form and the dynamic principle of the immediate future, but communism as such is not the goal of human development, the form of human society."[4]

The standpoint of the future

Characteristically, Marx's summation of how he considers it necessary to look at the past ends with a step into the far distant future. And this too is entirely in line with his method, to the scandal of those who think that posing the question on such a scale inevitably ends up in "metaphysics". Indeed, it could be said that the future is always the starting point for Marx. As he explained in the Theses on Feuerbach, the standpoint of the new materialism, the basis of the proletarian movement's knowledge of reality, was not the agglomeration of atomised egos that make up bourgeois society, but "socialised humanity", or man as he could be in a really human society; in other words, the entire movement of history up till now has to be assessed from the starting point of the communist future. It is essential to bear this in mind when we go about analysing whether a social form is a factor of "progress" or a system that is holding back humanity's advance. The standpoint that considers all human epochs up till now as belonging to "prehistory" is not based on an ideal of perfection which humanity is inevitably programmed to achieve, but on a material possibility inherent in the nature of man and his inter-action with nature - a possibility which can fail to be realised precisely because that realisation is ultimately dependent on conscious human action. But the fact that there is no guarantee of success for the communist project does not alter the judgement that revolutionaries, who "represent the future in the present", need to make about capitalist society once it has reached the point where it has made the leap towards the realm of freedom possible on a global scale: that it has become redundant, obsolete, decadent as a system of social reproduction.  

Gerrard, May 2009.



[1]. See for example


[2]. The End of History and the Last Man, Fukuyama, 1992.


[3]. Cited in Trotsky's Notebooks, 1933-1935, Writings on Lenin, Dialectics and Evolutionism, translated and introduced by Philip Pomper, New York 1998, p 67.


[4].  From the chapter "Private Property and Communism".



Heritage of the Communist Left: