The material transformation of the economic conditions

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The end of primitive communism

The form of social organisation at the beginning of humanity was what Marx called ‘primitive communism’. Despite important local differences in climatic, historic, or other elements, the essential traits of primitive societies were the collective ownership of the means of production (essentially the land) and collective labour in agriculture and the hunt, the products of which were shared equally amongst the whole population. The idea that private property is something inherent in human nature is just a myth popularised by bourgeois economists since the 18th century; its aim is to present the capitalist system as the most natural one, the one that best corresponds to human nature.

On the other hand, these egalitarian relations were not the product of an ideology of brotherhood or the work of a God anxious to ensure equality between his creatures. It was humanity’s lack of power faced with a natural environment that could be as hostile as man’s techniques were feeble, which imposed this need for social cohesion, forcing men to live in communities that used their means of production in an egalitarian way. The egalitarian ideology which did exist was a consequence of these relations and not their cause:

“The mode of production of material life dominates in general the development of social, political and intellectual life. It is not the consciousness of men which determines their existence, on the contrary, their social existence determines their consciousness (Marx, Preface to a Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy).

In the same way, the disappearance of primitive communism wasn’t the result of ideological changes but of the disappearance of the material conditions which had engendered such a society. If one examines the way in which these egalitarian societies were transformed into societies of exploitation, with the appearance of classes and of private property, it becomes evident that it was the result of progress in the techniques of production.

We will leave aside the cases where this ‘progress’ was the result of the civilising work of European colonial massacres from the end of the 15th century onwards.

In different regions of the globe, and in various local historic conditions, primitive communist societies disintegrated and ceded their place either to the asiatic mode of production or slavery.

Slavery When a community exhausted the fertility of its territory, or when its game had departed, or when its population grew too large in relation to its means of survival, it was obliged to extend or remove its domination to new territories. In regions where the density of population was relatively high - in the Mediterranean for example - such expansion could only be made at the expense of other communities.

In the beginning, wars provoked as a result of these movements could only take the form of gratuitous massacres or cannibalism. Their sole aim was to seize the land of conquered peoples. As long as the level of social productivity only permitted a man to produce just enough for his own individual subsistence, the conqueror had no interest in integrating new mouths into the hungry community. It only became feasible for a conquered people to work for their conquerors, for free and by force, while at the same time producing enough for their own subsistence, when the productivity of labour had reached a certain level [1].

Primitive communist relations were thus abandoned in order to make use of a higher level of productivity in a context of wars and conquests.

The Asiatic mode of production

This badly understood economic system was in general the result of the need of certain communities to face up to the problems posed by nature in certain regions (aridity, floods, monsoons, etc). In such regions communities were very quickly forced to study the cycles of nature and to undertake irrigation works to assure their livelihood. The complexity of these works, the technical knowledge they required, the need for an authority to coordinate them, engendered layers of specialists (priests, versed in the study and observation of nature, were often at the origin of these castes). Charged with a specific task in the service of the community, these specialists - appearing to be the creators of new wealth - tended to constitute themselves into a ruling caste. They progressively appropriated the social surplus at the expense of the collectivity. The development of the productive forces transformed these servants of society into exploiters.

The ‘Asiatic’ mode of production left the communal relations of production unchanged, as basic cells of production. The ruling class only appropriated the surplus created by the work of these communities. But a first transition from primitive communism had been made. The need to apply new techniques of production resulted in the emergence of new relations of production and the abandonment of the old.

The introduction of new techniques of production later on did away with the remnants of egalitarianism in these societies. Thus, for example, the problem of fertilising the land, the necessity to create a more intimate link between the worker and the earth, often led to to an abandonment of the systematic redistribution of plots according to custom or the needs of families. The necessity to ensure a greater continuity in the maintainence of plots, or the weight of fiscal pressures, resulted in the passage from communal to private property. And with the latter, inequality slowly developed, until a part of society had to work on the richest plots for a fraction of the resulting production. Society became entirely stratified, taking the form of a society of serfdom or feudalism.

But whether they gave way to slavery or oriental despotism (and the latter in its turn to serfdom), communist relations caved in under the pressure of the progress of the productive forces, which could no longer adapt to the old framework.

“At a certain stage of their development the productive forces enter into collision with the existing relations of production or with the property relations within which they worked hitherto” (Marx, ibid).

The end of slavery

The result of a development of the productive forces in the particular regions where one people conquered another, slavery allowed the appropriation by one social group of the surplus labour realised by the rest of society. The owners of slaves, as a ruling class avid for profit and privileges, became the motors of the development of the productive forces. However, this development was strictly limited to wars of conquest, mainly taking the form of a growth in the number of slaves and of great works that facilitated the pillage of conquered countries. It was on this basis that ancient Greece and Rome developed their civilisations.

The Roman slave economy - the decadence of which opened the door to feudalism - was founded on the pillage and exploitation of conquered peoples. The latter furnished Rome with its essential means of subsistence (food, tribute and slaves). It often happened that the goods imported were produced under different modes of exploitation, such as the Asiatic mode of production. But the metropole itself subsisted on slavery, the latter being applied above all in wide-scale exploitation (olive groves and stock farming) and in the great works.

These works often served military needs, being used in the exploitation of colonies (roads, viaducts, etc). At the same time they reflected the concern to ensure the luxury of the ruling class.

Thus political power was most often connected with the triumphant military caste. Economic prosperity was therefore closely dependent on the warlike capacities of the metropole.

The great development of Roman civilisation corresponded to its period of victories and conquests. Its zenith was reached when Rome dominated the Mediterranean world and pocketed the profits. In the same way the onset of Roman decadence was marked in the second century AD by the end of this expansion, and in the third century by the Empire’s first defeats (in 251 the Emperor Decius was defeated and killed by the Goths; in 260 the Emperor Valerian was taken prisoner and humiliated by the king of Persia. In the course of the third century revolts in the colonies broke out simultaneously for the first time).

The difficulties of maintaining such a gigantic empire with the limited technical means available at that time explains in part the end of Rome’s expansion. But above all it was the gap between the economic productivity of Roman slavery and that of its colonies (which often developed a superior productivity under the Asiatic mode) which ensured that the revolts in the colonies would ultimately be successful.

Slave relations of production were characterised by low labour productivity. In the conditions of the epoch, a growth of productivity required the improvement of methods for working the earth - the utilisation of the plough, the development of fertilisation and the creation of an intimate link between the worker and the soil, providing the worker with a motive for using these techniques of production. But such progress demanded the abandonment of slavery, in which the worker is maintained by his master whatever his productivity, and in which only the fear of punishment forces the slave to produce, so that he works with the least care possible.

Slavery was only profitable as a means of exploiting conquered peoples. Once these conquests stopped or diminished, once the sources of booty, tributes and slaves dried up (in turn leading to a rise in the value of slaves), slavery transformed itself into an unprofitable system, a fetter on the development of production.

The need to pass on to new productive relations led, in the metropole, to the appearance of feudal types of exploitation, in which the great proprietors ceded much land to free families in exchange for a part of their produce. But the surpassing of slavery also involved an attack on the privileges of the ruling class. The ‘collision’ between the development of the productive forces of society, and the relations of production that had existed until then, precipitated Rome into its phase of decadence.

The development of production slowed down or stopped: “They (the wealthy Romans) ‘gleaned’ the products of the mines and undermine the soil, allowing pastures or forests to disappear in semi-arid regions. Manpower was exploited without a break, stimulating discontent and apathy in work. They even forbade the application of new methods, and neglected irrigation works and drainage in regions where they were essential....War, epidemics and starvation reduced the population of the Empire by a third. The death rate was perhaps even higher in Italy itself during the course of the third century" (Shepard B Clough, Grandeur and Decadence of Civilisations, Editions Payot p140)


Following slavery or the Asiatic mode of production, the feudal system allowed a new scope to the productive forces of society for centuries.

In autarkic feudal relations, work on the soil attained unequalled levels of improvement (amelioration of ploughing, shoeing of work animals, of harnessing - at the head or neck instead of the belly - development of irrigation and of fertilisation, etc). Furthermore, and above all, the perfecting of agricultural labour was accompanied by a considerable development of artisan work. The latter existed as a simple appendage of the agricultural economy: supplying instruments of labour and certain items of consumption, essentially for the ruling class (mainly clothing and weapons).

The craftsman benefited from the growth of resources available to the noble class thanks to the development of agricultural productivity. This last factor figured all the more as the noble class wasn’t engaged in accumulation - the particular character of the bourgeoisie - but used all its profit for personal consumption.

But from the twelfth century on feudalism had begun to reach the limits of the possibilities for extending cultivatable surfaces.

“We have enough indices of the lack of land at the end of the thirteenth century to suggest that the extension of cultivatable surfaces was inferior to the national growth of population; and with the exception of certain places, it was probably insufficient to compensate for the tendency for labour productivity to fall. The pressure from land shortages after 1200 in Holland, Saxony, Rhineland, Bavaria and the Tyrol was one of the factors which gave birth to the migrations towards the east, and we can say that at the end of the fourteenth century the limits of acquiring soil from forest land were already reached in the north east of Germany and Bohemia” (Maurice Dobb, Studies in the Development of Capitalism, p 59).

“The contemporaries of St Louis, and in certain regions those of Philippe de Bel, saw the development of the soil pushed to its limits. The most audacious reclamations were attempted because it was always necessary to feed more mouths and because, not knowing any other way of augmenting the yield, the space cultivated always had to grow. Permanent marshes and wasteland seemed to disappear. Woods shrank. The marshes and fens of the English coast were drained, cleaned, exploited to the limit of what was technically possible...” (J Favrier, De Marco Polo a Christopher Columbus, p 125)

From then society could only break out of its impasse through a new development in the productivity of labour. Now the latter had more or less attained its extreme limits in the context of family artisan production. Only the passage from individual labour to the labour of a number of associated workers, to a more complex division of labour and the utilisation of more complex means of production could in these conditions permit the necessary growth of productivity.

This was possible because the development of artisan work under feudalism also contributed to a revival of the towns, which were the basis needed for more collective forms of labour.

But, fundamentally, the feudal framework was the negation of the conditions which could allow for a real development of this economic form:

 - feudalism was founded on the life-long attachment of men to their means of production as well as to their lord, whereas manufacturing demanded great mobility of labour power, and thus a separation of the worker from the means of production;

 - feudalism was a system of local power, of autarky, of the closed fief, with innumerable tolls to pay on the passage of commodities through different feudal estates. The manufacturer, by contrast, needed a mobility of raw materials, of commodities in general, so that he could concentrate in one place of production the products from a thousand different places, and ensure the freest possible distribution of his own commodities;

 - finally, manufacturing production must base itself on the accumulation and the concentration of profits in order to obtain, replace and then expand the machinery which allows for production based on the division of labour. It requires therefore a spirit of success through work and the right to accumulate the rewards of the latter. Feudal privileges, on the other hand, were based first on the capacity to make war, and after that solely on heredity.

At the level of the capacity to work, the lord was equal or inferior to the serf. Hence feudal society’s contempt for work, which was seen as a form of debasement.

The feudal lord made it a matter of honour to display his ability to consume his entire revenue. The feudal economy ignored and condemned accumulation aimed at the growth of production, an attitude which barred the way to the development of manufacture.

We can consider that the beginning of the fourteenth century marked the end of the mediaeval economy’s period of expansion. Up till then, progress had been continual in all spheres ... But by the first years of the fourteenth century, all this came to an end. Although there wasn’t a regression, there was no advance either. Europe was, as it were, resting on its laurels: there was stability on the economic front...the proof that the previous economic thrust had been interrupted was the fact that foreign trade ceased to expand...In Flanders and Bravante, the drapery industry maintained itself without increasing its traditional prosperity until around the middle of the century, then it began to go rapidly downward. In Italy, most of the great banks which had dominated the money markets for so long fell into a series of reverberating bankruptcies ... the decline of the fairs of Champagne date from the first years of the century. This was also the time when the population stopped growing, and this constituted the most important symptom of the state of a stabilised society which had reached the final point of its evolution.

(H. Pirenne, Histoire economique et sociale du Moyen Age, PUF, p 158).

Just as in slavery, the decadence of feudalism meant famines, since the growth of the productive forces was far inferior to the growth in population. Famines were then followed by epidemics, which spread rapidly because of the poor nutrition of the population. Thus from 1315 to 1317 a terrible famine desolated all of Europe, followed thirty years later by the Black Death, which between 1347 and 1350 wiped out one third of Europe’s population.

“It’s true that it was precisely then that countries which had been outside the main areas of economic development, like Poland and especially Bohemia, began to participate in it more fully. But their belated awakening didn’t result in any important consequences for the western world as a whole. It was thus clear that society was entering a period when more was being conserved than produced, and when social discontent testified to both the desire and the incapacity to improve a situation which no longer corresponded to men’s needs.” (Pirenne, op cit, p 158)

Feudal decadence began in the fourteenth century, continuing until the overthrow of its last juridical traces by the bourgeois revolutions of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in England and France. But from the fourteenth century new relations of production were beginning to dominate society: capitalism. Developing out of a struggle against the old feudal fetters, it was the main beneficiary from the morass of the fourteenth century, and was to allow a great revival of economic life.

[1] The development of wars was an active factor in the abandonment of egalitarian social relations: conditions of semi-permanent warfare demanded the emergence of a layer of specialised warriors who tended to appear as the suppliers of wealth to the collectivity and who thus began to establish hierarchical relations within the community, with the rest of the community ensuring their upkeep. But in itself this factor only became important when the growth of productivity permitted the passage to slavery.