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Earth’s Destruction Necessary for Socialism?

Dear Editors
In at least one area my understanding of Marxian economics may be weak, so perhaps you can enlighten me. As you know in the Preface to the Critique of Political Economy Marx wrote: “No social order ever disappears before all the productive forces for which there is room in it have been developed; and new higher relations of production never appear before the material conditions of their existence have matured in the womb of the old society”.

I have no problem understanding the second part of that sentence, but the first puzzles me a little. All previous economic systems were not dynamic systems. They developed to a certain point, beyond which they stagnated, while the new society matured in the proverbial womb of the old. Capitalism is different to all previous systems because it is a dynamic system constantly inventing new tools of production and constantly improving all previous inventions.

My problem here is to analyse what this portends in relation to the first part of the above sentence. Does it mean, I wonder, that we are stuck with capitalism (a lovely thought) until such time as it has destroyed the world with its ongoing murder of the environment? Could it be, I wonder, that the only way socialism can be brought about is by people realising they have to live in a co-operative way or perish? And, if so, when will they realise it? Will it be when capitalism has about 90 percent wrecked this planet?

The Socialist Party have always emphasised and insisted the need for socialist understanding as a precondition for socialism. But has society ever changed because mankind in general considered such changes desirable? I’m sure the medieval manufacturers, traders, bankers, etc never said to each “Let’s invent a new society and call it capitalism.” They were behaving in a certain manner which was in accordance with their economic interests; the sum of such behaviour over two or three centuries brought capitalism into being.

In the Communist Manifesto the authors say in effect that the general, prevailing level of opinions and beliefs of a given society will always be that of the ruling class. We all know changes in the tools of production change the way people think, but we also know it only goes to a certain point, beyond which they still believe in the existence of private property based society.

My sincerest wish is that the working class both understand and establish socialism before capitalism has destroyed this planet  and consequently most species on it, but I can’t envisage this happening. I know I paint a proverbial gloomy picture, but I hope you can show me that my understanding is wide of the mark.
STEVE SHANNON, Mississauga, Canada

Reply:
We agree that, if taken on its own and interpreted literally, the passage that puzzles you could give the impression that Marx thought that capitalism would not disappear so long as it was capable of developing to any extent the productivity of the forces of production. But this can’t have been Marx’s view, otherwise why would he have worked for the abolition of capitalism at a time when it was still capable of developing productivity (as, indeed, it still is, and still does)?

To make sense of it, it should be read in conjunction with what follows (“and new higher relations of production never appear before the material conditions of their existence have matured in the womb of the old society”) and which you say you have no problem understanding. And also with what immediately follows: “Therefore, humanity always sets itself only such tasks as it can solve; indeed, on closer examination, it will always be found that the task itself only arises when the material conditions for its solution already exist or at least are in the process of formation”.

Marx was talking not just about a change from capitalism to socialism but about actual historical changes of social system that had taken place in the past, but in relation to capitalism he probably simply meant that, in developing modern industry and its potential, capitalism had created the material basis for socialism and that, therefore, the establishment of socialism had appeared on humanity’s agenda (as witnessed by the emergence of the working class movement). Once capitalism had developed the forces of production to the point where an abundance was possible, it
was open for abolition. Socialism wasn't possible before then, so until then capitalism had still had a progressive role to play. But Marx was just one socialist and not much is to be gained from poring over every word he wrote to try to understand today’s world. Socialists should be, and are, capable of doing this for themselves.

We, too, conclude that, as capitalism has created the material basis for socialism, socialism is a practical possibility and has been for over a hundred years now and that this is what people should be working for if they wish to avoid the gloomy end you fear. Will people do it? That’s up to them, not us. All we can do is to try to ensure, that when people discuss humanity’s future, part of their experience is hearing the argument that the only way out is to establish a world community without frontiers based the natural and industrial resources of the Earth having become the common heritage of all humanity. – Editors.
 

Bush & Co.

Dear Editors
Regarding your editorial in the December 2004 issue of Socialist Standard, ‘A missed opportunity’:
 
You are quite correct about one thing. The people in the US who voted for Bush & Company knew what they were doing. They were not seduced. They were not misled. They understood what the issues were and they made their choice.

I live in Cleveland, Ohio. When I realized, about a month before the election, that Bush was going to win, I started to talk with Bush supporters, gently and with tolerance, in an effort to get them to open up and tell me why they had taken such a stance. On the whole, I found that the knowledge and understanding among the Bush supporters was about equal to that among the voters on the other side.

There has been a lot of talk about the role of religion in the motivation of the voters but I think it would be easy to give too much weight to this factor. It is true that a lot of religious people voted for Bush but it is also true that a lot of religious people voted against him. Some of the religious people who were and are anti-Bush say he talks about his love for God and then turns around and does the devil's work.

I feel that the election was a referendum on war. About half the people in this country like being at war, especially if someone else is doing the fighting. They know that the war in Iraq was started under false pretenses but they like the idea of war anyway. They like the idea of telling other nations where to get off and then using the US military to enforce the US point of view.
 
Perhaps being at war makes them feel like winners. The US military machine is impressive. It can go out and "kick butt" on a regular basis. The US usually wins every battle. But I think it will lose the war in Iraq. It might even lose the war in Afghanistan, as it looks like the drug lords will actually win control in that area.
Those of us who were against Bush & Company are still struggling with feelings of loss, of disappointment, and even a sort of grief. We did the best we could but we lost and we are hurting.
 
Linda Featheringill, Cleveland, Ohio, USA.

Reply:

Fair enough, but we hope you didn’t go so far as to vote for the other millionaire (whose name we forget). As if it would have made any difference if he had won instead. Governments don’t control capitalism. It’s the workings of capitalism, and the interests of a country’s capitalist class, which determines how governments act. Things won’t change till a majority act to change the economic and social system rather than the personnel who fill the top posts in government –Editors.