History as Science. A Study of Social Evolution
Speculations as to the future development of society have been part of the “stock-in-trade” of many philosophers and historians of the past, but at no period have they been more common than at the. present time. The vast developments, of science, of the means of production and of international communication have opened up wondrous vistas hitherto undreamt of for the imaginative play of the prophetically inclined, and the transformation of the technical conditions proceeds now at a rate never before realised, and forces itself upon the attention of even the superficial. But unless such speculations are based upon and guided by a clear understanding of the course of past social evolution and upon a recognition of the social forces which have underlain that past progress and exist to-day, they must of necessity be. nothing more than chimerical Utopias.
The accuracy of a science in any sphere of investigation is well gauged by the confidence with which forecasts can be made and the extent to which they are fulfilled. Astronomy, as is well known, has long since reached a stage of prophetic exactitude in many of its branches—in its prophecies of the occurrence of eclipses, transits, and other celestial phenomena, and the other natural sciences are developing toward a similar accuracy. Let us see what can be done in this respect in the complex and difficult field of evolutionary sociology.
If the theory of History which we have herein outlined is correct (and it has yet to be shown that it i£ otherwise), we see that while in the ultimate all social history is but the result of the action and reaction one upon the other of man and his environment, yet the prime intermediate forces of social advancement are to be found in the mobile character of the artificial means whereby man satisfies his requirements ; in other words, his economic conditions of existence. The social organisation is largely conditioned by the relations entered into in the production process ; and these relations upon which rises the social superstructure, tend to become contimially adapted to the technical powers of production prevailing. While in classless societies this adaptation of institutions takes place uniformly, or in other words, in the same ratio and at the same rate as the technical conditions change, in class-divided communities the conservative or reactionary interests of certain classes tend to deter or hold back artificially this continual adaptation, so that, therefore, the legal, political, and intellectual superstructure may become estranged from and contradictory to, the technical productive conditions prevailing, resulting sooner or later, in a more or less rapid revolution as the class or classes economically injured by this state of affairs become sufficiently conscious of their position and strong enough to contest and overthrow the political domination of the class in power. The active human factor is therefore seen to be the class struggle which is fermented by the dynamic character of the pro¬ductive process, which in turn is conditioned mainly by the continual enlargement and perfection of the powers and means of production over which man has control. The question therefore, arises to what extent are these phenomena operative in modern society.
It is a commonplace fact that classes exist to-day, and it is also generally recognised that the progressive improvement of the means of production continues now at a speed hitherto unparalleled. If we can follow the effects of this technical progress upon the, economic life of society ; if we can find out its influence upon the various classes which compose society, and upon the community as a whole, we shall be fairly on the road toward understanding the trend of evolution in society to-day.
Modern society, that is that commonly referred to as “capitalist society,” is based on commodity production, wage labour, and competition, thus differing from all previous systems, in which these phenomena, where they existed at all, did so sporadically and in a subordinate manner. The primary classes in present day society are first, a capitalist class owning, either individually or in groups, means of producing wealth, such as land, machinery, factories, etc., and under the form of capital, that is, in order to obtain a profit or income without producing themselves ; secondly, a working class or proletariat, which so far as means of production are concerned, are destitute of property, and who in order to live produce wealth for the capitalists, and with the capitalists’ means of production, in return for a wage. This wage is obtained in competition among the workers, and represents the market price of their bodily energy or labour-power, which, under capitalism is bought and sold as a commodity.
Let us now briefly trace the growth of these various classes so as to see how they evolved to their present status in society. This investigation will materially help us to understand the trend of their present development.
In the Middle Ages the development of industry, and commodity production giving rise to commerce, resulted in the gradual rise from among the handicraft workers of the towns, of a special class of merchants. The geographical discoveries of the fifteenth century resulting in the colonising of America and in the Cape route to India and the Orient, gave a great impetus to trade and enabled the merchant class to extend vastly the domain of their activities and influence. It also, however, resulted in shifting the “centre of gravity,” commercially speaking, from Italy and the Mediterranean, where flourished Venice and Genoa, to the Atlantic ports, and the rise of these simultaneously with the decline of the former. The handicraft producers, fettered as they were both by their mode of production and by the restrictions of the guilds, were unable to cope with the ever-increasing demands made upon them by the expanding commerce.
Handicraft gave way to division of labour in the factories set up mainly on their own account by the merchants themselves. Division and subdivision of labour more and more made the skill of the craftsman un necessary, and a demand for labourers in the factories arose. This demand was met by the dispossessed peasants, the descendants of the feudal serfs, who had been ejected from the land by the enclosures of the land-owners, and to a lesser extent by the disbanded retainers of the nobility. Here we have the germ of the modern propertyless wage-workers, or proletariat, on the one hand, and the modern capitalist class, or bourgeoisie, on the other.
The wealth of the bourgeoisie continued to increase and they became the dominating force in the economic life of society. Nevertheless they still remained excluded from the political control, which was monopolised by the landed nobility and the monarchy. This political control they only obtained after a prolonged struggle with the landed classes—a struggle culminating mostly in compromises, but which, nevertheless, by increasing their political power, enabled them to modify or destroy the institutions of feudalism, and turn the forces of government more toward their, own interests. The successive stages of the political advancement of the bourgeoisie in England may be seen in the Civil War and the accession of William of Orange, and finally in the Reform Act of 1832 and the subsequent abolition of the Corn Laws. In France a similar but more condensed movement took place, and the bourgeoisie gained practically complete control in the revo¬lution of 1789.
But the final and most modernising phase of the evolution of the capitalist class dates from the introduction of machinery into the productive process. The invention of the spinning jenny by Hargreaves was the first of a series of mechanical contrivances brought out in the last few decades of the eighteenth century, and in such a short period that it is rightly referred to as the Industrial Revolution, which, with the application of steam power, completely transformed, first the textile, and subsequently many other industries. From that time onwards the spur of competition among the capitalists has forced the pace in continually utilising new and casting aside old and obsolete machinery. Each in order to “corner” the markets, strives to undersell his competitors. He is enabled to do this to the extent to which he can lessen the labour necessary to produce his commodities, and it is this machinery enables him to do.
Rapidly, when once instituted, the new productive powers spread from one industry to another, even to agriculture, and then the means of transport were likewise revolutionised.
We will now see how this transformation of the technical conditions affected the general mode of production and the classes in society. In the first place it completed the socialisation of the labour process which had begun when the labour of the workers was simply divided among them in the single factory. The worker to-day does not by his own labour produce from the raw material a finished product, as did the craft worker of the Middle Ages. He only contributes a fraction of the labour necessary for the perfection of each article, which may be the result of the working of the brains and muscles of thousands, nay, even of millions, of workers scattered in all parts of the world. He cannot say : “This is the result of my work ; it is my product.” The product is collective. Moreover, production is now carried on not that the product may be utilised by the producers, or even in most cases by consumers who are known, but for the market, national and international.
The first and most obvious effect of the use of machinery upon the condition of the working class is that by producing the same quantity with a lesser expenditure of labour-power, it renders a number of workers superfluous, unnecessary, and therefore workless. It was this effect which roused the workers to smash the machinery in the workshops, as they did in the Luddite riots, in the early days of its introduction. Here also we find the root of the chronic unemployed “problem,” a phenomenon unknown in any form of society save capitalism. The use of ever more perfect machinery eliminates skill from the labour process, while as the physical strength required is decreased, so increases the possibility of employing women and even children. With the competition of the reserve industrial army of the unemployed on the one hand, and of the unskilled, the female and child labour on the other, the wage of the worker seldom has a chance of rising above subsistence level. The proletarian has been reduced to the level of a machine-minder ; the machine controls him, not he the machine.
Upon the capitalist class the extension of machine production has had a transforming influence equally as marked as upon the proletariat, but in a different direction. Their wealth has multiplied by leaps and bounds. The necessity forced upon them of ever using more and more efficient and elaborate machinery, causes many of them to succumb in the intense competitive struggle ; for as the machine grows in complexity, so does it increase in value, so that the amount of capital necessary to run a capitalist concern successfully continually increases. Furthermore, the same tendency is hastened by the fact that machinery is so rapidly improved upon that it is often obsolete long before it ia worn out. Therefore the large capitals survive and the small capitals are crushed out, and those dependent upon them drop in ever-greater numbers into the ranks of the proletariat. They may toil night and day to keep their heads above water, but eventually they sink and join the wage-earners.
While, therefore, the proletariat increases, the capitalist class tends to decrease in numbers. On the one hand, therefore, we have enormous and continually growing wealth, concentrated in the hands of a diminishing number of capitalists, while in contrast we have a large and increasing working class in a condition of wretched poverty on the other. Combinations of capitalists spring up forming companies, trusts and combines the better to wage the competitive struggle and exploit the workers, and the capitalist ceases to function as a director of production, his place being taken by hired managers and foremen The capitalist thus becomes as unnecessary to production and as parasitic as the feudal lord in the course of time became. Like the animal parasite, he absorbs nutriment, but returns nothing useful to his host ; indeed, he weakens it. The capitalist classs consumes but does not produce.
So contradictory is the capitalist system that the very superabundance of wealth becomes a actor which intensifies the poverty of the producers, a hitherto undreamt of phenomenon. The productivity of labour continually increases, but the remuneration of the workers remains comparatively stationary. Thus their purchasing power relatively decreases. And as they form the bulk of the consumers an ever-growing surplus of products remains to be sold. Supply constantly outstrips effective demand ; the expansion of the markets fails to keep pace with the growing supply of commodities. As the markets become glutted, production slackens to enable the unsold products to be disposed of, and the workers find themselves partially or totally deprived of employment, and to a corresponding extent of wages. When the workers’ wages are gone their subsistence is gone, and we get the spectacle of starvation in the midst of plenty, resulting, in fact, from relative over-production.
In order to dispose of their surplus products the capitalists endeavour by every means in their power, including the use of the State forces, to extend the markets and facilitate commerce. Gradually, with the opening out and colonising of lands in all parts of the inhabitable globe the capitalist system becomes world-wide. The industrially backward countries, from being at first mainly markets for the sale of goods produced in the more advanced capitalist areas, are forced in turn into capitalist producers themselves. Thus more competitors enter the race for commercial supremacy, and the markets begin to contract. The surplus, therefore, increases, but the means of disposing of it decreases. Commercial wars of great magnitude are entered upon, which shake society to its very foundations, and the capitalist system more and more plainly declares itself bankrupt as a progressive institution and a clog in the wheels of progress.
R. W. HOUSLEY