1920s >> 1924 >> no-243-november-1924

A Brief Sketch of the Materialist Conception of History – Part 5

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Part 5

Though slavery, as we have pointed out, was a necessary step in the development of human society, it by no means follows that it is necessary to society for all time. Slavery, or any other feature of society which may be necessary under certain historical conditions, may, and often does, become unnecessary when those conditions have passed away. This, to some extent, will explain the changes in the forms of slavery that have appeared throughout the history of class society. The chattel slavery of ancient Greece and Rome, when it no longer conformed to the requirements of society as determined in the main by economic development, was superseded by the serfdom of the middle ages, and this in turn was superseded by the wage slavery of present-day society.

So sure as slavery has its origin in the limited powers of wealth production of earlier times, and served to free a section of society to devote their time to the common business of society, which includes “the organisation of labour, the business of government, the administration of justice, art, science, etc.,” it can be said to be necessary for human development. But when the means and methods of wealth production reach the stage of development of to-day, class society, with its slavery, ceases to be necessary to social advancement. In fact, it becomes a hindrance to social development. But this brings us to the question of what is useful or necessary in class society. No ruling class gives up its power of domination over the rest of society by virtue of the effects of their domination upon society, nor even for the purpose of social development.

The question of whether a particular ruling class, or any of those social institutions which serve its purpose, is useful or necessary, has to be viewed relatively. What a ruling class may consider as useful or necessary may be, and generally is in the ultimate, considered by the rest of society as being useless and unnecessary. This is because the different material interests of the classes inevitably give rise to different ideas of social institutions. A ruling class will cling on to its power like grim death, and will either believe, or pretend to believe, that all that is associated with its domination is for the good of humanity as a whole. On the other hand, the rest of society must sooner or later feel the effects of domination, which involves their exploitation, and thus regard things from a different standpoint. The whole question becomes one of a contest for supremacy, which culminates in a social revolution.

The statement of Marx that force is the midwife of the old society which is pregnant with the new can be regarded as a historical axiom which tells us much more than at first meets the eye. It implies that, though political force is employed in the formation of a new form of society, it can only be used for that purpose when any given form of society has reached a certain stage of economic development, when it “becomes pregnant with the new.” And this is a fact which has been impressed upon the minds of many who have taken part in movements for the establishment of a new form of society before the conditions were ripe.

Further, this statement of Marx regarding class society implies that revolution is a necessary part of the whole process of evolution, and is a standing challenge to those who deny the necessity of revolution as a means of changing the form of society. A society does not change from one form to another automatically, nor do we discover any evidence of an existing ruling class forming a new form of society. As the economic development proceeds apace, ever bringing in its train fresh conditions, the more does any ruling class mould, or endeavour to mould, its domination in harmony with those conditions.

The form of society is kept intact, even though concessions are made to the rest of society. The economic changes, with the changes in laws that are made from time to time by a ruling class, come within the process of evolution. But the revolution, the change in the entire form of society, must necessarily be carried out through a conflict between the classes—the dominant class using its power to retain its hold upon society, and the class seeking power endeavouring to get it by getting control of the State machinery held by the ruling class. The control of the State leads to the control of society. For it must be understood that the State, although signifying to the popular mind the whole of the people, is in reality an organ of class rule.

In the early stages of class society it became necessary to have an institution to deal with the conflicts arising from the exploitation of one class by another. As wealth accumulated on the one side and misery and wretchedness on the other, the more was society disturbed by internal conflicts. Not only this, but the wealth of individuals in that society became the cause of a systematic plundering by outside sources. Consequently, there arose the necessity for the formation of an institution which would not only protect the privately owned wealth, but would also endow that wealth “with the universal sanction of society.” “And this institution was found,” says Engels. “The State arose.” Arising from the necessity of conserving the wealth of individuals forming a class by themselves, and the desire of these to keep in check the rest of society, the State, differing in form from that of earlier times, has retained its essential character throughout, that is, a means of domination.

As Engels points out:—

  “The antique state was, therefore, the state of the slave-owners for the purpose of holding the slaves in check. The feudal state was the organ of the nobility for the suppression, of the serfs and dependent farmers. The modern representative state is the tool of the capitalist exploiters of wage labour.”—(“Origin of the Family,” page 209).

Now, as most people are aware, the State not only consists of the machinery for making laws, it also consists of the means of enforcing the observance of those laws. Obviously, there would be little use of making laws in a society where class divisions prompt people to act in defiance of them, unless some means existed to enforce action in line with the laws. The means existing for this purpose, although covered by a “code of legality,” are the armed forces.

Robert Reynolds

(To be continued.)

Link to Part 6.