Marx’s Basic Theory

Karl Marx and Friederich Engels wrote the Communist Manifesto 150 years ago. In this article we look at the basic theoretical position that Marx developed.

Any analysis of society and its problems must, according to Marx, start in an examination of its processes of production. All human societies have to be concerned, before anything else, with the production and distribution of the means of life. By using tools and instruments to effect changes in nature, humans are able to satisfy their material and other needs through productive labour. It is this activity which Marx saw as being at the base of all societies.

Before humans can do almost anything at all they must satisfy certain basic needs, they must feed, clothe and house themselves. Production is “the first premise of all human existence . . . men must be in a position to live in order to be able to ‘make history'” (The German Ideology).This approach, called by Marx and Engels the Materialist Conception of History or historical materialism, was for Marx, as he put it in his A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, the “guiding thread” in his political studies.

Because humans produce their own means of life the means available to them to do so determines their level of existence. These are what Marx called the “productive forces” of society. The productive forces consist of means of production, and labour power. Means of production include tools, machinery, premises and infrastructure (“the means of labour”-what humans work with) and raw material (“the objects of labour”-what humans work on). Labour power (which enables them to work with means of production) includes strength, skill, knowledge and inventiveness.

It is the level of development of productive forces, and the way in which society organises their operation, which marks out the different stages of human development. It is “the multitude of productive forces accessible to men” which, Marx says, “determines the nature of society” (The German Ideology).

Marx took for granted that human beings are inventive and are continually improving the productive forces, and will not voluntarily give up advantages gained in the field of productive activity. This is the evidence of history. Productive advance is independent of the social form production takes. It is improvements in technology, improvements in the ability of human beings to win a living from nature, which cumulatively result in major changes in society. As an analogy we may take the invention of gunpowder making the reorganisation of armies necessary in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

Marx had discovered that throughout history changes in the productive forces of society had made it necessary to radically change the organisation of human society. As a result of changes in the productive forces the economic structure of society (the “relations of production”) had to change to accommodate the new situation. Because they were standing in the way of further development the old production relations had to make way for new ones.

Production relations

Production relations are of two kinds. Firstly there are those pertaining to ownership by persons, either individually or collectively, of productive forces. These regulate and control access to, and use of, the means of production. Secondly, relationships that structure the labour process but which are not that process. These depend on which type of ownership relations dominate a given society. In turn they regulate and control what is produced and when, in what quantities, and for what purpose. The economic structure of feudal society, for example, had to be changed because it had developed within it means of production that were being hampered from further development by the way that that society produced and exchanged wealth. The feudal relations of property “became no longer compatible with the already developed productive forces; they became so many fetters. They had to be burst asunder; they were burst asunder” (Communist Manifesto). It was at this point that feudalism gave way to capitalism.

Marx believed capitalism had reached a similar stage in its expansion of the productive forces. They could not be further developed without plunging world society into periodic crises of overproduction. “The conditions of bourgeois society are too narrow to comprise the wealth created by them” (Communist Manifesto). The production relations of capitalism had to be replaced by new production relations, namely common ownership of the productive forces-communism (or socialism). Private ownership (that is property in the means of production) which still regulates and controls access to, and use of, the means of production has become “a fetter”. They are operated in the interest of profit-making only, and not simply to satisfy human needs. In terms of technological knowledge the means to produce abundance now exists. Capitalism has solved the problem of production, but it cannot solve the problem of distribution. More and more can be produced with less and less labour. There is a “monstrous disproportion between the labour time applied, and its product”. As has happened in the past social relations must change to accommodate expanding productive capability.

This was the conclusion reached by Marx and outlined in a passage in the Preface to his A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy in 1859. It explained his views on the development of human society:

In the social production of their life, men enter into definite relations that are indispensable and independent of their will, relations of production which correspond to a definite stage of development of their material productive forces. The sum total of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which rise legal and political superstructures and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness. The mode of production of material life conditions the social, political and intellectual life process in general.

It appears from this passage that historical materialism is deterministic in at least the following senses:

1. Human beings cannot develop apart from society, and as material production is social they enter into social relations that are “given” by society.

2. That the society in which people live is the outcome of historical development and is by implication changeable.

3. The economic structure of society depends on the stage to which the productive forces have developed, and by implication cannot be changed by individual acts of will that ignore or try to circumvent these stages.

4. That the ideas of society are “conditioned” by the mode of production.

5. That changes in the economic structure that is the base (the “real foundation”) of society give rise to changes in the “superstructure” and to changed ideas about how society should be structured.

From capitalism to socialism

Marx’s analysis revealed that developments in the productive forces of society are working in favour of change. Marx showed that capitalism had outlived its social usefulness. It had fulfilled its historic role-that of developing the productive forces to such a point that it was both feasible and desirable to end class society and exploitation. It had compelled “all nations, on pain of extinction, to adopt the bourgeois mode of production . . . to become bourgeois themselves. In one word, it creates a world after its own image” (Communist Manifesto). Capitalism itself was producing the conditions for its own destruction by implementing changes that constantly increase productive capacities on a world scale. But it is unable to cope rationally with the productive resources of the planet and is constantly lurching from crisis to crisis. In other words the “material productive forces of society [are] in conflict with the existing relations of production” (Preface to A Contribution to a Critique of Political Economy).

Marx’s analysis shows that the socialist revolution must be world-wide and cannot be achieved in one country alone. Because capitalism has become a world-wide system the society to replace it must also be world-wide. Class emancipation must mean the “freeing of the whole of society from exploitation, oppression and class struggle . . .” (Engels’s Preface to 1883 German edition of Communist Manifesto). Capitalism has made abundance a possibility, and made workable the “Communistic abolition of buying and selling . . . the moment when labour can no longer be converted into capital, money or rent, into a social power capable of being monopolised” (Communist Manifesto). As we in the Socialist Party predicted at the time of the Bolshevik insurrection it was not possible to have a socialist revolution in those countries in which capitalism had not yet fully developed and then to wait for the rest of the world to join in. The Bolsheviks had no possibility of introducing socialism. There is no “short cut” that can be implemented by a minority “vanguard” on behalf of the working class.

The change from capitalism to socialism requires the deliberate actions of men and women-it is not an automatic or mechanistic process. The task must be carried out democratically by those whose interests are most involved and who have the most to gain: that is, the working class. Changes to the economic structure of society have to be brought about through action on the political field. The owners of the means of production must be dispossessed by those who must first ” . . . win the battle of democracy” (Communist Manifesto).

Before it is possible to have socialism a majority of the working class must understand what needs to be done. To be successful the socialist movement must be “the self-conscious, independent movement of the immense majority, in the interests of the immense majority” (Communist Manifesto). In addition to the struggle over wages and conditions at work, the working class has to contest with the owners of the means of production on the political field in order to change the economic structure. It must “thoroughly comprehend the historical conditions and thus the very nature of this act . . . and the meaning of the momentous act it is called upon to accomplish” (Engels, Socialism: Utopian and Scientific).

Marx’s “guiding thread” had led him through his studies to the conclusion that capitalism had brought into being a class that would be able to free itself from exploitation without having to rely on leaders to do it for them. “We cannot therefore co-operate”, said Marx, in a criticism of Leninism before its time “with people who openly state that the workers are too uneducated to emancipate themselves and must first be freed from above” (Letters to Bebel, Liebknecht and others, September 1879).

Gwynn Thomas

Leave a Reply