August 17, 2021
From Irish Marxism
Utopian socialism, such as this imagined image of Robert Owen’s short lived utopian community of New Harmony, Indiana was based on ideas. Karl Marx’s was based on existing reality and its development.

Karl Marx’s Alternative to Capitalism – Part 37

Marx said that “new superior relations of production never replace older ones before the material conditions for their existence have matured within the framework of the old society.”  (1859 Preface). So what are these material conditions that must have matured?

We have already seen that these involve sufficient development of the forces of production so that society is potentially productive enough to abolish the inequalities upon which class relations rest.  Such relations before the development of capitalism resided within and supported productive forces that hitherto could not be held in common, therefore providing the grounds for a class that owned the means of production and a class that did not.  In capitalism it is capitalists that own the means of production as private property, which is always the right to exclude others from ownership, and the working class that is so excluded. However, as we have also seen, capitalism provides the grounds to go beyond this division.

Ownership and exclusion in production necessarily entails ownership and exclusion of the products of that production, of consumption.  The growth in the mass of profit, distributed as profit of enterprise or as dividends, interest, rent etc. is obviously conditioned by ownership just as salaries and wages are also so conditioned.  The means of consumption cannot be equitably distributed because the ownership of the means of production entails ownership of what is produced. Insufficient development of production imposes constraints and restrictions on the distribution of consumption so that common ownership of the means of production is equally not possible.  

Such inequalities have developed historically through different forms of class society and utopian schemes to wipe the slate clean and impose a more equal society have been doomed to failure unless the material grounds for such equality can be created.  This involves a sufficient level of productivity of labour that everyone can have their consumption needs met, and that these needs can be developed without also developing gross inequalities in their distribution.

So what level is this?

While it is clear that pre-capitalist and early capitalist societies could not provide the grounds for common ownership of production and growing equality of consumption, it is also clear that capitalist development now offers such a prospect. ‘Clear’, not just because of the level of the productive forces already achieved in a growing number of countries but also because of the waste generated by capitalism and its potential for more rational organisation (and the fact that this more rational organisation is also taking place, albeit also disfigured by its own continuing capitalist irrationality).

It would however be unhistorical to state some absolute level, since needs develop historically as a function of the development of the forces of production which create them.  It is therefore the latter development that determines this level.

For Frederick Engels in ‘Anti-Dühring’ this level had been reached by the late 1870s:

“The possibility of securing for every member of society, by means of socialised production, an existence not only fully sufficient materially, and becoming day by day more full, but an existence guaranteeing to all the free development and exercise of their physical and mental faculties – this possibility is now for the first time here, but it is here.”

The appropriation of the means of production is therefore key to the satisfaction of needs and its equitable distribution.  Appropriation by society as a whole, by its associated producers – the working class (those who work) – provides the grounds for the appropriation of the fruits of that production. 

As Frederick Engels again pointed out in ‘Anti-Dühring’:

“Before capitalistic production, i.e., in the Middle Ages, the system of petty industry obtained generally, based upon the private property of the labourers in their means of production; {in the country,} the agriculture of the small peasant, freeman or serf; in the towns, the handicrafts. The instruments of labour – land, agricultural implements, the workshop, the tool – were the instruments of labour of single individuals, adapted for the use of one worker, and, therefore, of necessity, small, dwarfish, circumscribed. But, for this very reason they belonged, as a rule, to the producer himself.”

“To concentrate these scattered, limited means of production, to enlarge them, to turn them into the powerful levers of production of the present day – this was precisely the historic role of capitalist production and of its upholder, the bourgeoisie. . . But the bourgeoisie . . . could not transform these puny means of production into mighty productive forces without transforming them, at the same time, from means of production of the individual into social means of production only workable by a collectivity of men.”

“The spinning-wheel, the hand-loom, the blacksmith’s hammer, were replaced by the spinning- machine, the power-loom, the steam-hammer; the individual workshop by the factory implying the co-operation of hundreds and thousands of workmen. In like manner, production itself changed from a series of individual into a series of social acts, and the products from individual to social products. The yarn, the cloth, the metal articles that now came out of the factory were the joint product of many workers, through whose hands they had successively to pass before they were ready. No one person could say of them: “I made that; this is my product.” 

Capitalism has thus developed the forces of production in such a way that they can be appropriated by society as a whole; in fact it has started this process itself:

“On the one hand, therefore, the capitalistic mode of production stands convicted of its own incapacity to further direct these productive forces. On the other, these productive forces themselves, with increasing energy, press forward to the removal of the existing contradiction, to the abolition of their quality as capital, to the practical recognition of their character as social productive forces.” 

“This rebellion of the productive forces, as they grow more and more powerful, against their quality as capital, this stronger and stronger command that their social character shall be recognised, forces the capitalist class itself to treat them more and more as social productive forces, so far as this is possible under capitalist conditions. The period of industrial high pressure, with its unbounded inflation of credit, not less than the crash itself, by the collapse of great capitalist establishments, tends to bring about that form of the socialisation of great masses of means of production which we meet with in the different kinds of joint-stock companies.”

“Many of these means of production and of communication are, from the outset, so colossal that, like the railways, they exclude all other forms of capitalistic exploitation. At a further stage of evolution this form also becomes insufficient: the official representative of capitalist society – the state – will ultimately have to undertake the direction of production. This necessity for conversion into state property is felt first in the great institutions for intercourse and communication – the post office, the telegraphs, the railways.”

“If the crises demonstrate the incapacity of the bourgeoisie for managing any longer modern productive forces, the transformation of the great establishments for production and distribution into joint-stock companies and state property shows how unnecessary the bourgeoisie are for that purpose. All the social functions of the capitalist are now performed by salaried employees. The capitalist has no further social function than that of pocketing dividends, tearing off coupons, and gambling on the Stock Exchange, where the different capitalists despoil one another of their capital. At first the capitalist mode of production forces out the workers. Now it forces out the capitalists, and reduces them, just as it reduced the workers, to the ranks of the surplus population, although not immediately into those of the industrial reserve army.” 

“But the transformation, either into joint-stock companies, or into state ownership, does not do away with the capitalistic nature of the productive forces.” 

Of course, legions of socialists are able to see capitalism as wholly reactionary, of being in decline and permanent crisis while failing to recognise that through these crises and renewed periods of accelerated accumulation capitalism continues to play the role of preparing for socialism in this ‘positive’ fashion.

They sometimes make the further mistake, inconsistent with their first, that state ownership is not only positive in this sense but progressive in the sense of being the germ of socialism that only needs to continue its growth.  This is best summed up in demands to nationalise the top monopolies or whatever capitalist enterprise is currently failing.

But as Engels immediately goes on to say in Anti-Dühring:

“The modern state, no matter what its form, is essentially a capitalist machine, the state of the capitalists, the ideal personification of the total national capital. The more it proceeds to the taking over of productive forces, the more does it actually become the national capitalist, the more citizens does it exploit. The workers remain wage-workers – proletarians. The capitalist relation is not done away with. It is rather brought to a head. But, brought to a head, it topples over. State ownership of the productive forces is not the solution of the conflict, but concealed within it are the technical conditions that form the elements of that solution.” 

So the technical elements of the material conditions for the new superior relations of production have matured within the framework of the old society.

This leads Marx to say that:

“This result of the ultimate development of capitalist production is a necessary transitional phase towards the reconversion of capital into the property of producers, although no longer as the private property of the individual producers, but rather as the property of associated producers, as outright social property” (Capital Vol 3 Chapter 27)

Capitalism is thus transitional to socialism but this is also, like capitalism before it, the creation of human beings, and not just human beings as agents of some disembodied socialisation of capitalism.  For Marx, ultimately these material conditions require workers themselves being agents of socialisation of production and agents of political change that guarantees the new relations of production.

Future posts will look at this working class agency but the next posts will look in more detail at the socialisation of production and how it heralds the potential of socialism.

back to part 36

Forward to part 38