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The New International, May 1935


Rubin Gotesky

Marxism: Science or Method?

The Historical Limits of the Materialist Conception of History

From New International, Vol.2 No.3, May 1935, pp.106-109.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.



IF CONTROL, then, does not rob historical materialism of its scientific applicability to any society, can the same be said for the second argument? Can one maintain that historical materialism necessarily limits the application of the term “productive relations” to the private ownership of the means of production? Or has it a wider periphery of meaning? The answer to this question is largely confined to the discussion of what Marx and Engels meant by the term, but, at the same time, we shall have to concern ourselves with certain important aspects of the materialist conception which Hook does not either consider at all or without proper theoretical emphasis. Without such additional discussion, it will be impossible to make clear the reasons why Marx and Engels used the term, productive relations, in a wider sense than Hook.

Engels gave a very clear formulation of the materialist conception in his Die Ursprung der Familie. He said:

“According to the materialist conception, the determining impulse in history is, in the last instance, the production and reproduction directly of life. Both manifest themselves, however, in two ways: on the one side, the production of the means of life, of the objects of nourishment, clothing, shelter, and tools required to produce these; and, on the other, the production of people themselves, the propagation of the species.”

Up to this point, Engels defines what Hook calls the dynamic factors in society. But there is here a significant improvement over Hook’s own interpretation. Hook relies only upon the productive forces, or rather, the “instruments of production”, as the producer of changes [1]; Engels, more wisely, includes as well the reproduction of life. Both together act as conditioning factors, responsible for revolutionary changes in society.

The mere development of productive forces would not of itself be sufficient, as Hook admits (vide, chap.12, sec.1, on technique and economics) to explain the appearance of contradictions in society between the productive forces and the productive relations, since the productive relations may be sufficiently elastic to adapt themselves to the changes produced by science and technology. Nor can the development of the productive forces be understood without the conditioning factor of the reproduction of life. It is obvious that in a society where the population merely reproduces itself from generation to generation, there is little or no change in the productive forces, nor is there, other factors being equal, any stimulus to make such changes. On the other hand, in a society which is constantly increasing in number, new methods and ways ultimately must be found to satisfy the needs of its increasing population; the mere multiplication of mouths to feed must ultimately stimulate the search for new methods of production or of improving the older methods. There is no doubt that the discovery of new ways of satisfying human needs has also the converse effect of stimulating, as a whole, an increased reproduction of the human species. Marx points out two effects of the development of capitalism upon the reproduction of the human species. In the first place, the “accumulation of capital” involves an “increase of the proletariat”, for the growth of capital is impossible without at the same time an increase of the variable part of capital, i.e., labor power. (Capital, p.672, Kerr ed.) In the second place, certain categories or sections of the working class, despite their “productive” superfluity, increase to a greater extent than any other section of the working class. This happens, in particular, to the partly employed.

“It forms at the same time a self-reproducing and self-perpetuating element of the working class, taking a proportionally greater part in the general increase of that class than the other elements. In fact, not only the number of births and deaths, but the absolute size of the families stand in inverse proportion to the height of wages ... This law of capitalist society would sound absurd to savages or even civilized colonists. It calls to mind the boundless reproduction of animals individually weak and constantly hunted down.” (Capital, p.706.)

It is not our intention to deny this converse effect of the development of the productive forces on the reproduction of life. In fact, the reciprocal relation between both helps to explain why the latter must be taken into account in order to explain revolutionary changes.

Even the assertion by itself of the contradictions between the productive forces and the productive relations in society is inadequate to explain revolutions, unless the reproduction of the species is involved in the explanation. These contradictions, in fact, might continue forever, if it were not that the maintenance and continued reproduction of life becomes more and more impossible under existing productive relations. Marx clearly implies this in one of his letters to Kugelman. He says, attacking Lange’s Ueber der Arbeiterfrage:

“Herr Lange ... has made a great discovery. The whole of history can be brought under a single great law. This natural law is the phrase (in this application Darwin’s expression becomes nothing but a phrase) the ‘struggle for life’, and the content of this phrase is the Malthusian law of population, or rather, over-population. So, instead of analyzing the struggle for life as represented historically in varying and definite forms of society, all that has to be done is to translate every concrete struggle into the phrase ‘struggle for life’, and thus phrase itself into the Malthusian population fantasy.” [2]

Marx here clearly asserts that there is a struggle for life in society [3], or, to put it more Darwinianly, there is a struggle to reproduce and maintain the species. What he is objecting to is Lange’s failure to concretize its meaning, to show the particular manner, character, and mode of operation of this law in various forms of society. With this conception, it is not a very difficult logical step to conclude that Marx, like Engels, conceived of the reproduction of life, as one of the two great agents of social change, the other being the productive forces. Under a specific mode of production, or more exactly, at a certain stage in the development or decline of a specific mode of production, the difficulty of reproducing the species, the maintenance and continuance of human life becomes so much more difficult, that those who are most adversely affected become more and more revolutionary. The specific character and form of these revolutionary struggles are naturally determined by the character of the society in which these struggles take place.

It can not be said, however, that Hook completely disregards the reproduction of life as a conditioning factor in the social order. But he mentions it, as if by accident and without the proper emphasis it deserves. He says,

“At a certain point in the course of their development [of the instruments of production – R.G.] the changed relations in the forces of production come into conflict with existing property relations. At what point ? At a point ... where the great masses of human beings, out of whose labor all social value and capital have come, cannot be sustained by their own, institutional handiwork.”

In other words, when the reproduction and maintenance of life is made more and more impossible, “it then becomes recognized that ‘from forms of development of the forces of production the relations of production turn into their fetters’.” (Hook, p.137)

Engels, then, must be considered correct in adding immediately after the passage quoted above that

“... the social regulations under which people of a given epoch and a given country live, are conditioned by both sorts of production: on the one side, through the development of labor, and on the other, through the development of the family”.

No society, nevertheless, can be understood without considering; the relations of productions through and within which the productive forces are developed and life is reproduced, since the latter can not be said to operate without restrictions, unhampered in their motion and effects. Hook, therefore, does very valuable service for Marxism in pointing out that a purely technological interpretation of history cannot explain all historical changes or deduce the “social consequences of technological invention.” (Hook, p.144) Still the very value of Hook’s critical efforts leaves a mystery on our hands which he nowhere solves: to explain how it is that the productive forces come to contradict the relations of production? How is it that contradictions can develop, despite the fact that “the selective application of technical invention is determined by the existing relations of production and not vice versa”? (Hook, p.143) Should it not follow from the very fact that inventions are selected in order to maintain existing productive relations that no contradictions should really appear? If historical materialism can not furnish a clue to this problem left unsolved by Hook, it is as useless as any of the other numerous interpretations of history.

No explanation, however, will be forthcoming, unless it is realized that the productive forces are often responsible for the creation of new classes as well as the disappearance of the old. It is these new classes who come into contradiction with existing productive relations. Tied by an unbreakable umbilical cord to these new productive forces which called them into existence, they come into conflict with and seek violently to overthrow the old predom-mating productive relations. Where they succeed a new social order comes into existence. Where they fail, the old society dies, and they, with it. Engels, for example, points out that the discovery of the arts of stock-raising, agriculture, and domestic handicrafts brought into existence the classes of slave-owners and slaves. (Origin of the Family, p.195) The discovery and the smelting of iron played a “revolutionary role in history” (p.197) in dividing labor into two great kinds: agricultural and handicraft, which, in turn, created the two other classes of the rich and the poor, the ground for the fundamental antagonism of ancient Greece and Rome. (p.198) The development of the productive forces of feudal society, led to the appearance of town and new classes, the artisans, merchants, and usurers. The artisans underwent further subdivision of labor within their own crafts as their own productivity and the demand for their products increased; and out of this division, came modern class distinctions. The towns, in turn, made greater demands upon the country. Marx points out, in explaining the genesis of modern capitalist production in England, that the increased demand for wool by Flemish manufacturers, a demand, in other words, upon the country, led directly to the violent expropriation of the independent peasants by the feudal nobility, who sought, by turning the newly acquired land into sheepfolds and pastures, to profit by the rise in the price of wool. This mere change from the production of grain to the production of wool, turned, with one stroke, the former independent peasants into a new class, the class of free proletarians, ready to be exploited by the growing capitalists in the towns. (Capital, Vol.I, p.789ff.) Marx (Vol.II, p. 122 to 277) also points out how the increased productivity of capital, the rapid expansion of the productive forces, the use of machinery subordinates first one section of the capitalist class to another. The agricultural capitalist becomes subordinate to the manufacturing capitalist, and the latter, because of the enormous capital needed for large scale machine production, to the financial capitalist.

The further development of the productive forces does not involve, under given social conditions, the creation of new classes. It may only create new occupations and new strata within a given class or destroy old classes. This may happen because, under existing conditions, no new classes can be created or old classes reappear again. Modern capitalism, for example, is in such a position. All existing classes are being polarized by or forced into two crucial classes: the capitalist and the proletariat. The conflict between both, however, is not one between an emerging new class, based upon an entirely different system of production, but between two classes who emerged at the same time out of the womb of feudalism, for control of the existing productive system The conflict grows out of the fact that the requirements, subsistent and social, of the proletariat can not be fulfilled under existing productive relations, and not out of the desire to permit new methods of production to expand. The proletariat, therefore, seeks to alter the present relations of productions which involve the fundamental question of ownership of the means of production, but not all relations of production following from the needs or requirements of a modern productive system – the relations of management to producers, of transportation units to factory and agricultural units, for these just mentioned are also relations of productions.

It is indubitable that later changes in the controlled society, i.e., in the proletarian state, will take place among occupations due to the changes in the productive forces of the society, changes which at times may require a complete readaptation and reorganization of the various productive relations (not propertial) and thus a temporary uprooting and permanent alteration of the customary modes of living. Without doubt, it will be at such times that the planned economy will show stresses and strains, contradictions between the relations of production and the forces of production; and temporary differences of opinion, organized into temporary groupings will make their appearance until the problem is on its way towards a solution.

With the mystery of the interconnection of the productive forces .and relations solved, we can now turn to the business of explaining the meaning of productive relations, particularly with reference to the question: whether Marx and Engels ever identified productive relations with private property relations.

Earlier we quoted Engels as saying that two factors condition the “social regulations under which people of a given epoch and a given country live”. Ought we to consider these “social regulations” as equivalent in intension to the “relations of production”? The only right answer is “yes”, and the next section from the same passage proves this. Engels says:

“... the less developed labor, the smaller [beschränkter] the number of its products, thus, also, the wealth of that society, – the more predominantly is that social order seen to be ruled by sexual ties. Under this organization of society, grounded in sexual ties, the productivity of labor is more and more developed; along with this, private property, and exchange, distinctions in wealth, the employment of alien labor power, make their appearance. The new social elements, which are the necessary basis for class antagonisms, are forced, in the course of generations, to adapt the old forms of social organization to new circumstances. Finally, the incompatibility of both brings, about a complete revolution. The old form of society founded on sexual relations is abolished in the clash with the recently developed social classes. A new society steps into being, crystallized in the state. The units are no longer sexual, but local groups; a society in which family relations are entirely subordinated to property relations, thereby freely developing these class antagonisms and class struggles that make up the contents of all written history up to the present time.”

We must be forgiven for the length of the quotation, but quoting it was essential in order to show that productive relations, with Engels, are not limited to property relations, in the sense of private property relations. The productive relations have undergone, so Engels asserts, considerable transformations in form. At the beginning of human history, the productive relations were predominantly expressed through sexual ties. Sexual ties determined the inheritance of personal property, the distribution of consumptive goods, the place and position of men and women in the social order; they determined the kind of work to be performed, and the nature and kind of punishment to be administered for breaking the social mores, and the manner in which decisions are reached on questions affecting the whole society. It required a considerable transformation in the productivity of labor, the discovery of new ways of satisfying wants, a revolution, in other words, of the productive forces, to destroy the old productive relations, and establish new ones based entirely on private property relations. The appearance of a new order of productive relations, expressed through the private ownership of the means of production, thus became the source for the development of class antagonism and struggle up to the present day.

Engels never identifies property relations with productive relations, for property relations are – to use Aristotelian language, one of the species of the genus productive relations; or – in Marxian terms – property relations are the form productive relations assume under a given system or mode of production.

A most interesting aspect, in a way, of this discussion is that, abstractly, Hook defines the relations of production correctly. It might appear, at first sight, amazing that he should have described them correctly and yet limited their application so narrowly, if one did not recognize that the verbal expression is often not identical with the meaning in one’s mind. Hook writes, “the relations of production express the way in which productive forces and productive conditions are organized by the social activity of man” (p.133). Thus in his own way he is saying that every social order, whether communistic or based on private property, has its own specific type of organization of the productive forces and productive conditions, – its own relations of production. Yet two sentences later, as if to assure the reader that that is not what he means, he adds, “Property relations are their legal expressions.” It is because Hook never concretizes the meaning inherent in his own definition that he fails to see the error of his conception. And the same failure of concretization is responsible for his taking the well-known passage in the Critique of Political Economy as identifying productive relations with private property relations. But Marx here was obviously speaking of a society in which legal institutions, private property, existed; and for purposes of clarifying his meaning – as he so often did – he used what was nearest and most obvious at hand, the social order in which he lived.

If Hook had considered more carefully another passage from an equally well-known work of Marx, Lohnarbeit und Kapital, he could never insist that Marx sought to confine the meaning of the term, productive relations, to property relations. Marx says:

“... the social relations, within which individuals produce, thus the social relations of production, are changed, transformed with the changing and developing of the material means of production, the forces of production. The relations of production, in their totality, constitute what one calls the social relations, society, and indeed a society of a definite level of historical development, a society with its own distinctive character.” (Gesamtausg. Abt.I, Bd.6, p.483.)

This passage could hardly be clearer in its implication that productive relations are not confined to property relations, than if Marx had explicitly said so. In saying that the “relations of production in their totality ... constitute ... a society of a definite level of historical development, a society with its own distinctive character”, Marx clearly implies that the relations of production of a given society are only property relations, when class antagonisms are well developed, or better, when that society is a class society.

If Marx and Engels, then, did not imprison productive relations within the narrow confines of Hook’s conception, it must follow that they did not believe that historical materialism would be consigned to the purgatory of antiquated scientific theories when the classless society made its longed-for appearance. For them, at least, it would still continue to apply, even in that golden time, as an instrument for interpreting its past and explaining its future. All they would admit, if they were alive today, is this: that an a priori determination of the actual life of a classless society is impossible, apart from making the obvious truisms that it would contain no classes, that its culture would be classless. In other words, the special laws of its development could not be specified at present. But they would have one significant comment to add. That the classless society would have contradictions between the classless productive relations and the productive forces, is certain. The solution of these contradictions, however, would be found in other means than the class struggle.

Hook, strangely enough, takes the above position without, at the same time, admitting it.

“The truth is,” he says, “that the very possibility of human history, and the range within which human history can be made, will always be conditioned by natural necessities in whose existence man can have but a minor part.” (p.186)

This statement, as it stands, is only at best one of those trivial truths of which Engels spoke, but, at its worst, is one of those meaningless phrases which Marx denigrated so thoroughly. It seems to possess a rich kernel of meaning until examined; and then, the very breadth of its applicability reduces it to the unmeaning, since it does away with those essential distinctions necessary for any scientific understanding of the world. How does Hook’s statement that man is conditioned by natural necessities help one to understand the way in which he is conditioned? Does this mean to deny that man will be conditioned in his relationship to the world of nature, in some other way than through his social control over the forces of nature? Shall we take his statement as meaning that man, in a classless society, will no longer be concerned with the problem of providing himself with those things which are, at that time, considered social necessities, neither with the manner of their production, nor the distribution of work and of goods produced? Does Hook mean to say that these problems will, in no way, affect his mode of thinking, that his conceptions of the world will, in no way, be the expression of the manner and means he employs to satisfy his social wants? In short, does Hook mean to deny the fundamental basis of the materialist conception, viz., that man’s conception of nature is obtained, not directly through an immediate contact with Nature, but through the medium of productive society, which is the life-blood and lymph of his intellectual and moral system?

On the other hand, if Hook’s statement is concretized, then it is seen to re-affirm the very conception it was intended to deny. If we ask ourselves in what way is man always conditioned by natural necessities, then the correct answer, the Marxian answer, comes easily to one’s lips. Man is conditioned by natural necessities, only in so far as he is incapable of controlling and using these necessities for his own human purposes, when he is, in Spinozistic terms, the passive agent. But such control, socially speaking, is founded on man’s ability to control the production and reproduction of those things necessary for the continuance of his social existence. This control, therefore, represents in concrete, material form, man’s understanding of the world. The productive system mirrors, in other words, his practical success in understanding this world, and satisfying his desires.

This last statement should not be taken to mean, however, that the productive system is not, in the last instance, the source and determining agent of his social consciousness. It only appears as the mirror of man’s consciousness, when we approach the productive system from the subjective side, but it loses this appearance immediately, as soon as we consider ontogenetically the origin of man’s ideas, and the methods by which they are tested and proven true. [4] Viewed ontogenetically, we see that the productive system, even in a classless society, is both the cause and the effect of man’s conception of the world of nature and himself: the cause in that it is the source directly or indirectly of all his ideas, desires, hopes, and sufferings; the effect in that, through it, he is able to test and ascertain which of his ideas, desires, hopes can be realized; and which, if any, of his sufferings abolished or alleviated.

The failure of Hook, therefore, to concretize the meaning of “natural necessities”, to ask himself in what way it would manifest itself in any social order, is the basis for his short-sighted denial of the applicability of historical materialism to the classless society.



1. This note has not been included in the printed version. – Note by ETOL

2. Briefe an Kugelmann, Elementarbücher des Kommunismus. Letter dated June 27, 1870.

3. In a letter to Lassalle dated Jan. 16, 1861, Marx declared that

“Darwin’s book (Origin of Species) is very important and serves me as a basis in natural science for the class struggle in history”.

4. It might be interesting to remark that one of the reasons why the subjective life of man is not a copy or mere reflection of the productive system is that it is composed not only of workable ideas, capable of application, but also of unworkable ones. Man’s subjective life is an amalgamation of the true and the false, the real and the imaginary, as various, as strange, and as unexpected as the various forms of biological life. Nevertheless the external objects which have been so strangely and variously amalgamated can be selected out, even from the made dreams and phantasies of the insane and given a location and a name. My meaning can be graphically illustrated in the following way. A good engineer could determine the general physical theories which are actually being applied in a given productive system by examining it. He could tell, with a considerable degree of accuracy, at what level of scientific consciousness it had arrived. But he would not be able to tell, merely from examining the productive system, all the physical theories held by the scientists of that epoch, for the number of erroneous theories or erroneous conceptions that might be mingled subtly with the truth are not calculable.

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