Philosophy and Ideology. Z. A. Jordan 1963


The point that the impermanence of laws, whether natural or social, must be accounted for has been overlooked by Marxist-Leninists. They assume that it is enough to appeal to the change of social conditions – and these do change constantly – to account not only for the restricted applicability but also for the transitoriness of laws themselves, the ‘disappearance’ of the ‘old’ and the ‘emergence’ of the ‘new’ laws. This, however, is not the case. Suspicions have been aroused that there is something fundamentally wrong with the otherwise plausible view that the laws of economics are historical in character, limited to certain conditions of time and space[1034]. In Poland it was Lange who realised that the point in question required elucidation and who tried to fill the gap in the theory by some provisions, which, without giving up the historical character of socio-economic laws, would account for the continuity of the evolutionary process.

Lange’s contribution consists in putting Stalin views, expounded in Economic Problems of Socialism in the USSR, in a systematic order. Lange is interested exclusively in historical materialism and its application to political economy, and he seems to regard historical materialism as a self-sufficient theory. It presupposes philosophical materialism but can do without the dialectics. In this respect Lange follows an independent line. Most Polish Marxist-Leninists adhere to Stalin’s view and regard the laws of dialectics as the most fundamental assumptions of the theory of social development[1035].

Lange distinguishes three categories of laws by means of which each socioeconomic formation can be described[1036]. To begin at the lowest level of generality, with which the shortest ‘expectation of life’ is associated, each of the various formations is governed by its own specific laws. They either refer to the characteristics of the economic basis and formulate laws of behaviour and patterns of interaction to which people, bound together by some definite relations of production, have to conform, or they express the effects brought about by the superstructure in the economic basis.

Among the specific laws the most important is the basic economic law of each formation. In the capitalist formation it is the law of the maximum capitalist profit, and in the socialist formation the law of the maximum satisfaction of needs of the whole of society. These laws are not only specific but also basic, because each of them determines a number of other laws specific for this formation, and thus confers upon it the character of a concrete whole and a distinct entity, existing ‘in the world’ independently of the will of man.

The laws resulting from the influence of the superstructure upon the basis might change more than once during the life-time of each formation. They are effects of the activity of the State which might pursue various policies with respect to foreign trade, money, foreign currency, and so forth. Such policies are economically relevant activities, they affect the web of relations constituting the economic basis and indirectly cause the emergence of new laws reflecting the changes in the basis.

These basic laws set some puzzling questions. For these laws are clearly normative in character and state the assumed social objectives to be pursued in the administration of economic resources. Once the objective is set, rules, including those concerned with the use of resources, can be formulated, which would be appropriate to the attainment of the pursued end. The rules would be relative to the available resources and the selected objective, and in this sense they are dependent on the basic law. It seems to follow that a socio-economic formation is determined by Aristotle’s final cause. The description of the way in which a socio-economic formation operates has to make use of the logic of teleological explanation and to apply the means-ends model. This is hard to reconcile with that part of the Marxist-Leninist theory which states that economic laws prevail in Nature and are independent of man’s will.

Moreover, the whole Marxist-Leninist conception of basic laws is hardly compatible with the belief that political economy is a value-free science, comparable with astronomy or physics. The basic law of capitalism or of socialism is clearly a normative principle binding upon practice. It makes a pronouncement which involves value judgments and standards of valuation. It is for the economists to decide whether they should admit such value-judgments into an economic theory. In this context it is sufficient to emphasise that it is misleading to suggest that the differences of opinion about ends can be resolved by economics as a positive science. It is also self-contradictory to proclaim that political economy is a neutral science and to admit a normative approach into political economy qua political economy.

The second main category consists of laws which hold in more than one socioeconomic formation. For instance, the laws of money circulation hold in every formation in which money is used. The law of value, bound to appear in the wake of commodity production, held before capitalism existed and still holds after its overthrow. Its ‘longevity’ is associated with the fact that it may reflect some characteristics of the prevailing system of both production and distribution.

The third category of laws provides the basis for the continuity of social development. They are sociological in character and common to all formations. Two of these laws have already been mentioned: the laws of the necessary conformity of the relations of production and of the superstructure with the character of the productive forces and the economic basis respectively. There are also some universally valid purely economic laws. These are the so-called technical and accounting identities. They express the equality of certain sums of money or of certain uses of commodities in the economy. A simple example is provided by the statement that everybody’s income is either spent or saved. It is obvious that such relations always remain true.

The two sociological laws are essentially forces of conservation. They constitute a self-corrective device which eliminates frictions and re-establishes the internal harmony of the formation. When, owing to the interference of some other forces, this self-corrective device ceases to operate, the required conformity can no longer be restored by other means but by a violent upheaval. This does not apply to a socio-economic formation from which antagonistic social forces have been eliminated. In a socialist formation the self-corrective device, resulting from the operation of the two sociological laws, can work smoothly and indefinitely. A formation of this kind is self-perpetuating, it knows no ‘old age’ and is immune from destruction. Its evolution follows a course of undisturbed and constant progress.[1037]

In the Marxian conceptual scheme the key to the dynamics of social evolution is provided by the role assigned to the relations of production. They may act as a principal mainspring impelling and stimulating the productive forces or as a brake upon them and a hindrance to any further development, which, speaking metaphorically, makes a revolutionary explosion both possible and inevitable. This is made clear in the celebrated passage of the preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy and even clearer in The Communist Manifesto and Capital. The relations of production play the role, ascribed to them by Marx, in the capitalist mode of production. In the whole course of the social evolution, however, the factor which is the ‘most mobile and revolutionary force’, which never stagnates and ‘grows old’, is the productive forces. Inventions and improvements of productive forces continually generate tensions and set problems, which must be solved by adjustments in the whole social fabric. The third fundamental sociological law (which, with the two previously mentioned, constitutes the foundation of the theory of historical materialism) states that there is a natural tendency for the productive forces to develop and improve[1038].

It is the progressive development of the means of production that is the mainspring of change and social evolution. It gradually changes the conditions, makes the transformation of one mode of production into another inevitable, and acts as an impelling force of a limitless progress in the socialist formation. Engels’ ‘economic movement’, which, in the last analysis, asserts itself decisively and necessarily, should be identified with the progressive development of productive forces.

Lange’s views coincide with those of Bukharin. Referring to Marx and Plekhanov, Bukharin argued that technology, being a varying quantity, produces by its variations the changes in the relations between society and Nature. On the other hand, the development of the productive forces, which initiates the chain social reaction, consists precisely in the development of technology. It is the technological change which disturbs the external and internal equilibrium and thus maintains the evolutionary process. Consequently, Bukharin concluded, technology must constitute a point of departure in the analysis of social transformation. A contemporary American anthropologist expressed the same idea. Fundamentally, it is man’s capacity to produce, or rather his technical skill, that evolves and progresses[1039].

Lange takes up a strand of thought which is essential to Marx’s way of thinking.

Franklin defined man as a tool-making animal and Marx adopted this definition. It is technology, Marx wrote, that enables us to distinguish different economic epochs, for technology supplies not only a standard of measurement, by means of which the degree of development attained by human labour can be established, but also serves as an indicator of its social conditions. If technology determines the development of material production, and material production is the ‘basis of all social life’, ‘real history’ in Marx’s sense becomes indistinguishable from the history of technology. ‘Technology discloses man’s mode of dealing with Nature, the process of production by which he sustains his life, and thereby also lays bare the mode of formation of his social relations, and of the mental conceptions that flow from them’ [1040]. The view that technological knowledge provides the foundation on which society rests has a large number of supporters, not necessarily adherents of the Marxian school of thought.

The reduction of the materialist to the technological conception of history replaces a ‘mere phrase’, as Engels put it, an almost meaningless label, by a more precise and possibly testable hypothesis. It does not lend itself to largescale constructions of the traditional Marxian kind, one of which is that of Lange himself. Productive forces are the tools together with human skill, experience, and knowledge of technological processes. Technique on which technology is based is not an independent branch of knowledge. It has grown up together with modern science and its continued growth is unimaginable without a steady scientific advancement on an ever widening front. Moreover, the progress of science is not dependent solely on the quantity and quality of intellectual ability engaged in scientific research. To say that the causes of social development are in the last resort technological is to assume a considerable number of variables which determine social progress.

To-day, we easily recognise that technology exercises a powerful influence, direct or indirect, upon social life, upon our intellectual and moral outlook. But the transformation of the economic structure and of the whole tissue of social relations through the application of science is an event of recent date. So far as the distant past is concerned, it is hard to say precisely, as a matter of fact and not as a surmise supported by a few isolated examples, what role science and technique played. The famous dictum in The Poverty of Philosophy that the ‘hand-mill gives you society with the feudal lord; the steam-mill, society with the industrial capitalist’ [1041] is no substitute for what is required to transform an idea into a hypothesis corroborated by historical evidence covering all ages and places. Slave labour was the pivot of the economy of the Greek city-states and, up to the middle of the last century, of bourgeois economy in a large part of the world. Can the history of China or India be explained in terms of technological change? Generally speaking, it is difficult to answer the question whether in the past the effects of technological improvements on social life were negligible or whether they were real as to-day and only slower in relation to the life of a generation. For it is only in the present age that we have begun to move within a single lifetime out of one technological era into another and very different one.

There is a wide gap, therefore, between an intuitive understanding of the role of technology in social life and the assertion that it is the decisive factor that determines unequivocally social development in all its manifold manifestations. It is still less plausible to assume that technological advance is a necessary, inevitable, and predictable process. For there is no answer to the question why this should be the case. The cumulative character of knowledge makes it probable that our technological skill would continue to improve. Moreover, it has been suggested that the rate of technological growth increases with each increment of advancement. Consequently, technological progress makes more technological progress likely[1042]. But to say that technological advance is inevitable is to ignore the fact that other factors, regular or irregular, may interfere or counteract technological growth, and to maintain that it can be predicted is to reveal one’s ignorance of what a scientific prediction consists of. Neither historical knowledge about scientific development in the past nor the cumulative character of science provide the basis for predicting discoveries, inventions, and, in general, the development of science in the future. If we cannot anticipate the future state of knowledge, neither can we make a prognosis as to what its effects on social development would be. The technological conception of history is incompatible either with prophecies about the future, or, in general, with historicist conceptions which it is supposed to support.