Reform or Revolution. Paul Mattick


On the basis of its assumptions, Marx’s model of capitalist production could only end in the collapse of the capitalist system. However, this collapse was not conceived of as the automatic outcome of economic processes, independent of human actions, but as the result of the proletarian class struggle:

Along with the constantly diminishing number of magnates of capital grows the mass of misery, oppression, slavery, degradation, exploitation; but with this too grows the revolt of the working class, a class always increasing in numbers, and disciplined, united, organized by the very mechanism of the process of capitalist production itself. The monopoly of capital becomes a fetter upon the mode of production, which has sprung up and flourished along with it, and under it. Centralization of the means of production and socialization of labor at last reach a point where they are incompatible with their capitalist integument. This integument is burst asunder. The knell of capitalist private property sounds. The expropriators are expropriated. (1)

The history of the labor movement, which from a bourgeois point of view has no connection with the foregoing economic analysis, is from a Marxian point of view of the utmost importance and the very reason for concern with the problems of political economy. This holds with respect to wide-ranging issues of historical materialism, as well as to the narrower question of capitalism’s destiny. For Marx, social history is the history of class struggles, determined by the class-related contradictions characterizing any particular social formation. The general development of the social “forces of production brings forth particular social relations of production, and the combination of these determines the ruling ideology as the consciousness of a given mode of production. Material social forces determine ideational development, a fact that is rather obvious and even trivial after it has been recognized and formulated. Class relations and exploitation are as old as known history. But they have different forms depending on the mode in which surplus labor is extracted by a ruling class. This in turn depends on the state of the productive powers available at any particular time. Because a given mode of production is most advantageous for an established ruling class, it will be defended by this class against any alteration that might diminish its power and its control over the social product. By the same token, however, it will hinder the further development of the social powers of production and set itself in opposition to emerging social needs that require changes in the mode of production, and to innovations arising within the process of production itself. The continuous reproduction process always changes any particular process of production, but to varying degrees. The changes may be so slow as to be almost imperceptible, which accounts for the static conditions that prevailed in some social formations for long periods of time. But even these societies had a history simply through the alterations, however limited, in the production processes.

Radical or revolutionary changes in modes of production presuppose the rise of new classes within the existing social relations, for history, however determined by objective necessities, has to be actualized through people’s subjective determination to alter the existing social relationships. This determination will express itself in a new ideology, but both are the results of the changes that have taken place within the existing social relations of production.

Marx summed up this materialist conception of history, which served as a “leading thread” in his economic studies, as follows:

In the social production which men carry on they enter into definite relations that are indispensable and independent of their will; these relations correspond to a definite stage of development of their material powers of production. 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 in material life determines the general character of the social, political and spiritual processes of life. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but, on the contrary, their social existence determines their consciousness. At a certain stage of their development, the material forces of production in society come in conflict with the existing relations of production, or – what is but a legal expression of the same thing – with the property relations within which they had been at work before. From forms of development of the forces of production these relations turn into their fetters. Then comes a period of social revolution. (2)

If this situation may be described as one wherein the “economic structure of society” determines its “legal and political superstructure” and its “definite forms of social consciousness,” in order to bring out the point made by historical materialism, this does not imply an actual separation of “structure” and “superstructure” with the latter explained by the former, but merely states the fact that the material production process is consciously undertaken and thus conceptualizes the identity of a given state of the social powers of production with its corresponding social production relations. It is in terms of this two-sided totality, at once material and ideational, that historically evolving social formations are differentiated.

Although it is possible mentally to break up the totality of the social production and reproduction process into its various manifestations in the political, legal, and ideational spheres of social practice, these aspects cannot be concretely isolated and weighted with respect to their importance within the social system as a whole. In other words, it is not possible to say that the political, legal, and ideational activities may, on their own accord, affect the economic processes and codetermine their development, for the superstructure is the expression of the socioeconomic structure. This may be grasped by analogy with the value-price relations in capitalism, where the value relations must express themselves in the different form of price. It is not that the superstructure merely reflects the economic base, but that this base is what it is by virtue of its specific superstructure.

Just as capitalist price relations are both distinguishable and undistinguishable from value relations, so the superstructure in any social formation is also separable and inseparable from the socioeconomic structure. If we speak of the one, we speak of the other, and in either case we speak of no more than the material production processes that allow society to exist. This implies, of course, that a fundamental change of society affects its “structure” and “superstructure” simultaneously, that is, that no socially significant political, legal, or ideational change can take place apart from changes in the relations of production and the state of the productive forces of society, and that basic changes only occur in the latter accompanied by corresponding alterations of the “superstructure.” It is therefore not possible to change a social system from the side of its “superstructure” alone – as for instance, by way of politically induced reforms – for such changes must always stop short at that point where they would jeopardize the existing social production relations. A change of the latter is only possible by way of revolution, which overthrows the “base” together with the “superstructure."

However, due to the development of the social forces of production, a social formation represents not only itself but also another society in embryonic form. The gestation period of the new society varies in accordance with the degree of change, spontaneous or consciously induced, in the social reproduction process. In societies without such changes, the productive forces and social relations will remain stagnant. Such societies have no history, although they may display class relations of one sort or another. Historical materialism concerns itself solely with developing societies. But changes in these societies are bound sooner or later to break down the stagnation of more static societies and alter their course.

Although incorporating technical innovations, the social forces of production are not reducible to technology. The transformation of the relatively static feudal-mercantilist economy into the dynamic capitalist system, for instance, was due not to technological changes but to the extension of a given technology over a wider field of application, by way of changes in the relations of production that opened the way for the vast development of the productive forces experienced in the Industrial Revolution.

The precapitalist era was based on agriculture, considered the only source of a surplus product making possible the nonproductive life of the land-owning ruling class. At least part of the total social product was a “gift of nature,” exceeding the results of the applied agricultural labor. This state of affairs found expression in the economic theories of the Physiocrats, who spoke of the “sterility” of all production outside of agriculture. In this theory, in contrast to mercantilist notions, a surplus arose in the sphere of production, not in that of circulation, or the exchange of commodities. Indeed, there was only a minimal exchange between agricultural products and those manufactured in the urban centers. The surplus was extracted from peasant labor, operating under conditions of self-sufficiency, which included the labor-producing agricultural implements; it was thus a clear case of expropriation, not of exchange relations. Whatever manufactures and handicrafts there were implied a technology exclusively and directly devoted to satisfying the needs and habits of the ruling class. There was also exploitation in the cities, in the sense that the city laborers produced not for themselves but for the ruling class, even though part of their products also served their own needs. But both their products and their surplus product were made possible by the agricultural surplus. Whatever technical development there was, was determined not by the accumulation of capital but by the needs and habits of the ruling class. If there was accumulation, it took not the abstract form of exchange value but that of use value.

With the means of production in the hands of the agricultural producers, the latter’s exploitation implied compulsory labor, which was also extended over the infrastructure as forced or corvèe labor. Under these conditions, any improvement of the productivity of agricultural labor would merely increase the surplus product falling to the landowning class and its state apparatus. There was, then, no incentive for technical innovation on the part of the peasantry, but rather the desire to work as little as possible in order to reduce the degree of their exploitation. The resulting stagnation of agricultural production set a limit to technological development in general, as it was almost totally dependent on the agricultural surplus. To increase this surplus was the sole concern of both the ruling classes and the urban population, as a precondition for the satisfaction of wants and the betterment of their living standards. This was eventually accomplished through the incorporation of agriculture into the exchange relations within and between the urban centers, brought about through a further division of labor within the existing class relations. In order to make the agricultural surplus grow, it was necessary to deprive the peasant population of control over their means of production and so force them out of their self-sufficiency and into the competitive market economy.

This was a twofold accomplishment, effected from the side of agriculture and from that of the merchant class as mediators of the exchange process. It involved the extension of market relations and commodity production over all of social production and the gradual transformation of labor into wage labor. While the commercialization of agriculture in England and France occasioned the “enclosure” movement, which drove a great deal of the peasantry from the land or transformed them into agricultural wage laborers, it also extended cottage industry, or the “putting out” system, from a supplementary to a main form of production. Provided by merchants with means of production and raw materials, peasants turned into wage laborers and merchants into capitalist entrepreneurs. Social relations became in increasing measure capital-labor relations and it was this fact that, by its generalization, expressed the growing social powers of production and the emergence of a new class accumulating surplus labor as surplus value and capital.

To cut a long and rather well-known story short, it may be said that with the increasing capitalization of agriculture, the way was open to bringing the whole of social production under the dominance of capital. Occupying a position between the landed aristocracy and the rural and urban proletariat, the middle class widened its field of operation with the extension of wage labor and the competitive pursuit of exchange value as an abstract and apparently limitless form of wealth, bound not to any specific form of property but to all forms in which surplus value materialized itself. New methods of production evolved to increase the profits on invested capital and technical innovations were searched for and introduced, not for the limited purpose of increasing the well-being and the luxuries of the ruling class, but in order to extract more surplus value out of all types of labor. While not in theory, at any rate in practice the capitalists were fully aware of the fact that a man’s labor “may mean either the personal act of working, or the effect which is produced by that act. In the first sense, it must be allowed that a man’s labor is properly his own ... but it does not follow...that the effect of his laboring... must likewise be properly his own.” (3)

With surplus value the goal of production and wage labor the only means of existence for a growing number of people, production accelerated in accordance with increasing exploitation. Of course, this social transformation was accompanied by all sorts of serious dislocations of the economy and its political system, affecting not only the working population but all of society. Industrial capital and its demand for profits grew at a relatively faster pace than capital based on agriculture, and set itself in opposition to the latter. Surplus value in the form of rent, thanks to the monopoly position of landed property, escaped the averaging process of profit rates and lowered the profits of industrial capital. The antagonism between the landed interests and those of the advancing bourgeoisie characterized the early stages of capitalist development and found expression in the aspirations of the bourgeoisie for political power and control of the state. This antagonism resolved itself in the bourgeois revolutions, which in one way or another turned feudal relations into the capitalist relations of production and production itself into the production of capital.

To be sure, this historical process did not manifest its nature as clearly as did its final outcome. Ideologies encompass the past as well as the future and refer not to special but to putative general interests. They can thus be isolated from the specific purposes and concerns they serve under particular conditions and class relations. It is by virtue of this that they are indispensable for the maintenance as well as for the overthrow of given social relations, precisely because they cut across otherwise unbridgeable class differences. While history is being made, the apparently indivisible unity of the mode of production and its political and ideational superstructure is rent apart and seems to reveal competing ideologies with independent powers. But in retrospect, once society has changed, everything comes together again to constitute a particular historical period, characterized by the productive forces released by it, the social production relations associated with them, and the apparently extraeconomic “superstructural” expressions of the material production process.

History is clearly the history of social changes of modes of production and class relations, which have led to capitalist society, the subject matter of Marx’s concerns and those of the class at whose expense it exists. There is therefore no longer any history for the bourgeoisie: the development of any new mode of production would imply its own demise as a ruling class. From the point of view of historical materialism, however, capitalism must be analyzed with respect to its specific class relations and their effect upon the development of capital production. Obviously, the emergence of these class relations allowed for an enormous increase of the social powers of production in the form of the accumulation of capital. If the latter is the life’s blood of capitalist society, it is here also that this system’s historical limitations will be found. If there are none, then of course the bourgeoisie is right and history has come to an end.

Marx’s theory of proletarian revolution is thus an integral part of his theory of capitalist accumulation. As capital expands, so does the working class. But while accumulation assures the rule and comfort of the capitalist class, this is due only to the constant increase in the exploitation of labor power, which may or may not e compensated for by improvements of the workers’ living standards. This depends on changing value relations, on whether or not the lower exchange value of labor power will be the value equivalent of a greater quantity of use values. According to Marx, to recall, the changing value structure of capital in the course of its accumulation diminishes the rate of profit, even with a rising rate of surplus value, because the mass of surplus value is reduced due to the decline of the variable relative to the constant capital, or, what is the same, to the decrease in the number of workers with respect to the total capital amassed. Of course, just as the lower exchange value of labor power may not contradict a rise of wages in use-value terms, so a rise in the organic composition of capital may be compensated for by an increase of productivity, overcoming the decline of surplus value in each commodity by a disproportionally greater quantity of commodities, so as to restore, or even surpass, the customary rate of profit on capital. This depends in turn on the possibility of a sufficiently high rate of accumulation of capital. This makes the rate of profit in Marx’s system indefinite and, aside from the specific assumptions made by Marx in expounding his theory, unpredictable, in a strictly empirical sense.

What will interest us here is not so much the economic development of capital as the expectations based on it with regard to the evolution of a revolutionary consciousness on the part of the working class. Like all true revolutionaries, and notwithstanding his scientific bent and materialistic outlook, Marx was a romantic in his thoughts, feeling, and attitudes. Although convinced that “no social order ever disappears before all the productive forces, for which there is room in it, have been developed; and new higher relations of production never appear before the material conditions of their existence have been matured in the womb of the old society,” (4) he saw in the maturing proletariat the most important productive force straining against the capitalist relations of production. History, in Marx’s view, does nothing, but must be made by people, by way of class struggle. As an ardent student of the French Revolution, and an observer of, as well as participant in, the revolutionary upheavals of 1848 – during which the working class, even within the context of bourgeois aspirations, displayed itself as an independent anti-capitalist force-Marx saw capitalism’s future preordained with the proletarian revolution. It was of course not possible, and from Marx’s point of view also superfluous, to determine in advance when the capitalist relations of production would cease to further the development of the social forces of production and thus release the objective need for social change. All that was necessary for revolution was the presence of a force within the shell of capitalism representing new social relations in conflict with the capitalistically limited forces of production. In a developed capitalism, any prolonged and deep going crisis could lead to a revolutionary situation and to the overthrow of capitalism. By breaking the crisis cycle of capital production, the way would then be open for a further unhampered social development. In the early Marxist movement this was seen as a realistic possibility, due to the fact of a growing socialist movement and the spreading recognition that there was an alternative to capitalism.

Objective conditions, changing in the course of capitalist development, would bring forth a subjective readiness on the part of the working class to change the social relations of production. The theory and practice of a growing labor movement was seen as a unitary phenomenon, due to the self-expansion and at the same time the self-limitation of capitalist development. Marx’s Capital employing the methods of scientific analysis, was able to proffer a theory that synthesized the class struggle and the general contradictions of capitalism. The actual class struggle would – in time – turn class consciousness into revolutionary consciousness, and the fight over wages and working conditions would become a struggle for the abolition of the wage system, that is, for the ending of capitalism. Class consciousness was seen by the Marxists as one of the results of capital accumulation, emerging out of the master-slave relation in the direct production process, the disproportional increase of exploitation within the capital-labor exchange relations, the observably increasing misery of growing layers of the unemployed and the unemployable, the general wretchedness experienced during periods of depression, and the insecurity prevailing under all capitalist circumstances. On the positive side, there was the capitalistically enforced concentration of great numbers of workers in all industries, inducing the recognition that the laborer was a member of a social class and thus was able to proceed from individual to collective attempts to improve his working conditions. The results of the workers’ struggles were seen not only in the improvement of their living standards but also in the recognition of their growing strength in the contest between capital and labor, and in the attendant development of their self-confidence both as individuals and as members of a class. It was thought that out of this class itself and its constant confrontation with the bourgeoisie would arise not only a willingness to assert the workers’ temporary interests but also a growing conviction that social production could be carried on outside the capital-labor relation.

These expectations were to be disappointed. Although a growing number of workers became adherents of revolutionary ideas and organized themselves in socialist organizations, a greater number remained immune to socialist ideologies, even though they were prepared to fight for higher wages and better working conditions. The economic struggles found organization in the trade unions; but these organizations did not, as Marx had expected they would, become “schools for socialism,” but remained what they were at their outset, a mere phenomenon of the commodity character of labor power. Their concern was with the price of labor power within the capitalist market relations. What socialist ideas had been associated with trade unionism were gradually jettisoned as an unnecessary ballast, and even an embarrassment, hindering the ascent and endangering the legal status of those organizations.

Marx’s maxim that the consciousness of a time is that of its social and material production relations holds also for the working class. While the class struggle, as seen with socialist eyes, was supposed to change the consciousness of the laborers, and to some extent actually did so, this change was not in the direction of socialism as a practical goal. Although the class struggle implied aware ness of the opposed interests of labor and capital, it did not challenge the capital-labor relation itself, but merely the degree of exploitation as measured by the wage-profit ratio. In order to be effective, the class struggle has to be organized, and the gains made in this struggle must be sustained by making the organizations permanent. The greater the number of organized workers and the need for coordinated actions, the less was their own initiative in determining these activities. The decision-making powers became those of a centralized leadership in a hierarchical bureaucratic organizational structure that came to look upon itself as an instrument to secure its own special interests as a precondition for its activities in behalf of the working class. Of course, it was the workers themselves who built these organizations and delegated to them control over their own activities. The fact that they did not leave these organizations could only mean that their own demands coincided with those brought forward in their name by the leaders occupying the commanding posts in their organizations. Now, it is true that these leaders, in any case those in the socialist parties, professed to consider the fight for capitalistic reforms as a mere means to reach the revolutionary goals and not as an end in itself; but actually, the struggle for reforms was the only one possible, bringing with it types of organization that were only able to function within the given relations of production and were thus bound, by their very growth and successes, to turn into defenders of the capitalist system, as a precondition of their own existence.

They could have no conceivable function in a socialist society, and for that reason did not think in terms of revolutionary change, except rhetorically where this seemed opportune.

The supposed “dialectic” between reform and revolution-the everyday struggle for immediate demands changing into a struggle against the system itself – did not actually lead to a noticeable increase in revolutionary class consciousness, but merely issued into organizational forms of class struggle incapable of making the leap from reform to revolution. To the controlling ideology of bourgeois society was now added the controlling influence of nonrevolutionary organizations over the organized as well as unorganized parts of the working class in a two-sided effort to hold the class struggle within the confines of capitalist society.

Marx’s expectations as to the revolutionary effect of capital accumulation upon the consciousness of the working class turned out to be erroneous, at least in the ascending stage of capitalist development.