I propose first to trace the main line of human development, from our remote animal ancestors to the present, when humanity has become lord of the earth but not yet master of its own creations, not to mention its own social system. After that, I will deal with the central course of evolution in that specific segment of society that occupies the bulk of North America and represents the most developed form of capitalist society.
I will try to show not only how our national history is related to world development but also how we, collectively and individually, fit into the picture. This is a broad and bold undertaking, a sort of jet-propelled journey through the stratosphere of world history. It is forced upon us by the urge to grasp the whole vast spread of events and to understand our specific place within them, as well as by the very dynamic of scientific theory in sociology, which has its highest expression in Marxism. The movement based upon scientific socialism, which prepares most energetically for the future, likewise must probe most deeply into the past.
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I shall start from the political case history of an individual. In January 1935 a book appeared which set the style for a series of reflective reports on the trends of our times. It had considerable influence upon radicalised intellectuals here until the outbreak of the Second World War. That book, Personal History , was written by Vincent Sheean. This autobiography was a serious effort to find out what the history of his generation was leading to and what his attitude should be toward its mainstream and its cross currents.
Sheean told how he started as an ignorant student at the University of Chicago at the close of the First World War. He knew as little about the fundamental forces at work in the world then as millions like him today who are encased in a similar provincialism. As he remarked:
The bourgeois system insulated all its children as much as possible from a knowledge of the processes of human development, and in my case succeeded admirably in its purpose. Few Hottentots or South Sea Islanders could have been less prepared for life in the great world than I was at 21.
This innocent American went abroad as a newspaperman and learned from the great events of the twenties. He observed the effects of the First World War and the Russian revolution; he witnessed the stirrings in the Near East, in Morocco and Palestine—precursors of the vaster colonial disturbances after the Second World War. He was also a spectator and played an incidental role in the defeated second Chinese revolution of 1926. His experiences were topped by the economic collapse of capitalism after 1929 and the spread of fascism in Europe.
These upheavals jolted Sheean from his doze, opened his eyes, and propelled him toward Marxism and the revolutionary socialist movement. He was swept along in the swirling torrent of that first stage in the crack-up of capitalist civilisation—and began to recognise it as such. Great social, economic, and political events exposed the bankruptcy of the ideas about the world he had acquired through his middle-class education in the Midwest and impelled him to cast them off.
Sheean found in Marxism the most convincing explanation of the processes of social development and the causes of the decisive events of his own age. He was inspired by its ability to answer the question that besets every thinking person: What relation does my own life have to those who have preceded me on this earth, all my contemporaries, and the incalculable generations who will come later?
Scientific, political, and moral considerations combined to attract him to the science of the socialist movement. Sheean admired Marxism, he emphasised, because it took “the long view”. This is not a phrase he coined, but one he borrowed from a participant in the struggle. Marxists, he noted, were or should be guided not by partial views and episodic considerations but by the most comprehensive outlook over the expanse of biological evolution and human achievement.
The all-embracing synthesis of history offered by Marxism contrasted sharply with the worm’s-eye view he had had in the Midwest. The interior of the United States had the most up-to-date gadgets, but it was dominated by extremely old-fashioned ideas about social evolution.
Sheean had caught on to one of the outstanding features of that system of thought that bears the name of its creator, Karl Marx. Scientific socialism does provide the most consistent, many-sided, and far-reaching of all the doctrines of evolution—and revolution. “The long view” it presents is the march of mankind seen in its full scope, its current reality, and its ultimate consequences, so far as that is possible under present limitations.
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What was this long view that attracted Vincent Sheean and so many millions before him and since? What can a review of the process of evolution, analysed by Marxist methods, teach us about the way things change in this world?
We can single out four critical turning points in the timetable of evolution. The first was the origin of our planet about three or four billion years ago. The second was the emergence of life in the form of simple one-celled sea organisms about two and a half billion years ago. (These are only approximate but commonly accepted dates at the present time.) Third was the appearance of the first backboned animals about four to five hundred million years ago. Last was the creation of mankind, within the past million years or so.
Let us begin with the third great chapter in this historical panorama—the first fish species. The American Museum of Natural History has prepared a chart that portrays the principal stages in organic evolution from the first fish up to ourselves, the highest form of mammalian creatures. The backbone introduced by the fish was one of the basic structures for subsequent higher evolution.
Astraspis , as one of the first vertebrate specimens is called, lived in the Paleozoic era near Cannon City, Colorado, where its plates were found in delta deposits. This native American of four to five hundred million years ago was very revolutionary for its day. Here is what a popular authority, Brian Curtis, says about this development in The Life Story of the Fish :
An animal with a backbone does not seem strange to us today. But at the time that the first fish appeared upon earth, which we know from geological records to have been roughly five hundred million years ago, he must have seemed a miraculous thing. He was the very latest model in animal design, a radical, one might almost say a reckless experiment of that force which we find it convenient to personify as Mother Nature.
What did its “radicalism” consist of?
For up to that time no creature had ever been made with the hard parts inside instead of outside — Nature might be said to have had a brainstorm, abandoned all the earlier methods and turned out overnight something absolutely new and unheard of.
Although the fish retained some of the old external armour, what was decisive from the standpoint of evolution was its acquisition of the backbone. This converted the fish into a creature basically different from anything living before. Thus, the new backboned type both grew out of the old and outgrew it. But that is not all. It then went on to conquer new realms of existence and activity. The most revolutionary feature of the fish was the fact that it became the starting point for the entire hierarchy of backboned creatures that has culminated in ourselves.
These first vertebrates subsequently advanced from the fish through the amphibians (which lived both in water and on land), through the reptiles, and finally branched off into the warmblooded creatures: birds and mammals. Mankind is the culminating point of mammalian development. This much of animal evolution is accepted by all scientific authorities.
But these ideas and facts, so commonplace today, were the subversive thoughts of yesterday. We readily adopt this scientific view of organic evolution without realising that this very act of acceptance is part of a reversal in human thinking about the world and the creatures in it, which has taken place on a mass scale only during the past century. Recall, for example, the prevalence of the Biblical myth of creation in the Western world up to a few generations ago.
Two aspects of the facts about the vertebrates deserve special discussion. First, the transfer of the bony parts of the fish from the outside to the inside embodied a qualitatively new form of organic structure, a break in the continuity of development up to that time, a jump onto a higher level of life. Every biologist acknowledges this fact. But this fact has a more profound significance, which tells us much about the methods of evolutionary change in general. It demonstrates how, at the critical point in the accumulation of changes outside and inside an organism, the conflicting elements that compose it break up the old form of its existence, and the progressive formation passes over, by way of a leap, to a qualitatively new and historically higher state of development. This is true not only of organic species but of social formations and systems of thought as well.
This radical overturn is undeniable in the case of the birth and evolution of the fish and its ultimate surpassing by higher species. But it is much harder for many people to accept such a conclusion when it comes to the transformation of a lower social organisation into a higher social organisation. This reluctance to apply the teachings of evolution consistently to all things, and above all to the social system in which we live, is rooted in the determination to defend powerful but obsolete and narrow class interests against opposing forces and rival ideas that aim to create a genuinely new order of things.
The second point to be stressed is the fact that the fish, as the first vertebrate, occupies a specific place in the sequence of the evolution of organisms. It is one link in a chain of the manifestations of life extending from one-celled protozoa to the most complex organisms. This first creature with a backbone came out of and after a host of creatures which never had such a skeletal structure and in turn gave rise to superior orders which had that and much more.
Contradictory as it is, many scholars and scientists who take the order of evolution of organic species for granted, stubbornly resist the extension of the same lawfulness to the changing species of social organisations. They will not admit that there has been, or can be, any definite and discernible sequence in the social development of mankind analogous to the steps in the progress from the invertebrates to the fish, through the reptile and mammalian creatures, up to the advent of mankind.
This scepticism in sociology is especially pronounced in the present century, and in our own country and its colleges. Thinkers of this type, of course, know that there have been many changes in history, that many diverse formations are found in the fields of anthropology, archaeology, history, sociology, and politics.
What they deny is that these typical manifestations of social life can—or even should—be arranged in any determinate order of historical development in which each has its given place from the beginning to the end, from the lower to the higher. They teach that all the various forms of culture and ways of life are merely dissimilar to one another and that it is impossible or unnecessary to try to discover any regular sequence or lawful affiliation in their emergence into social reality.
This view and method is thoroughly anti-evolutionary, antiscientific, and essentially reactionary. But it is explainable. The denial of the possibility of finding out the order of advancement in social structures springs—if you will permit the analogy—from the resistance by today’s invertebrates to the oncoming vertebrates who represent a superior form of organisation and are destined to supplant them in the struggle for social survival.
The evolutionary record itself, starting with the upward climb of the fish, most effectively refutes this tenacious conservatism. The first vertebrate was followed by six further progressive types of fish in the next hundred million years. The most advanced was a freshwater, medium-sized carnivorous species whose fossils have been found in Canada. Although this specimen spent much of its life in the water, it had acquired many of the functions required for living on land. Fish, as you know, are customarily at home in water, breathe through gills, and have fins. It was unbecoming to established fish-nature for the first amphibians to get up out of the water and crawl onto land, breathe through lungs, and move about on legs.
Let us imagine a fish (if you will go along with the fancy) who looked backward rather than forward, as some fish do. This backward-looking fish could exclaim to the forward-moving amphibians: “We fish, the oldest inhabitants, have never before done such things; they can’t be done; they shouldn’t be done!” And, when the amphibians persisted, could shriek: “These things mustn’t be done; it’s subversive of the good old order to do them!” However, the resistance of inertia did not prevent some water dwellers from turning into land animals.
Animal life continued to move forward as species were modified and transmuted in response to decisive changes in their genetic constitutions and natural habitats. Amphibians turned into reptiles, which had better developed brains, were rib-breathing, egg-laying, had limbs for locomotion, and well-developed eyes. The reptile kingdom evolved gradually toward the mammal, with transitional types that had features belonging to both, until once again a full-fledged new order stepped into the world.
About 135 million years ago, the animal prototype that gave rise to our own tree-living ancestor emerged. This was a rodentlike creature which took another big leap in evolutionary adaptation and activity by quitting the land for the trees. Arboreal existence over six hundred thousand years so altered our animal ancestors from head to toe, from grasping functions to teeth changes, that they elevated themselves to monkey and ape forms. The kinship of the latter with our own kind is so close that it is difficult to distinguish an embryo of the highest apes from that of a human.
The natural conditions had at last been created for the emergence of mankind. It seems likely that changes in climate and geographical conditions connected with the first Ice Age drove certain species of primates down from the trees, out of the forests and onto the plains. A series of important anatomical developments paved the way for the making of the human race. The shortening of the pelvic bone made it possible for the primate to stand erect, to differentiate forelimbs from hindlimbs and emancipate the hands. The brain became enlarged. Binocular vision and vocal organs made human sight and speech possible.
The central biological organ for the making of mankind was the hand. The hands became opposed to the legs, and the thumb became opposed to the four fingers. This opposition between the thumb and the other fingers has been one of the most fruitful and dynamic of all the unions of opposites in the evolution of humanity. The thumb’s ability to counterpose itself to each of the other fingers gave the hand exceptional powers of grasping and manipulating objects and endowed it with extreme flexibility and sensitivity. This acquisition made possible the biological combination of hand-eye-brain. Combined with the prolonged period of care by the mother for her offspring, the natural prerequisites for social life were at hand.
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At this point something should be said about the most common argument against socialism: “You can’t change human nature!” How much substance is there to this contention?
Once the record of organic evolution is accepted, one proposition, at least, inevitably flows from it: Fish nature can be changed! It has been changed into amphibian, reptile, bird, mammalian, and, ultimately, into human natures. The salt in our bodies is one reminder, among many, of our descent from great-grandfather fish in the oceans of ages ago.
This poses the following pertinent questions to the resisters to social change: If fish can change, or be changed so much, on what grounds can narrow restrictions be imposed upon the changeability of mankind? Did our species lose its plasticity, its potentialities for radical alteration somewhere along the line from the transition of the primate to the human?
The contrary is the case. In the passage to humanity, our species not only retained all the capacities for progressive change inherent in animality but multiplied them to an infinitely higher degree, lifting them onto an entirely new dimension by creating previously unknown ways and means of evolutionary progress.
It required four to five hundred million years to create the biological conditions necessary for the generation of the first subhumans. This was not brought about through anyone’s forethought or foresight, or in accord with any plan, or with the aim of realising some preconceived goal. It happened, we may say, as the lawful outcome of a series of blind and accidental developments in the forms of natural life, spurred forward in the struggle for survival, which eventually culminated in the production of a special kind of primate equipped with the capacities for acquiring more than animal powers.
At this juncture, about a million or so years ago, the most radical of all the transmutations of life on this planet took place. The emergence of mankind embodied something totally different which became the root of a unique line of development. What was this? It was the passage from animal separatism to human collectivism, from purely biological modes of behaviour to the use of acquired social powers.
Where did these added artificial powers come from that have marked off emerging mankind from all other animal species, elevated our species above the other primates, and made mankind into the dominant order of life? Our dominance is indisputable because we command the power to destroy ourselves and all other forms of life, not to speak of changing them.
The fundamentally new powers mankind acquired were the powers of production, of securing the means of sustenance through the use of tools and joint labour, and sharing the results with one another. I can do no more than single out four of the most important factors in this process.
The first was associated activities in getting food and dividing it. The second was the use, and later the manufacture, of implements for that purpose. The third was the development of speech and of reasoning, which arose from and was promoted by living and working together. The fourth was the use, the domestication, and the production of fire. Fire was the first natural force, the first chemical process, put to socially productive use by ascending humanity.
Thanks to these new powers, emerging mankind enormously speeded up the changes in our own species and later in the world around us. The record of history for the past million years is essentially one of the formation of humanity and its continual transformation. This in turn has promoted the transformation of the world around us.
What has enabled mankind to effect such colossal changes in himself and his environment? All the biological changes in our stock over the past million years, taken together, have not been a prominent factor in the advancement of the human species. Yet during that time humanity has taken the raw material inherited from our animal past, socialised it, humanised it, and partially, though not completely, civilised it. The axis of human development, contrasted to animality, revolves around these social rather than biological processes.
The mainspring of this progress comes from the improvement of the powers of production, acquired along the way and expanded in accordance with man’s growing needs. By discovering and utilising the diverse properties and resources of the world around him, man has gradually added to his abilities of producing the means of life. As these have developed, all his other social powers—the power of speech, of thought, of art, and of science, etc.—have been enhanced.
The decisive difference between the highest animals and ourselves is to be found in our development of the means and forces of production and destruction (two aspects of one and the same phenomenon). This accounts not only for the qualitative difference between man and the other animals but also for the specific differences between one level of human development and another. What demarcates the peoples of the Stone Age from those of the Iron Age, and savage life from civilised societies, is the difference in the total powers of production at their disposal.
What happens when two different levels of productive and destructive power measure strength was dramatically illustrated when the Spanish conquerors invaded the Western Hemisphere. The Indians were armed with bows and arrows and slings; the newcomers had muskets and gunpowder. The Indians had canoes and paddles; the Spaniards had big sailing ships. The Indians wore leather or padded jackets for protection in warfare; the Spaniards had steel armour. The Indians had no domesticated draught animals but went on foot; the Spaniards rode horses. Their superior equipment inspired terror and enabled the conquistadores to defeat their antagonists with inferior manpower.
This basic proposition of historical materialism should be easier for us to grasp because we are privileged to witness the first stage of a technological revolution comparable in importance to the taming of fire a half million years ago. That is the acquisition of control over the processes of nuclear fission and fusion. This new source of power has already revolutionised the relations among governments and the art of warfare; it is about to transform industry, agriculture, medicine, and many other departments of social activity.a
What brought this technological revolution about? Mankind underwent no biological changes in the preceding period. Nor were there any sudden alterations in human modes of thinking, in their sentiments, or their moral ideas. This incalculably powerful force of production and destruction issued from the entire previous development of society’s productive forces and all the scientific knowledge and instruments connected with them. Atomic power is the latest link in the chain of acquired powers that can be traced back to the earliest elements of social production: associated labour in securing the necessities of life, tool using and making, speech, thought, and fire. Atomic energy is the latest fruit of the seeds planted back in ancient society, which have been cultivated and improved by humanity in its upward climb.
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Let us come back to that remarkable organ of ours, the hand. The hand, which among the primates originally conveyed food to the mouth, was converted by humanity into an organ for grasping and guiding the materials used and then shaped for tools. The hand is the biological prototype of the tool and the handle; it is the prerequisite and parent of labouring activity. The passage from the hand to the tool coincides with the creation of society and the progressive development of mankind and its latent powers.
The connection between the most rudimentary tools and the complex material instruments of production in today’s industrial system has been graphically illustrated in a chart prepared for the Do-All Corporation, of Des Plaines, Illinois, sponsor of a travelling exhibit on “How Basic Tools Created Civilisation”. This exhibit, which claims to be “the first attempt ever made to assemble the complete history of man’s tools”, documents the stages in the progress of technology.
The first known tools formed by man, called eoliths, date back, some scientists say, to one and a half million years ago. These were sections of broken stone with edges useful for cutting meat, scraping hides, or digging for roots. They were little more than simple extensions of the hand. They were not designed for specific functions but were adaptable for pounding, throwing, scraping, drilling, cutting, etc.
In the next stage, tools underwent improvement along two main lines: their cutting edges were made more efficient; and they became fashioned for special purposes. Men learned to chip stone to a predetermined shape, thereby producing a sharper cutting edge. A wider variety of working tools, such as axes, sharp-pointed drills, thin-edged blades, chisels, and other forerunners of today’s hand tools, came into existence.
These tools reduced the time needed to produce sustenance and shelter, thereby raising the social level of production and improving living conditions. Moreover, these new productive activities enhanced man’s mental capacities. The complexity of special-purpose tools indicates the development of a mentality capable of understanding the necessity of producing the means before the end could be attained. Mental concepts of specific use preceded both the design and construction of these special-purpose tools.
Each of the subsequent steps in the improvement of tool using and tool making likewise resulted in the economising of labour time, an increased productivity of labour, better living conditions, and the growth of man’s intellectual abilities. The motive force of human history comes from the greater productivity of labour made possible by decisive advances in the techniques and tools of production.
This can be seen in the development of hunting. At first, mankind could as a rule capture only small and slow animals. Regular consumption of big game was made possible by the invention of such hunting weapons as the thrusting spear, the throwing spear, the spear-thrower, and the bow and arrow. The latter was the first device capable of storing energy for release when desired. These implements increased the range and striking force of primitive hunters and enabled them to slaughter the largest and fleetest animals.
All the basic hand tools in use today—the axe, adze, knife, drill, scraper, chisel, saw—were invented during the Stone Age. The first metal, bronze, did not replace stone as the preferred material for tool making until about 3500 years ago. Metal not only imparted a far more efficient and durable cutting edge to tools but enabled them to be resharpened instead of thrown away after becoming dulled.
During the period when bronze tools were the chief implements of production, means and standards of measurements were devised; mathematics and surveying were developed; a calendar was calculated; and great advances were made in sculpturing. Such basic inventions as the potter’s wheel, the balance scale, the keystone arch, sailing vessels, and glass bottles were created.
About 2500 years ago, iron, the most durable, plentiful and cheap metal, began to displace bronze in tool making. The introduction of iron tools tremendously advanced productivity and skills in agriculture and craftsmanship. They enabled more food to be grown and better clothing and shelter to be made with less expenditure of time and energy; they gave rise to many comforts and conveniences. Iron tools made possible many of the achievements of Greece and Rome, from the Acropolis of Athens to the tunnels, bridges, sewers, and buildings of Rome.
The energy for all these earlier means and modes of production was supplied exclusively by human muscles, which, after the domestication of herds, was supplemented to some extent by animal muscle power. The Industrial Revolution of the 18th century was based upon the utilisation of energy from other sources, from fossil fuels such as coal. The combination of mechanical power generated by steam engines, machine tools, improved implements, and production machinery, plus the increased use of iron and steel, have multiplied society’s powers of production to their present point. Nowadays, machines and tools operated by mechanical and electrical power are the principal material organs of our industry and agriculture alike.
The most up-to-date machine tools have been developed out of simple hand tools. While using hand tools, men began to understand and employ the advantages of the lever, the pulley, the inclined plane, the wheel and axle, and the screw to multiply their strength. These physical principles were later combined and applied in the making of machine tools.
This entire development of technology is organically associated with and primarily responsible for the development of mankind’s intellectual abilities. This is pointed out in the following explanatory paragraph from the Do-All Corporation exhibit:
Machine tools perform in complicated ways the same basic functions and operations as hand tools. These basic functions were established by hand-held stone tools shaped by primitive man. It was through devising and using hand-wrought stone tools that mankind developed powers of mental and bodily coordination — and this in turn accelerated the increase in men’s mental capabilities.
Such ideas about the influence of technology upon thought, taken from the publication of a respectable capitalist corporation, resemble those to be found in the writings of Marx and Engels. The thought-controllers may try to drive historical materialism out of the socialist door, but here it sneaks back in through a capitalist window.
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The Do-All exhibit demonstrates that the evolution of tools can be arranged in a chronological series and ascending order, from wood and stone hand tools through metal hand tools to power-driven machine tools. Is it likewise possible to mark off corresponding successive stages in social organisation?
Historical materialism answers this question affirmatively. On the broadest basis—and every big division of history can be broken down for special purposes into lesser ones—three main stages can be distinguished in man’s rise from animality to the atomic age: savagery, barbarism, and civilisation.a
Napoleon said that an army marches on its stomach. This has been true of the forward march of the army of humanity. The acquisition of food has been the overriding aim of social production at all times, for men cannot survive, let alone progress, without regularly satisfying their hunger.
The principal epochs in the advancement of humanity can therefore be divided according to the decisive improvements effected in securing food supplies. Savagery, the infancy of humanity, constitutes that period when people depend for food upon what nature provides ready-made. Their food may come from plants, such as fruit or roots, from insects, birds or animals, or from seashore or sea life. At this stage, men forage for their food much like beasts of prey or grub for it like other animals—with these all-important differences: they cooperate with one another, and they employ crude tools along with other means and powers of production to assist them in “appropriating” the means of subsistence for their collective use.
The chief economic activities at this stage are foraging for food, hunting, and fishing; and they were developed in that sequence. The club and spear enable the savage to capture the raw materials for his meals, clothing, and shelter—all of which are embodied in animals on the hoof. The net catches fish and the fire prepares it for consumption. The Indians of southern California were at this stage when the first white settlers arrived two centuries ago.
Barbarism is the second stage of social organisation. It was based upon the domestication of animals and the cultivation of plants. Food is now not merely collected but produced . The domestication of cattle, sheep, pigs, and other animals provided reserves of meat as well as food in the form of milk from goats and cows. The planting and growing of crops made regular and plentiful food supplies available.
This food-producing revolution, which started in Asia from six to ten thousand years ago, relieved mankind from subjection to external nature for the first time. Up to that point humanity had to rely upon what the natural environment contained to take care of its needs and had been dependent for survival upon completely external and uncontrollable natural conditions. Entire stocks and cultures of people arose, flourished, and then succumbed, like plant or animal species, in response to the beneficence or hostility of nature around them.
For example, about twenty to thirty thousand years ago, there arose a society centred around southern France called the Reindeer Culture. These people thrived by hunting huge reindeer and other herds that browsed upon the lush vegetation there. The drawings they made, which have been discovered in caves over the past 75 years, testify to the keenness of their eyes and minds and the trained sensitivity of their hands and place them among the most superb artists that have ever appeared on earth. However, when changed climatic and botanic conditions caused the reindeer herds to vanish, their entire culture, and very likely the people as well, died out.
The early hunters had no assured control over their mobile sources of food. The insecurity of savage life was largely overcome, or at least considerably reduced, with the advent of stock breeding, and especially with the development of agricultural techniques. For the first time, methods were instituted for obtaining extensive and expanding supplies of food products and fibres by systematic and sustained activities of working groups. These branches of economic activity made much larger and more compact populations possible.
These activities and their increased output provided the elements for the higher culture of barbarism. Farming and stock raising led to the development of such handicrafts as smelting and pottery, as accumulated food supplies generated the need to store and transport articles for the first time. Men became more stationary; denser populations aggregated; permanent dwellings were built; and village life sprang into existence.
In their further and final development, the economic activities under barbarism created the prerequisites for the coming of civilisation. The material foundation for civilisation was the capacity acquired by the most advanced peoples for the regular production of far more food and goods than were required for the physical maintenance of their members. These surpluses had two results. They permitted specific sections of the communities to engage in diversified activities other than the direct acquisition and production of the basic means of life. Such specialists as priests, nobles, kings, officials, smiths, potters, traders, builders, and other craftsmen made their appearance.
With the growth of specialisation and the extension of trade, the top layers of these groups moved into strategic positions that enabled the more fortunate and powerful to appropriate large personal shares of the surplus of wealth. The drive to increase personal wealth flowing from the growing social division of labour and exchange of goods, led in time to the development of private property, the family, slavery, class divisions, commodity production on a large scale, trade, money, the city, and the territorial state with its army, police, courts, and other relations and institutions characteristic of civilisation.
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In its evolution to our own century, civilised society can be divided into three main epochs: slavery, feudalism, and capitalism. Each of these is marked off by the special way in which the ruling propertied class at the head of the social setup manages to extract the surplus wealth upon which it lives from the labouring mass who directly create it. This entire period covers little more than the past five to six thousand years.
Civilisation was ushered in and raised upon direct slavery. The very economic factors that broke up barbarism and made civilised life possible likewise provided the material preconditions for the use of slave labour. The division of labour based upon tending herds, raising crops, mining metals, and fashioning goods for sale enabled the most advanced societies to produce more than the actual labourers required for their maintenance. This made slavery both possible and profitable for the first time. It gave the most powerful stimulus to the predatory appetites of individual possessors of the means of production who strove to acquire and increase their surpluses of wealth. Slave production and ownership became the economic foundation of a new type of social organisation, the source of supreme power, prestige, and privileges. And it eventually reshaped the whole structure of civilised life.
Chattel slavery was an extremely significant human contrivance—and it is distinctively human. Animals may feed upon carcasses of other animals, but they do not live upon the surpluses they create. Although we rightly recoil against any manifestations of servitude today and burn to abolish its last vestiges, it should be recognised that in its heyday slavery had imperative reasons for existence and persistence.
Science demands that every phenomenon be approached, analysed, and appraised with objectivity, setting aside personal reactions of admiration or abhorrence. Historical materialism has to explain why slavery came to be adopted by the most advanced contingents of mankind. The principal reason was that, along with the private ownership of the means of production and the widening exchange of its products, slave labour increased the forces of production, multiplied wealth, comforts and culture—although only for the lucky few—and, on the whole, spurred mankind forward for an entire historical period. Without the extension of slave labour, there would not have been incentives unremitting enough to pile up wealth on a sizable scale that could then be applied to further the productive processes.
The historical necessity for slavery can be illustrated along two lines. The peoples who failed to adopt slave labour likewise did not proceed to civilisation, however excellent their other qualities and deeds. They remained below that level because their economy lacked the inner drive of the force of greed and the dynamic propulsion arising from the slaveholder’s need to exploit the slave to augment his wealth. That is a negative demonstration.
But there is more positive proof. Those states based on some form of servitude, such as the most brilliant cultures of antiquity from Babylon and Egypt to Greece and Rome, also contributed the most to the civilising processes, from wheeled carts and the plough to writing and philosophy. These societies stood in the main line of social progress.
But if slavery had sufficient reasons for becoming the beginning and basis of ancient civilisation, in turn and in time it generated the conditions and forces which would undermine and overthrow it. Once slavery became the predominant form of production either in industry, as in Greece, or in agriculture, as in Rome, it no longer furthered the development of agricultural techniques, craftsmanship, trade, or navigation. The slave empires of antiquity stagnated and disintegrated until after a lapse of centuries they were replaced by two main types of feudal organisation: Asiatic and West European.
Both of these new forms of production and social organisation were superior to slavery, but the West European turned out to be far more productive and dynamic. Under feudalism the labourers got more of their produce than did the slaves; they even had access to the land and other means of production. Serfs and peasants had greater freedom of activity and could acquire more culture.
As the result of a long list of technological and other social advances, merging with a sequence of exceptional historical circumstances, feudalised Europe became the nursery for the next great stage of class society, capitalism. How and why did capitalism originate?
Once money had arisen from the extension of trading several thousand years ago, its use as capital became possible. Merchants could add to their wealth by buying goods cheap and selling them dear; moneylenders and mortgage holders could gain interest on sums advanced on the security of land or other collateral. These practices were common in both slave and feudal societies.
But if money could be used in precapitalist times to return more than the original investment, other conditions had to be fulfilled before capitalism could become established as a separate and definite world economic system. The central condition was a special kind of transaction regularly repeated on a growing scale. Large numbers of propertyless workers had to hire themselves to the possessors of money and the other means of production in order to earn a livelihood.
Hiring and firing seem to us a normal way of carrying on production. But such peoples as the Indians never knew it. Before the Europeans came, no Indian ever worked for a boss (the word itself was imported by the Dutch), because they possessed their own means of livelihood. The slave may have been purchased, but he belonged to and worked for the master his whole life long. The feudal serf or tenant was likewise bound for life to the lord and his land.
The epoch-making innovation upon which capitalism rested was the institution of working for wages as the dominant relation of production. Most of you have gone into the labour market, to an employment agency or personnel office, to get a buyer for your labour power. The employer buys this power at prevailing wage rates by the hour, day, or week and then applies it under his supervision to produce commodities that his company subsequently sells at a profit. That profit is derived from the fact that wage workers produce more value than the capitalist pays for their labour.
Up to the 20th century, this mechanism for pumping surplus labour out of the working masses and transferring the surpluses of wealth they create to the personal credit of the capitalist was the mightiest accelerator of the productive forces and the expansion of civilisation. As a distinct economic system, capitalism is only about 450 years old; it has conquered the world and journeyed from dawn to twilight in that time. This is a short life span compared to savagery, which stretched over a million years or more, or to barbarism, which prevailed for four thousand to five thousand years. Obviously, the processes of social transformation have been considerably speeded up in modern times.
This speeding up in social progress is due in large measure to the very nature of capitalism, which continually revolutionises its techniques of production and the entire range of social relations issuing from them. Since its birth, world capitalism has passed through three such phases of internal transformation. In its formative period, the merchants were the dominant class of capitalists because trade was the main source of wealth accumulation. Under commercial capitalism, industry and agriculture, the pillars of production, were not usually carried on by wage labour but by means of small handicrafts, peasant farming, slave or serf labour.
The industrial age was launched around the beginning of the 19th century with the application of steam power to the first mechanised processes, concentrating large numbers of wage workers into factories. The capitalist captains of this large-scale industry became masters of the field of production and later of entire countries and continents as their riches, their legions of wage labourers, social and political power, swelled to majestic proportions.
This vigorous, expanding, progressive, confident, competitive stage of industrial capitalism dominated the 19th century. It passed over into the monopoly-ridden capitalism of the 20th century, which has carried all the basic tendencies of capitalism, and especially its most reactionary features, to extremes in economic, political, cultural, and international relations. While the processes of production have become more centralised, more rationalised, more socialised, the means of production and the wealth of the world have become concentrated in giant financial and industrial combines. So far as the capitalist sectors of society are involved, this process has been brought to the point where the capitalist monopolies of a single country, the US, dictate to all the rest.
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The most important question to be asked at this point is: What is the destiny of the development of civilisation in its capitalist form? Disregarding in-between views, which at bottom evade the answer, two irreconcilable viewpoints assert themselves, corresponding to the world outlooks of two opposing classes. The spokesmen for capitalism say that nothing more remains to be done except to perfect their system as it stands, and it can roll on and on and on. The Do-All Corporation, for example, which published so instructive a chart on the evolution of tools, declares that more and better machine tools, which they hope will be bought at substantial profit from their company, will guarantee continued progress and prosperity for capitalist America—without the least change in existing class relations.
Socialists give a completely different answer based upon an incomparably more penetrating, correct, and comprehensive analysis of the movement of history, the structure of capitalism, and the struggles presently agitating the world around us. The historical function of capitalism is not to perpetuate itself indefinitely but to create the conditions and prepare the forces that will bring about its own replacement by a more efficient form of material production and a higher type of social organisation. Just as capitalism supplanted feudalism and slavery, and civilisation swept aside savagery and barbarism, so the time has come for capitalism itself to be superseded. How and by whom is this revolutionary transformation to be effected?
In the last century, Marx made a scientific analysis of the workings of the capitalist system which explained how its inner contradictions would bring about its downfall. The revolutions of our own century since 1917 are demonstrating in real life that capitalism is due to be relegated to the museum of antiquities. It is worthwhile to understand the inexorable underlying causes of these developments, which appear so inexplicable and abhorrent to the upholders of the capitalist system.
Capitalism has produced many things, good and bad, in the course of its evolution. But the most vital and valuable of all the social forces it has created is the industrial working class. The capitalist class has brought into existence a vast army of wage labourers, centralised and disciplined, and set it into motion for its own purposes, to make and operate the machines, factories, and all the other production and transportation facilities from which its profits emanate.
The exploitation and abuses, inherent and inescapable in the capitalist organisation of economic life, provoke the workers time and again to organise themselves and undertake militant action to defend their elementary interests. The struggle between these conflicting social classes is today the dominant and driving force of world and American history, just as the conflict between the bourgeois-led forces against the precapitalist elements was the motivating force of history in the immediately preceding centuries.
The current struggle, which has been gathering momentum and expanding its scope for a hundred years, has entered its decisive phase on a world scale. Except for Cuba, the preliminary battles between the procapitalist and the anticapitalist forces have so far been waged to a conclusion in countries outside the Western Hemisphere. Sooner or later, however, they are bound to break out and be fought to a finish within this country, which is not only the stronghold of capitalist power but also the home of the best-organised and technically most proficient working class on this globe.
The main line of development in America, no less than the course of world history, points to such a conclusion. Why is this so?