August Thalheimer: Introduction to Dialectical Materialism


12 - Theory of History and Dialectical Materialism I

We now turn from dialectics to the theory of history in dialectical materialism. Like dialectics, the theory of historical materialism is not a means of mere contemplation, but it is an instrument for action. Revolutionary theory is an indispensable means of revolutionary practice, of revolutionary politics. For the revolutionary politician historical or dialectical materialism is what the compass, watch, and sextant are for the captain, or the laws of physics for the technician. Dialectics is the universal instrument; theory of history is a special instrument, the instrument, namely, which makes possible scientific orientation to social relations, which makes possible the establishment of their laws of motion. Only through knowledge of laws of motion is scientific prediction of the future possible, and only on this basis is appropriate revolutionary action possible. The materialistic theory of history is epoch-making precisely because it is the first to permit us to foresee the main features of historical development and purposively influence it, and, within certain limits to master it. Thus it is not only, and not chiefly, the explanation of past history, but also, and above all, the theoretical basis of the way man makes history. Understanding of the laws of nature is the basis for free command over it. Understanding of the material laws of history opens the road to human freedom. Divorced from revolutionary practice the materialistic theory of history would be lifeless. It has been said: he who understands only chemistry, does not understand even it. He who seeks to understand materialistically only the past, does not understand even it.

In one of the previous chapters we have already formulated the basis of historical materialism by saying that the manner and mode in which men earn their living determines all other aspects of social life. This manner and mode determines, above all, social viewpoints, thoughts, or ideas, i.e., "social consciousness." In other words, material social life determines ideal social life; or, to use a Marxist expression, social being determines social consciousness. Since the material determines the ideal - even in social matters - this doctrine is called historical materialism. From what has already been said about dialectics it should now be evident that this doctrine is a special application of materialistic dialectics to the social relations of man.

At first glance this doctrine appears very reasonable, but one must not overlook the fact that it runs directly counter to so-called common sense. Common sense postulates the matter thus: all human action clearly proceeds from the mind, from aims which man sets. In accordance with the aims man sets for himself, the plans he has, he will act thus and thus, so that one can say that common or everyday sense is in no way disposed to the materialistic theory of history. But if one looks more closely, one discovers that this conception only touches the surface; for immediately the further question is raised, how the aims, the ideas in the human mind according to which man acts, emerge. Whence comes this or that content of social thought? Or, to take a concrete example, how does it happen that the Chinese peasant in the period of Kung-tse in the sixth century B.C. thought very differently from the peasant in the year 1927? Or how does it happen that the Chinese entrepreneur has a wholly different attitude towards strikes and trade unions from the Chinese worker? As soon as we ask such questions, we at once emerge from the realm of mere ideas and are forced to look for the reasons why men a thousand wars ago had other ideas than they have today, and why today the peasant class has ideas different from the entrepreneur or the worker.Merely to explain these different ideas through other ideas is not to explain, but to abandon explanation. In order to understand how in the course of history certain social ideas have been destroyed, how one set has been superceded by another, or how in one and the same society different classes can have diametrically opposite ideas concerning what is right, what is good, ect. - to understand this we must go back to the material bases of the ideas. We must go from social consciousness back to social being. Historical materialism does not deny the fact and the influence of thought and consciousness. On no account does historical materialism maintain that men have no thoughts in their minds, or that they do not act according to certain ideas, but it explains the ideas and aims by the material structure of society. Contrary to all idealistic thrones of history, it does not consider thought basic and primary, but derived, dependent, secondary - something which is an effect of certain material relationships.

We now want to determine more exactly the nature of this foundation, this manner and mode in which men earn their living, or, as Marx called it, the Mode of Production. What is the mode of production? By mode of production dialectical materialism understands the reciprocal relations into which men enter with each other when they produce or work; or, to put it very tersely, the reciprocal relations of men through their work. In the last analysis it is a question of how men are grouped in regard to the means of production. In other words: to whom do the means of production belong, and how are they utilized?

We will best understand the meaning of "mode of production," if we take some one form of production and determine its foundation and essence. Let us take the capitalistic mode of production. Its characteristic is that the means of production, the machines, factories, raw material, etc., are separated from the person who produces, the worker. We have a class of men who are the owners of the means of production, but who do not operate them. We have, on the other side, a class of men, the workers, who own no means of production at all, but only their labor power, men who can only work when they are employed by the owners of the means of production, the capitalists. The second characteristic is that these are legally free men, and the third characteristic is that the means of production, machines, tools, raw materials, are socially operated; that is, there are always a number of workers working together at a machine, in a factory.

Let us contrast this with simple commodity production, as we have it in a small handicraft or in a small or medium-sized agricultural economy. Here the relation of men to each other is different from that under capitalistic conditions. The person who does the work is also owner of the means of production; the farmer owns the land, the farm buildings, the agricultural instruments, and the cattle; the handicraftsman owns his shop, his tools, and his raw materials. The second criterion of this simple commodity production is that there is no collective work by many in a single enterprise as is the case with capitalism, but the individual producer works with his own tools. These means of production are the private property of the producer and are managed by him privately. In agricultural or handicraft enterprise we have co-operation of the producer with the tool belonging to him. But - and this is characteristic - we have no direct, planful co-operation of these individual producers in a collective economy. Society is broken up into a vast number of producers, each one of whom works independently of the others. In capitalistic production conscious co-operation of many men extends to the factory or to a number of factories which are bound together in an economic unit. In simple commodity production planning embraces, at most, an artisan and a few journeymen or a farmer and his family.

A third characteristic example is primitive communism in its different forms. Here the society collectively owns the important means of production. Individual ownership of the means of production is here only of minor importance. Labor is directly social. This is true neither in simple commodity production nor in capitalistic economy. These are a few examples of the relation of men to the means of production which characterize the different production systems or modes of production. They are, of course, only examples and not complete presentations.

The production system or the relation of men directly in production is also determined by the apportionment of the products. For this the terms distribution and circulation are used. This kind of determination is very clear under capitalist relations. The class to whom the means of production belong is accordingly also the proprietor of the labor products, the commodities. The working class, not being the owner of the means of production, has therefore no claim to the products of its labor. It receives only a part of production, it gets its living only in the form of wages directly from the hands of the class which owns the means of production. On the other hand, we see that in primitive communist relations, where there was no private ownership of the means of production, the collective product just as inevitably belongs to society and is partly consumed in common, and partly divided among individuals according to set rules. Thus the mode of production, the relation of men to the means of production, also determines the mode of distribution in the given society.

The mode of production or form of production must not be confused with the concept of branches of industry. Capitalist mode of production, feudal mode of production, primitive communism, slave economy, are all forms of production or modes of production, because at their base lies a thoroughly distinct mode of social behavior in production. But one cannot speak of hunting, fishing, or agriculture as modes of production. Hunting, fishing, agriculture are not different forms of production, but only different branches of industry or sources of livelihood, since every one of these branches of industry can be socially conducted in highly varying manner. You have agriculture under primitive communist relationships; you have agriculture carried on by slave owners; you have agriculture of the feudal variety throughout the Middle Ages; you have agriculture under the relationships of simple commodity economy, and finally you have agriculture under capitalistic relationships. The oldest fishing enterprise was certainly communistic, carried on co-operatively by a group of fishermen. Then you have fishing as simple commodity production where the individual fisherman goes out with his own net. Today, fishing is a modern capitalist industry in which a capitalist is the owner of fishing boats with the necessary nets, etc., and hires wage laborers.

The mode of production or the system of production must also be distinguished from another concept which is confused with it, the concept of technology. The mode of production is a relationship of men to each other, a social relationship. Technology pertains to the relation of men to nature. Therefore, such expressions as machine production, etc., betoken, not mode of production or production system, but a certain technology of production. This is the case when we speak of stone age, copper age, bronze age, iron age. These are different periods of historical and prehistorical times in which stone, copper, bronze, and iron tools were employed. This is not a classification according to the mode of production, but according to kinds of technology.

We have seen that the mode of production is decisive and basic for the establishment and development of all other social relationships. It is, so to speak, the motor which drives the entire social development. But one can pose the further question: what determines the development of the mode of production? What determines society's transition from primitive communism to simple commodity production or to feudalism, from feudalism to capitalism, from capitalism to socialism?

The general law which governs the changes of the mode of production is the development of the productivity of labor. Productivity of labor may also be designated as the fruitfulness or yield of labor. If one surveys the whole range of forms of production which humanity has passed through, one finds that the progress from one mode of production to another is governed by the increase of the productive forces. This is the general law. The foundation and presupposition of this law is that each mode of production reaches a definite peak of productive forces, a definite peak of technology. The dynamic impetus from one mode of production to another, the impetus which pushes development forward, is the opposition developed within a given mode of production, the contra-diction between the mode of production and the productive forces. I will further explain what we mean by productive forces. They are all those forces which contribute towards the manufacture of a certain number of products. Every previous mode of production permitted the development of the productive forces or the yield of labor only up to a certain point. As soon as this point was reached, this mode of production, formerly an improvement, became a hindrance. This obstacle is cleared away by a transition to a new and higher mode of production - a transition which, as soon and as long as society is divided into classes, into ruling and ruled, takes place through a social revolution.

An example taken from the development of agriculture makes this clear: the first, primitive agriculture was carried on communistically; it was a community enterprise. This primitive communistic agriculture went through a series of stages of technical and economic development. It developed agricultural economy up to the point where it became a hindrance. There followed the transition to another form of production, let us say, to peasant economy, to simple commodity production. Communal ownership of arable land was replaced by individual ownership of the land and the means of agricultural production. This individual ownership of land made possible a much more intensive cultivation which increased the forces of production. China is probably the country in which the increase in the productivity of peasant economy has reached its highest point. In its turn this peasant economy also reaches its limits, and appears backward as soon as higher methods are developed, as soon as agriculture can be mechanized. Under peasant relationships one cannot employ steam power, electricity, or any of the discoveries of modern technology. This already presupposes the transition to capitalistic enterprise. The latter in turn develops its own particular bounds or limits which are conditioned by peculiarities of the capitalistic mode of production. The particular economic limits which the capitalistic system of production imposes upon the development of agriculture you probably know from discussions of ground-rent in political economy. The next step towards a broader development beyond this stage will be the transition to a socialist agriculture. The persistent force that governs the transition from one mode of production to another in agriculture is the advance in the productivity of labor.

The advance from one mode of production to another does not occur of itself; it is not automatic. It is made by men, and as a rule it is made by that part of society or that class in society to which the existing mode of production has become a hindrance to development and whose productive role already supplies the pattern for a higher mode of production.

We may now consider classes. One speaks of oppressed or exploited, of feudal, and of capitalistic classes. Classes have not always existed and one can foresee that they will not exist forever. A division of society into classes appeared only after a relatively long development in consequence of the division of labor which was introduced into the primitive classless society. The class structure was historically introduced through the disintegration of primitive communism, and it is intimately bound up with the establishment of private property. Class membership is determined by one's relation to the means of production. If we examine contemporary capitalist society, what chief classes do we distinguish and on what basis do we distinguish them?

1. The owners of the means of production, who do not themselves work and who set these means of production in motion through outside labor power - the capitalist class

2. Those who do not own the means of production, who place their labor power at the disposal of the capitalist - the workers.

These are the fundamental classes of contemporary capitalist society. Their difference is determined by their relation to the means of production.

3. We also distinguish a class which is still pre-capitalist, but which exists under capitalistic conditions; the class which owns its means of production and itself works, the small farmers, the handicraftsmen, or simple commodity producers.

Or let us take Greek or Roman antiquity. Here you can distinguish on one hand slave-owners, owners of the means of production and of slaves, and on the other, the slaves, those who do not own the means of production. They were not even free sellers of their labor power; they were simply a commodity. More-over, in antiquity there were also handicraftsmen and free farmers, simple commodity producers. Here too, as under capitalist relationships, class membership was determined by one's relation to the means of production.