Sunday, May 2, 2010

Meaning of Marxism Study Group | Historical Materialism and Capitalism


Capitalism is a fundamentally unstable and destructive system. Its need for perpetual growth has, in the span of a few centuries, profoundly altered the conditions on earth that human life is adapted to. And at the same time as it destroys the planet it also destroys people. The entire system depends on transforming people’s ability to work, along with most everything else, into a thing to be bought and sold and devising new and more effective methods of getting the most value for the least input. Because it relies on exploitation, capital operates on the assumption that people can be treated like a commodity–like a car or a microwave oven–that can be bought and used. This is a false assumption that represents a contradiction at the heart of the system–people aren’t machines and they aren’t commodities. Though not always with red flags and barricades, people resent and resist being reduced to the level of a thing.

This tension is key. It is a contradiction that goes to the heart of the way the system operates and goes a long way in explaining how and why it operates the way it does. While this is arguably the key contradiction, it is certainly not the only one. Its irrational organization of production and its single-minded pursuit of profit produces periodic crises–like the one we’re living through right now–that put a temporary check on growth before starting again. This same irrationality has left and continues to leave billions of people mired in poverty, disease, starvation, and war. And it’s done this at the same time that it’s created the material conditions under which humanity has the potential to provide everyone with food, medical care, and genuine equality in a system based on social and economic justice and ecological sustainability–one that is democratically run and rationally planned.

This state of affairs is not a mistake. It’s not the result of an inefficient market or poor policy choices. It is the product of capitalism working the way it’s supposed to. There is nothing new or original in what is said here. Marx made these arguments over a hundred and fifty years ago. This study group is organized around the chapters in Paul D'Amato's The Meaning of Marxism that deal with Marx’s understanding of history and historical change–historical materialism–and part of his analysis of capitalism. I’m going to organize this introduction around a series of questions that, I hope, will get to the heart of what Paul D’Amato is getting at in the first few chapters. Briefly, these questions are: Why Marx? Why Marxism? What is historical materialism? Why is it important? What about capitalism–how and for whom does it work?

Marx and Marxism

So, why Marx and why Marxism? D’Amato’s answer works well here. Put simply, his analysis of capitalism and historical change has stood the test of time. Born in 1818, he came of age and to political maturity in mid-nineteenth century Prussia at a time when capitalist social and property relations became the norm. He cut his political teeth as a journalist and earned himself the ire of the Prussian state when he protested the imposition of private property on formerly common lands in the early 1840s. For centuries people survived through access to common lands to build their homes and cook their meals. New laws rooted in new conceptions of property made these customary rights into criminal acts and Prussian prisons soon filled with these "criminals." Along with the people whom the laws dispossessed, Marx protested the cruelty and irrationality of the new laws. He would later call this law and laws like it a process of "primitive accumulation"–or the forcible dispossession of peoples from access to the means of production. Without access to common lands–or land at all–people had to find new ways of feeding themselves. A section of these people became the working class, the exploited majority I mentioned above. His observations here shed light on some of his major contributions to socialist thought. First, he recognized that capitalism is a historical system. Second, he began to understand that historical change was rooted in material conditions rather than the world of ideas.

The first point made sense for Marx because, in a sense, he watched capitalist property relations replace older customary conceptions of property and, in the process, make a working class. If capitalism represented the natural state of things, then rural people in Prussia never got the news. Though this may seem like common sense, economists and historians alike during Marx’s time and even today have a difficult time with that. For them, capitalism is an eternal system. It’s almost like the only thing preventing industrialization from taking place a thousand years ago as opposed to two hundred was this or that law or piece of technology. The violence that Marx saw with the enforcement of new property laws and the determined resistance of the newly minted criminals makes these arguments seem unfounded, if not silly.

It wasn’t just the economists and historians who thought that way though–Marx was also unique among socialists for thinking in these terms. Most early nineteenth century socialists rightly recognized the absurdities and cruelties of capitalism, but build their movements around appeals to morality and reason. Understanding capitalism historically wasn’t really an issue for them. Elaborate blueprints and sophisticated arguments were key. These utopian socialists lived in a world of ideas as much as the economists. Marx argued that this sort of thinking was not only wrong but also dangerous.

Historical Materialism

Marx argued for a new way to think about and understand both how society works and how to change it. He called this new method "historical materialism." In short, he argued that in order to understand and change the present one had to understand how power was organized and maintained. Who had power and why? Over whom did they have power? How did they keep it? The most basic way to get at the answers to those questions, he argued, was through looking at how a society reproduced its means of subsistence–its food, shelter, and clothing. He used the concept of a mode of production to talk about the organization of production but also the operation of power more generally. It provided him with a framework to talk about how economics interacted with politics, culture, and nature–and how each shaped and was shaped by the other. Social relationships around production, he argued, were key to understanding how these systems operated. By this, he meant that asking who did the work and who controlled what they produced (and how it was distributed) was essential to understanding how any mode of production operated.

Just like I talked about in the introduction, however, each of these modes of production had tensions built into how they operated. This is another of Marx’s important insights. It’s also central to understand how he differed from the utopian socialists and why Marxism remains important. He argued that the social tensions created by the organization of production and the unequal distribution of power led to the struggle that are a constant feature of all class societies. Class struggle, more than anything else, was, for Marx, the primary motor of historical change. Nothing, for Marx, is predetermined. There was nothing natural about the way this or that mode of production–including capitalism–developed. New modes of production emerge over time through class struggle and that struggle plays the key role in shaping the form these new modes of production take.


Marx’s emphasis on modes of production and class leads us into the final section of this introduction: what is capitalism–and how and for whom does it work? This is definitely the more dense section of the introduction, but I think that a lot of what I’m going to say here builds pretty well on what I’ve talked about so far.

The criminalization of early forms of subsistence and the dispossession of millions of rural people was central to the creation of a working class–a people whose only real marketable property was their ability to work. Marx recognized this process in Prussia in the early 1840s. This new class of people, he argued later, is one of the forces that made capitalism different. He argued that the entire system depended on the labor performed by this new working class. It was through this production process that workers produced and capitalists expropriated economic value. Capitalists control the value that workers produce. They return part of the value to the workers in the form of wages. They keep the rest–Marx called this “surplus value.” They take the surplus value and reinvest it into the production process–machinery, land, science, and buildings. This isn’t something that just happens though. The entire history of capitalism is replete with struggles over this process. Capitalists want to extract more and more surplus value and workers want to control more and more of the value they produce–labor unions and workplace regulations are two products of this struggle. This is also key to Marx’s understanding of economics and its usefulness–he engaged a study of capitalism from the point of view of the working class. The production of value and struggles over the expropriation surplus value all sound like abstract concepts, but ultimately what Marx was saying was, in so many words, that capitalism was premised on robbing workers. Wages, in Marx’s view, were not a just reward for services rendered–they were a way for capitalists to mask that criminal relationship.