Historical Materialism

(last edited 7/2012)

Historical materialism identifies three broad levels of structures and practices in societies that are divided in classes. Each one of these levels represents a system of structure and corresponding practices, a system in which the whole dialectically determines and is dependent on its constituent parts.

These three levels are:

1-    Economic system (structure and practices): the level of production and distribution of material goods and services

2-    Ideological system (structure and practices): the system of ideas, representations, theories, (…) and the system of behaviors, attitudes, customs, ambitions, habits, (…)

3-    Political system (structure and practices): the system of laws, codes, constitutions, customs (…) through which relationships of domination are defined and enshrined and the system of coercion-repression through which these relationships of domination are enforced, maintained, reproduced and developed.

There are a few global principles that are key to Historical Materialism:

1-    In the relation between structures and practices, on the whole, the structures fundamentally determine the practices. The practices take place inside the structures, even if under certain circumstances they can lead to the destruction of these structures and the emergence of new structures.

2-    In the relation between the economic structure and the superstructures (the ideological and political structures), the economic structure, on the whole, fundamentally determines the other structures, even if other structures can be dominant (for a particular stage or globally, for that particular mode of production) or even if the practices that are taking place in the superstructures can lead to the transformation (destruction-construction) of the economic structure itself.

3-    We must distinguish between formal-abstract social models (that enable us to extrapolate and determine the inherent tendencies and relations between the different elements of these structures in a formal abstract manner) and the societies that exist in reality at different particular historical stages of their development, in all their complex specificity. We can use theoretical models of capitalism or feudalism to help us analyze and comprehend these complex social realities, much as we can use the laws of geometry to help20us assess the area of a farm, although we know that in reality there is no such thing as a square, a rectangle or a circle, or even more so, no pure capitalist or feudal social formation. In all cases, we must base our analysis on the concrete reality as revealed through our class struggles to determine the line of action that best serves the interests of the proletariat.

But before we look at these various theoretical social models, these various modes and forms of production, let’s take a general overview of the three broad levels of structure and practices that we can identify in class-based societies.

1-    The economic system (structure and practices):

The economic level encompasses the structure and practices that involve the production and distribution of material goods and services.

We can identify two intertwined processes in the production process: the work process and the distribution process.

The work process is the process through which productive labor, using available work instruments, transforms raw materials into finished goods. The distribution process distributes the value produced between the various agents of production and ensures the reproduction of the work process trough the replenishment of the productive forces (labor, raw materials and work instruments).

The means of production refer to the work instruments (land, tools, machinery…) and the raw materials. Together with productive labor, these combine to make up the productive forces.

We can distinguish between three different levels of relations existing in the productive process between the agents of production and the means of production; we can refer to these as the relations of production:

1-    Direct labor: that is the relation between the direct producers, those who work to manipulate the work instruments to produce finished goods.

2-    Possession: this refers to the control of the work process, the work schedule, the rhythm of work, and the quality of work…

3-    Ownership: the overall control of the productive process (management), including the work process and the distribution process.

There are two main components of the economic structure: the system of productive forces and the system of relations of production. There is a dialectical relationship between these two systems that make up the economic structure. In its early stages, Marxists privileged the role of the productive forces in the development of the relations of production. Theoreticians such as Marx, Engels and Lenin insisted on the influence of the productive forces on the development of the relations of production. They showed how the development of productive forces preconditioned the economic development of societies. For Marx, the primitive accumulation of capital was a precondition to the development of capitalist production: there had to be the creation of a group of dispossessed laborers together with a group of owners of capital available to enable the emergence and the development of capitalist production. In the various societies where capitalism has developed, these two criteria had to be met. Historically, there were various ways through which poor peasants were dispossessed towards the end of feudal times and these dispossessed laborers became an available workforce for capitalist merchants investing their profits in industrial production. These events also coincided in Western society with the emergence of new means and methods of production, the steam engine, mills… the so-called=2 0“industrial revolution”.

On an even more basic level, Marx and Engels showed how the development of productive forces to leading to the consistent production of a social surplus was also a precondition to the division of societies into classes of exploiters and exploited. Without a consistent social surplus, such a division cannot take place.

This conception of the role of productive forces as a precondition to certain stages of economic development has played an enormous role politically. We can trace this conception to many classic documents such as the Communist Manifesto and Lenin’s thesis on the State and Revolution. We can also recognize the influence of this conception in the political lines of the Soviets and of the Chinese Communists. It was widely held that the development of the productive forces was a precondition that would enable the establishment of a communist society: the management of the productive process by the state would ensure the development of the productive forces, which in turn would yield “abundance” and “collective wealth” and thereby enable the establishment of the ideal communist relations: from each according to their abilities and to each according to their needs. These conceptions=2 0neglected to recognize the fundamental role of the relations of production throughout this process, and led to underestimating the need to transform the relations of production throughout the process of socialist construction.

Proletarian revolutionaries nowadays have learned from these experiences. We can now recognize the fundamental and determinant role of the relations of production in the economic structure on the whole. In the dialectical relation between these two pillars of the economic structure, the relations of production globally and fundamentally determine the productive forces, they determine the nature and character of the productive process: is it one of exploitation? What kind of exploitation is taking place? What is being produced? How is this production taking place? Who benefits from this production? The relations of production, on the whole, also determine the development of the productive forces: how are the goods produced being distributed between the various agents of production and what is being provided for the replenishment and development of the productive forces?

The fundamental objective of socialist construction on the economic level is the transformation of the relations of production. Their socialist transformation, enabled by the political domination of the proletariat, will in turn determine the transformation of the productive forces and engender the blossoming of proletarian ideology.

Socialist economic transformation is linked to the elimination of all forms of economic exploitation and domination. Economic domination exists whenever those who perform the labor are not empowered to also control and manage the productive process as a whole. Those exploiting classes who control or manage the productive process use their economic domination to extract surplus value from the laborers. They use their control and private ownership of the means of production to force the laborers to turn over to them (the non-laborers) the surplus value the laborers have produced. Exploitation exists anywhere there is a class of non-producers that use its ownership or the means of production (economic domination) to extract surplus value from another class of producers. This class of non-producers, through its control of the distribution process, is able to appropriate the surplus value produced.

The historical development of productive forces and of relations of production has resulted in a social division of labor leading to the relative specialization of certain groups in various kinds of specialized production, or to the relative specialization of various kinds of tasks in the production process.

The social division of labor preceded the division of societies into classes, particularly very early on with the emergence of gender based division of labor, which itself corresponded to the development of various relations of gender based domination and subordination.

A second type of social division of labor emerged with the relative specialization of certain kinds of production: agriculture, hunting, fishing, the raising of cattle, sheep, and poultry, ironsmiths… Historically, this relative specialization through socially learned skills passed on from generation to generation, often based on local geographic conditions that favored certain kinds of production, also led to the emergence of traditions of gifts and exchanges within primitive societies and between them. Eventually, trade emerged as a systematic means to rationalize and enable the social division of labor, both within and between societies.

The development of trade led to the development of commodity production, the production of merchandise, or goods to be traded, in parallel to the production o f goods to be consumed by the producers of these goods, and eventually for the primary purpose of trade.

The system of valuation that emerged over the ages evolved into a system based on the amount of socially necessary labor incorporated into the goods being traded, or essentially how long, on the average, it should have taken for one to produce the goods (or services) being traded, inclusive of the value of the raw materials. This socially necessary labor amounted to the effective trade value of the goods and in many societies there evolved an accounting and valuation system based on incorporated labor.

From its inception however, trade, especially through barter with nomadic trades people dealing in goods that were not native to a region, had to relate to the relative supply and demand of these goods and their use-value. As trade became more systematic, the commercial value of goods being traded tended to fluctuate around their labor content according to the relative supply and demand of these goods.

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