On the Materialist Interpretation of History – 2.

In the previous article on this site, the summary by Karl Marx of the materialist interpretation of history was printed in full. This article will consider how that ‘interpretation‘ can throw light upon the situation global humanity faces in the first two decades of the 21st century. For within Marx’s general description there is an important reference to conflicts arising from transformations of the ‘forces of production’. The relevant section commences with;

“At a certain stage of their development, the material forces of production in society come into conflict with the existing relations of production. …….Then comes a period of social revolution…….(Marx. ‘A contribution to the critique of the political economy’.)

The material forces of production prevalent in the 21st century comprise of the immense technical, scientific, organisational and human resources operated by global humanity. Furthermore, it is a fact that robotic assembly lines, computerised production controls and ‘intelligent’ machine learning, have radically transformed the forces of production and have significantly replaced many forms of routine and skilled labour.

These ‘material forces’ now also include the 20th century developments of cooperatives along with large-scale, non-profit public service organisations, in education, health care, social services, local and national government and armed forces. So in terms of the ‘materialist interpretation of history’, over the last century, there has been a continuous and accelerating, ‘material transformation of the economic conditions of production‘. Furthermore, it is a transformation and replacement which has given rise to conflict with the ownership relations of those material forces of production. In this regard, the ‘materialist interpretation’ also suggests that;

“In considering such transformations the distinction should always be made between the material transformation of the economic conditions of production…..and the…ideological forms in which men (humanity RR) become conscious of this conflict and fight it out.” (ibid)

According to the materialist view, human consciousness is to a greater or lesser extent a product of the existing relations of production as well as of the material forces as a whole. Moreover, it is undoubtedly true that existing relationships to the material conditions of production are not under the direct (or even indirect) control of society as a whole. They are directly and indirectly controlled by elites, mainly located in the technically advanced countries of Europe, North America and Asia.

For many decades, this elite relationship of control over the mode of production has resulted in severe conflicts fought out by activists against discrimination, unemployment, pollution, ecological destruction, systemic poverty, along with opposition to the promotion of armed struggles over control of markets and raw material resources. In considering the ideological forms of consciousness which are dominant in the 21st century to fight out these various conflicts, the materialist interpretation suggests;

“Just as our opinion of an individual is not based upon what he thinks of himself, so we (cannot RR) judge such a period of transition by its own consciousness…this consciousness must rather be explained from the contradictions of material life, from the existing conflict between the social forces of production and the relations of production.” (ibid)

Whatever they may think of themselves, the consciousness of the majority of activists during this 20th and 21st century period of transformation has undoubtedly been influenced by the difficulties experienced by various sectors of capitalist societies. Consequently, oppression and exploitation are overwhelmingly viewed from the separate perspectives of gender, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, disability, region or nationality. Therefore, there is clearly a problematic mismatch between the existing consciousness of activists derived from the struggle against these sectional oppressions and the socio-economic source of capitalism’s multiple forms of oppression. Yet as the interpretation suggests;

“…mankind always takes up only such problems as it can solve; since looking at the matter more closely, we always find that the problem itself arises only when the material conditions necessary for its solution already exist or are at least in the process of formation.” (ibid)

Maintaining the concepts of the materialist interpretation, the above problems of discrimination, exploitation and planetary degradation indeed ‘have arisen when the material conditions for their solution‘ (ie cooperatives, non-profit public services, non-polluting technologies, widespread means of popular credit) ‘already exist’ – if as yet in a distorted condition.

Moreover, the capitalist mode of production is in an existential crisis spread over six major socio-economic dimensions, (economics, finance, politics, social welfare, ecology, climate and now virus pandemics) all of which exert various levels of oppression and therefore require revolutionary transformations to the existing relations of production in order to solve them. Despite this glaring contradiction, much of 21st century activist, consciousness remains ‘contained‘ within competitive reformist sectional parameters.

The capitalist system is falling apart and is not only steadily destroying the basis of human life, but of all life forms on the planet, yet many activists are seeking reforms from it – as if these could be granted by a system already near terminal collapse.

Viewed from the perspective of the crisis level of contradictions between the material forces of production and the existing relations of production, noted above, the single issue campaigns currently energising various reformist struggles are obviously doomed to failure. But the problem these separate – often sectarian struggles – pose runs deeper than this. For in the process of pursuing sectional reforms these competitive, single-issue struggles become a self-inflicted form of divide and rule handed on a plate to a pro capitalist elite determined to resist any kind of redistributive change.

In face of this contradiction, there is an important task for those whose consciousness has embraced the fact that the capitalist mode of production is the fundamental economic foundation of all current oppression and exploitation. The task is to patiently and consistently explain that the capitalist system is not the basis for a solution to the many manifestations of oppression.

Indeed, their flawed reformist logic needs to be clearly pointed out to single issue activists. For, in persistently and dogmatically seeking reforms from the existing capitalist system – reformists must logically wish (and even help) capitalism to survive (and thrive) in order for its elites to be in a position to grant their desired reforms.

The case needs to be strongly made that what single issue activists against discrimination by gender, disability, ethnicity, nationality, sexual orientation, or religion, are seeking (ie the righting of a particular wrong) can only be realistically achieved (by a movement to right all wrongs) via a social revolution.

To realise their single issue ambitions, a bottom up revolutionary transformation of the relations of production is required. Moreover, it will need to be a type of revolutionary transformation that ensures no human beings are subordinated to an exploitative economic mode of production or made the slaves or wage-slaves of other human beings.

Single issue activists who are able to see beyond competing against others for sectional reforms should be encouraged to link their struggle to other struggles (in real solidarity) and locate it within a revolutionary-humanist transformational one.

Roy Ratcliffe (December 2020)

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