A Basic Introduction to Dialectical and Historical Materialism
BY JAAN LAAMAN
What is “A Basic Introduction to Dialectical and Historical Materialism” and Why 4strugglemag is Printing it Now
This relatively short pamphlet was originally written 35 years ago in N.H. state prison, by a young revolutionary who had recently been thrown into prison for anti Vietnam War activities. It was written to inform and educate small circles of prisoners who were quietly meeting in political awareness study groups. It was often retyped and later on photocopied.
It was read, studied and passed on, hand to hand. From N.H., it made its way to other prisons in New England and later to the federal prison system and beyond. In time, some outside revolutionary and activist organizations also came across this writing and used it to help inform and train their members.
Over the years probably thousands of activists and revolutionaries have read and/or studied this booklet. It has been used by certain underground fighting organizations and some public activist groups to help train their cadre. Untold numbers of prisoner study groups across the country have also used it to train members.
This pamphlet lays out the need for, and explains the method of, using scientific revolutionary analysis to break down any problem.
It is only by truly understanding the roots of a problem or situation, that we can then begin to plan and execute solutions and campaigns to overcome the problem, obstacle or enemy.
To really analyze a situation or problem, we should have a scientific structured method to break the problem down to understand its causation. Dialectical Materialism is the best tool to do this. This pamphlet presents a basic picture of Dialectical Materialism, especially to readers who don’t have much or any previous familiarity with it.
This pamphlet has been updated a few times. It was just updated and revised in 2008, primarily by political prisoner Bill Dunne, with the assistance of Jaan Laaman, the original author of this booklet.
4strugglemag recommends, especially to young readers and activists, that you read and study this material. Make copies, pass them around. It is most useful to sit down with a small group of fellow activists and study it together. If someone has previous knowledge or study experience with dialectical and historical materialism, with scientific revolutionary analysis, then they could be the study group coordinator. If everyone is pretty much on the same page, take turns leading the reading and discussions. Go over it section by section and in at least some sections, line by line. Although there is serious information in this pamphlet, it is an introduction to scientific revolutionary analysis, and the suggested follow up readings and other more detailed writings on dialectical and historical materialism should be pursued.
Any comments, questions and feedback are welcome. If there is an interest, 4strugglemag will reprint all feedback on this in the next issue.
COMMUNICATE TO EDUCATE –EDUCATE TO LIBERATE
Jaan Laaman, editor
What is Dialectical and Historical Materialism?
Dialectical and historical materialism is the most precise way of thinking about and understanding the real world: what goes on around us, why, how it began, where it might and should go. It is a tool for people to use in understanding how and why thing happened and in planning how to create those
future changes that we know are necessary. In short, it is the world outlook of revolutionary scientific (as opposed to daydreaming or wishful thinking) socialism. This tool of understanding was first developed by Karl Marx and Frederick Engels. They drew the logical parts, the real truths, from earlier philosophies of ancient dialectics and vulgar materialism into one whole that for the first time enabled people to understand the full workings of reality, including social life.
Breaking the terms of dialectical and historical materialism down, we will see that the way we examine how real things begin, develop, and end is dialectical, while the way we will understand this reality is from a materialist viewpoint. The historical part means that history, the story of humankind, is also scientifically understandable by dialectical materialism.
Why Should We Be Concerned About This Way of Thinking and Understanding What Goes On Around Us?
This is a very legitimate question, especially for us in poor inner-city communities, sweatshop workplaces, jail-like school rooms or actual prison cells. The politicians, bosses, cops and a lot of other fools and clowns, all have some kind of game to sell us. Answering this question about how to understand and think about the world is not just another game. Nor is it simply an academic exercise to conduct in a classroom or in your head.
If we put our own fantasies and bad-mouth yard talk aside for a moment, we will have to admit we are in a pretty nasty situation, or at least close to it. We are all on the losing end, if not the actual bottom of this system: low-paying, no security, dead end jobs or no jobs at all; unfit, overpriced housing; poor or no medical care; schools that miseducate and often encourage conflict between groups of students. To enforce our subjugation to this social arrangement, the government’s Bureau of Justice Statistics (in 2008) reports that about 2.5 million people are locked up (over 1.6 million in prisons, 800,000 in jails and over 100,000 in juvenile facilities). Another five million-plus are on bail, probation, parole or house arrest according to a recent Pew Center report. In all reality, very few of us can honestly say we have beaten the system. For working people and the rest of us in the communities, life is just making it week by week.
Most of us in prison are locked up for small-scale scams. Whether it is stealing, dealing or something else, it usually involves a few hundred or maybe a few thousand dollars. These scams are almost always at the expense of some other relatively poor person. They don’t’ hurt the system or its rich owners, whose far more destructive corporate crimes outdo our petty offenses. Others are locked up for victimless crimes – smoking grass, prostitution, etc. Still others are in captivity for crimes of anger, frustration, or despair. Some of us have been railroaded, some convicted for fighting against the government and system. Very few, if any of us, can say we have gotten a fair break or justice. Almost all of us come from a poor or working class background. In our communities, as in captivity, life is a long hustle.
Though we find ourselves on the bottom, many of us are by no means defeated or resigned, and we are always looking for ways to get relief, ways to bring about better conditions. Yet in many instances, when we finally rise up and show our concern and anger, we are only partially successful. All too often we are beaten back or sold out and this leads to further frustration and despair. There are, of course, many specific reasons for various non-successful strikes and movements. But a common and crucial problem is that we really do not know our enemy. We are not aware of how they got their power and control. Not power in the simple sense of say, the warden being appointed by the board of trustees or director of prisons – rather the more basic understanding of how the politicians, bankers and corporate heads own and control everything, including our lives. We don’t really know how they maintain this authority, nor where their primary weaknesses are. Likewise, we often have not studied and thought our own positions, both our weaknesses and lack of control and our strengths and sources of power, as well as the best methods of using these most effectively. In other words, if we enter a struggle with little or no idea of the future, we can only be successful by luck or chance. This is just as true in our daily battles with landlords, bosses, and guards as it is in times of actual military engagements. Dialectical and historical materialism can provide us and all oppressed people, the tools to understand how we have gotten to our sad condition and, more importantly, how we can change this.
The purpose of this pamphlet is not to lay out any specific strategy of struggle. Rather, the hope is that it will help some folks develop this particular and proven method of understanding. Dialectical and historical materialism is a tool- a tool to examine any situation that we may be confronted with. This paper seeks to introduce this tool. All the ideas in it are much more thoroughly explained and demonstrated in numerous books and pamphlets. The purpose of this booklet is to make the more detailed writings a little easier to understand, especially for those of us ho have not had much contact with these ideas before. Hopefully, this pamphlet will motivate a desire to learn more about these powerful tools of emancipation.
It is then up to each of us individually and all of us together, to use and develop these weapons of understanding. Thus armed, we will be more successful in the many battles we have yet to engage with the enemy, before we as a people, can control our lives and determine what kind of country and world we want to build for ourselves and future generations.
Dialectical and Historical Materialism
Dialectics comes from the Greek word meaning to debate. There has been a crude form of dialectics in existence for thousands of years. In ancient times, there were philosophers who believed that the way to best arrive at the truth of a statement was by revealing the contradictions in the argument, that is, the opposing, competing ideas within the argument. The clash of opposite opinions was seen as the best way of getting to the truth. This was the ancient dialectical method.
The modern materialist dialectical method developed by Marx is much more definite and therefore, able to provide us with a much clearer understanding. Materialist dialectics goes beyond just seeking the truth of a statement, beyond just understanding that contradictions are present in statements, into understanding that contradictions exist throughout nature and the whole material world. The Marxist dialectical method has four basic features. First, all phenomena of nature (or simply put, all real things) are connected. Second, everything is in constant motion. Third, all phenomena are undergoing constant change. Fourth, the change and development of things is the result of the interaction of opposing forces or internal contradictions within everything. All this is in opposition to what is called metaphysics. Metaphysics sees the world and things in it as static, isolated, one-sided. It views any change there is as simply one of magnitude, a mere increase or increase in quantity on a set stage. Metaphysics is the common philosophy advanced by capitalist thinkers and is taught in U.S. schools. In general it is the type of world outlook the capitalist system tries to foist on us so we stay in the dark about what’s really going on.
The first point of materialist dialectics is that all matter – everything that exists – is connected. Not only are, say, people and prisons and courts and cops related, but all life – water, fish, air, people, machines, countries, etc. – all things are organically connected with, dependent on, and determined by each other. In order to understand any one thing, say prisons, we have to see all the related aspects. Laws, for example, who makes them? Who are they made to serve and protect? Courts: who are the judges? Are they from our backgrounds and communities, or are they rich and privileged? Cops: who do they arrest? Do they collar the petty burglar and pot smoker? Or do they even investigate the corporate executive who daily steals millions by price fixing and other schemes? And who does the system protect? Does it serve the bankers and corporate moguls or some poor person who calls in a complaint late at night in some ghetto neighborhood? Does that protection allow those banks and corporate elites to pay poverty wages in unsafe factories that pollute air, water and land in our communities?
Of course, not every connection between things is of equal importance. Deciding which are the most significant connections at any given time in the situation being studied is also important. Looking at things and their connections in a dialectical materialist way will help us do that. If we look only at one thing in a narrow increase and decrease way, we will not really see the underlying reasons why the thing in question is the way it is. This is part of the problem of not seeing who our real enemies are. By not understanding the connections between things, we often wind up fighting each other (white against Black and so on), instead of dealing with the real oppressor. We must always, then, view all related aspects from the beginning of any situation to determine what are the connections, which are most important, and how they affect each other.
The second point of materialist dialectics is that all matter, everything, is in motion. Things never stay the same. Instead, something is always arising and developing and something is always disintegrating and dying away. The only real constant is constant motion and change. This is true whether we are considering atoms, plants, people, or societies. All related aspects are always influencing one another and things are always developing and/or disintegrating, always in motion. This is probably pretty clear to us. But what is important is to be able to spot the new growing forces that are moving, even though they seem small and less important compared to the larger dominant power. That way we can help these new forces develop and move (or nip them in the bud before they bear bitter fruit). The longstanding dominant power of the Russian czars (kings), for example, was overthrown by seemingly much weaker forces in 1917, as was the rule of the British monarchy here in the American colonies in 1776. In the first case, these forces were the Russian people led by their revolutionary Bolshevik party; in the second, the American colonists led by their radical, albeit bourgeois, leaders. The new forces that were able to accomplish these large tasks had been in the existence, growing and developing, long before they were able to win their struggles – and having done so, give their people a much better life.
The third point of material dialectics is that this connections of things and how all matter is always moving (rising and falling away), has a certain definite method or process of movement from one level to a completely different level. This is described as the quantitative change or movement at some point leading to a qualitative change. This means that things don’t just repeat or go in circles. Because a thing is connected and influenced by many other things, it is moved step by step (quantitative change) up to a certain point, where the thing then rapidly and abruptly makes a complete change (qualitative change) in itself. Let us take an example of this in the world of naturew by looking at water, which is made of oxygen and hydrogen. If we apply heat or cold to water, it changes degree by degree (quantitative change), until it reaches a certain point. There the water abruptly changes its form (qualitative change) to steam or ice. It makes a complete change.
This same process of change is true for all things. Take a society for instance. As methods of industry change, as inventions are made, as people create their necessities of life in new ways and learn new things, and as numerous other factors change, sooner or later the institutions, including governmental structures, have to change. The power has to be moved from the hands of one class of people to another. The new ruling class will then begin building new institutions and methods of running society (new political, social and economic structures).
The American colonists mentioned above, for example, were at first loyal subjects of England. But as this country developed and shipping and farming grew and commerce and manufacturing developed, the colonial government’s system of taxation and regulation became obsolete to the point of actually holding back further industrial and commercial development and growth in the colonies. Since English rule did not allow the qualitative change the expansion demanded, some of the American colonial elite and some of the American public, began to organize to get rid of the old order. After a period of peaceful attempts to secure the needed changes, the Revolutionary War took place and, after the successful completion of this war against imperialism, a new system of government was established. This new system allowed a much greater degree of independence for the development of economic and social life.
This new system was essentially a capitalist and slave owning regime in which a minority elite of property, plantation and business owning white males, whose power was based on control of resources and commerce, freed itself from the restrictions of feudal privileges administered by English monarchy. Though a qualitative change from what had preceded it, that change was not as great a qualitative step as that made by the Bolsheviks in overthrowing the Russian monarchy, also mentioned above. In the American Revolution, the genocide practiced against the Native population was not reversed, Black slavery was not abolished, the conditions of indentured servitude were not improved, many poor white men remained disenfranchised, and women of all colors and classes could not vote and had even fewer rights than their men. A new ruling class replaced the old, new contradictions emerged and the seeds were sown for the next great qualitative change, toward which we are working today. The system established 200 years ago was far from perfect and loaded with contradictions. Although significant progress has been made in increasing popular freedom, today the system is still not working adequately for anyone except a small class of super-rich, powerful owners and controllers (the capitalist class or bourgeoisie, as it is also called). This is a direct example of how societies change and move, and how at one point a new group or class springs forth from the ashes of the old system to take over and begin a new one.
The fourth point, though last, is the most important one in order to understand and use materialist dialectics. Number four states that besides all the outside influences on a thing (and let us remember we are talking about everything that exists), the thing in question has internal contradictions. Everything has two opposing aspects (internal contradictions) and each set of these opposite aspects forms a contradiction. When we speak of a thing we are really talking about a set of opposites that struggle with each other, yet coexist and combine to form the thing itself. There is no up without down, no cold without hot, no victory without defeat, no capitalist class without a working class, etc. When a ball is thrown in the air two contradictory forces are at work simultaneously – the force propelling the ball upward and the force of gravity. While gravity is weaker, the ball goes up. When gravity becomes stronger the ball changes direction and comes down. Likewise, in modern society we have two main classes, the capitalist class or bourgeoisie and the working class or proletariat. Although the two classes have different interests, they coexist together and form one society. As long as the capitalists hold the upper hand in the society, they can dictate the rules to a great degree and will do so to their own advantage. While we, the working class, are kept in the secondary or weaker position, we are in constant struggle with the capitalists. But when the working class turns this around, when we assume the dominant position of the contradiction, when we become the class in control of our society, we will have the greater say, we will dictate how and why the society will develop and grow. In other words, the seeds of the new are present even in the old, when the old is still powerful.
This last point, then, says that there is a constant movement, constant struggle, between the two opposing aspects of the thing in question and this conflict of the internal contradictions is the most important single force that leads the thing to change. Or, to put it briefly, there is an internal contradiction in every single thing and this, more than all else, causes its motion and development. External forces are also important, but dialectics understands that external causes are the condition of change, while internal causes are the basis of change. For example, a chicken sitting on an egg will lead to a baby chick, while the same chicken can sit on a rock forever and hatch nothing – the internal contradictions are the most important factor in the development and motion of not just the egg, but all things.
Similarly, dialectics shows us that while the capitalist system and government might seem powerful, the less visible realities of life, ideas and general conditions of work and existence carried around in the hearts, minds, and lives of the people the government is oppressing, are actually the more powerful force. We see glimpses of it now and then, during the middle of an uprising, on a solid picket line, at a rally, or even when a group of oppressed people site together and discuss how to get our from under the injustice. Thus, we see that the people’s consciousness is a force that has not yet come fully into its time; nonetheless it is what will eventually take over the old system. Of course, this does not happen without a lot of pain and struggle and, especially, it will not happen until we, the people who are the victims of injustice, begin consciously pushing and fighting for change.
This, then, is an introductory definition of dialectics, a method that teaches us how to observe and analyze the movement of contradictions in things in the real world and, on the basis of such analysis, to find ways to resolve the contradictions and thus bring about a new thing or situation.
Put another way, dialectics is the scientific method of understanding how things are and how they change. Dialectics recognizes: 1.) that all things are connected; 2.) that all things are in motion (developing or dying away); 3.) that quantitative changes (changes in size or amount) are step by step changes that lead to qualitative changes (changes in substance or type) which come about swiftly or abruptly (and in the case of society, violently and abruptly), transforming the old into a new thing or situation and 4.) that the primary basis of all change and movement is the internal contradiction that exists in all things.
So when we face a problem, we should look at its internal make-up to determine the various aspects of the contradiction, examine its connections to other things, determine what the progressive new aspects of the situation are and how these are affected by both the internal contradiction and external things. Then, finally and most importantly, we determine how our own actions on the problem will speed up these new progressive aspects to the point that a qualitative change, or a change that brings the new force to the dominant position, can be made.
The historical part of dialectical and historical materialism means that we can study the history of humankind with this same tool of materialist dialectics. History then becomes understandable not as a series of accidents or mistakes or mythical occurrences, but as the development of social and material forces that are connected, in motion, and changing internally and externally, resulting in a struggle that changes their form. Therefore, we can see that there is no so-called “eternal” principle of history, except change itself, and every system must be seen in its own conditions, time and place. Struggle and change builds up the pressure of internal contradiction until complete transformation suddenly occurs. Nonsense like the so-called “inherent right” of capitalist private property thus makes about as much sense as the so-called “divine right” to rule over everyone that ancient (and some present) kings used to claim. Dialectical understanding allows us to sweep aside all arguments that there are unchangeable situations like the subjugation of peasants to nobility in feudal times or workers to capitalists in modern times.
Materialism is the way of understanding or interpreting the world that sees the real, physical, or material things around us as what this planet is really made of. Many ancient philosophers used semi-materialist forms of understanding to explain the world. It wasn’t until Marx and Engels developed the dialectical method in connection with the materialist understanding though, that it became a scientific method of studying the development of humankind. In addition, it wasn’t until 1917, when the Russian people kicked out their king and corrupt nobility and set up a new form of society and economy, that the conscious application of dialectical materialism became the guiding principle of any country. (All societies develop by the laws of materialist dialectics, including capitalist countries. But the capitalists and their ideological flunkies – most economists, many college professors, etc. – either do not understand or purposely try to hide the dialectical materialist insight because this science, applied to our modern times, clearly and objectively points out the need for the end of capitalist rule and the beginning of socialism.) Since that time, many other people have gotten rid of their leeches and oppressors (phony presidents, dictators, kings). Progress has been made. The contradiction between capitalists and workers, however, has not been resolved. Neither has the contradiction between victims of imperialism and their imperialist oppressors. The accomplishments of liberation forces guided by dialectical materialism were steps in the struggle, but on a worldwide scale the capitalists still hold the dominant position. This also means that even past victories can be temporarily reversed – since 1990 many socialist and revolutionary movements and governments have suffered setbacks or have been thrown back to a capitalist dog-eat-dog system. It is up to us to build on past revolutionary accomplishments, to pick up those weapons, and carry the struggle forward.
Materialism has three essential features and stands squarely opposed to the assertions of philosophical idealism, which is the general world outlook that the capitalists (and other reactionaries) push. First, materialism teaches that the world by its very nature is made of matter. Everything comes into being on the basis of material, that is real, causes in accordance with the laws of motion and matter. Second, materialism states that matter is primary and thought is secondary and derived from the material world. Matter is objective reality existing outside and independent of the mind and everything mental is actually a result of our material world. Third, materialism teaches that the world and its laws are fully knowable. While many things remain to be discovered, there is no such thing as things beyond or above the laws that govern all real change and development.
Examining the three basic features of materialism more closely, we see that materialism’s first understanding is that the world (and all countries in the world and all things in each country) is the way it is, because of the concrete material conditions that actually exist. These real conditions develop in accordance with the laws of dialectics. More specifically, this means that the common people and the tools they have at any given time in any given country, the corresponding industry and farming they conduct with these tools, and the types of relations that exist between producers and consumers (that is, who owns and controls the tools and products) determine the material conditions of that society. These material conditions determine what type of society exists. Furthermore, what type of industry and agriculture there is will primarily determine what type of social and political institutions (government, schools, courts, and so on) will exist. Rulers and religious forces and many other factors have an effect on the society, for they are among the contradictory aspects of the whole. Nevertheless, the actual material level of development of the society is the primary basis for what type of social and political institutions it will have.
Societies, then, develop the type of social and governmental apparatus that, generally speaking, correspond to their economic level of development and which are intended to meet the needs of the people. But the needs that are met are mainly those of the ruling class, the group in the dominant position of the contradiction in the society. As this country presently demonstrates, the government does not often meet the real needs of the majority of people. This is because we are still operating under the economic principle (capitalism) and government structure that dates back over 200 years. Regardless of how good or honest the elected officials might be, they can never meet all of the people’s needs because the social, economic and governmental institutions themselves are inadequate for the job. In other words, we are still being ruled by old methods, methods that serve the interests of capitalist business and trade. We as a people are not owners of capitalist trade or business in any real sense – in fact we are its victims – and we are ready for a new stage in society. We are told the system is democratic, but what vote do we have where we work, rent, buy? It’s either the boss’, landlord’s, baker’s way or the highway. We are ready to make the qualitative step from the old to the new because social and economic structures no longer meet the real needs of the people – the structures are holding back needed growth and development. It is time for a new arrangement of things.
The second feature of materialism states that matter is primary and thought is secondary because it is based on and derived from matter. There are two parts to this. First the brain, our organ for thinking, is made of matter and works by metabolizing matter; without the brain there is no thought. Second and more significantly, people’s consciousness at any given time is primarily determined by the existing economic and social level of development at that time. It is not people’s minds that determine how they live and think. Instead, it is the physical conditions, what they see and experience around them from their first moments of life until they die, that play the main role in determining how they think. This does not mean that we are robots or that we don’t have free thought, but we can only see and think about things that have some relation to our lives.
The things we think about come from outside as information. What we think and decide to do about them comes from inside as our analysis and our plans. If the information is bad or our analysis is wrong, we are like the chicken trying to hatch a rock; no matter how good our thinking is, we will never hatch correct conclusions.
An example of this principle of the material determining the mental would be that whenever the industrial countries have run across a previously unknown tribe or people, say in some remote rainforest, these people have without exception been found to have completely different customs and ways of life and to see their whole existence differently than we do. More subtle but still obvious differences can even be seen between and even within nations and regions closer to the mainstream. This is not because people’s bodies or brains are different (we are all human beings), but because they confront a different set of material circumstances and thus have a different type of economic system (a way of making and distributing the necessities of life), upon which their social system and consciousness are based. We have a different system, and this is what leads us to think, feel, and act differently. It is not any particular teacher, religious leader, or politician that determines how a society thinks, although leaders and religions do play a moving ahead or holding back role at given times. Instead, it is mainly the concrete material conditions of that society at that time in history that determine, overall, how people think and live and how they see themselves and the world. It is people’s social being that determines their social consciousness.
The third feature of materialism is that it recognizes that all things are fully knowable and understandable, if not now, then at some future stage of development. Contrary to capitalist idealism, which denies the possibility of knowing the world and its laws and holds that the world is full of so-called “things in themselves” that can never be known to science, materialists show that the world and its laws are fully knowable, that knowledge of the laws of nature, tested by experiment and practice, its real knowledge having the validity of objective truth. Further, there aren’t any things above being known in the real world. There certainly are things which are still unknown, but these will be discovered and made known by the efforts of science. This idealist song and dance about not knowing things is an old story. Hundreds of years ago they used to argue that the earth was flat, that the sun revolved around the earth, that eclipses of the sun and moon were caused by gods and so on. Today, even little children know these things are not true. In the same way, what we have yet to discover is not something magical, rather something that our children will have the task of making known.
There is a final factor to consider about materialism. What is the single most important thing that decides what material level a given society is on at a certain time? What more than anything else determines what type of economy a country has and therefore, what type of government and social system it has? Economic system or economy are words for how a country produces all its goods (food, shelter, clothing, etc.) and services (transportation, communications, energy, etc.), how these things are owned and controlled, and how they are divided and distributed among the people.
There are many factors that go into determining what material conditions exist in a society at any given time. Population is one. If a land does not have a minimum population level then there can be no society. But if we compare the population of, say the U.S. and India, we see that India has many more people, but not nearly the material level or living. If we took other examples, we would see the same: that population alone does not determine what material level a society has.
Geography is important. Land changes, rivers move, mountains rise up and wear away, but this happens very slowly in physical nature. Human societies evolve amid these changes, drawing upon the land and its resources. Looking at the U.S., for example, we see that about 400 years ago some European colonists came here, built homes and a society for themselves that grew and developed. About 230 years ago, the fought a violent independence war (Revolutionary War) and brought about great changes in their society. One hundred years later, the democratic revolution moved qualitatively forward, again through a violent struggle (Civil War), through which Black people won legal rights (on paper at least). This also gave federalism and industrial development full control of the economy and government. Previously, slave-owning agrarian landlords shared political and economic power with the industrial and financial capitalists. For the next hundred years, labor and civil rights struggles raged, gaining labor and political rights for broad sections of the people, including women. Yet in all those 400 years, the geography of the land has not changed in any great sense, except for human-made changes like cities and environmental damage. Hence, we have to say that geography alone, because it changes so slowly, is not the most important factor either.
The single most important factor in determining what material level a society is on is the means of production. The means of production is a term that describes the instruments and resources that are used to create the goods that a society needs and wants. The means of production primarily refers to the machines and tools, but it also includes natural resources and land.
Closely associated to the means of production are the forces of production, which simply means the workers and their knowledge of how to make things. Connected to this and also important are the relations of production. This term describes the relationship between the workers and machines they use to produce goods and who owns the means of production and the goods produced by them. The relations of production answers the question of who owns the products produced by the workers (the forces of production), using the machines/tools (the means of production). There are only three general categories of relations of production: cooperative, exploitative and a combination of the partly cooperative, partly exploitative.
If workers collectively own their own factory and their own means of production, then they would also own what they produced. This would be cooperative relations of production.
If a capitalist corporation boss owns the factory, the workers would not own anything they produced. This is exploitative relations of production. Here the workers get so many dollars for each hour of their labor. If the workers are prisoners, prisoners labor gets so many pennies an hour. In a slave owning society, the slave labor would get nothing at all for his/her work.
In a factory where the workers were partial owners, but there was also partial corporate ownership, this would be an example of a combination of cooperative and exploitative relations of production.
Materialist Outline Overview of Human Societal Development
Having some understanding of dialectical and historical materialism, we can now look at human history and see how and why, in a very general way, the large scale changes have occurred. The world has seen four main societal-productive systems so far and some countries are beginning the fifth level. These stages were primitive communalism, slave holding, feudal, capitalist and now we are moving towards socialism. We will briefly and very generally cover these stages and spot some of the main factors that led the development from one stage to the next higher one. We will point out the key struggles or contradictions, that through their resolution led to human advancement.
First we see primitive communalism, where people used stone, wood, bone and crude hand-made tools (the means of production were primitive). There was no developed agriculture because people did not have the tools or know-how at the time. Frequently, they had no need to develop them as nature fulfilled their needs. The people lived together in small wandering groups, spending almost all of their time on just surviving. They shared their wealth communally. They didn’t do this because they were any smarter or loved each other any more than at any later age; they did it because working together, hunting and gathering plant food together was the only way they could survive. Labor worked in common led to the common ownership of the means of production, such as it was, and to the sharing of the fruits of the work. The idea of private ownership of the means of production, except perhaps for personal ownership of certain weapons, did not yet exist. Tribes grew up over the years and they shared their common goods. While there may have been occasional fighting between different tribes, basically the people lived and shared equally among themselves. There was no exploitation, classes or class struggle.
Primitive communalism was by far, the longest-lasting system that existed everywhere on Earth. When human beings first emerged on this planet, we lived and survived in primitive communal families, clans and tribes, sharing and working together for thousands and tens of thousands of years.
Next we see the slave owning system. It must be noted though, that the whole world did not develop all at once. Some areas moved ahead while others remained at the lower level because of the particular conditions and situations in each area. We can still see parts of the world today where feudal type (peasant and landowner) relations exist, but most of the world is capitalist with some areas having other types of relations.
As primitive communal groups learned how to better use their environments, some became less nomadic. This helped bring about the beginning of agriculture (the deliberate cultivation of crops and domestic animals). This also led to more permanent settlements, since it was less necessary to follow and hunt wild animals. This in turn led to the development of new technology. People began to use metals – copper, bronze and later iron – to make better tools and weapons (the means of production took a qualitative leap forward). More settled lives also allowed the accumulation of more material possessions than could be readily carried by nomads.
With the development of better tools/weapons, more could be produced and the communal societies began to develop a surplus of goods, that is, not everyone has to work full time for the group to survive. This surplus could either be divided equally among all or it could go to a few who then didn’t have to work. At first, the communal system remained, but then some people developed better weapons and knowledge of agriculture. The surplus that these advances provided was kept by individuals and we begin to see the concept of private property develop. Since certain people developed these new tools, weapons, and methods (especially of farming) before others, they saw that more could be farmed and produced if more people could be put to work. Their superior weapons enabled them to conquer less developed peoples, enslave them, and bring them back to their lands to work. So the slave system came into existence.
We see that an advancement in the means of production enabled private property to develop, which led to the emergence of classes – the slave owners and the slaves. Thus, class society was born. While it was a brutal system and most people suffered, the world as a whole reached a higher material level in the sense that more was produced. As a result, the struggle for a better standard of living became more a social struggle than one of constant struggle for survival and nature. The slave owning period is marked by intense class struggle and warfare between the slaves and the slave owners.
The next stage is the feudal system. Here a small landowning elite, usually called the nobility or aristocracy, as well as church officials derived most of the benefits of the society. This feudal ruling class had enormous power over the people. The vast majority of people were peasant farmers or serfs, who were legally tied to the land they worked (they could not leave the land without permission of the nobles who owned the land). The serfs, however, had some rights. For example, while they still could be bought and sold as part of the land, they could not be killed arbitrarily. They also owned their own tools and animals, and were allowed to keep a portion of the crops they grew on the landlord’s land. The aristocracy needed the labor of the serfs to extract the wealth from the land and maintain the infrastructure on which the nobles’ power was based, and so had to grant these concessions to the peasants.
This system developed through further improvement of the means to production. Iron and steel were produced and high grade weapons and tools like swords and plows and other farm implements were made. This meant that more could be farmed faster and better. A slave, however, gets the same amount of food and rest and remains a slave whether he works fast or slow and therefore has no incentive to produce more, even with better tools. But if a person can see some gain in his/her work, like the possibility of keeping part of the product, he or she will work more. This gave landowners incentive to discard the slave as a less productive laborer in favor of the serf, who had his or her own tools, animals, and a greater interest in his or her work. Landowners also did not have a big investment in serfs that would be lost if the serf died or ran away. These factors, as well as more and more slave revolts and the breakdown of the old slave-owning empires, led the system to change – led to the development of feudalism.
With feudalism’s new methods and tools, people were able to produce ever more things beyond food and to do that better and faster. Handicrafts and later, artisan manufacture (not to be confused with industrial production which did not develop until capitalism), grew and developed. Towns and cities arose to accommodate this new type and level of commerce. Some serfs ran away from the nobles to learn various trade skills in outlying districts, which expanded development more. Some nobles set certain peasants up in castle shops to produce the various goods needed by the nobles’ estates. Craft guilds arose and kept and expanded the knowledge and techniques of various handicrafts; children were apprenticed to craftsmen so they could learn trades. Specialization emerged. Along with this development was the growth of towns and cities as centers of manufacturing and trade. Urban centers grew up where the raw materials were gathered, the products were made and sold, and where transportation was good (crossroads, river forks, seaports). As a result, a wider system of commercialism, sometimes called mercantilism, grew.
As the variety and availability of products grew and their prices declined, demand for them by people in different areas increased. Middlemen arose to bring buyers and sellers together. These were the traders, merchants and bankers who filled the needs of economic growth and development in ways a primarily land-based nobility could not. Society began to see people who were not members of the noble class but whose families had, over many years, accumulated more money than many nobles. (The rich non-nobles were often called burghers in Europe, and from this word we get bourgeois or capitalist.) Yet the noble class, along with religious authorities, remained in control of the government, which, though increasingly national, was still mostly local.
These were the seeds of the new system, capitalism. It was developing while the feudal system was still strong. The strength of the feudal system is what sharpened the contradiction between the then ruling class of land-owning nobles and the new mercantile class, the peasant class, and the emerging body of workers not employed as farmers. The rise of new tools and procedures of manufacture, agriculture and commerce also raised new contradictions an struggles grew as the needs of the nobility and the inefficiency of the feudal system inhibited progress. This system was also marked by the subjugation of the majority of the people by the minority noble class. The basis of the nobles’ class power was that they owned the land, which was the major means of production for the majority of people. This gave them material power, when the wealth derived from the land dwarfed all other sources of wealth.
Feudalism was marked by two main types of struggle: first, the class warfare of the serfs against the nobility and, later, the conflict between the growing capitalist forces of bankers, merchants, traders, and manufacturers against the ruling nobility class also. The serfs struggled because they wanted freedoms and their own land, and the bankers, etc., because they based their power on money, trade and production, not on land-owning and agriculture. The feudal system with its constant wars, irrational property relations and other costs of maintaining an aristocracy impeded the change that would allow the societies to grow and develop through new forms of economic and social activity. In this situation, the nobility was one aspect of the contradiction; peasants, workers and the bourgeoisie was the other aspect.
This leads us to the fourth stage, capitalism and its most recent and usual political system, capitalist democracy. We must bear in mind, though, that when they need to protect their political and economic power, the capitalists think nothing about changing from capitalist democracy to out-and-out fascist dictatorship. Nazi Germany was an example of this, as were the CIA and capitalist overthrows of the popular democratic governments of Iran, Guatemala, and Indonesia and their replacements with repressive dictatorships. Moreover, the degree of democracy within capitalist countries varies. Israel, for example, allows virtually no democracy for, and acts as a dictatorship towards, the Palestinians under its control. Saudi Arabia has a puppet legislature and disenfranchises women, no one votes for the King, etc. While democracy is the label that capitalists use for their system, this does not mean all people have real equal rights or opportunities.
It actually means democracy for the capitalists and “obey” the rules for the working class. In fact capitalist democracy only allows a small amount of political democracy: the right to pick between a few candidates selected by the ruling class. Social and economic democracy are conveniently omitted from the capitalist definition. People don’t get to vote at all on the things that are currently most important to them such as job issues or property relations.
As we saw, many merchants and traders had become rich in the later part of the feudal era. But since they were not born to the “right” parents, they were a force without any real political power. These early capitalists controlled the towns and cities, but only so many people could be employed as craftsmen and shippers, etc. The cities stayed small and the real political power remained in the hands of the landowning nobility. Then came the industrial revolution, the invention of the steam engine and the invention of large-scale machinery. In other words, a large qualitative leap occurred in the means of production.
The invention of machinery ended the handicraftsmen method of production and brought in the rise of factories and the corresponding mass movement of the people from the countryside to the cities to work these new mills. This drastic change in the means of production led to new contradictions and struggles politically and socially. Two notable political struggles were the American revolution against the English king and colonial system led by the young capitalist class of America, and the French revolution of 1789, led by the French capitalist class against the king, nobility, and state church.
The new struggles and contradictions that came with the ending of feudalism and the rise of capitalism led to significant social changes for the common people too. Under feudalism the peasants had certain rights, but they were still legally tied to the land. The new capitalist ruling class had no need to own the people or to make them live on their land because they were not primarily land owners, they were factory and business owners. The feudal noble class had a certain responsibility to the peasant. In the case of a very bad harvest, the landowners would have to open their storehouses (just a little of course) to keep the serfs alive so they could produce for the nobles again the next year. The capitalists, however, only needed the workers to labor in the mill. If business was bac (as it always is every several years in the cycles of capitalism), they would not want any responsibility to feed and clothe the workers. The capitalist class did not need or want a peasant class. They needed a working class, a group of workers not tied to the land, who lived in the shadow of the mill and who were so-called “free” to sell their labor power to the capitalists, whenever the capitalists needed it. The rest of the time the workers were “free” to starve. As we know, the working class became a reality and soon grew into the largest class in industrialized countries.
Another major reason for the peasants freeing themselves was that in order to overthrow the nobility, the capitalist class (being a minority itself) had to ally itself with the peasants, who of course did most of the actual fighting and dying. After overthrowing the feudal system and liberating themselves from the nobles and serfdom, the common people would not let themselves be re-enslaved in the same manner by the capitalists. So the capitalists did it a different way – one that gave them more power than any noble.
The qualitative advance in the means of production not only led to political change – the government power was taken from the landowning nobility class by the capitalist class – but also great social change. The new productive forces required that the workers be better educated and more skilled than the peasants had been, so they could understand and operate the machinery in the factories. This meant that some education was begun for working people. Also, in order to just have enough workers available to labor in the mills, cities grew up around the factories and most people became urban dwellers. Common people gained legal and political rights (though we all know that even today these rights exist a lot more on paper than in our real lives). Life today is vastly different than in the feudal era, and it is all a product of this rise of the machine age.
While the industrial system of capitalism freed the common people from one type of bondage, it created a new type – wage slavery. In the earlier stages of capitalism the conditions of exploitation of working people were savage. Sixteen hour work days, child labor including six and seven year-olds, starvation wages, dangerous working conditions, severe repression any time the workers sought to improve their conditions – all this and more. Yet just as the common people fought against slavery and serfdom, they fought against the capitalists and their government system. Through immense suffering and struggle, the working class has been able to improve its conditions of life and work, up to and including actually overthrowing the capitalist overlords in some areas. Unfortunately, various failures have allowed the capitalists to reconquer large areas of the territory from which they were once evicted. This demonstrates the protracted nature of our struggle.
The capitalists developed the new means of production and brought the world the machine age. We must keep in mind though, that when we say the capitalists developed industrial production, we mean they were the force pushing the ideas and setting up the plants. It was the working class who actually sweated and worked to build the factories and who then worked in the plants and produced the goods. Just as the feudal nobility class and its subordinate craftsman class became useless with the development of machinery, so, too, ,the world is now at the stage where the capitalists are worse than useless, they are a drag on further social progress. Today all production is done socially (many people work together to produce the commodities), yet the instruments of production are owned privately and therefore, the products become the private property of the factory owners. This is often expressed as the contradiction between social production and private appropriation. Put in blunt terms, laborers work and produce everything, while the owners do little to nothing, but get to keep most of the benefits of our work. On top of this, they turn around and try to convince us that they are doing us a favor by giving us a job – by letting us work our lives away to make them rich! Plus they get to make the decisions about what is produced, meaning much of our productive capacity is wasted on military madness to defend bourgeois power and produce luxury goods no on but a minority elite can afford, instead of affordable housing, food, education, healthcare, transportation – social goods for all.
Just like the nobles were against change to capitalism, the capitalists are vehemently against the change to socialism. Since they control the vast majority of the governmental, public, and private institutions (media, schools, courts, etc.), they use them to try to make up explanations and theories to try to convince the working people that socialism is no good for anyone and that we should continue to accept their rule over us. If need be (and we see this every time a union goes on strike and throws up a strong picket or when prisoners rebel or a community protests), they will use force to try to stay in power. Still, even with all their courts, cops, and miseducation, the tide of history is against them and sooner or later the capitalist class must be moved aside so a new age can begin.
We see then that the capitalist system is marked by several contradictions, the key ones being: the contradiction between social production and private appropriation; the struggle between major capitalists, especially those in different countries, each trying to cut the others’ throats and, if necessary, dragging working people into wars to do so; the struggle between large monopoly capitalists and smaller capitalists who continually get eaten up by the larger ones; and, finally but most importantly, the continuous and irreconcilable class struggle between the decadent capitalist class, who are trying to hang on to their power even thought the huge majority of people suffer, and the ever-growing strength of the working class, which is moving to bring a new and better system and age. It is this last contradiction, the struggle between the working class or proletariat and the capitalist class or bourgeoisie, which is based on the concrete reality that capitalism is not meeting the needs of working people, that is the propelling force which will bring about the next qualitative social change to socialism.
Socialism is the latest (fifth) main stage of human society that some countries are already beginning. It is the level of development where the contradiction between social production and private appropriation is resolved by making the appropriation social also. This means the major industries, mines, farms, railways, or in other words, all the major means of production, are under the control of the working class. This is easily accomplished by socializing these enterprises (socialized is where the people, community, or state owns them). Under socialism, the state or government in turn is truly controlled by the working people; they not only vote once every couple of years for government officials, but also have more direct and real control of the day-to-day operation of the workplace.
For example, if you worked in a factory, you and your co-workers would be making most of the decisions on the work, conditions, etc., as well as having a real voice, along with all the working class, in deciding national and other large issues as well. This is really only logical because it is the working people that actually make all the goods that the country needs. Therefore, they should be the ones who collectively own the means of production and the goods they produce, and decide how to allocate those goods as well.
As it now stands, all production is done for only one purpose – profit. The capitalists are not concerned with whether the commodities and services they have produced are useful or not as long as they can be sold. In fact, a huge portion of U.S. production today is war production. In the summer of 2008, the Iraq war is costing U.S. taxpayers $12 billion a month. This comes out to $5000 a second! In addition it is costing taxpayers another $40 billion per month for the rest of the military-industrial complex expenses. This serves no purpose but high taxes and death for us and obscene profits for the military-industrial complex. For the capitalists, war production is a highly profitable business, and when war involving U.S. troops breaks out they rarely send their sons or daughters to die. Meanwhile, people in this country today, let alone in the rest of the world, are going hungry, live in rotten housing, cannot afford decent medical care, have to send their children to old, overcrowded schools, etc. What has happened is that now, when our country has reached a point where poverty and suffering could be wiped out, the capitalist refuse to do it, because it is not profitable. The capitalist class has outlived all its usefulness and is standing squarely in the way of necessary progress. This is not just because they are all greedy nasty individuals (although most, no doubt, are), but because the only way the capitalist system can operate is on private property and profit, and these are thus protected as inherent, constitutional rights that may not be legally challenged. Therefore, the solution requires more than a matter of putting a so-called “nice guy” into office, because even a “good guy” has to act within the limits of the system.
While we are reaching the level of production where all the goods needed could be produced and made available to working people, we find ourselves plagued with inflation, recessions, depressions, severe cutbacks, and declining living standards. Why? Again, because the capitalist class is only after profit. They not only don’t produce what is needed, they actually destroy crops while people are hungry, produce business jets and even more senseless cars and gadgets while many people still do not have refrigerators or running hot water, or even a home to live in. Under socialism, goods and services are produced not because someone can make a fast buck, but because they are needed and wanted by the people. Capitalism always had and will have cycles of recession, depression and so-called good times. Although in the 1950s and 60s a lot of talk was smeared around the U.S. about how this problem of capitalism had been resolved, today as banks are failing and homes are being foreclosed, we all understand that it is as ready as ever to fall into a full-blown depression. Socialist countries never have depressions because they do not operate on a market economy. Instead, they have a planned and thought-out economy that is designed to meet people’s needs. During the great depression of the 1930s, the only major country that was not laying people off was the Soviet Union, which had a socialist economy then.
Socialism resolves many other contradictions that present day capitalism imposes on us. By overthrowing the capitalists’ political control and setting up a working class democracy, it is possible to establish a socially owned means of production. Having resolved these work relations contradictions, we could begin building not only a more materially plentiful life, but an emotionally and socially satisfying and ecologically sustainable one as well. Under capitalism the idea is that you gain at someone else’s expense. Such a basis for society quite naturally leads to an overall hostility, distrust and negativity amongst the people. Socialism is instead based on the principle that mutual cooperation leads to advancement. It is not hard to see how, in a socialist system, society would grown increasingly harmonious and people truly, regardless of race, sex, or any other features, would have the greatest possible freedom to develop their full human potential.
Looking ahead, we can see we are reaching a point in this country where most hard manual labor could be performed by machines. The capitalists will never move to this stage because it will mean cutting their own throats. Instead, they focus on automating good jobs for which workers must be paid well and leaving low-pay hard labor for the workers.
Unskilled workers, who do most of the dirty, dangerous, boring work, tend to be cheaper than the machines that would replace them. They are also plentiful and easily replaced, which makes it difficult for them to make demands on the bosses. Skilled workers, whose jobs tend to be more interesting and satisfying, must be paid more because their knowledge is in short supply. Also they can make demands on the bosses because they are not so easily replaced. You can’t go to the Home Depot parking lot and pick up a van load of diesel mechanics. In order to understand this more fully, we must examine a certain aspect of work and capitalist production.
Karl Marx, 170 years ago, discovered that under a money system (A capitalist system, that is, although money is used for a while when a country is transforming to socialism. Goods and services are allocated by other means once it becomes fully socialist, so money becomes useless and disappears.), all goods and services that are made to be sold (commodities) only get value once some worker has put his or her labor on them. By value we mean exchange value or money value, not use value. Anything that is useful has use value, air for example, but only commodities that are made to be sold have exchange value or just value. That might sound strange, so let us take an example. Let us say we think there is gold buried in the yard in its raw mineral ore state. This gold has no value as long as it is lying underground. Now a capitalist comes along and hires a worker to dig up the raw gold ore. Let’s say the worker digs up 100 pounds of gold ore in eight hours of work. Now the capitalist has 100 pounds of gold ore, which we’ll say is worth $1000. The capitalist pays the worker $100 for his/her day’s work, leaving the capitalist $900 extra value (for simplicity sake we will call this all profit, but some of it is other than that), and now the gold itself has a value of $1000. The capitalist now hires a gold smelter who in eight hours, we’ll say, melts the ore down into a gold brick, which we’ll say is worth $2000. The capitalist pays the smelter $200 in wages, smelting being more skilled labor thatn digging, leaving the capitalist with a $2000 gold bar that cost him or her $300 to acquire. (The workers actually produced it.) Now the capitalist finds a goldsmith who he hires to turn the gold bar into many gold rings. He pays the goldsmith $500 for his word. The capitalist then sells the rings for $4000, their exchange value. The workers whose labor brought the gold from zero value to its full $4000 value got $800, and the capitalist got the remaining $3200. This is just a simplified example, but the rule is that commodities get their value when a worker puts his/her labor and time into changing some material into a commodity.
Under developed commodity production, when commodities are exchanged through the medium of money, their values are expressed with a definite sum of money. The value of the commodity is expressed in terms of money. Exchange value becomes the price of the commodity. This is a simple look at what Marx called THE LABOR THEORY OF VALUE.
Returning to the idea that most jobs, especially the worst ones, could be automated, we see that the capitalists cannot move to this stage because if only human labor power increases value and thus makes profit, then they need human labor power. This does not mean that people won’t keep losing their jobs in the U.S. because of automation, since automation increases the capitalists’ rate of profit. If the capitalist has one laborer and one machine doing the work which ten workers without machines did before, then of course, he/she has to pay less wages and saves money or increases profit, but it does not meant that the capitalists will take that total step. Only socialism, not governed by profit, could and will move to a stage where backbreaking labor is less needed, because this would be to the benefit of working people.
Finally and generally, socialism as a social-productive system is the first time since primitive communalism that society is run and controlled by the majority of people (the working class). The people who work and produce would also be the people who own and decide what should be done, when, how and why. The working class as opposed to the capitalist class would be the class in power, and it is always true that whoever controls the economy also controls the government. The working class as a whole would determine how society would live and grow, by setting up and using truly democratic methods and institutions. Then the schools, medical services, recreational facilities, and all other social institutions would be open and available for the people to use. There would be no one to deny us these or other things if we as a class were running the country. Socialism is the logical and necessary next stage of society and human development on this planet – anything else would be going backwards.
This is just a short outline of socialism. How any specific socialist society would look would be up to the people of that country to determine. Part of this determination is how industrially and materially developed the country was to begin with. Cultural, historical, and environmental factors will also influence the faces of socialism. Therefore, it is not only likely, but most assuredly true that different countries will have unique aspects to their socialist democracies.
This, then, is a basic look at dialectical and historical materialism and, very briefly and generally, a materialist breakdown of the stages of human society’s development, including a peek at how socialism will be in our country. This is not reading fortune cookies, astrology charts, or any other metaphysical hocus-pocus. It is a concrete evaluation of concrete realities using the powerful tools of dialectical materialist understandings of the real world. These tools, and the insights we gain using them, enable us to move forward with foresight and planning. This is only an introduction; so many points were left out and most aspects were only covered briefly and generally and, therefore, somewhat mechanically. It is hoped and urged that at least two additional short books be read: Dialectical and Historical Materialism, by J. Stalin and On Contradiction, by Mao Tse Tung. Both are available at political bookstores and both provide a much richer understanding of this powerful tool that we need if we want to struggle more effectively.
Even with only this basic understanding, we can see that the world is moving forward and that the day of the common people, the working class, is approaching. As in all other stages though, we must realize that conditions develop and groundwork is laid while the majority of people are still not aware of their full scope. But when a certain point is reached, we begin to see and understand (if we don’t purposely shut our eyes) the full nature of our enemy, as well as our own power and duty. Thus begins the last stage of the old. The people whose day has come must then step forward and make that complete qualitative leap ahead. This is not easy and it never has been, but all we really have to lose are our chains – the chains that confine us to a life of wage slavery in a system of discrimination and injustice, the chains that hold us in prison cells in capitalist dungeons, the chains that allow us only frustrated half lives as the oppressed class in a capitalist nightmare. The New Day Is Ours To Build!