Pieter Lawrence

Is the Marxian theory of history still relevant?

Source: Socialist Standard, February 1984.
Transcription: Socialist Party of Great Britain.
HTML Markup: Adam Buick
Public Domain: Marxists Internet Archive (2016). You may freely copy, distribute, display and perform this work; as well as make derivative and commercial works. Please credit "Marxists Internet Archive" as your source.

Like Marx, we take the view that human existence is social existence which changes as an historical process. This is the very broad base from which we set out to explain human activity both now and in the past. Such a process of change owes its continuity to the fact that each decision and action sets the social stage for succeeding decisions and actions. Thus the nature of the problems we face now rests importantly on the decisions and actions taken by past generations.

In our own time we are involved with these problems and also thereby with the potential conditions of society to come. Within the actions that we advocate now exists the promise of a better future or its opposite — continuing disaster. Therefore at no time is the past completely dead; it lives on in thought and action and contributes, as a unified structure of past, present and future, to the way we function now.

It is in this way that socialist understand present day problems in the light of history. In respect of present day problems it is useful to ask three questions, the answers to which are critically important.

They are:

1. Why is it that as a society we do not do the things we say we want to do?

2. If we are not doing these things, what are we actually doing?

3. By what process of history did we arrive in this position?

The given aspirations of this century have been peace and material security, and this assumes that our society is concerned with the material well-being and happiness of the whole community. But the very fact that the claims of political manifestoes have not basically changed over 100 years is evidence that we have not been able to do the things we say we want to do. The social problems of poverty still exist, the threat of annihilation in war is greater than a century ago, and the population bears a harrowing burden of stress.

An obvious feature of our society is that we live with a continuing gap between the aspirations, and the reality, of life. What, then, are we actually doing, and how did we come to be in this mess? The Materialist Conception of History provides a method of enquiry which leads directly to the most significant facts. It puts forward the proposition that to understand a society — how it works, what its problems are, and the key factors behind its development — there are basic aspects which must be examined.

Most importantly, we have to understand how society sustains its material existence. We have to answer the question— how does this society produce and distribute its wealth, who gets what and how do they get it? This means that we must identify the productive relationships of society— the particular classes have different interests in relation to each other about production and the ownership of productive apparatus and resources. Of crucial importance is the question of who controls the centres of decision making, which under capitalism is the state machinery and the forces of power which ensure that decisions are carried out. Also important are the external relationships of society in respect of other political groupings; geographical factors; its ideas and history. The combination of all these factors will reveal the inner tensions and conflicts of interest which exist between classes.

There are two main parts to Marxian theory which are dependent on each other. These are the Labour Theory of Value and the Materialist Conception of History. The Labour Theory of value sets out the economic laws which regulate commodity production under capitalism. The Materialist Conception of History places the productive relationships of commodity production, wage labour and capital in the setting of history.

In what way does Marxian theory answer our original question — why can't we do the things we say we want to do? The question makes definite assumptions about our society; it assumes that we should provide for peace, material security and happiness. But clarification of the nature of capitalism in the light of the important questions that Marxism asks reveals that peace, material security and happiness are unrealistic expectations. They are at odds with the real objectives of capitalism. It is impossible to find a direct link between productive relationships, the economic and social organisation of capitalism, and human needs.

The most important decisions that society makes are those about the production and distribution of goods and the provision of services, but under capitalism these are not primarily concerned with human needs. We find that the motive initiating production is profit. The reason why capitalism does not provide material security is that it is dominated by the profit motive, which is hostile to material security.

Marx was careful to point out that this profit motive made no particular comment on the individual or group of capitalists who make this kind of decision. The profit motive is part of the definite economic laws of commodity production which cannot be ignored at will. Unlimited unprofitable production is impossible; capitalist production as a whole must be profitable.

As a social form of wealth the commodity, obeying the laws of value in an exchange economy, is of recent historical appearance. It is produced for sale on the market and its distribution is limited to those who are able and willing to buy it. Its sale on the market is the realisation of the object of its production which is profit and therefore the commodity is an anti-social form of wealth because it serves privileged class interest.

But Marx drew our attention to the act that what makes the commodity as socially nasty as it is, is not something inherited in the physical form of the commodity itself. This was entirely due to the particular productive relationship between people which, under capitalism, is the class relationship between wage labour and capital; the capitalists and the workers. The capitalist class own the means of production and resources and on this basis buy the labour power of workers for wages or salaries. By exploiting this labour power, they accumulate capital and maintain their class domination of society.

This relationship of wage labour and capital did not suddenly appear out of the historical blue. It was preceded by such different historical forms as serf and feudal overlord and slave and slave owner. We know that societies previous to slave societies included group privileges arising from division of labour and that these were incipient class divisions. Before this we know in palaeolithic tribalism a primitive equality with little or no division of labour.

These have been different patterns of social productive relationships and from these historical origins society is now based world wide on the wage labour— capital relationship. Commodity production begins with an exchange of the worker's labour power for wages and exploitation takes place because when put to work by the capitalist, the workers produce values over and above the value of their own wages. This surplus value is realised in money form when commodities are sold on the market, which is then available for recirculation as accumulated capital. Thus commodity production is locked into a circular system of exchange and governed by profit and the class accumulation of capital.

Under capitalism wage labour time is a commodity, bought and sold on the labour market. As with all commodities it is split between usefulness and exchange value. In pre-capitalist societies labour was not split in this way and only the usefulness of labour was brought into play. Every society must live by the products of useful labour, but under capitalist production the usefulness of labour is subordinate to its exchange value. This is to say that under capitalism the usefulness of labour can only be activated within a viable economic exchange between labour time and capital. What we mean by viable is profitable from the capitalist's point of view.

This split between labour in its use form and labour in its value form and the constraints of profit and class interest which limit the use of labour tells us a great deal about the contradictions of capitalism. There is no other credible theory available which clarifies, for example, the fact that millions are unemployed while the world desperately needs more goods and services. Marxian theory clarifies the reasons why capitalism can neither solve its problems nor work in the interests of the whole community. It clarifies persistent protest and continuing disillusion. The subordination of useful labour to the wage labour-capital relationship is the surrender of human needs to profit and class interests. All the protests of our time are the protests of useful labour screaming to be released from its domination by capital. In the world of thought and consciousness this split between usefulness and exchange manifests itself as a confusion of identity. We are exchange values yearning to be socially useful and pretending most of the time that we are. This is the economic basis for our loss of connection between thought and the reality of our experience.

Marxism and Determinism

It is often argued that Marxism is a theory of economic determinism which diminishes the importance of ideas and decision making. There can be no doubt that under capitalist society the production and distribution of commodities is regulated by the laws of value and the effects of these laws cannot be set aside merely by political good intention within the framework of capitalism.

This matter touches on the question "why can we not do what we say we want to do?" The Labour Party, for example, has always put itself forward as being against unemployment and has always claimed to be able to solve this problem. But in practice every Labour government has left office with more unemployment than when they took office. In 1974 when the last Labour government took office the unemployed stood at over 600,000 and when they left in 1979 the number was 1,300,000. Similarly during the 1979 election the Conservatives said that they would reduce the unemployment figures, but in fact they have double since that time.

Unemployment reflects the pattern of capitalist trade and this cannot be controlled by governments. Here then we have a social problem, arising from commodity production, which is an example of economic forces which cannot be controlled and therefore appear to be independent of human will. However, it is entirely wrong to to assume from this experience, that we are confronted with a social position about which we have no choice or ultimate control. Obviously, while the workers support capitalism and fail to act on a realistic understanding of the cause of the problem, then it will continue.

Unemployment, together with many other problems, is inevitable under capitalism. But this is not to say that we cannot think and act decisively about problems. What is demonstrated is the value of Marxian theory, that on the basis of certain economic premises certain consequences will follow. No Labour government, nor any other, could run capitalism without a reserve of unemployed workers.

Marxian theory, therefore does not diminish the importance of thought and human responsibility: it emphasises these things. Whether we like it or not, and whether we recognise it or not, the lessons of Marxist theory are present in every social conflict and every argument about what we can or cannot do.