Marxism, Communism, and Socialism/Historical Materialism/

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"[People] make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like an nightmare on the brains of the living."[2]

In the beginning, according to Historical Materialism, is material reality. A particular group of humans, living in a specific part of the world, with a unique history, a particular technology, etc. It is Marx's idea that those specific details produce a certain kind of society with certain kinds of classes, certain relationships between them. Those relationships, in turn, generate ideas, religions, cultures, etc.

So we have an "orderly" explanation of human society: material conditions leading to technology leading to classes leading to culture. It was Marx's observation that there were "regularities" over long periods of time in this process. (He called them "laws" because that was the custom in 19th century European science.) He saw the evolution of human society in these "regularities" or "stages" (taken from the Wikipedia article) This is the "Ladder of Marxism".

1. Primitive communism. Human society organised in traditional tribe structures, typified by shared production and consumption of the entire social product. As no permanent surplus product is produced, there is also no possibility of a ruling class coming into existence. As this mode of production lacks differentiation into classes, it is said to be classless. Paleolithic and Neolithic tools, pre- and early-agricultural production, and rigorous ritualised social control are the typifying productive forces of this mode of production.

2. The asiatic mode of production. This is a controversial contribution to Marxist theory, initially used to explain pre-slave and pre-feudal large earthwork constructions in China, India, the Euphrates and Nile river valleys (and named on this basis of the primary evidence coming from greater "Asia"). The asiatic mode of production is said to be the initial form of class society, where a small group extracts social surplus through violence aimed at settled or unsettled band communities within a domain. Exploited labour is extracted as forced corvee labour during a slack period of the year (allowing for monumental construction such as the pyramids, ziggurats, ancient Indian communal baths or the Chinese Great Wall). Exploited labour is also extracted in the form of goods directly seized from the exploited communities. The primary property form of this mode is the direct religious possession of communities (villages, bands, hamlets) and all those within them. The ruling class of this society is generally a semi-theocratic aristocracy which claims to be the incarnation of gods on earth. The forces of production associated with this society include basic agricultural techniques, massive construction and storage of goods for social benefit (grainaries).

3. The slave mode of production. It is similar to the asiatic mode, but differentiated in that the form of property is the direct possession of individual human beings. Additionally, the ruling class usually avoids the more outlandish claims of being the direct incarnation of a god, and prefers to be the decendants of gods, or seeks other justifications for its rule. Ancient Greek and Roman societies are the most typical examples of this mode. The forces of production associated with this mode include advanced (two field) agriculture, the extensive use of animals in agriculture, and advanced trade networks.

4. The feudal mode of production. It is usually typified by high feudalism in Western Europe. The primary form of property is the possession of land in reciprocal contract relations: the possession of human beings as peasants or serfs is dependent upon their being entailed upon the land. Exploitation occurs through reciprocated contract (though ultimately resting on the threat of forced extractions). The ruling class is usually a nobility or aristocracy. The primary forces of production include highly complex agriculture (two, three field, lucerne fallowing and manuring) with the addition of non-human and non-animal power devices (clockwork, wind-mills) and the intensification of specialisation in the crafts--craftsmen exclusively producing one specialised class of product.

5. The capitalist mode of production. It is usually associated with modern industrial societies. The primary form of property is the possession of objects and services through state guaranteed contract. The primary form of exploitation is wage labour (see Das Kapital, wage slavery and exploitation). The ruling class is the bourgeoisie, which exploits the proletariat. The key forces of production include the factory system, mechanised powered production, Taylorism, robotisation, bureaucracy and the modern state.

6. The socialist mode of production. Since this mode of production has not yet come into effect, its exact nature remains debatable. Some theorists argue that prefiguring forms of socialism can be seen in voluntary workers' cooperatives, strike committees, labour unions, soviets and revolutions. The socialist mode of production is meant to be a society based on workers' control of all production, with a property form equating consumption with productive labour. The key forces of production are similar to those in capitalism, but changed in their nature due to workers' control and collective management. Additionally, the merging of mental and manual labour is meant to increase the level of productivity and quality of the productive forces. The primary ruling class of this mode is meant to be the working class. The primary form of exploitation is meant to be self-exploitation - in other words, the exploitation of some people by others (the "exploitation of man by man") is meant to be abolished.

7. The communist mode of production. Since it refers to the far future, it is a highly debated theoretical construct. Some theorists argue that prefiguring forms of communism can be seen in communes and other collective living experiments. Communism is meant to be a classless society, with the management of things replacing the management of people. Particular productive forces are not described, but are assumed to be more or less within the reach of any contemporary capitalist society. Despite the imminent potential of communism, some economic theorists have hypothesised that communism is more than a thousand years away from full implementation.

These are not rigid and impenetrable categories. There were capitalists in Ancient Greece and Egypt, and elements of feudalism exist today with American Corporations.

The Marxist hypothesis is that while the ultimate cause for such changes lies in technological innovation, the means by which one social order supplants another is that of class struggle. Nomads had to physically defeat savages; early despots had to defeat nomad barbarians; feudal lords had to defeat the despots; and capitalists had to defeat the feudal lords. These were not simply military struggles; they also took place in the realm of ideas. For example, new religions were invented to "justify" the rise of a new kind of ruling class. New "moralities", new "legal" concepts, new "philosophies", followed. If this "metahistory" is more or less correct, asked Marx, what happens next? Is capitalism the "end of history", or will there be another new social order?

We know the answer that Marx gave, of course. Possibly he noticed the curious trajectory that was followed: primitive equality to proto-classes to centralized despotism, then mini-despots, then a lot of mini-despots, then...advanced equality? More likely, I must admit, he probably used Hegalian dialectics to arrive at the same conclusion (Hegalian philosophy was very fashionable in Marx's youth and exerted a lasting influence on the way he approached matters).

Technologically advanced equality, which he called communism, would be the next "stage" of human history, and one in which classes would no longer exist at all. Moreover, like all the others, it would come into existence through class struggle with the old ruling class. To Marx, it seemed inevitable that capitalism, left to itself, would become more and more openly despotic (and with fewer and fewer significant despots) and, because of its own economic constraints, would generate crisis after crisis threatening a return to barbarism or savagry unless all those who were not capitalists, the working class.