An Introduction to Historical Materialism


When one looks at history, it appears to be a mass of contradictions. Events are lost in a maze of revolutions, wars, periods of progress and of decline. Conflicts of classes and nations swirl around in the chaos of social development. How is it possible to understand and explain these events, when it appears that they have no rational basis?

From the beginning, human beings have sought to discover the laws which govern their existence. Theories ranging from supernatural guidance to the leadership of “Great Men” have attempted in one way or another, at one time or another to provide such an explanation. Some believe that as people act independently of each other, theories of human development are utterly worthless!

For almost 2,000 years the ideas of Genesis dominated the outlook of Western Europe. Those who attempted to undermine this concept were branded as disciples of the Devil. It is only in very recent times that the “heretical” view of history, evolution, has been generally accepted although even then in a one-sided fashion.

For the capitalist class and their functionaries in the universities, schools and places of learning, history has to be taught in an academic and biased fashion with absolutely no relevance to the present day. They continue to peddle the myth that classes and private property have always existed in a bid to justify the “eternal” nature of capitalist exploitation and the economic anarchy inherent within it. Volumes and volumes have been written by leading academics and professors to disprove the writings of Marxism and above all its Materialist Conception of History.

Marxists attach enormous importance to the study of history; not for its own sake but so as to study the great lessons it contains. Without that understanding of the development of events, it is not possible to foresee future perspectives. Lenin, for example, prepared the Bolshevik Party for the October 1917 Revolution by a meticulous analysis of the experience of the Paris Commune and the events in Russia of 1905 and February 1917.

It is precisely in this sense that we study and learn from history. Marxism is the science of perspectives, using its method of Dialectical Materialism to unravel the complex processes of historical development.

Marxist philosophy examines things not as static entities but in their development, movement and life. Historical events are seen as processes. Evolution, however, is not simply the movement from the lower to the higher. Life and society develop in a contradictory way, through “spirals not in a straight line; a development by leaps, catastrophes, and revolutions; breaks in continuity; the transformation of quantity into quality; inner impulses towards development, imparted by the contradiction and conflict of the various forces and tendencies.” (Lenin.)

Engels expressed dialectics as being “the great basic thought that the world is not to be comprehended as a complex of ready-made things, but as a complex of processes, in which the things apparently stable no less than their mind images in our heads, the concepts, go through an uninterrupted change of coming into being and passing away.” (Anti-Duhring).

This method is also materialist in outlook. Ideas, theories, party programmes, etc., do not fall from the sky but always reflect the material world and material interests. As Marx explained, “the mode of production of material life conditioned the social, political and intellectual life processes in general. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but on the contrary their social being that determines their consciousness”.

Using this method, Marx was able to indicate:

“the way to an all-embracing and comprehensive study of the process of the rise, development, and decline of socio-economic systems. People make their own history but what determines the motives of people, of the mass of people—i.e., what is the sum total of all these clashes in the mass of human societies? What are the objective conditions of production of material life that form the basis of all man’s historical activity? What is the law of development of these conditions? To all these Marx drew attention and indicated the way to a scientific study of history as a single process which, with all its immense variety and contradictoriness, is governed by definite laws.”. (Lenin, Karl Marx – A Brief Biographical Sketch With an Exposition of Marxism)

Primitive communism

Early humans evolved some three million years ago out of a highly evolved species of ape. Slowly primitive “humans” moved away from the forests and into the plains; a transition which was accompanied by an improvement in the flexibility and dexterity of the hand. The posture of the body became more erect. Whereas other animals had different organs for defence (cutting digging, shovelling and coats for warmth), humans had none of these. To survive they had to develop their only resources which were their hands and brain. Through trial and error, humans learned various skills, which had to be handed down from one generation to another. Communication through speech became a vital necessity. As Engels explained, “mastery over nature began with the development of the hand, with labour, and widened man’s horizon at every new advance”. Men and women were social animals forced to band together and co-operate in order to survive. Unlike the rest of the animal kingdom, they developed the ability to generalise and think abstractly. Labour begins with the making of tools. With these tools, humans change their surrounding to meet their needs. “The animal merely uses its environment,” says Engels, “and brings about changes in it simply by his presence; Man by his changes makes it serve his ends, masters it. This is the final, essential distinction between Man and other animals, and once again it is labour that brings about this distinction.”

The economic forms were very simple. Humans, were very rare animals, and they roamed around in groups in search of food. This nomadic life was completely dominated with food gathering. Archaeologists call this period the old stone age. Henry Morgan, an early anthropologist, termed the period savagery. Then and for many thousands of years to come, private property did not exist. Everything that was made, collected, or produced was considered common property.

Between 10,000 and 12,000 years ago, a new higher period emerged known as the new stone age or Barbarism. Instead of roaming for food, advances were made in cultivating crops and domesticating animals. Men and women became free to settle in a particular place and as a result new tools were fashioned to assist the new work, and a food producing economy was created. Stable tribes and communities arose at this time. Even today, for a variety of reasons, many tribes in Africa, the South Pacific and South America exist at this stage of Barbarism.

Yet with the birth of the permanent settlement, private dwellings did not come into being; on the contrary, the large ones that were built were for common use. In this period, no private family existed. The children belonged to the entire tribe.

In the stage of primitive communism (savagery and barbarism, each being a lower and higher stage respectively), no private property, classes, privileged elites, police or special coercive apparatus (the state) existed. The tribes themselves were divided into social units called clans or gentes (singular gens). These, in fact, were very large family groups, which traced their descent from the female line alone. This is what is termed a matriarchal society. How else could it be when it was impossible to identify the real father of a child? It was forbidden for a man to cohabit with a woman from his own clan or gens, thus the tribes were made up from a coalition of clans. At certain times, a form of group marriage existed between the clans themselves.

This classless form of society was extremely democratic in its character. Everyone would participate in a general assembly to decide the important issues as they occurred, and their chiefs and officers would be elected for particular purposes. As Engels pointed out in his book, The Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State:

“How wonderful this gentle constitution is in all its natural simplicity! No soldiers, gendarmes and policemen, no nobility, kings, regents, prefects or judges, no prisons, no law-suits, and still affairs run smoothly. All quarrels and disputes are settled by the entire community involved in them, either the Gens or the tribe or the various Gentes amongst themselves. Only in very rare cases the blood revenge is threatened as an extreme measure. Our capital punishment is simply a civilised form of it, afflicted with all the advantages and drawbacks of civilisation … the communistic household is shared by a number of families, the land belongs to the tribe, only the gardens are temporarily assigned to the households … There cannot be any poor and destitute–the communistic households and the Gentes know their duties towards the aged, sick and disabled. All are free and equal–the women included. There is no room yet for slaves, nor for the subjection of foreign tribes”.

To the narrow philistine, who sees private property as a sacred god, these societies are looked upon with contempt. To the tribespeople, private property is completely alien. “The Indians,” explains the historian Heckewelder, “think that the great spirit has made the earth, and all that it contains, for the common good of mankind, when he stocked the country and gave them plenty of game, it was not for the good of the few, but of all. Everything is given in common to the sons of men. Whatever liveth on the land, whatever groweth out of the earth, and all that is in the rivers and waters was given jointly to all, and everyone is entitled to his share”.

Common tribal property came under growing strain from the development with the private family, with private houses growing up alongside the communal dwellings. As time went on Common Land became later divided up to form the collective property of each family. The Matriarchal family gave way to the Patriarchal (male dominated) form, which became essential to the maintenance of the collective property.

This “family”, however, must not be looked up on as similar to that of today. As Paul Lafargue says, “the family was not reduced to its last and simplest expression, as it is in our day, where it is composed of three indispensable elements: the father, the mother and the offspring; it consisted of the father, the recognised head of the family; of the legitimate wife, and his concubines, living under the same roof; of his children, his younger brothers, with their wives and children, and his unmarried sisters: such a family comprised many members”.

The growth of private property in the later stages of primitive communism is regarded by Marxists as elements of the new society within the old. Eventually the qualitative accumulation of these new elements led to the qualitative break up of the old society.

With the growth of new means of production, particularly in agriculture, the question arose who should own them? The possession of tools, weapons, new metals, but above all the means to make them, enabled a family to rise above the terrible life and death struggle with the force of nature.

Then with the further development (trade developed at first between the different communities) of the productive forces, inequality began to appear within society. This had a profound effect upon the Old Order. For the first time, men and women were able to produce a surplus above and beyond his own needs, resulting in a revolutionary leap forward for humanity.

In the past, where war broke out between two tribes, it was uneconomic to take captives as slaves. After all, a captive would only have been able to produce sufficient food for himself. No surplus was produced. The only use for a captive, given the shortage of food, was as a source of meat. This was the economic foundation of cannibalism.

But once a surplus was produced, it became economically viable to keep a slave who was forced to work for his master. The surplus obtained from a growing number of slaves was then appropriated by the new class of slave owners. But how were the slaves to be controlled and forced to work? The old tribes had no police force or means of coercion. Every individual was free and was a warrior.

The production of a surplus product smashed the old forms of society, enabling classes to crystallise. The existence of these classes required an apparatus of force to subject one class by another. Rich and poor, landowner and tenant, creditor and debtor all made their appearance in society. The clans which were social units of originally blood relations, began to disintegrate. The rich of different clans had more in common with each other than they had with the poor of their own clan.

Slave society

Despite all the horrors which accompanied it, the emergence of class society was enormously progressive in further developing society. For the first time since humans evolved from the ape, a section of society was freed from the labour of eking out an existence. Those who were freed from work could now devote their time to science, philosophy and culture. Class society brought with it priests, clerks, officials and specialised craftsmen. The historical justification and function of the new ruling class was to develop the productive forces and take society forward. It was at this stage that civilisation first emerged.

Special institutions were now created to protect the interests of the ruling class. Special armed bodies of men, with their gaols, courts, executioners, etc., as well as new laws were all needed to protect private property of the slave owner. The state together with its appendages came into being and the freedom and equality of the old gentile system fell into ruins. New ideas and morals developed to justify the new social and economic order.

By the 7th century B.C. the tribal aristocracy of Greece had become a ruling class of well-endowed slave owning landlords. According to the Ancient Greek philosopher, Aristotle, the majority of the population of Attica had been enslaved by this time.

With the growth of the city-states, the increase in the division of labour greatly accelerated. Not only between town and country, but between branches of trade and finance, merchant and usurer; new crafts sprung up together with a growing band of artists catering for the tastes and culture of the upper class.

The drive of the city-states for more and more slaves, resulted in continuous war. In the war against Macedonia by the Romans in 169 B.C., 70 cities in Epirus alone were sacked and 150,000 of their inhabitants sold as slaves. The slave economy was extremely wasteful and needed for its survival a continuous supply of slaves to replace those who had been injured or died. However the natural reproduction amongst slaves was very slow owing to the harshness of their lot, thus the only real method of replenishment was by conquest.

Although the slave was much less productive than the free peasant on the land, the low cost of his maintenance made slavery far more profitable. The ruination of the free peasants led to large numbers fleeing to the town forming the de-classed lumpenproletariat of the slave societies. The latter relied upon the charity of the upper classes, who provided them with circuses for their amusement.

It was in this period that the revolutionary Christian movement emerged. Originally a group of primitive Communist sects with a deep hatred of the conquering Romans and their rich lackeys, they won much support from the poor and oppressed. These early Christian revolutionaries were prepared to use violent means to overthrow the upper classes and bring about “Heaven on Earth”. They were therefore hounded by the authorities and were ruthlessly executed for treason against the Emperor. Later, Christianity was raised to the position of state religion after being purged of its class hatred. The ruling class used it as a weapon to dupe and pacify the lower classes into accepting their earthly lot and to encourage their illusions in a better life after death.

The greater the surpluses the slave-owners obtained from the exploitation of the slaves, the greater became their extravagance, brilliance, arrogance and idleness. As more and more wars had to be waged to increase the slave population by conquest, the Roman Empire overstretched itself. Wars cannot be fought without soldiers and the best soldiers were the peasants. They were rapidly disappearing and thus had to be replaced by highly paid foreign mercenaries. The age of the “cheap slave” came to a rapid end bringing with it the decline of the slave empires.

Despite the various slave rebellions–the most famous being led by Spartacus–the slave did not prove to be a revolutionary class that could take society forward. As Marx was to point out, the class struggle would end “either in a revolutionary reconstruction of society at large, or in the common ruin of the contending classes”. Karl Kautsky, the German Marxist, explained that “the great migrations, the flooding of the Roman Empire by the swarms of savage Germans did not mean the premature destruction of a flourishing high culture, but merely the conclusion of a dying civilisation and the formation of the basis for a new upswing of civilisation”.

The mighty slave civilisations had produced an enormous leap forward for society. One is amazed at the cultural achievements of Ancient Egypt and Babylon. The Greeks and Romans developed scientific knowledge to tremendous heights. Hero, the philosopher, had discovered the basic principles of the steam engine. The contributions of Archimedes, Pythagoras and Euclid advanced mathematics to the stage where the beginnings of mechanical engineering would have been possible. Nevertheless, slave society had reached its limits and internal decay and external factors were to bring it to destruction.

The rise of feudalism

“The last centuries of the declining Roman Empire and its conquest by the Barbarians destroyed a number of productive forces: agriculture had declined, industry had decayed for want of a market, trade had died out or had been violently suspended, the rural population and urban population had decreased.” (Karl Marx, The German Ideology.)

Over the centuries, the barbarian masses overran Europe; in the East, the Goths, Germans and Huns; in the North and West, the Scandinavian; in the South, the Arabs. In their conquest of territories they proceeded to ransack the towns, and settle down in the countryside, where they lived by means of primitive agriculture.

In these communities, they elected their village chiefs, however, as time passed by, chiefs were always chosen from the same family. The head of the privileged family, through succession, became the natural chief. The villages were at constant war with their neighbours, resulting in conquered lands being divided up with the greater share accruing to the chief. He thus became the most powerful and propertied man in the community. In times of strife, he would guarantee the protection of those under him while in turn they were duty bound to grant military service to him. These peasants were later able to forgo their military service for a tribute in some form or another.

The authority of these village lords was extended into the surrounding countryside. The lord “owed justice, aid, and protection to his vassals, and these, in their turn, owed fidelity and homage to their lord”. (Lafargue, The Evolution of Property.) Wars and conquests served to crystallise these feudal relationships. The lords and barons together with their men-at-arms formed a new social hierarchy, sustained by the labour provided by their vassals. As Lafargue expressed it:

“So soon as the authority of the feudal nobility was constituted, it became in its turn, a source of trouble to the country whose defence it had been charged with. The barons, in order to enlarge their territories and thereby extend their power, carried on continual warfare among themselves, only interrupted now and again by a short truce necessitated by the tillage of the fields … The vanquished, when not killed outright or utterly despoiled, became the vassals of the conqueror, who seized upon a portion of their lands and vassals. The petty barons disappeared for the benefit of the great ones, who became potent feudatories, and established ducal courts at which the lords in vassalage were bound to attend”.

As feudal relations matured, the majority of farm land in Europe became divided into areas known as manors, each manor possessing its own lord and officials whose task was to manage the estate. The arable land was divided into two parts, about a third of it belonged to the lord (called a Demesne), while the rest was divided amongst his vassals. Pastures, wood and meadows were used as Common Land–a survival in fact from the days of Primitive Communism. Agriculture was to make great strides forward with the introduction of the three field system. The vassals share of the land, however, was further divided up into separate strips scattered throughout the fields which meant a massive drain on productivity.

The social structure which developed under Feudalism, gave rise to new classes and groups. The social framework resembled a pyramid structure, headed by the king, aristocracy, the great churchmen and bishops. Under them were the privileged barons, dukes, counts and knights. On the bottom rungs of the social order were the freeman, serfs (Bordars, Cotters, Villeins), and slaves.

Unlike today, where the main body of wealth is created in the factories the land produced nearly all of social requirement. So land became the most important possession of the Feudal system. The more land one held, the more powerful one became. The ruling class ruled by their virtual monopoly of land to which the serfs were tied. Theoretically, the King owned all the land but in reality areas and domains were granted to dukes, who in turn granted tenancy to counts, who would have many vassals under him granted tenancy of much smaller parcels of land. All had to provide services to their superiors in guaranteeing men-at-arms, payment of rent, etc.

Unlike the slave who owned nothing, the serf was a tenant of the lord. Unlike the slave, the serf has a vested interest in his plot of land. He had more rights than the slave: he could not be sold (neither could his family), providing some security, although the degree of serfdom and obligations varied. In return for this land and “rights”, the serf was forced to work for the lord of the manor for certain periods of the week, without pay. Other services were demanded of him (Boon Days) at harvest time, and whenever the lord needed assistance. The lords’ needs came first. The serf could not leave the land, had to have the lords’ permission if his children were to marry outside his demesne. Taxes were imposed on a serf’s inheritance and female heirs to land had to get the permission of their overlord.

The new organisation of society based on landed property gave rise to a further development of the productive forces. This time the surplus value created by the serf’s labour was appropriated by the aristocratic lay and ecclesiastical ruling class.

In the words of the historian Meilly: “It is an economic maxim that productiveness increases in proportion as the freer constitution of society insures the workers an absolutely larger and more secure portion of the product of their labour. In other words, freer social forms have the direct effect of stimulating production.”

As the new classes crystallised, new forms of state apparatus also came into existence to preserve the feudal property forms. The new morality and ideology that arose from these forms cemented social relationships. The Church, which became more and more powerful, provided the spiritual foundations of the new order and with it the Popes became more powerful than King or Emperor, with churchlands extending to between a third and a half of the land in Christendom. The tithe that is collected amounted to a 10 per cent tax on all income, goods, etc.

In general the feudal state remained centrally weak until the rise of the absolute monarchies of the 16th century. As a result, continual baronial wars shook the outlying provinces where robber barons built up their power and prestige, threatening the position of the central monarch. The struggle of the central monarch to subdue the regions is a characteristic feature of the period. The eventual defeat of these provincial lords, with their constant strife and war, enabled trade to develop to a higher level.

Trade was at a low level. The land, in fact, produced practically everything. It was a “natural” economy geared towards self-sufficiency. However, with the launching of the crusades, the expeditions to the Holy Land, new needs arose, and the merchants who supplied these needs, began to establish huge fairs in France, Belgium, England, Germany and Italy. These periodic fairs played an essential part in the growth of European trade, and helped to establish a strong class of rich merchants. Money relations began to erode the straight jacket of feudal society.

Hand in hand with the development of trade, went the growth of the towns. The merchant class that arose in the town clashed with the traditional standards and restrictions of feudalism.

The Church, for instance, considered the practice of usury as a sin, using the threat of excommunication against those who promoted it.

In his very good book, Man’s Worldly Goods, Leo Huberinan explains the nature of the conflict:

“The whole atmosphere of feudalism was one of confinement, whereas the whole atmosphere of merchant activity in the town was one of freedom. Town land belonged to feudal lords, bishops, nobles, kings. These feudal lords at first looked upon their town land in no different light from that in which they looked on the other land … All these forms (feudal dues, taxes, services) were feudal, based on the ownership of the soil. And all these forms had changed as far the towns were concerned. Feudal regulations and feudal justice were fixed by custom and difficult to alter. But trade by its very nature is active, changing, and impatient of barriers. It could not fit into the rigid feudal frame.”

Therefore old relationships had to be challenged and changed. The towns began to demand their freedom and independence, and gradually town charters were conceded, some by agreement, others by force.

Trade itself gave rise to new forms of wealth. No longer was land the sole source of power and privilege, as money acquired in trading assumed a much greater importance. In the towns was born the wealthy merchant oligarchy which controlled and regulated the small scale individual production, through the guild system. With the further division of labour, Craft Guilds were established comprising the guild master, apprentices and journeymen. As more and more wealth was created through production the guild masters (employers of labour) came into sharp conflict with their journeymen (workers). By the 15th century, actual journeymen’s unions were formed to protect their interests.

The introduction of the money economy (which had only a very limited character in slave society) slowly undermined the basis of the feudal system. Its laws and customs were modified to correspond with the new development. As serfs ran away to the towns to make their fortunes, money values began to transcend the old relationships, Labour dues being replaced by rented property. The impact of the Black Death, in the mid-14th century, greatly accelerated the process. Historians have estimated between 30 and 50 per cent of the population of England, Germany, the Low Countries, and France were wiped out by the Great Plague. This in turn resulted in the chronic shortage of labour, which forced many landowners to introduce wage labour to overcome their difficulties.

The rise of the absolute monarch

The nation-state as we know it today did not always exist. Peoples’ allegiances at this time belonged not to the nation but to the lord, the town, the locality, or the guild. People considered themselves not French, English, etc., but people of a town or city. Every Christian was a member of the Roman Catholic Church, which in turn ruled over Christendom, and thus was the greatest power of all.

With the growth of wealth in the towns, a capitalist class began to arise which demanded conditions suitable for the unhindered development of trade and commerce. They wanted order and security. The struggle for independence of the towns from their feudal overlords, the continuous battles between local barons, the pillaging that followed, all gave rise to the need for a central authority, a nation state.

The conflict between the central monarch and the great barons (a struggle between two sections of the ruling class) ended with a victory for the king. He was supported by the merchants and middle class, who provided the money to raise the armies he required. The emergence of the nation state together with the centralised monarchy ushered in a great economic advance. For their support, the monarch granted certain monopolies and privileges to sections of the middle class and the next stage was set for the clash between the national monarch and the interests of the international church.

The late 15th century saw the beginning of the voyages of discovery. Men such as Columbus and Vasco Da Gama were financed by rich merchants to seek new areas of exploitation and “spread the Word of God”. Joint stock companies were established to promote the financing of greater exploitation, for plunder and profit.

With the massive profits from the voyages, many merchants and financiers became the real centres of power and wealth. Nobles, aristocrats and monarchs became debtors to the rich merchants. One banking family, the Fuggors, were even able to decide who was to be made Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire!

The new economic developments were giving rise to a capitalist formation. The basis of the feudal economy had begun to disintegrate with the growth in power and wealth of the rising bourgeoisie. New values, ideas, philosophies, and morals evolved out of the new relationships. The old ruling class stubbornly resisted the changes.

As Marx explained:

“At a certain stage of development, the material productive forces of society come into conflict with the existing relation of production or–this merely expresses the same thing in legal terms–with the property relations within the framework of which they have operated hitherto. From forms of development of the productive forces these relations turn into their fetters. Then begins an era of social revolution”. Later on, Marx adds: “No social order is ever destroyed before all the productive forces for which it is sufficient have been developed, and new superior relations of production never replace older ones before the material conditions for their existence have matured within the framework of the old society.”

The old society has been undermined during the previous period. Probably one of the greatest challenges to the old order was the attack on Catholicism. In this period, the Church was not just a religious institution but the chief bulwark of the social order. Apart from being a powerful landowner, it collected a tithe from everyone, had its courts and special privileges, controlled education and shaped the political and moral outlook of the people. As Charles I once said: “People are governed by the pulpit more than the sword in times of peace.” The Church censored books, and used the threat of excommunication against dissenters. It is said that this was a very religious period but this is wildly exaggerated by historians. Rather than people actually living according to the precepts of the Bible, religion was rather used to justify the Old Order. Everything, including political thought, was expressed in religious terms. Those who wished to undermine the system, had to first challenge the monopoly of Catholicism.

In the early 16th century, the absolute monarchies came into conflict with the Catholic Church themselves. The Protestant Reformation ushered in by Luther, supplied the weapons in the struggle against Papal power. In England, Henry VIII broke with Catholicism and raided the wealth of the monasteries, which was dissipated in expensive European and Irish wars.

end of history illusionThe capitalist revolution

The Puritanism of the Calvin variety suited the outlook and morality of the rising middle class in town and country with its emphasis on self-reliance and personal success. The middle class was now set to rise quickly after adapting to the inflation rampant between 1540-1640, in which prices rose by more than fourfold and came increasingly into conflict with the old ruling class.

In England, the struggle between the new bourgeoisie and the old order took the form of the civil war. The New Model Army of Oliver Cromwell led the middle class into the armed struggle against the King and Old Order. In 1649, the King was beheaded and a capitalist republic declared. Cromwell, resting for support on the army, established himself as the head of a Bonapartist military dictatorship. The elements of left-wing democracy and its proponents (the levellers and diggers), who threatened capitalist property rights, had to be mercilessly quashed. From then on the regime rested on a narrow social basis–the armed forces. The capitalist regime under these critical crises circumstances reduced itself in the Bonapartist fashion to the rule of one man.

The feudal structures were dismantled together with the House of Lords and monarchy. The old ruling class had been defeated, and the lower classes kept in their place. The struggle of the Parliamentarians against the King has been seen by historians and even by some contemporaries as a struggle against tyranny and for religious liberty but as Marx commented:

“Just as one does not judge an individual by what he thinks about himself, so one cannot judge such a period of transformation by its consciousness, but on the contrary, this consciousness must be explained from the contradiction of material life, from the conflict existing between the social forces of production and the relations of production”.

Leon Trotsky, one of the leaders of the Russian Revolution, once noted: “Revolutions have always in history been followed by counter-revolutions. Counter-revolutions have always thrown society back, but never as far back as the starting point of the revolution”. So it was in 1660 and 1689, where the big bourgeoisie hurriedly made a compromise with the “bourgeois” elements of the aristocracy. The monarchy and House of Lords were restored although from then on they could never play the same role as their predecessors, on the contrary, they became part and parcel of the capitalist state. The bourgeois men of property concerned themselves with their future, and of keeping the lower orders in their place with their power carefully checked.

One hundred years later, the French Capitalist revolution was carried through to completion without any compromise being struck. The French Revolution, like its English counter-part, began with a split in the ruling class. The King and his ministers clashed over a scheme to avoid state bankruptcy, with the Parliament (which represented the nobility, higher clergy, the court clique, etc.). The latter’s appeal against the government tyranny took on unforeseen flesh and rioting broke out in the streets of the towns and cities. It brought to a head all the simmering discontent of the middle class and lower orders against the regime. “The revolt of the nobility was,” explains George Rude, “perhaps, a curtain-raiser rather than a revolution which, by associating the middle and lower classes in common action against King and aristocracy, was unique in contemporary Europe.” Despite the attempts at reform from above, they were insufficient to prevent revolution from below.

As in all popular revolutions the masses burst onto the scene of history. The most self-sacrificing came to the fore, and pushed the revolution far to the left. Between 1789 and 1793 the old feudal regime and aristocracy had been completely swept away. The regime was headed by the revolutionary middle class, the Jacobins, who were supported and pushed by the plebeian masses made up of wage-earners and small craftsmen. A shift to the right occurred in 1794 with the government of the Directory coming to power. This in its turn gave way to a new political counter-revolution, which brought to power the law and order type regime of Napoleon Bonaparte. Nevertheless, the old order had been broken, and the new bourgeois property rights were to remain intact. The shift of political power was not accompanied by a social change backwards, i.e., it did not bring a return to the feudal order but was a political change brought about through the struggles of different sections of the capitalist class itself.

The triumph of capitalism

The great Bourgeois revolutions cleared the path for Capitalism. The agrarian changes ensured the growth of capitalist agriculture, where the old feudal estates had been broken up and distributed to the peasants. In England, the conversion of a section of the aristocracy before the revolution prepared the way for the ruination of the peasantry itself. Governments now, instead of acting as a brake on trade and industry, actually championed its cause.

Through robbery, enclosure and plunder and competition, the means of production became concentrated into fewer and fewer hands. The ruination of the peasantry provided a pool of labour-power in the towns and cities. The class structure became more simplified. On the one hand were the capitalists and on the other the propertyless proletarians. All that these workers possessed was their ability to work. The only way they could remain alive was to sell their labour-power to the capitalists in return for wages. In the process of production, the proletarian produces more value than he receives in wages, the surplus value being expropriated by the capitalists. In its search for profit, amidst competition from rivals, the capitalist class is forced to introduce new methods of production, in this way Capitalism has, historically, played a progressive role continually revolutionising the productive forces.

Its export of commodities and then Capital leads the capitalist class to create “a world after its own image”. The productive forces, technique and science gradually outgrew the nation state which protected it.


The period from 1870 to 1900 saw the division of the world amongst the main powers. In 1870 one-tenth of Africa had been divided up; by 1900 some nine-tenths of the “Dark Continent” were in the hands of Britain, France or one of the other European Empires. By 1914 this process of world division had been completed, and capitalism entered its highest stage of Imperialism. Huge trusts and monopolies had grown out of the earlier period of competition. “The state had more and more fused with the monopolies and financial institutions and acted increasingly in their interest. Production in this epoch is accompanied by the export of capital itself.” (Lenin)

The imperialist stage brings with it the threat of world war, in the struggle for new markets, etc. Due to the carving up of the world and the tremendous growth in production, markets can now only be obtained by a new re-division of the world which inevitably leads to conflict on a world scale. World war indicates the contradictions between the private ownership of the means of production on the one hand and the nation state on the other. But unlike previous societies Capitalism has furnished the material pre-requisites for the new socialist order that can guarantee plenty for all.

The proletariat is the only consistent revolutionary class capable of carrying through to a conclusion the Socialist Revolution. This stems from its particular place in social production. The working class is disciplined in the factories and forced to co-operate in the productive process. It organises itself into large trade unions and then into its own independent party. Marxism, as opposed to all other theories, provides it with a clear ideology and tasks in its mission to overthrow Capitalism. The Bolshevik Party, led by Lenin and Trotsky, provided a living model to the workers of the world.

The peasantry and the middle classes are incapable of playing a leading role, due to their social position. The peasantry is scattered in the countryside, and have no real conception of unity or internationalism. These middle layers of society follow either the bourgeoisie or the proletariat.

The peasantry have been in fact, the classical tool of Bonapartism–a regime based on the armed forces, balancing between the classes. In the epoch of imperialism and the decay of monopoly capitalism, if the working class fails to win the middle layers to its Socialist banner, they will be driven into the arms of reaction.

The law of uneven and combined development

From a progressive social system, Capitalism has now become a fetter upon production and the further development of humanity. Marx believed that the proletariat would come to power first in the advanced capitalist countries of Britain, Germany, and France. However, with the emergence of Imperialism, Capitalism, in the words of Lenin, “broke at its weakest link” in backward Russia.

Society does not develop in a straight line, but according to its laws of uneven and combined development. The uneven growth of society on the world scale is constantly cut across by the introduction of new products and ideas from different social systems. The backwardness of semi-feudal Russia was supplemented by the most modern techniques of production in its cities, due to the enormous amount of foreign capital from France and Britain. The new industrial proletariat which had recently come into being accepted the most advanced ideas of the working class: Marxism.

In many of the under-developed countries the festering sores of much needed land reform, autocracy, national oppression, and economic stagnation, have resulted in enormous discontent. The tasks of the bourgeois democratic revolution, which would have laid the basis for capitalist development, have either only been partially carried out or not at all.

In these countries the Capitalist class has come on the scene too late to play a similar role as its revolutionary counter-part of the 17th and 18th century. As in Russia before 1917, they are too weak and tied by a thousand strings–through marriage and mortgage–to the land owners and imperialists. They both now acquire a common hatred of the emerging proletariat. The nationalist capitalist class prefers to cling to the old order rather than appeal to the lower classes to carry through the anti-feudal revolution.

The only class capable of carrying out the revolution is the proletariat by uniting around itself the poorer sections of the peasantry. Once the working class comes to power as in October 1917, it is then able to give the land to the peasants, expel the imperialists and unify the country. However, the proletariat would not stop at these measures but would then proceed to the socialist tasks: nationalisation of the basic industries, land, and financial institutions.

The Russian Revolution was the greatest event in the whole of human history. For the first time the working class took power, swept out the Capitalists, landlords and gangsters and organised a “democratic workers’ state”. It was to be the beginning of the international socialist revolution and fully confirmed the theory of Permanent Revolution.

Unfortunately, the betrayal of the socialist revolution in Germany, and other countries, led to the isolation of the revolution in a backward, devastated country. The destruction of the War, mass illiteracy, civil war, exhaustion, placed terrible strains upon the weak working class, and contributed to the degeneration of the revolution. It was these objective conditions which encouraged the growth of bureaucratism in the state, trade unions and the Party. Stalin rose to power on the back of this new bureaucratic caste. The individual in history represents not himself, but the interests of a group, caste or class in society.

Stalinism and its monstrous dictatorship grew not from the Bolshevik Party or socialist revolution, but out of the isolation and material backwardness of Russia. It destroyed the workers’ democracy in order to preserve its privileges and power.

The Stalinist regime nevertheless rested on the new property forms of nationalised industry and the plan of production. The Soviets (Workers’ Councils) and workers democracy were crushed in the Stalinist political counter-revolution. Only by a new political revolution could the Russian working class have restored the workers’ democracy which existed under Lenin and Trotsky. This would not mean a return to capitalism, but an end to the privileged bureaucratic elite, as the masses themselves become involved in the running of society and the state.

The socialist transformation

The socialist transformation ushers in a new and higher form of society by breaking the fetters on the development of the productive forces. The obstacle of private property and the nation state are swept away, allowing the socialised property to be planned in the interests of the majority.

The Socialist Revolution cannot be confined to one country, but puts the world revolution on the order of the day. The world economy and the world division of labour created by capitalism demands an international solution. A Socialist United States of Europe would prepare the ground for a World Federation of Socialist States, and the international planning of production. This in turn would provide the basis for the “planned and harmonious production of goods for the satisfaction of human wants”.

One of the first tasks of the victorious working class would be the destruction of the old state machine. In all class societies the state came into existence as “an organ of class rule, an organ for the oppression of one class by another”. This raises the question, does the working class need a state? The anarchists reply no. But they fail to understand that some form of force is required to keep the old landowners, bankers and capitalists in their place. The proletariat therefore has to construct a new type of state to represent its interests. In a workers’ state, the majority are holding a tiny minority of ex-capitalists in check and therefore the massive bureaucratic state of the past is not needed. This “Dictatorship of the Proletariat” or Workers’ Democracy, as Trotsky preferred to call it, vastly broadened and extended the highest forms of bourgeois democracy.

Bourgeois democracy was defined by Marx as the workers deciding every five years which section of the ruling class would misrepresent their interests in Parliament. Everyone could say what they liked, provided that the boards of the monopolies could actually decide what was to be done.

The new workers state would extend democracy from the political to the economic sphere with the nationalisation of the major monopolies. New organs of power, such as the Soviets in Russia, based on the armed people, constitute “working bodies, executive and legislative at the same time”. Bureaucracy would be replaced by the involvement of the masses in the running of the state and society. In order to prevent the growth of officialdom, the proletariat of Paris in 1871 and of Russia in 1917 introduced the following measures:

(1) Election of all officials, with the right to recall. (2) No standing army, but an armed people. (3) No official to receive more than a skilled worker. (4) Positions in the state to be rotated amongst the people.

With the reduction of the working week, the masses are given the opportunity to involve themselves in the state, and obtain the key to culture, science and art. For as Engels once said, if art, science and government remain the preserve of the minority, they will use and abuse this position in their own interest, as was the case in the Stalinist countries.

The state arose historically with the emergence of class society. Thus, from its very inception, the workers’ state begins to wither away, as classes themselves dissolve within society. This is why Engels characterised the proletarian state as a “semi-state”.

“Under socialism much of ‘primitive’ democracy will inevitably be revived, since, for the first time in the history of civilised society, the mass of the people will rise to taking an independent part, not only in voting and elections, but also in the everyday administration of the state. Under Socialism all will govern in turn and will soon become accustomed to no one governing”. (Lenin, State and Revolution.)

In this lower stage of Socialism as Marx called it, one sees society, “just as itemerges from capitalist society; which is thus in every respect, economically, morally and intellectually, still stamped with the birthmarks of the old society from whose womb it comes”. (Marx, Critique of the Gotha Programme.)Although the exploitation of man by man has been ended, production has not yet reached a high enough level to completely eradicate inequality or class differences. People still have to follow the principle: “He who does not work shall not eat”. The state, despite its transitory character, remains the guardian of inequality.

Socialism, the classless society

Yet with huge strides forward in production, based on the most advanced science and conscious planning, humanity enters the higher realms of real society. Classes and the state will have completely withered away, as society now adopts the slogan “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs”. The antitheses of town and country, and mental and physical labour disappear with the further revolution in the productive forces. In the words of Lenin, “the narrow horizon of bourgeois law”, which compels one to calculate with the heartlessness of a Shylock whether one has not worked half an hour more than somebody else, whether one is getting less pay than somebody else–this narrow horizon will then be left behind. There will then be no need for society, in distributing the products, to regulate the quantity to be received by each; each will take freely according to his needs.

The barbarous nature of class society would have ended once and for all. The prehistory of humankind would have been completed. The productive forces built up over thousands of years of class rule now laid the basis for classless society where the state and division of labour were rendered superfluous. Humanity sets itself the task of conquering nature, and opens up the tremendous wonders of science and technology. In the words of Engels, “the government of persons is replaced by the administration of things”.

And Trotsky pointed out that, “Once he has done with the anarchic forces of his own society man will set to work on himself, in the pestle and retort of the chemist. For the first time mankind will regard itself as raw material, or at best as a physical and psychic semi-finished product. Socialism will mean a leap from the realm of necessity into the realm of freedom in this sense also, that the man of today, with all his contradictions and lack of harmony, will open the road for a new and happier race”. (Leon Trotsky, In Defence of October.)

by Rob Sewell and Alan Woods