Karl Marx’s (1859) Preface to a Critique of Political Economy represents one of his major contributions to human thought. It has probably been more influential than any other in the social sciences and has served as a guide to revolutionary thinkers and activists across the intervening decades. We suggest ruminating on the following passage before considering our illustrations.
(But reader alert: a lifetime can be spent mining this dense and complex argument by Marx, rivalling in its significance Darwin’s argument for evolution by natural selection. Both arguments, however, deserve the attention of every person committed to working for a future for humanity. Readers who prefer to return to this passage later, can proceed to our illustrations.)
“In the social production of their existence, men inevitably enter into definite relations, which are independent of their will, namely relations of production appropriate to a given stage in the development of their material forces of production. The totality of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which arises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness. The mode of production of material life conditions the general process of social, political and intellectual life. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness. At a certain stage of development, the material productive forces of society come into conflict with the existing relations 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. The changes in the economic foundation lead sooner or later to the transformation of the whole immense superstructure.
“In studying such transformations it is always necessary to distinguish between the material transformation of the economic conditions of production, which can be determined with the precision of natural science, and the legal, political, religious, artistic or philosophic – in short, ideological forms in which men become conscious of this conflict and fight it out. 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 contradictions of material life, from the conflict existing between the social forces of production and the relations of production. 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.
“Mankind thus inevitably sets itself only such tasks as it is able to solve, since closer examination will always show that the problem itself arises only when the material conditions for its solution are already present or at least in the course of formation. In broad outline, the Asiatic, ancient, feudal and modern bourgeois modes of production may be designated as epochs marking progress in the economic development of society. The bourgeois mode of production is the last antagonistic form of the social process of production – antagonistic not in the sense of individual antagonism but of an antagonism that emanates from the individuals' social conditions of existence – but the productive forces developing within bourgeois society create also the material conditions for a solution of this antagonism. The prehistory of human society accordingly closes with this social formation.” – Karl Marx, 1859.
These passages represent application to the social sciences of Marx’s revolutionary philosophy, which combines two elements, namely materialism and dialectics. Marx’s contribution was to bring these two elements together. Materialism is the assumption that matter exists independent from our thinking about it. Dialectics, in the hands of non-materialist philosophers, is the assumption that certain patterns of change can be ascribed to human thought. In the hands of Marx, dialectics is assumed to be the reflection in human thought of the actual patterns of change of matter in motion. These patterns in the study of matter in motion include:
- the transformation of quantitative change into qualitative change, distinguishing these changes by emphasizing the relation between them (a typical example in the physical sciences being the distinction between a quantitative variable like the temperature of matter and its qualitative state, such as solid, liquid or gas)
- the interpenetration (and unity) of opposites, the existence within everything of contradictory tendencies which act as the basis for motion and development, in contrast to the view that an external mover is needed (as in religious philosophy), and
- the negation of the negation, that is, everything contains within it the conditions for its own annihilation, the new negates the old.
It is evident from our selection that Marx examines society as an object that exists independent of his thinking about it. In addition to this materialist approach, he also regards it dialectically, exemplified as follows:
Quantity into quality: “the material forces of production” (for example, technology) and “the mode of production of material life” (for example, capitalism)
Interpenetration (and unity) of opposites: “The bourgeois mode of production is the last antagonistic form of the social process of production” (capitalist class vs working class, the one existing only together with the other)
The negation of the negation: “At a certain stage of development, the material productive forces of society come into conflict with the existing relations of production.” (feudalism was replaced by capitalism; capitalism will be replaced by…)
Marx’s materialist assumption underlies all scientific inquiry. The criterion for scientific claims is empirical validation. On the other hand, philosophical assumptions are judged by their efficacy. A scientist may routinely apply both materialist and dialectical assumptions to their study of nature and society, while applying other philosophical assumptions on other occasions. We argue here for the efficacy of materialism and dialectics for both scientific inquiry and for contributing to the achievement of an ecologically sustainable global civilization, because this latter depends on successful application of science. Nevertheless, such moral characteristics as generosity, empathy, humility and self-sacrifice are also essential to the struggle, and are common to those who are guided by religious (non-materialist) philosophical assumptions as well as to those who are not.
From our communal past to our communal future
The study of human history is itself a revolutionary activity. It destroys all stories which portray current class relationships as eternal ones. We illustrate this with a science-based story of our evolution as a species and conclude with a speculative extension of this evolutionary tale into the future.
While the scientific story of our deep history remains incomplete, including uncertainty about the chronology of our origins as a species, there is nevertheless scientific consensus on its broad outline. This includes the identification of intelligence and sociality as the distinguishing characteristics of our species. For this part of our history, we follow the contemporary account of the science by paleoanthropologist Curtis W. Marean (“The most invasive species of all”), published in the August 2015 issue of Scientific American.
By 200,000 years ago our species, Homo sapiens, had evolved in Africa as a social one with complex cognition. In search of resources and in response to intermittent periods of glaciation our history features tribal migration to all corners of the globe. This expansion reached beyond Africa 70,000 years ago, southeastern Asia by 55,000 years ago, Australia and Europe by 45,000 years ago, northeastern Siberia by 35,000 years ago, North America by about 14,000 years ago and South America by about 13,500 years ago. In Europe and Southeastern Asia we encountered and displaced our near relatives, the Neandertals and Denisovans, respectively. Marean explains the successful competition of Homo sapiens with our near relatives as the result of our prior evolution (about 71,000 years ago) in Africa as a hyper-cooperative species which had developed and learned to cooperatively use aerial weapons for hunting (and probably also in the event of conflict with other hominid species competing for the same resources).
But Homo sapiens not only expanded across the Earth. Through relative geographic isolation and local population concentration, our continuing evolution was primarily a cultural one, featuring distinct languages of communication and the evolution of superficial differences in physical appearance. In relation to the opposing strategies of negotiation and violent confrontation, these differences may have contributed to occasional confrontation over resources, particularly when tribal migration exceeded the expanding limits of kinship relationships. In other words, cooperation within tribal communities and between communities linked by kinship relationships appear to have co-evolved with competition (sometimes violent), especially between more distant communities.
The question remains whether this cooperation included class structure. Distinct from mere division of labor, class structure means differences in power and access to natural and human cultural resources. A society without social classes is usually designated as a communal one, a practice we follow here. The conclusion from paleoanthropology – linking the results of ethnographic studies of communities encountered in geographically isolated regions with the results of archeological studies of past human societies, is that most of human history has featured our communal existence. Only during the period of recorded history (recent millennia) are class societies known to have been dominant. By “recorded” we mean in writing. For our prior history we rely on archeology (including the study of human remains and surviving artifacts or their remnants), paleoanthropology, genetics, linguistics and oral histories for documentation.
All class societies known to us through our relatively brief “recorded” history have necessarily devoted a significant part of their productive activity to the maintenance of the ruling classes and the physical and ideological confinement of the exploited classes. The division of society into antagonistic classes requires the creation and use of an enormous “surplus” of goods and services for establishing and maintaining the unequal relationships – all a form of waste in relation to the less wasteful communal societies they displaced and continue to displace.
Class societies could only have become possible on any enduring basis with the development of the needed technologies, including physical tools and social forms and standards. These latter most notably included the concept and practice of private property, whether this included ownership of other humans (slavery), the land and resources upon which others were permitted to work for themselves but were required to turn over to the landowner a part of the product of their work (feudalism) or “merely” the private ownership of the human labor time and ideas of others (capitalism).
An outcome of every class society is the production of more waste than can be absorbed or recycled by the environment in which it is created. For the greater part of the short history of class society, the problems of waste production were principally local ones, usually addressed by re-location of the polluting societies or polluting economic activities. But in the present epoch of global capitalism this waste problem has reached the scale of the entire biosphere, making capitalism the most wasteful and dangerous form of society in human history – today so much so that our survival as a species is now clearly at issue.
Our story can have only one outcome: the ultimate demise of all classes. This can occur through our mutual extinction by drowning in the waste class antagonism produces. Or it can occur through our wilful and successful movement beyond a class-based society to a renewed communal life in a restored and sustainable natural environment.
Like all new forms of society (and other natural ecologies), a globally sustainable human community will need to be formed from already existing elements. In our case, the new form of society can be built by expanding upon the remaining commons and communal forms of activity, displacing the temporarily co-existing capitalist forms of property and activity, and by introducing democracy into all workplaces, displacing the exclusive decision-making rights of owners and managers.
The well recorded history of class society suggests that the technological and ideological pre-requisites of the new society, including physical tools, organizational forms and cultural values, emerged from within its predecessor. Usually, if not invariably, the lengthy periods of transition were marked by brief, intense periods in which the legal and constitutional forms of the old society were replaced by those required for the new society.
The first attempts to move beyond capitalism occurred in societies still in transition from feudalism and during periods in which capitalism had vast territories yet to conquer. Examples of these attempts include the Paris Commune of 1871, the Russian Revolution of 1917 and the Chinese Revolution of 1949.
In the meantime, the conditions have ripened for a global transformation, one necessitated by the globally destructive environmental and social consequences of capitalism. Among these conditions are relatively higher levels of public education and labor productivity, the technological capacity for complex systems management, and an emergent culture that combines radical democratic aspirations and radical environmental consciousness.
On the present historical agenda, then, is a brief, intense, more or less globally synchronized period in which the legal and constitutional forms of the new society are instituted in every country and at the international level or, failing that, our demise as a species.
Dialectical approach to revolutionary policy
For the purposes of revolutionary policy and practice, we argue here for a conception of social change that distinguishes between continuous (quantitative) and discontinuous (qualitative) change. But we caution that our argument does not lead to the conclusion that revolutionary policy excludes reforms. Quite the contrary, appropriate kinds of reform can lead to system change.
As an analogy from the physical sciences, imagine the gradual changes in temperature, pressure and volume associated with the transformation of matter from one state to another. Each state is qualitatively different, characterized by a different set of laws of motion. But change from one state to another may occur through a continuous change in one or more of these variables. Heating a pan of water to the boiling point is an example.
A socio-economic system is somewhat more complex, but quantitative changes in the forces of production can lead to a qualitative change in the dominant mode of production. Associated with the qualitative change from a dominant feudal mode to a dominant capitalist one, causal changes in the forces of production can include the development of manufacturing within feudal guilds, the expansion of banking through feudal trade, a decline in public consent to the divine property rights claimed by feudal kings, lords and their retinue, and other quantitative social changes, including cultural and environmental ones.
By referring to socio-economic systems as more complex than physical states of matter, we may be simplifying the reality of the latter. But we have in mind that real socio-economic systems are dynamic. They exist in a changing historical context, carrying traces from the past and giving birth to the system to follow. Motion forwards or backwards is possible, depending on environmental and historical conditions and human agency.
From the earliest class society to the current global capitalist system, each has included at least traces of the modes of production that were previously dominant and has served as the womb for the birth of the mode of production to follow it. Without discounting the role of feudal and slave relations within capitalist societies, the clearest example of the continuous existence of subordinated relations of production is the communal system based on reciprocity (“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”) Its traces in practice and in moral values have yet to be snuffed out, notwithstanding the continuous and now increasing attempts to do so by the ruling class and its retinue.
So, how might human agency help to create favorable conditions for the transition to a globally sustainable ecological society? Acting locally under conditions of global solidarity is clearly essential. But the kind of reforms we unite around matter. Specifically:
- We should prioritize those reforms that strengthen and expand the commons at the expense of the capitalist class and its claims to private-for-profit property.
- Included among revolutionary reforms are those that strengthen and enforce fundamental human rights, including the rights of the world’s Indigenous peoples and, most of all, the rights of the youngest generations to a future, one that includes a supportive natural environment.
- Critical to human survival is the replacement of private property rights by usufruct rights and associated stewardship responsibilities.
- The mobility of capital must be constrained while the mobility rights of people must be expanded.
We have chains to discard and a world to preserve for present and future generations.
Policy choices misrepresented as either/or
There can be no revolutionary transition without careful consideration of practices that are often misrepresented by their proponents as either/or policy choices. Here we specifically address cooperation vs competition, globalization vs localization, homogenization vs diversity, exploitation vs conservation, centralization vs decentralization, and validity vs reliability.
It appears from historical examples of self-proclaimed attempts to transition to a system beyond capitalism, that these are hampered by the view that serious social issues (such as social stability, immigration policy, wealth distribution, language policy, human impact on the environment, and the efficiency and public accountability of social institutions) can be resolved by either/or policies on these dichotomous variables. At least during the transition to a more just, democratic and sustainable global society, each of these poles represents real human needs, some created by the dying social system, some by the need for its successor.
Cooperation vs competition
We are not obliged to choose, for example, between competition and cooperation, only that in the transition to a globally sustainable ecological civilization an emphasis on cooperation will be necessary to build up the counter culture to the social Darwinist justification (“survival of the fittest”) for the ruthless, inhumane behavior at the heart of capitalism. The transition to a just, democratic and environmentally sustainable human society may combine elements of competitive endeavor, including, for example, competition to find the best ways to achieve desired outcomes, such as healthy people living in a healthy environment.
Cooperation and competition are characteristics of human individual and social behavior within the recorded history of class society, and probably during all of human history, which is not to say that these characteristics are immutable or were always present. Channeling competition to service for the common good would seem a reasonable alternative to the private-profit-motivated competition characteristic of capitalism.
Globalization vs localization
A major problem with capitalist globalization is its connection with increasingly unaccountable economic and political power in the hands of corporate executives and their political and academic flunkies. One consequence is reduced economic and political power for the rest of humanity, experienced by the majority as reduced resources for meeting communal needs and hyper-centralized, hierarchical decision-making. This trend is driven by the profit-drive central to capitalism.
The alternative to capitalist globalization is bottom-up economic and political democracy, in which economic and political power resides in local communities. In that case, economic and social activity that can best be done locally would be done there, constrained only by stewardship responsibilities for a peaceful, globally sustainable ecological civilization.
To ensure global equality, people would have the unfettered right to move across political and territorial boundaries, only constrained by the responsibility to integrate linguistically and culturally with the communities they join. Participation in economic and social initiatives that cross political and territorial boundaries would be based on the sovereign right of local communities to informed consent and participation (or not), including in the coordination and management of the common activity, ordinarily through locally accountable and therefore recallable representatives.
Homogenization vs diversity
Cultural homogenization and diversity are seemingly contradictory changes that accompany globalization. Trade introduces similar products and technology around the world, experienced both as global homogenization and local diversity. Likewise, with migration of people, which can also create greater diversity within local communities and greater homogenization globally.
These quantitative cultural changes call for a qualitative change in the dominant mode of production. The globally ruling capitalist class has responded by encouraging xenophobia as a diversion from its responsibility for the current planetary emergency. A positive outcome for humanity now depends on a revolutionary transformation from capitalist rule to that of the people themselves, which can now only be achieved through global solidarity of the people.
Exploitation vs conservation of nature
Exploitation has both a positive and a negative connotation. Limited to usufruct rights (that is, to taking from nature only that which is essential for human existence) and a high standard for stewardship responsibility, we have the potential to meet our existential needs without infringing on the rights of future generations to do so as well.
But this potential is unrealizable in a global society dominated economically and politically by capitalist corporations. These have a profit motive for expanding production beyond the capacity of the biosphere, in the process avoiding the cost of environmental stewardship. For an individual corporation to assume these costs would give a competitive advantage to those which don’t.
The negative connotation of exploitation, theft, applies to capitalism. Not only does the capitalist class take unpaid labor time directly from the workers it exploits, it also robs future generations of an equal opportunity to have their needs met by a supportive natural environment.
If we are to reconcile our need to make our living from nature while also assuring our younger generations of a similar opportunity, we are now faced with the urgent responsibility of moving beyond capitalism and to treat doing so as our highest responsibility. We urgently need a world full of revolutionaries and revolutionary thinkers.
Centralization vs decentralization
Centralization and decentralization constitute another pair of opposing directions, each of which is arguably essential to meeting some needs. Coordination is frequently needed for the efficient functioning of what would otherwise be a highly decentralized system, for example, a power grid to include inputs from geographically distributed sources of energy.
On the other hand, concentration of economic and political power into the CEOs of megalithic transnational corporations and the executive branches of government is associated with the advent of government austerity for the poor, profligacy for the rich, a race to the bottom in environmental protections, wage rates and labor rights, an increasingly destroyed natural environment and a redundant, expendable human population, one with no role in relation to the needs and possibilities for further private capital accumulation. Decentralization of economic and political power is looking increasingly attractive.
Validity vs reliability in measuring outcomes
The capitalist ruling class favors those methods of measuring outcomes which produce positive results for its continuing rule. Included are measures which reliably confirm the intelligence of capitalists and their coterie of executives, lobbyists, politicians, and representatives within academia and the press. These measures are predominantly machine-markable multiple choice tests, those which reliably lead to the success of confident test-takers not distracted by any need to apply scientific conceptual understanding or do critical analysis. These tests reliably produce the same result on repeated application. They are “fair”.
Another measure of success under capitalism is economic growth. This is typically measured by changes in gross domestic product – a reasonably reliable measure of economic busyness of a country’s market-based economic activity. It tells us nothing, however, about the quality of that activity, nor does it include all the things people do for each other without charging money.
Instead, we need valid measures, those that can tell us about the quality of our lives and guide us in acquiring the capacity to improve it.
Making an economic and political revolution
Since the first decade of the 21st Century, when system change once again became a rallying cry for millions around the globe, Marx’s observations about revolutionary change once again became more clearly relevant. It is worth repeating, this time in sex neutral language, his two related conditions.
1. “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.”
2. “Humanity … inevitably sets itself only such tasks as it is able to solve, since closer examination will always show that the problem itself arises only when the material conditions for its solution are already present or at least in the course of formation.”
Associated with the emergence and global expansion of the capitalist system has been a corresponding growth in the role and development of science and technology. In its defining stage, this was expressed as the industrial revolution in the production and distribution of goods. But it has more recently led to the digital revolution, applicable to communication and management as well as production and distribution. The latter has enabled rapid movement of capital across nation-state political barriers, while labor remains effectively confined and controlled by capitalist political control of the nation-states it created. This circumstance has facilitated a global race to the bottom in labor and environmental protections. In turn, this has precipitated an existential crisis for humanity.
Nothing should now be clearer than the urgent need and present opportunity for transition to a corresponding economic and political system, one able to utilize the digital revolution for a more just, radically democratic, and environmentally sustainable global civilization. The necessary means have already largely been created within capitalism. Remaining is the political task of wresting control over these means by the people themselves from the capitalist class. This, of course, requires a global revolutionary movement.
The central feature of a revolutionary movement is a minimum set of political and economic demands, which when met would put society on the path to revolutionary transformation. While each of these demands might constitute a reversible reform of the system, together they would put society on the path to revolutionary transformation. In the present case of a global system, dominated by transnational corporations, their chief executives, and main political, media and academic representatives, the revolutionary movement must be a global one. That means, it must come together for the global implementation of a minimum set of demands.
We suggest the following be included.
- Radical democracy, based on human rights, direct democratic participation in discussion and decisions concerning the essence of major policy changes, and representative democratic decision-making with respect to other ones, and on
- Tiered, bottom-up decision-making on operational decisions, beginning by direct participatory democracy at the smallest population/geographic level and representative democracy at each other level, with the election of representatives from the lowest tier to the next highest tier and continuing thus right up the ladder to the largest population and geographical levels (national, international and global), and on
- Accountability of the representatives to the level that elected them, each expeditiously recallable and replaceable at that level, and on
- The sovereignty at each level over whether to participate or not in socio-economic activities and initiatives at the larger geographic or population scales, and on
- The exclusion from participation in election to and influence over government at any level by transnational private-for-profit corporations and anyone who has participated in their senior management and public representation, including as major investors/owners, senior managers, legal advisors, senior advertising executives, academic advisers, or as recipients of funds from them for lobbying or election to government, and also on
- Exclusion of all these former and current corporate representatives from senior positions within the civil service of government at any level.
- Make the right to a healthy, life-sustaining natural environment an enforceable human right, including
- Stewardship responsibilities and
- Usufruct rights.
- End the system of “justice for those who can afford it;”
- In its place make judicial services, including legal and investigative services, freely available to all who need them.
- End usury, making finance a non-profit public utility.
- Provide fully comprehensive and free health care, childcare and lifelong public education, and a
- Social guarantee of essential food, shelter, and transportation for everyone.
- Institute maximum levels of income and wealth.
- Guarantee socially useful remunerative work to all who desire it.
- Establish humane community standards applicable to all workplaces, including
- Minimum and maximum weekly hours of work, with each of these declining as labor productivity increases,
- A generous minimum number of weeks annually of vacation time, with the number of weeks increasing as labor productivity increases
- A generous minimum number of days per week free from work responsibilities, with the number of such days increasing with increased labor productivity
- An annual minimum level of income equal to annual cost of non-discretionary expenses (which would decline with increases in free provision of essential goods and services),
- A minimum additional income for discretionary expenses,
- The right to participate in all work-related decisions,
- Collective workplace veto rights to practices and decisions that put at risk the health and welfare of present and future generations,
- Collective right of employees to take civil action against their employers in relation to violation of environmental and labor laws and regulations, up to and including
- The right through judicial review, to remove these employers, transfer their assets into the public domain, and assume the responsibility of managing these assets in the public interest.
- Public enforcement of environmental stewardship responsibilities.
- Guarantee the right to a minimum of personal use property,
- Disallow exclusion of the public from ready access to lakes, rivers, beaches, trails, roads and other recreational areas and natural environments, whether these are privately owned or already part of the universal commons.
- Freedom to migrate across political boundaries, including to establish residence and acquire immediate citizenship rights and obligations there, the latter to include the responsibility to learn and use at least one of the common languages of communication in the new community.
More on the political and economic revolution that is needed can be found in our other articles.
Charles Posa McFadden and Karen Howell McFadden
Fredericton, New Brunswick, CANADA