Marx Lectures: Historical Materialism. Parts D and E

by Dr. Jan Garrett

Last Revised: November 10, 2012

D. Some Terms

1. Mode of Production

The mode of production is frequently linked to class divisions. Capitalism, or wage labor is a mode of production, so is feudal exploitation, or serfdom, so is slavery; tributary mode of production is characterized by warrior aristocratic domination of subordinate peasants. But there are modes of production that don't neatly correlate with class divisions. The petty-commodity mode of production exists when peasants not exploited by a tributary aristocracy produce goods for sale on the market. The primitive communalist mode of production exists when, before the rise of stratified, tributary society, peasants produce for themselves, for sharing within their small community, and barter.

2. Social Formation

It is possible to combine several modes of production. Ancient Rome had elements of tributary, slave, mercantile capital, and probably petty-commodity modes, but the dominant mode seems to have been tributary. We can call such societies tributary social formations, to indicate that the tributary mode is the dominant one. The United States, before the U.S. civil war, was characterized by capitalism in the Northern states, chattel slavery in the Southern states, and many small farms producing for the market in the Western states (petty commodity production). But because capitalism was the economically dominant mode (the young U.S. was a functioning part of an already global economic system dominated by the European capitalist powers), the U.S. could have already been characterized as a capitalist social formation.

3. Exploitation

Most modes of production are characterized by exploitation—this is a descriptive term to indicate that a dominating class (the master, the lord, the capitalist, or the tributary aristocracy) extracts surplus labor from the laborer. Surplus labor is the total labor the laborer contributes minus what the laborer gets to keep to keep himself and his family alive from day to day.

E. Dialectic

Marx's historical materialism is also informed by "dialectic." What does this mean?

Dialectic means somewhat different things in Plato, in Hegel, and in Marx, but we cannot understand what it means in Marx without understanding how it developed first in Plato's philosophy and later in Hegel's. G. W. F. Hegel (d. 1831) was a leading German philosopher in the generation preceding Marx. As a student in Germany in the 1830's and early 1840's, Marx (b. 1819) encountered not only the influential writings of Hegel but also the writings and lectures of conservative and liberal/radical philosophers who had used Hegel's methods to address the social, political, and religious issues of their time.

1. Dialectic in Plato

This refers to a method consciously applied by Socrates to promote and reach philosophical enlightenment. It generally had two forms, a (first stage) recognition of one's own ignorance, which is often the result of Socrates' discussions with persons who think they know, for instance, what the essence of justice is; the second stage is positive, and it is exemplified by the main books of the Republic. The conversation-partners tentatively consider new insights, new approaches, to resolve questions; this may lead to wisdom. Platonic dialogues have these characteristics

a) Two opposed characters at any given time (The interlocutor, e.g., Glaucon, and Socrates)
b) The process of generation of greater wisdom through their interaction
2. Dialectic in Modern Philosophy

Looking back at early modern philosophy, Hegel noticed the following recurrent pattern in the history of philosophy: Thesis - Antithesis - Synthesis

For instance, in modern epistemology

Thesis: Rationalism (e.g., Descartes: [The most basic] knowledge must be based upon clear and distinct ideas of reason, not on the senses.)

Antithesis: Empiricism (e.g., John Locke and David Hume: Knowledge must be based upon internal and external impressions, i.e., sense perceptions and the interior analogue of the same.)

Synthesis: Kantian Transcendental Idealism - Knowledge must be based on both (without both, our concepts are empty or our impressions lack definition)

3. Dialectic in Hegel is a sophisticated modern invention
In its most abstract form it consists of tracing the development of concrete ideas or realities or institutions from more abstract ones.

a. An example from Hegel's Logic (Study of the Idea): Being (T)-Nothing (A)-Becoming (S)

b. The "Moments" of Hegel's System

The "thesis" is what Hegel calls (the Absolute) Idea (the eternal set of philosophical categories and notions, each properly situated with respect to the others)

The "antithesis" is Nature, the "externalization" of the (Absolute) Idea. "Externalization" suggests space. Nature is understood geometrically. Time is present, but in natural cycles; there is no "development" in nature. (Hegel is pre-Darwin.)

The "synthesis" is Spirit, the "dialectical unity" of Idea and Nature. Spirit is "historical"; here we find time in the richer sense of historical development.

For more material on Hegel, see Hegel: An Overview.

4. Hegelian Heritage Reworked by Marx
a. Each complex element is the "result" of the prior conflicts or contradiction between the simpler elements. There is a logical development and, in the case of Spirit, a historical development.

b. Each stage, beyond the very simplest, has a kind of organic unity; the parts require each other and cannot be fully understood apart from each other.

c. The first step is "positivity" (thesis) ; the second is "negation" (antithesis); the first and second are "opposites" (or antitheses) to each other; the third step is sometimes called the reconciliation of the opposites (in Hegel); an early popularizer of Hegel called the third step the "synthesis."

d. The dialectical process in Hegel is an abstract, intellectualized form of development or work. Marx will "invert" Hegel and use modified Hegelian concepts to understand the historical process

e. The move from the opposition stage to the synthesis has its own name: Aufhebung. It means cancellation, elevation, preservation. Elements of the opposites are preserved; the opposition itself is cancelled, the result is a superior system.

f. Hegel portrays stages as a result of the working out of contradictions that existed within earlier stages; every previous historical stage, as far back as he can go, resulted from contradictions in an earlier stage. But he tends to regard the present stage as one in which the major social contradictions have been, or are in the process of being, reconciled. In spite of his general insights into history, he takes an apologetic stance toward the present arrangement of things.

5. Historical Dialectic (in Marxian Perspective) in the Emergence of Capitalism from Feudalism (A form of Tributary Society)

a. The feudal aristocracy extracts surplus product (what the peasant-serf does not keep) from the peasant serfs under its control.

b. When possible, they seek weapons and other material goods beyond their immediate locality, to take advantage of a geographically distributed division of labor between regions. So they encourage the development of merchant class. As trade increases, this class increases along with craftspersons, organized into guilds. Both groups are increasingly located in cities, which increase in size.

c. The guilds, which are integrated into the seemingly static feudal society, resist the development of "free trade," because the master craftsmen who dominate them wish to protect their own standards and authority. They are more interested in security and stability than in "growing their businesses," i.e., accumulating capital, for its own sake.

d. Merchants, as they develop their own activity, become mercantile capitalists. They benefit from the support of the nobles.

e. When the centralizing monarchies arise, they encourage the merchants and ally with the merchants against the local nobles.

f. The merchants and the more powerful aristocrats, including those advising the centralizing monarchs, are interested in the development of the New Science (Copernicus, Galileo, Descartes, Newton) seeing it as helping to increase their own control over nature and other human beings.

g. Merchant capital encourages and benefits from the overseas adventures of seafaring states (England, France, Netherlands) in Renaissance Europe.

h. Merchant capital profits are invested in agriculture (with the result that agriculture itself becomes a capitalist enterprise) and in rudimentary forms of manufacture, leading to the expansion of the bourgeoisie. The bourgeoisie eventually becomes a class with aspirations to dominate the entire economy. Manufacturing capital, which favors the "free market," is opposed to the guild system, which resists the development of the "free market."

i. The capitalist groups support monarchs who are willing to limit their own powers and give the bourgeoisie even more room, against the absolute monarchy party, for instance, the Glorious Revolution of 1688 (defended by John Locke), which established the British constitutional monarchy.

j. Eventually, they support anti-monarchical revolutions (e.g., the French Revolution of 1789-1793). In this period the bourgeois occasionally become great advocates of liberty (including civil liberty, political liberty, and free trade) and non-monarchical political arrangements (republics). Under "bourgeois democratic" slogans like "liberty, equality, fraternity," their statesmen rally the masses against the feudal system and its institutions. The upshot is a near-total replacement of feudal (tributary) society in Western Europe by a bourgeois or capitalist system.

k. Schematic Dialectical Summary:
   i. Feudal relations of production (Thesis, or Positivity);
   ii. The bourgeoisie and the developing bourgeois mode of production (Antithesis, or Negation);
   iii. Bourgeois society, the bourgeois mode of production together with state and property institutions inherited from the feudal system but modified so as to give free rein to the bourgeois mode (Synthesis, or Negation of the Negation).