Marx’s Summary In Dialectical materialism. The fragmentary manner in which Marx worked out the theory of dialectical materialism justifies the quotation at some length of his only summary statement of it, which was not written, however, until several years after the theory took shape.
In the social production which men carry on they enter into definite relations that are indispensable and independent of their will; these relations of production correspond to a definite stage of development of their material powers of production. The sun total of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society-the real foundation, on which rise legal and political superstructures and to which correspond definite form of social consciousness.
The mode of production in material life determines the general character of the social, political, and spiritual processes of life. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but, on the contrary, their social existence determines their consciousness. At a certain stage of their development, the material forces of production in society come in conflict with the existing relations of production, or-what is but a legal expression for the same thing-with the property relations within which they had been at work before. From forms of development of the forces of production these relations turn into their fetters.
Then comes the period of social revolution. With the change of the economic foundation the entire immense superstructure is more or less rapidly transformed. In considering such transformations the distinction should always be made 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, aesthetic, or philosophic in short ideological forms in which men become conscious of this conflict and fight it out.
No social order ever disappears before all the productive forces, for which there is room in it, have been developed; and new higher relations of production never appear before the conditions of their existence have matured in the womb of the old society. Therefore, mankind always takes up only such problems as it can solve; since, looking at the matter more closely, we will always find that the problem itself arises only when the material conditions necessary for its solution already exist or are at least in the process of formation. Marx’s theory of cultural development, then, as presented in this passage, included four principal propositions.
First, it is a succession of stages each of which is dominated by a typical system of producing and exchanging goods. This system of productive forces generates its own characteristic and appropriate ideology, which include law and politics together with the ideal or so called spiritual products of the civilization, such as morals, religion, art, and philosophy.
As an ideal pattern each stage is complete and systematic, a coordinated whole in which the ideological factors are adjusted to the underlying forces of production and to each other. In actual use, as for example in the descriptive and historical chapters of Capital, Marx relaxed the logical rigidity of the theory. At any given time the development of the forces of production has run unequally in different countries and in different industries of a single country; there are remnants of the older economy and beginnings of the newer. Consequently there are correspondingly different ideologies in different strata of population.
Second, the whole process is dialectical; its motive force is supplied by the internal tensions created by disparities between a newly evolving system of production and the persisting ideology appropriate to an older system. A new method of production finds itself in a hostile ideological environment which must be dissolved before it can grow. The ideology appropriate to the old system becomes more and more restrictive of the new, and the internal stresses and strains build up until they reacts a breaking point.
A new social class, with an ideology appropriate to its social position in the new system of production, comes into sharper conflict with the older classes having ideologies bred by the obsolescent system. The general pattern of development, therefore, is cyclical, an alteration of periods of evolution, in which a new system of production is gradually formed and new ideologies are gradually created, and periods of revolution in which the whole constellation of forces breaks down and recrystallizes, so to speak, in another pattern.
Third, the forces of production-the methods of producing goods and of distributing the products of industry-are always primary as compared with their secondary, ideological consequences. The material or economic forces are real or substantial, while the ideological relations are only apparent or phenomenal. Fourth, the dialectical development is an internal process of unfolding or of vitalistic realization.
The productive forces inherent in any society develop completely before the dialectical transformation or recrystallization of forces takes place. And since the ideological superstructure merely reflects the internal growth of the underlying metaphysical substance, the problems that appear upon the level of consciousness will always be soluble with the further unfolding and the progressive realization of the substratum behind them.
In this imposing speculative structure, at once so suggestive and so puzzling, it is the third item, the primacy of the forces of production, which belongs most characteristically to Marx and is also crucial for any empirical use of the theory. For this thesis is what labels the system materialism, in Marx’s sense of that word, and also underlies the claim that the theory provides an especially scientific approach to social problems.
If the theory is to be used in explaining any historical series of events, it is evidently necessary that the forces of production should be clearly distinguishable from the relations of production, or the foundation from the superstructure. But this distinction is never clearly made by Marx, and seemingly it is impossible in principal that it should be made clear.
For a society’s forces of production must include at least available raw materials and trade routes, yet they cannot exclude technology, because technology determines whether raw materials are in any effective sense available. The mere presence of iron or coal does not affect a culture which lacks the technique of smelting. But technology depends, in part at least, on skill and knowledge, or on science, and science must belong to consciousness or to the superstructure.
Or to put the difficulty the other way around, the superstructure clearly includes legal institutions that govern the ownership of tools or the accumulation of capital, yet these may determine how raw materials are used or whether they are used at all.
Thus when Marx himself used his theory to explain the rise of capitalism in England, he cited the expropriation of the monasteries as a source of capital, and the emancipation of the serfs as a factor in creating a class of free laborers; but these were obviously political or legal changes or, in the case of the monasteries, depended on a change of religious belief. In a tangle of social institutions it is meaningless to insist that some single change is always the cause of all other changes.
The truth is that Marx’s distinction of superstructure and foundation was not empirical. His model was Hegel’s metaphysical distinction between appearance and reality, as is evident from his singular conclusion that every social problem must be soluble. The obscurity of Marx’s theory became more evident in its elaboration by his collaborator, Friedrich Engels.
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