Saturday, 17 April 2021

Michael Roberts and Historical Materialism - Part 1 of 12

In an article in the Weekly Worker, recently, Michael Roberts examines a new paper, that looks at evidence of changing labour productivity, prior to the development of capitalism, as further proof of Marx and Engels' Theory of Historical Materialism. Yet, Robert's use of this data, and his account, shows a lack of understanding, on his part, of the theory itself.

Marx and Engels' theory, is an equivalent, in the realm of sociology, to Darwin's Theory of Evolution, in the realm of biology.

In his Preface to Capital I, Marx writes,

“To prevent possible misunderstanding, a word. I paint the capitalist and the landlord in no sense couleur de rose [i.e., seen through rose-tinted glasses]. But here individuals are dealt with only in so far as they are the personifications of economic categories, embodiments of particular class-relations and class-interests. My standpoint, from which the evolution of the economic formation of society is viewed as a process of natural history, can less than any other make the individual responsible for relations whose creature he socially remains, however much he may subjectively raise himself above them.”

Marx who lived only a few miles from Darwin, sent him a copy of Capital.

Both theories analyse and provide an explanation for change and diversity, based entirely upon materialism, and so requiring no resort to appeals to any kind of external supernatural forces, or grand plan. They enable their subject matter to be studied scientifically, for the first time. Darwin's theory explains natural diversity and evolution, based upon The Law of Natural Selection. It is a Natural Law that applies throughout time, and means that whatever material conditions exist at any particular time, will favour some characteristics within species, giving them a natural advantage, so that those with these characteristics will tend to prosper, and their genes will be carried over into the next generation, so that increasingly, this creates diversity, and ultimately a new species entirely.

Marx and Engels' theory, similarly, is a theory of how social, rather than biological, organisms develop, on the basis that they are best suited to the material conditions that exist at any given time, or place, conditions, which themselves change over time. In Theories of Surplus Value, Chapter 9, Marx describes this.

“the higher development of individuality is thus only achieved by a historical process during which individuals are sacrificed for the interests of the species in the human kingdom, as in the animal and plant kingdoms, always assert themselves at the cost of the interests of individuals, because these interests of the species coincide only with the interests of certain individuals, and it is this coincidence which constitutes the strength of these privileged individuals.” (p 117-8)”

What is it that provides these “certain individuals” with strengths at one time that do not exist at others? It is that changes in the material basis of society bring about different ways of society going about its necessary business of producing its means of reproduction, and these different productive relations favour certain individuals and groups of individuals. The types of individual favoured at one period are then not those that were favoured in the previous period.

So, for example, the conditions that come into existence as a result of the increase in commodity production and exchange, and of competition that arises amongst the commodity producers, are not those that favour the landlord class, which dominated in the previous period.  Nor are they those that favour those commodity producers that relied upon the existence of guild monopolies and so on.  They are conditions that favour those amongst the independent commodity producers, who are best suited to these new conditions of competition.

This was something, as Lenin describes, that the Narodniks did not understand, and from his account, its also something that Roberts does not understand. In his account, evil feudal landlords, overnight, from the 15th century on, become transformed into evil capitalist landlords.

For Darwin's Theory of Evolution, changes in climate meant that some creatures died out whilst others prospered, because they were better suited. In relation to society, in Marx and Engels' Theory of Historical Materialism,

“In acquiring new productive forces men change their mode of production; and in changing their mode of production, in changing the way of earning their living, they change all their social relations. The hand-mill gives you society with the feudal lord; the steam-mill, society with the industrial capitalist.”

(Marx – The Poverty of Philosophy, Chapter 2)

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