In Defense of Historical Materialism (Part II)

5. Discussion of Historical Materialism

In general, the dominant historiography “explains” history, the birth and disappearance of civilizations, by the action of “great men”, the fight for ideas, the triumph of certain religions, geophysical factors, external invasions, natural disasters, etc. In short, everything except the recognition that societies are crossed by internal evolutionary dynamics. And if certain historical currents are clearly more interesting insofar as they evoke economic factors or conflicts of interest between social groups, it is never in order to derive a key to the evolution of societies. The reason is simple: if this is the case, capitalism could, like all previous societies, also be crossed by an internal dynamic and not be eternal!

It is quite different for Marxism, if it does not neglect any factor, whether internal or external – even the struggle for ideas, the genius of great men, the influence of certain geophysical factors, etc. – it puts forward three essential elements that articulate them in a hierarchical and coherent whole: (1) societies evolve; (2) their evolutionary dynamics are above all based on issues around material factors (especially economic ones) and (3) factors that are carried and defended by social classes with antagonistic interests. In other words, it is mainly spurred on by the confrontation of the latter (the class struggle) that societies evolve, that is to say by an evolutionary dynamic internal to societies.

Certainly, this conception of evolution would not be worth much if it were not verified in reality! It is therefore imperative to validate it on the historical level. This is what Engels demanded in his letter to Conrad Schmidt of August 5, 1890: “Nor, today, has the materialist view of history any lack of such friends to whom it serves as a pretext for not studying history.(…) Our view of history, however, is first and foremost a guide to study (…). The whole of history must be studied anew, and the existential conditions of the various social formations individually investigated (…) Here we could do with any amount of help; it is a truly immense field (…) Instead, the only use to which the cliché of historical materialism has been put by all too many younger Germans is hastily to run up a jerry-built system out of their own relatively inadequate historical knowledge — for economic history is as yet in its infancy — thus becoming great prodigies in their own eyes. (…) You, who have really achieved something, must yourself have noticed how few of the young men of letters who attach themselves to the party take the trouble to go in for political economy, the history of political economy, the history of trade, of industry, of agriculture, of social formations. (1)

Link is therefore right to discuss the causes of the obsolescence of past societies and, in relation to this, of capitalism. Unfortunately, his starting point is totally biased: he does not endeavor to verify, improve, correct or invalidate historical and dialectical materialism as it exists, but to transform it in order to respond to a contradiction that he does not manage to solve!

In effect, convinced that capitalism enters its phase of obsolescence with the first world war, but noting that the productive forces have increased considerably since then – even much more rapidly than before 1914, Link holds a reasoning in two steps:

  1. The reasons for the obsolescence of capitalism would not be essentially economic but above all political, social, imperialist, etc. The causes should not be sought in the class struggle, i.e. an obstacle on the economic level, a brake on the development of the productive forces exercised by the capitalist social relations of production;

  2. Then, Link re-examines the periods of decadence of the preceding modes of production to underline that these last ones would not have occurred following an economic brake exerted by the social relations of production on the growth of the productive forces, but because of causes essentially external to the societies.

From this return to the past, Link concludes that it is necessary to question the traditional conception of Marx which identifies an economic cause to the obsolescence of the various modes of production: “We therefore need to look at the traditional view of decadence as an economic phenomenon and reconsider the premises here. This means also a reconsideration of what are considered the fetters on the productive forces. First of all let us consider the decline of previous modes of production (and I stress this is in opposition to comparing the consecutive modes of production). We can identify that the decline was not just or even primarily a collapse caused by failures of the relations of production. Each period of decline is different but a common feature is that external influences are involved in bringing down modes of production.” (Link)

From his rapid overview concerning the births and disappearances of primitive communism, ancient societies, feudalism and capitalism, Link’s conclusion is very clear: “The point here is that the end of the modes of production was impacted particularly by ‘external’ factors (External factors in the sense that they are external to the core relations of production in society) i.e. new, more efficient production systems, external confrontations and internal political conflict.” Concerning capitalism, Link mentions ecological limits and even a space asteroid as a possible end for this system.

If this is the case, we must indeed revise Marx’s conception of historical materialism. In this respect, we have no taboos concerning historical materialism, we even think that it is indispensable to deepen it on many questions: on the necessary development of the concept of ‘relation of dependence’, which remained in the state of draft in Marx; on the comprehension of the male domination of the women; on the origin of the violence and the wars in mankind; on the origin of the State, its role in the history and in the future period of transition between capitalism and communism: on the identification of the modes of production in history and in the world, etc. However, we believe that Link is mistaken and reconstructs history as he pleases in an attempt to overcome a contradiction he cannot resolve, namely that between the acceleration of the productive forces throughout the 20th Century and his conviction that capitalism entered into decadence in 1914. We will begin by answering him concerning the modes of production of the past; we will then deal with capitalism, refuting the concept of ‘cancerous growth’ recently advanced by the ICC; finally, we will evoke the ecological limits of capitalism.

Next page: 5.2 Historical Materialism and
the Real Evolution of Societies


1 MECW Vol. 49 (Letters 1890 – 92), Lawrence & Wishart, 2010, p.6.

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