In Defense of Historical Materialism (Part II)

5.2 Historical Materialism and the Real Evolution of Societies

To discuss the new vision developed by Link concerning the decadences of previous modes of production, let us start from an idea we share: “There has also been an enormous increase in population, something which Marx saw as a consequence of accumulation”. (Link) Effectively, in the long term, the population that a society can sup­port in a given territory depends on its economy (i.e., its capacity to create enough material wealth to support it). Population fluctuations are therefore good indicators of the major socioeconomic trends and the development of the productive forces of agricultural societies of the past. For the societies that preceded feudalism, we can see a direct link between agricultural production and population fluctuation. In the decadence of feudalism, however, the population curve, after having fallen, continued by slowly growing. This is due to the rise of capitalism since the 16th Century, which increased the productivity of labor and broke this link. In fact, if we only consider strictly feudal production, we note stagnation from the 14th to the 18th Century.

What do the reconstructions of the evolution of populations in the past tell us? They masterfully demonstrate Marx’s traditional conception and invalidate the new vision developed by Link! Indeed, whether for the world population (Graph 23 (1)) or for the population of a particular country (Graph 24 for France (2)), these evolutions consti­tute a beautiful confirmation of three central elements of historical materialism:

  1. The succession of modes of production identified by Marx (for Western Europe mainly): primitive, royal-tributary, ancient, feudal and capitalist (this identification and their temporalities is of course sometimes significantly different in other parts of the world, but this would lead us too far in the framework of this contribution).

  2. The slow movement of ascendancy and obsolescence in each of them, movements generated by the adoption of new social relations of production that accelerate the productive forces in ascending phases and that, having become obsolete, slow down these forces in decadence.

  3. The long phase of transition between each of these modes of production, a phase in which class conflicts sharpen between the dominant and the dominated, but also between the dominant class in place that wants to preserve the existing social relations and a new dominant class that is the bearer of new, more productive social relations of production.

We thus see that each mode of production experiences an ascending phase, with a strong increase in its population – and therefore in its agricultural production, followed by a phase of obsolescence, with a fall, a stagnation or a strong slowdown of its population – and therefore of its agricultural production:

Graph23 - World population and modes of production_Since 1600 BC
Graph 23: World population and modes of production (Since 1600 BC). Source: J.N. Biraben, footnote 1.


Graph24 - Population of France and modes of production_3000BC-2000AD
Graph 24: Population of France and modes of production (3000 BC – 2000 AD). Source: J. Vallin, footnote 2.

These slow and long declines, stagnation or slowdowns of the population are rarely the products of sudden external factors but of contradictory dynamics internal to each mode of production, in other words, concerning Western Europe, to the obstacles exerted by the dominant social relation of production on the growth of the productive forces, that is to say: the servile relation for feudalism, the slavery relation for Antiquity and the tributary relation for the royal societies. How so?

Generally speaking, population increases express a double movement: a geographical extension (clearing of new lands and territorial expansions) and/or an intensification of productivity in the economic sphere (technical progress and better organization of work), in other words, a global development of the productive forces enabled by new social relations of production adopted by a society. On the other hand, phases of demographic decline or slowdown are manifested by a hindrance to the geographical extension of the existing relations of production and by the appearance of diminishing returns in agricultural production. This is followed by the outbreak of multiple crises and famines caused by demographic growth which comes up against the exhaustion of resources, in a context where the social relations of production, now obsolete, block all technical progress and prevent the development of the productive forces necessary to overcome these blockages and continue to satisfy the growing needs of the population. Indeed, to satisfy these needs would have required to pass to new, more productive social relations of production, but the class carrying the old relations opens the way to the period of decadence by preventing their emergence.

Historical studies confirm these dynamics for each mode of production. Here are some lines for the modes of production identified on the graphs above and concerning Western Europe. We have proceeded by starting from our own time and going back in time (3) :


The decadence of feudalism spans four to five centuries between the beginning of the 14th and the middle of the 18th Century. It is manifested by a violent brake on the development of productive forces: “… there is a halt in agricultural and demographic growth at the end of the 13th Century (…). We therefore conjecture that medieval agriculture had reached by the end of the 13th Century an average technical level equivalent to that of the beginning of the 18th Century.”

This hindrance to the development of the productive forces is indeed the result of the brake exerted by the social relation of servile production since: “Around 1700, industrial technology, in spite of some significant innovations, remained very largely what it had been at the end of the Middle Ages”.

As for the actual transition to capitalism, it did not take place until the 16th Century and lasted for about two and a half centuries from 1500 to 1750: The economic structure of capitalistic society has grown out of the economic structure of feudal society. The dissolution of the latter set free the elements of the former. (…) Although we come across the first beginnings of capitalist production as early as the 14th or 15th Century, sporadically, in certain towns of the Mediterranean, the capitalistic era dates from the 16th Century. Wherever it appears, the abolition of serfdom has been long effected, and the highest development of the Middle Ages, the existence of sovereign towns, has been long on the wane. (4); “The prelude of the revolution that laid the foundation of the capitalist mode of production, was played in the last third of the 15th, and the first decade of the 16th Century. (5)

The seizures of power by the national bourgeoisies took place mainly between the 17th and 19th Centuries. They put an end to this transitional phase by completing, on the political level, the work of conquest carried out in the economic sphere.


The decadence of slavery extends from the third to the tenth Century: “Towards the end of the first millennium, the forces of production differed only slightly from those of antiquity (…)”. Various attempts to establish new relations of production were made, such as the emancipation of slaves, the establishment of the colonate, (6) etc. However, it is only from the 10th Century that the generalized servile dependence is set up, this social relation of production typical of the Middle Ages which will allow to powerfully develop the productive forces during the feudal ascendancy between the 10th and the beginning of the 14th Century: “From the 10th to the 13th Century it is the agricultural revolution which feeds the development of all branches of society (…) a new agrarian system whose production capacity is doubled with regard to that of the old one (…). This is why, in relation with the demographic growth, the cereal production increased until the 14th Century (…)”.

In other words, after a transition lasting seven centuries during which the new feudal class and the new production relations of serfdom took root, the ascendant phase developed from the 10th to the beginning of the 14th Century. At this time, feudalism enters into decadence until the 18th Century. Within this decadence, from the 16th Century on, began the transition to capitalism.


The case of antiquity is too well known to expand on it. The growing needs of the empire, demographic pressure and the management of an increasingly large territorial area forced Rome to go beyond the limits allowed by the productivity of its relations of production. The process of impoverishment resulting from the private appropriation of the land by the big Roman landowners and the low productivity of slavery obliged Rome to pillage grain to feed itself, and to import slaves to work the land.

Thus, in Capital, Marx reminds us that the whole of Roman history is that of the ever-widening expropriation of small agrarian producers for the benefit of increasingly powerful landowners: “For the rest, it requires but a slight acquaintance with the history of the Roman republic, for example, to be aware that its secret history is the history of its landed property.” (7). In other words, the formation of an increasingly numerous plebs, certainly endowed with inalienable political rights (it is forbidden to enslave a citizen of the City), but deprived of the means of existence by the concentration of landed property in a few hands. From there results this imperative need for external conquests to make the Roman economy work: to obtain labor to work the fields, to plunder wheat to feed the formation of this increasingly numerous urban plebeians, and to gain distant lands to grant a part of it to the latter. Slavery and the plundering of the resources of the vanquished were the two mainstays of the Roman Empire’s forced expansion.

At a certain stage of its geographical expansion, Rome could no longer feed itself: conquests were increasingly far a field and difficult to keep hold of, and slaves became expensive (a slave’s price increased tenfold between 50 and 150 AD). The functioning of the Empire is confronted with the decreasing returns of its conquests. To overcome slavery’s low productivity required other, more productive relations of production. But these could only come about through a social revolution, by the old ruling class linked to the old productive relations losing power. This is why, on top of the blockage of the economy, the ruling class “freezes” any social and economic development in order to preserve its political dominance. In a new context of absence of progress in labor productivity or territorial expansions, agriculture underwent the law of decreasing output, famine developed, the birth-rate fell, the population declined: decadence installed itself in Rome.

The graph below (8) clearly illustrates this process, in which obsolete relations of production cannot prevent a decline in the productive forces: it links, on the one hand, the evolution of the population (in millions of inhabitants, 2nd left-hand scale) and its growth rate (in %, 1st left-hand scale) with, on the other hand, the number of scientific discoveries (right-hand scale). Thus, this graph shows us that population growth was for a long time sustained by the development of the productive forces (via, in particular, the increase in the invention and application of new scientific discoveries), whereas the dynamic was subsequently reversed.

Graph25 - Population and scientific discoveries in Ancient Rome
Graph 25: Population and scientific discoveries in Ancient Rome (800 BC – 700 AD). Source: J.L. Simon, footnote 8.


An analogous phenomenon develops within societies dominated by tributary relations of production. These societies (Megalithic, Egyptian, Mesopotamian, etc.), from 4000 to 500 BC, are the end point of the slow process of neolithization and division of society into social classes. The social differentiations that developed from the appearance of food stocking and the emergence of material wealth resulted in political power constituted as a state in the form of a royal society (a dominant caste was able to emerge by laying hold of the surplus created by increased production). The latter still presents itself in the form of a multitude of village communities where producers are not yet separated from their main means of production – the land. Slavery may exist there – even in a considerable way, in order to satisfy the needs of the dominant caste (dependents, servants, laborers for large-scale work, etc.) – but it is only very rarely encountered in agricultural production, and it is not yet the dominant mode of production.

Marx gave a clear definition in Capital : “Should the direct producers not be confronted by a private landowner, but rather, as in Asia, under direct subordination to a state which stands over them as their landlord and simultaneously as sovereign, then rent and taxes coincide, or rather, there exists no tax which differs from this form of ground rent. Under such circumstances, there need exist no stronger political or economic pressure than that common to all subjects to that state. The state is then the supreme lord. Sovereignty here consists in the ownership of land concentrated on a national scale.” (9)

Most of these societies disappeared between 1000 and 500 BC (see the population curve). Their decadence appears in recurrent peasant revolts, by a development of unproductive state expenditure and by incessant wars between kingdoms trying to find a solution for the internal blockages of production through the pillage of wealth. Political conflicts and rivalries within the ruling caste exhausted society’s resources in endless conflicts, and the limits of the empires’ geographical expansion reveal that the maximum development compatible with the relations of production had been reached. In Europe, in Italy more precisely, a class of landowners emerges within the decadence of the Etruscan royal society: this will be the birth of ancient Rome.


Similarly, class society could only emerge from the decadence of primitive society, as Marx said: The history of the decline of the primordial communities (…) is still to be written. So far, only meagre sketches have been provided on this subject. But in any case, research has progressed far enough to confirm: (…) (2.) that the causes of their decline derive from the economic conditions which prevented them from passing a certain stage of development (…) When reading the histories of the primordial communities written by Bourgeois, one must be on one’s guard.” (First draft letter to Vera Zasulich, 1881. (10) The economic historian Paul Bairoch (1930 – 1999) arrived at a similar conclusion: “During the Paleolithic period which preceded the Neolithic, population growth was extremely slow (0.01% to 0.03% per year); nonetheless, this enabled the population to reach a figure of between 9 and 15 million (about 8000 BC). These figures are certainly very low, but in the context of a hunter-gatherer society, they had reached a level where continued population growth would be impossible without a radical modification of the economy .”  (11)

Next page: 5.3 Internal Economic Contradictions
and External Factors


1 Source: Essai sur l’évolution du nombre des hommes, J.N. Biraben, Population, n° 1, 1979. This graph is a well-known and coherent reconstitution of the evolution of the world population. We have inserted subdivisions in this curve to clearly distinguish the different phases of each mode of production.

2 Source: La population française, Jacques Vallin, éd. La Découverte.

3 The quotations on capitalism and feudalism are drawn from: Gerhards A. 1986: 20, 96. La société médiévale. Paris, Editions M.A.; Antonetti G. 1975 : 37, 41. L’économie médiévale. PUF, Que sais-je ? N°1606. Sella 1974.

4 Karl Marx, Capital Volume I, Part VIII: The so-called Primitive Accumulation; Chapter 26: The Secret of Primitive Accumulation. (L&W, MECW Vol. 35, p. 704 ff. )

5 Ibidem, Chapter 27: Expropriation of the Agricultural Population from the Land. (L&W, MECW Vol. 35, p. 707 ff.)

6 Simplified: The condition that farmers had under late (imperial) Roman law, who, without being slaves, were attached to the soil. More extensively treated, also with regards to its transition into feudal serfdom in: Colonus (person). [editor’s note]

7 Karl Marx, Capital Vol. I; Part I, Chapter 1, Section 4: The Fetishism of Commodities and the Secret thereof. (L&W, MECW Vol. 35. Note on p. 92,93). Marx thus surely starts from an analysis of social contradictions and their dynamics in order to understand societies, their evolution, and the development of their productive forces!

8 The effects of population on nutrition and economic well-being, Julian L. Simon, in Hunger and History, Ed. Cambridge University Press.

9 Karl Marx, Capital Vol. III, Part VI, Chapter 47, Section II: Labour Rent. (L&W, MECW Vol. 37, p. 777)

10 Marx’s first draft of a reply to Vera Zasulich, February/March 1881, passages translated from MEW Vol. 19, p.384-406 (Dietz Verlag, Berlin).

11 Paul Bairoch, Histoire économique De Jéricho à Mexico. Villes et économie dans l’histoire. Gallimard, 1985.

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