In Defense of Historical Materialism (Part II)

5.3 Internal Economic Contradictions and External Factors

As we have just explained very briefly, the empirical data of the past and the work of historians largely validate the traditional conception of historical and dialectical materialism of the evolution of societies. Indeed, they show that the obsolescence of modes of production results above all from their own internal contradictions between their social relations of production, which have become obsolete, and the level reached by the productive forces (material and human). There is no need to reinterpret this conception as Link thinks.

1. The imperative need for a period of hindrance to development

In addition to being sorely lacking in empirical and historical evidence, Link’s vision engenders inextricable contradictions and dead ends. Indeed, let us suppose for a moment, as Link does, that the modes of production do not disappear under their own internal economic contradictions but because of external reasons: “sedentary tribes (…) developed agriculture that was more efficient [than living from hunting and gathering]; “The scale of the empires [based on the slave mode of production]became too costly to defend and they were ravaged by external armies.” (…) “Feudal society came to end because the early capitalism showed itself far more productive and rewarding for the wealthy than feudal organization was.” (Link) But then, why do men develop new social relations and a new mode of production if the old one does not demonstrate its obsolescence on the economic level? What reasons do men have for developing capitalist relations if feudal society does not begin to exhaust itself? Why invent capitalism if feudalism still develops the productive forces? Why invent sedentary life if hunting and gathering do not reach exhaustion? Link never answers these questions. On the other hand, historical materialism can answer them in a logical and coherent way.

To claim that the passage from one mode of production to another is realized, in particular, because there would be another more efficient mode of production, i.e. a passage from one mode of production to another without a period of economic obsolescence and transition, is to make materially impossible any transition to a new mode of production and thus the very possibility of any historical evolution! Indeed, the necessity of this transition is a painful birth that can only emerge in the face of the blockages of the old mode of production. Why would men suddenly try to produce otherwise if the system in which they live is always ascendant and productive? Why, under what necessities, would a part of society develop new and more productive relations of production if the old ones are still efficient? New superior relations of production never replace older ones before the material conditions for their existence have been brewed in the womb of the old society itself.” (Marx, Preface, 1859). Why would wage earners make a revolution if capitalism is developing vigorously and they are seeing their real wages and life expectations increase?

Moreover, the power of the dominant class and its attachment to its privileges are powerful factors in preserving a social form. A class’s power is at its greatest at the apogee of its mode of production, and only a long decadence can erode its power and call into question the legitimacy of its domination. When a social class has exhausted its historic role, this does not appear overnight within the social consciousness, and [when it finally does] the old ruling class would not, like an English gentleman, leave the way free for a new one. It will defend its power by arms and repression right to the end. The old mode of production will only be abandoned after decades of famine, epidemics, war and anarchy: seven centuries for slavery, four or five centuries for feudalism! All the social relationships under which men have lived for centuries are not superseded overnight. Only such events can get the better of centuries-old customs, ideas and traditions. Collective consciousness always lags behind the objective reality in which it lives. It is such a process that Link erases with the stroke of a pen.

A new mode of production can only emerge if a new class exists as the bearer of the new more productive social relations of production, and only a period of decadence can create the conditions for its development. Moreover, and at the same time, the exploited class’ discontent must also ripen over a long period of time. It will find in this discontent the additional (but nevertheless decisive) forces allowing it to overthrow the old class which has become obsolete. The development of this discontent must mature over a long period of economic hardship and can only come after a major structural crisis. Only decades of famine and humiliation will push the exploited to revolt alongside the new ruling class against the old. The development of new, more productive, social relations of production is a long process, on the one hand because men never abandon a tool until it has proved itself worthless, and on the other because they are born into a hostile environment, subjected to the matrix and the repression of the old mode of production:

1) The royal castes of the tributary societies could only develop in the destructuring of the social relations of production of the Neolithic societies.

2) The class of big slave-holding landowners was born in the decadence of the tributary mode of production: concretely, in Rome, out of the combat between the new force constituted by the landowners who appropriated the land as private property, and the princely caste of Etruscan royal society which still lived from tribute extorted from groups of village societies where producers are not yet separated from their main means of production – the land.

3) Feudalism was born from the decadence of Rome. The new social relations of production – Serfdom – began to take root according to various modalities: the colonate; the liberation of slaves who can then cultivate a piece of land and possess their own means of production, in return for a fraction of their harvest; the subjugation of the peasantry by an armed knighthood (the encastellation) …

4) The bourgeoisie was born out of the decadence of feudalism, as Marx said: “The modern bourgeois society that has sprouted from the ruins of feudal society …” […] “The discovery of America, the rounding of the Cape, opened up fresh ground for the rising bourgeoisie. The East-Indian and Chinese markets, the colonisation of America, trade with the colonies, the increase in the means of exchange and in commodities generally, gave to commerce, to navigation, to industry, an impulse never before known, and thereby, to the revolutionary element in the tottering feudal society, a rapid development. The feudal system of industry, in which industrial production was monopolised by closed guilds, now no longer sufficed for the growing wants of the new markets.” […] “We see then: the means of production and of exchange, on whose foundation the bourgeoisie built itself up, were generated in feudal society. At a certain stage in the development of these means of production and of exchange, the conditions under which feudal society produced and exchanged, the feudal organisation of agriculture and manufacturing industry, in one word, the feudal relations of property became no longer compatible with the already developed productive forces; they became so many fetters. They had to be burst asunder; they were burst asunder.” (1) And: 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.”  (2) The rule of the sovereign towns lies in feudalism’s full ascendancy (10th to 14th Century). Capitalism is born within the decadence of feudalism (14th to 18th Century), at the moment of the 16th Century’s great discoveries.

It took two centuries of Roman decadence for new production relations to emerge and another four to six centuries for them to become widespread. It took two centuries of feudal decadence for capitalism to emerge, and another three centuries before it became widespread.

What can we conclude from the examination of this first point? That the traditional vision of Marx’s historical materialism is largely attested by the facts, by the concrete history of the succession of the modes of production … whereas the new vision developed by Link : (a) does not correspond at all to this concrete history; (b) fails to explain why the modes of production evolve, why men invent new social relations of production; and (c) that this vision prevents a good understanding of the succession of the modes of production.

2. The class struggle, this internal dialectical engine of societies

More globally, Link questions not only the materialist pillar of Marxism, but also and especially its dialectical pillar. Indeed, for Marx, the development and the evolution of societies result above all from their internal contradictions: social relations are contradictory and it is their contradictions that make society evolve. The social relations are born, develop and perish by being sharpened by their contradictory characters. As Marx says: all history is the history of the class struggle, that is to say a history made of groups of men who oppose each other for economic and material reasons. (3)

For Link, if he does not deny the internal contradictions within societal dynamics, if he distinguishes three possible causes for the evolution of societies (the main internal causes, the secondary causes and the external causes) and if he postulates interrelations between these three types of causes, (4) he does not hierarchize them into a coherent whole where the main internal causes outweigh the others! … to such an extent that these internal causes often become secondary for the needs of his demonstration! Indeed, for him, the phases of obsolescence often occur as a result of elements external to the modes of production and not as a result of the obstacles exerted by the internal social relations of production which have become obsolete and slow down the development of the productive forces. Thus, the end of capitalism would no longer result essentially from its internal contradictions but from external factors: “ ‘external’ factors which are elements that capital does not create and which exist independently but come into contact with capitalism and are drawn into relationships with it. (…) Hence today science has identified the threat to human life from asteroids, clearly an external factor that always existed, but one which science is now preparing for.” Without being aware of it and without wanting to, Link certainly joins the dominant economic theory for which the dysfunctions of capitalism are not due to its internal contradictions but to external factors. Thus, while every capitalist economic crisis stems from its internal contradictions, the dominant ideology systematically attributes them to external factors: oil, bad speculators, too many regulations that should be liberalized, etc.

Certainly, external factors can intervene in the dynamics of the evolution of societies; one would have to be blind to deny them. However, as a general rule, their importance is secondary and depends fundamentally on the evolution of internal contradictions:

a) Thus, it is true that feudal decadence occurs when society reaches a limit in the clearing of land. However, this “external” limit depends closely on the capacity or not of the ruling class to change the servile production relation to increase agricultural productivity. It is precisely this incapacity of the feudal ruling class to make it evolve as it did before (the passage of feudal rent in labor, in rent in kind, then in money) that precipitates the feudal mode of production into its phase of obsolescence.

b) Similarly, during the Roman decadence, the extension of the empire becomes a problem because the ruling class is no longer able to evolve the slave relationship of production in order to continue increasing the productive forces. Thus, for example, ancient Rome knew the windmill and the principle of the steam engine (which operated the heavy doors of the temples for example), but these inventions were never applied to agricultural production. Why not? Because the logic of the slave production relationship is extensive: producing more implies putting more slaves to work before increasing labor productivity through the application of new inventions in agricultural production.

c) Concerning the Roman decadence, Link mentions “the tribes that existed outside of the Roman Empire but entered into conflict with it Certainly, but as long as Rome was strong enough during its ascendancy to contain the invasion of these tribes for decades, it is precisely at the moment when Rome weakens as a result of its entry into decadence for internal reasons, that the Empire is no longer able to resist these external invasions.

Link has already taken a big step (which the ICC refuses to do) by recognizing the reality of the formidable development of the productive forces (material and human) since the First World War, but, instead of having the political courage of Marx and Engels who knew how to recognize that they were wrong, he prefers to maintain the dogma of decadence in 1914 … at the cost of abandoning the method of historical and dialectical materialism. This is a path on which we will not follow him in any way!

Next page: 5.4 On ‘Cancerous Growth’


1 Manifesto of the Communist Party (1848) Ch. I: Bourgeois and Proletarians. English by S. Moore and F. Engels, 1888.

2 Karl Marx, Capital Volume I, Part VIII, Chapter 26: The Secret of Primitive Accumulation. (L&W, MECW Vol. 35, p. 706)

3 These contradictory social relations in capitalism, for example, are well known: they are the contradictions between dead labor and living labor, between the private character of property and the collective character of production, the stakes between wages and the appropriation of a maximum of surplus labor by employers, etc. For further developments on the contradictory and therefore dialectical nature of social relations, we refer the reader to our article entirely devoted to this question: Le matérialisme historique et dialectique – Ière partie.

4 “It must be noted here that I am proposing different factors within the whole network of interrelationships that is capitalism. I am reliant on the idea that we can identify (1) the core elements of capitalism, i.e. Marx’s model and the core contradictions that are generated, (2) the phenomena of capitalism that are generated by the operation of the core such as national economies, markets, international blocs etc. but which are not considered essential to Marx’s model and (3) ‘external’ factors which are elements that capital does not create and which exist independently but come into contact with capitalism and are drawn into relationships with it.” (Link)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s