Understanding the decline of a mode of production (I)

1. Interpretations of the Decline of a Mode of Production

The central argument for C.Mcl., as he explicitly asserts in the following quote from his chapter 2: Obsolescence according to Marx, the 3rd International and the Communist Left”, is that is that there is ONLY one possible interpretation of Marx’s analysis of historical materialism and this is that the economic factor is the ONE determinant of the decline of any given mode of production.

“Marx and Engels elaborated the materialist and historical conception of the evolution of societies by identifying the dialectic between the social relations of production and the productive forces, a dialectic which defines, for all class societies, an ascending phase where these relations energize these forces and a phase of obsolescence where these same relations slow them down.” (1)

The whole text rests on this foundation, and he calls it a defence of historical materialism! Hardly, it is merely an assertion as to what C.Mcl. believes is one element of historical materialism, but he provides little or no theoretical analysis to defend it.

Is this the only possible interpretation? This is what I intend to focus on in this text to demonstrate that with regards at least to capitalism this is an insufficient and narrow interpretation.

Let us look first at a famous quote from Engels that is certainly open to interpretation but should serve as a caution against being too determinedly focussed on economic indicators.

According to the materialist conception of history, the ultimately determining element in history is the production and reproduction of real life. Other than this neither Marx nor I have ever asserted. Hence if somebody twists this into saying that the economic element is the only determining one, he transforms that proposition into a meaningless, abstract, senseless phrase. The economic situation is the basis, but the various elements of the superstructure … also exercise their influence upon the course of the historical struggles and in many cases preponderate in determining their form. There is an interaction of all these elements in which, amid all the endless host of accidents … the economic movement finally asserts itself as necessary. Otherwise the application of the theory to any period of history would be easier than the solution of a simple equation of the first degree…” (2)

C.Mcl. demonstrates that Marx and Engels were unclear about the conditions of decadence, which is an important point to recognise but he nevertheless asserts that Link inverts “the definition put forward by Marx in order to evacuate the contradiction, i.e. to affirm that the obsolescence of capitalism would be characterized, not by a brake, but by an unprecedented devel­opment of the productive forces, a development so important that it engenders wars and irreparable ecological disasters putting humanity itself in danger.” (3)

Whilst I would agree that it is the growth of the system that threatens irreparable ecological disaster, I do not at all suggest that the level of growth defines or characterises decadence.

C.Mcl. however fails to analyse just how Marx puts forward this definition that there can only be a brake on productive forces, let alone justify this assertion, and in fact uses a series of quotes and analyses from Marx (section 2) that act rather to justify my argument e.g.: “The productive forces at the disposal of society no longer serve to further (bourgeois civilization and) the bourgeois property relations; on the contrary, they have become too powerful for these relations, by which they are fettered”. (4)

This quote from the Communist Manifesto quite clearly starts from the perspective that the productive forces have become too large for capitalist society – something C.Mcl. says is not an analysis that corresponds with historical materialism! That this section of the Communist Manifesto goes on to say that relations of production are a fetter on the productive forces is quite true, but then I do not deny that.

What I am arguing is that both the relations and the forces or production have an impact on the decline of a mode of production, not just the one that C.Mcl. Believes. He not only fails to investigate how I am re-interpreting historical materialism, if that is at all the case, but he also fails to provide any explanatory defence of the classic Marxist interpretations of Marx on the topic. He just asserts it must be true.

There is no question that economic decline as a product of internal contradictions can be and is a feature demonstrated in a period of decadence but to argue that economic decline is the only factor that demonstrates a mode of production is decaying is a rather narrow, dogmatic approach. I refer back to my brief review of previous modes of production (5) in which I point to political, social and external factors that impacted on the development of historical modes of production. As the quote from Engels at the start of this section suggests, other factors can and do come into play.

Next page: The Conflict between

Forces of Production and Relations of Production


1 C.Mcl., 2022: In Defence of Historical Materialism, Chapter 2: Obsolescence according to Marx, the 3rd International and the Communist Left.

2 Engels, 1890: Letter to J. Bloch.

3 See note 1.

4 Ibidem, the passage is a quotation from the Communist Manifesto.

Leave a Reply

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

WordPress.com Logo

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

Facebook photo

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

Connecting to %s