- by Valentin Cartillier
- The Guardian
- Issue #1971
In this third article we’ll be further examining Historical Materialism and how the capitalist mode of production brought about the birth of the working class. We will see how capitalism historically emerged, how it operates, and how class struggle works within it.
Engels cites two historical moments which allow us to see this picture most clearly. First, in 1831, the first localised working-class uprising took place in Lyon, France where silk workers managed to take control of the city. The second was the national working-class uprising between 1838 and 1842, in the form of the English Chartists. For Engels,
“The class struggle between proletariat [working class] and bourgeoisie [capitalists] came to the front in the history of the most advanced countries in Europe, in proportion to the development, upon the one hand, of modern industry, upon the other, of the newly-acquired political supremacy of the bourgeoisie.”
Uprisings have happened countless times throughout history. Revolutionary transformation is the historical norm, not the exception. The two events above described were the first of their kind to happen in the newly emerged industrialised world. From this new material, reality arose the possibility of a higher level of understanding.
Engels maintained that old ideas of history were still stuck in the inertia of idealistic thought, based upon vague appeals to the “cultural development of civilisations.” What the industrial revolution finally allowed us to see clearly, for the first time, was that history is materially grounded in, and develops according to, class struggles based upon economic interests. It is this idea that the utopian socialists, and the political economists of the time, could not work out.
For Engels and Marx, history could be analysed anew. Engels states:
“The new facts made imperative a new examination of all past history. Then it was seen that all past history, with the exception of its primitive stages, was the history of class struggles; that these warring classes of society are always the products of the modes of production and of exchange – in a word, of the economic conditions of their time.”
These economic conditions (known as the “economic base”) are the basis upon which all other parts of society were founded; religious institutions, legal systems, philosophical ideas, the education system etc. (these institutions are known as the “superstructure”). The development of the superstructure is tied to the economic base of the historical epoch and the society it emerges from. Understanding how the economic base and the superstructure interact and develop with each other is critical for understanding the working class’ place in the capitalist world. This analysis lies at the heart of scientific socialism.
Socialism was made no longer the utopian goal of dreaming up the perfect society, but rather its task was to “examine the historical-economic succession of events from which these classes and their antagonism had of necessity sprung.” Put otherwise, the antagonism between classes is the necessary outcome of changes in the economic mode of production.
What is unique about the capitalist mode of production, not present in previous historical epochs? Marx and Engels respond: the secret of surplus-value production.
For a capitalist to make a profit, they must pay the worker less than the value they produce. For example, if a worker on a factory line produces $200 worth of a particular product in an hour, their wage cannot be $200/hr, otherwise the business would go broke. The worker will only get a fraction of the value they produce, say $25/hr, allowing the capital to pocket the surplus of $175.
It is the labour of the worker that creates the value of a product or service, then sold for a profit by the capitalist. Without this fundamentally inequal economic relationship between capitalist and worker, capitalism ceases to function. The capitalist, by virtue of owning the means of production, is able to extract the surplus value created by the labourer. This is the fundamental class division that occurred during the emergence of the capitalist mode of production.
This class division is the foundation of historical materialism. Building off of what we’ve already learnt, Engels gives us a precise definition. He states:
“The materialist conception of history starts from the proposition that the production of the means to support human life and, next to production, the exchange of things produced, is the basis of every social order; that in every society that has appeared in history, the manner in which wealth is distributed and society divided into classes or orders is dependent upon what is produced, how it is produced, and how the products are exchanged. From this point of view, the final causes of all social changes and political revolutions are to be sought … in changes in the modes of production and exchange. They are to be sought, not in the philosophy, but in the economics of each particular epoch.”
Here we can clearly see that social change and political revolutions are not simply found within the minds of people (the idealist position) and their lofty ideas (utopian socialism), but occur through changes in the modes of production and exchange according to the specific interests of the ruling class. The aim of the scientific socialist is to understand how these changes in the mode of production actually occur.
It is worth noting what unites utopian and scientific socialism. Both recognise that existing social institutions are unjust. What separates them is that the utopians are unable to understand the significance of the mode of production.
What then does the theory of scientific socialism tell us? If history and societies are subject to the same laws of motion and matter that we examined in the previous article, then that means that the existing mode of production must eventually change as well. As much as it would like us to believe, capitalism is not fixed and unchanging for all time; it too must give way to a new system.
Just as feudalism gave way to capitalism, so too must capitalism give way to another mode of production – socialism, where the means of production, which were privately owned under capitalism, are collectively owned by the working class.
Under feudalism, production was based upon the model of a series of small-scale producers, such as guild workers (like blacksmiths), artisans (textile workers for example), peasants etc. Each produced their own product, with minimal help from others, then took it to the market. In the case of peasants, they toiled the land, gave a percentage to their lord as tax, and if there was any extra produce left over after feeding the family, they could take the surplus to exchange at the markets.
Under capitalism, all of this changed. Rather than a series of small scale-producers, capitalism began concentrating production, over a long period of time, by funnelling people into larger and larger factories. A person was no longer selling the product of their own labour, but their very labour itself to someone else in exchange for wages. That someone else was the capitalist, the owner of the means of production. This is how the working class, as we know it now, emerged.
We can see how this analysis of the change in the economic mode of production corresponds to the way that dialectical materialism works, as discussed in the previous article. The newly emerging working class was not a different kind of peasant, though we can say that both the peasant and the working class are exploited. As we have shown above, the working class’ relationship to labour underwent a fundamental transformation according to the development of the mode of production.
Historically, the peasant and the working class initially appear as complete opposites of one another. This, however, is not the case, under closer examination we have seen how the peasantry underwent a fundamental transformation through a shift in the mode of production to become the working class. As Engels rightly pointed out, “this contradiction, which gives to the new mode of production its capitalistic character, contains the germ of the whole of the social antagonisms of today.”
What initially started off on the fringe of society, the capitalist mode of production, eventually became the rule, and with that transformation, the peasant who worked for a lord was forced to become a wage-labourer for the capitalist, creating the modern working class.
A slightly different process occurred between the emerging capitalist class and the feudal aristocracy. While they were initially in direct competition with each other, the aristocracy failed to properly align itself with the changing mode of production backed by the capitalists, so eventually they were swept from power. The old exploiting class was replaced by a new one. The antagonistic division of society into the capitalist class and the working class is the division we’ve had ever since.
In the following and final article, we’ll further examine how the capitalist mode of production works. Once we have a more complete understanding of this, we’ll finally be able to tie all of the concepts we’ve been working with over this series together.