What is historical materialism?

This work by Alan Woods, provides a comprehensive explanation of the Marxist method of analysing history. This first part establishes the scientific basis of historical materialism. The ultimate cause of all social change is to be found, not in the human brain, but in changes in the mode of production.

Marxists do not see history as a mere series of isolated facts but rather, they seek to discover the general processes and laws that govern nature and society. The first condition for science in general is that we are able to look beyond the particular and arrive at the general. The idea that human history is not governed by any laws is contrary to all science.

What is history?

Why should we accept that the entire universe, from the smallest particles to the most distant galaxies are determined, and the processes that determine the evolution of all species, are governed by laws, and yet, for some strange reason, our own history is not. The Marxist method analyses the hidden mainsprings that underpin the development of human society from the earliest tribal societies up to the modern day. The way in which Marxism traces this winding road is called the materialist conception of history.

Those who deny the existence of any laws governing human social development invariably approach history from a subjective and moralistic standpoint. But above and beyond the isolated facts, it is necessary to discern broad tendencies, the transitions from one social system to another, and to work out the fundamental motor forces that determine these transitions.

Before Marx and Engels history was seen by most people as a series of unconnected events or, to use a philosophical term, "accidents". There was no general explanation of this, history had no inner lawfulness. By establishing the fact that, at bottom, all human development depends on the development of productive forces Marx and Engels for the first time placed the study of history on a scientific basis.

This scientific method enables us to understand history, not as a series of unconnected and unforeseen incidents, but rather as part of a clearly understood and interrelated process. It is a series of actions and reactions which cover politics, economics and the whole spectrum of social development. To lay bare the complex dialectical relationship between all these phenomena is the task of historical materialism. Humankind constantly changes nature through labour, and in so doing, changes itself.

A caricature of Marxism

Science under capitalism tends to become less and less scientific, the closer it gets to analysing society. The so-called social sciences (sociology, economics, politics), and also bourgeois philosophy, in general do not apply genuinely scientific methods at all, and therefore end up as ill-concealed attempts to justify capitalism, or at least to discredit Marxism (which boils down to the same thing).

Despite the “scientific” pretensions of bourgeois historians, the writing of history inevitably reflects a class point of view. It is a fact that the history of wars – including the class war – is written by the winners. In other words, the selection and interpretation of these events are shaped by the actual outcome of those conflicts as they affect the historian, and in turn his perception of what the reader will want to read. Moreover, in the last analysis, these perceptions will always be influenced by the interests of a class or grouping in society.

When Marxists look at society they do not pretend to be neutral, but openly espouse the cause of the exploited and oppressed classes. However, that does not at all preclude scientific objectivity. A surgeon involved in a delicate operation is also committed to saving the life of his patient. He is far from neutral about the outcome. But for that very reason, he will distinguish with extreme care between the different layers of the organism. In the same way, Marxists will strive to obtain the most scientifically exact analysis of social processes, in order to be able to successfully influence the outcome.

Very often attempts are made to discredit Marxism by resorting to a caricature of its method of historical analysis. There is nothing easier than erecting a straw man in order to knock it down again. The usual distortion is that Marx and Engels “reduced everything to economics.” This mechanical caricature has nothing to do with Marxism. If that were really the case, we would be absolved from the painful necessity of fighting to change society. Capitalism would collapse and the new society would fall into place of its own accord, as a ripe apple falls into the lap of a man sleeping under a tree. But historical materialism has nothing in common with fatalism.

This patent absurdity was answered in the following extract of Engels’ letter to Bloch:

“According to the materialist conception of history, the ultimate determining element in history is the production and reproduction of life. More than this neither Marx and 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 and senseless phrase.” ( Engels to Bloch, 21 September 1890, Selected Correspondence, p. 475)

In The Holy Family, written before the Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels poured scorn on the idea of “History” conceived apart from individual men and women, explaining that this was merely an empty abstraction:

“History does nothing, it ‘possesses no immense wealth’, it ‘wages no battles’. It is man, real, living man who does all that, who possesses and fights; ‘history’ is not, as it were, a person apart, using man as a means to achieve its own aims; history is nothing but the activity of man pursuing his aims.” (Marx and Engels, The Holy Family, Chapter VI)

All that Marxism does is to explain the role of the individual as part of a given society, subject to certain objective laws and, ultimately, as the representative of the interests of a particular class. Ideas have no independent existence, nor their own historical development. "Life is not determined by consciousness," Marx writes in The German Ideology, "but consciousness by life."

Free will?

The ideas and actions of people are conditioned by social relations, the development of which does not depend on the subjective will of men and women, but which take place according to definite laws. These social relations, in the last analysis, reflect the needs of development of the productive forces. The interrelations between these factors constitute a complex web that is often difficult to see. The study of these relations is the basis of the Marxist theory of history.

But if men and women are not the puppets of “blind historical forces”, neither are they entirely free agents, able to shape their destiny irrespective of the existing conditions imposed by the level of economic development, science and technique, which, in the last analysis, determine whether a socio-economic system is viable or not. In The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, Marx explains:

"Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like an Alp on the brains of the living […]."

Later Engels expressed the same idea in a different way:

“Men make their own history, whatever its outcome may be, in that each person follows his own consciously desired end, and it is precisely the resultant of these many wills operating in different directions and of their manifold effects upon the outer world that constitutes history.” ( Ludwig Feuerbach).

What Marxism does assert, and it is a proposition that surely nobody can deny, is that in the last analysis, the viability of a given socio-economic system will be determined by its ability to develop the means of production, that is to say, the material foundations upon which society, culture and civilization are built.

The notion that the development of the productive forces is the basis upon which all social development depends is really such a self-evident truth that it is really surprising that some people still question it. It does not require much intelligence to understand that before men and women can develop art, science, religion or philosophy, they must first have food to eat, clothes to wear and houses to live in. All these things must be produced by someone, somehow. And it is equally obvious that the viability of any given socio-economic system will ultimately be determined by its ability to do this.

In The Critique of Political Economy Marx explains the relation between the productive forces and the “superstructure” as follows:

“In the social production which men carry on they enter into definite relations that are indispensable and independent of their will; these relations of production correspond to a definite stage of development of their material powers of production... The mode of production in material life determines the general character of the social, political and spiritual processes of life. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but, on the contrary, their social existence (which) determines their consciousness.”

As Marx and Engels were at pains to point out, the participants in history may not always be aware of what motives are driving them, seeking instead to rationalise them in one way or another, but those motives exist and have a basis in the real world.

From this we can see that the flow and direction of history has been— and is—shaped by the struggles of successive social classes to mould society in their own interests and the resulting conflicts between the classes which flow from that. As the first words of the Communist Manifesto remind us: “ The history of all hitherto existing societies is the history of class struggle.” Historical materialism explains that the motor force of social development is the class struggle.

Marx and Darwin

Our species is the product of a very long period of evolution. Of course, evolution is not a kind of grand design, the aim of which was to create beings like ourselves. It is not a question of accepting some kind of preordained plan, either related to Divine intervention or some kind of teleology, but it is clear that the laws of evolution inherent in nature do in fact determine the development from simple forms of life to more complex forms.

The earliest forms of life already contain within them the embryo of all future developments. It is possible to explain the development of eyes, legs and other organs without recourse to any preordained plan. At a certain stage we get the development of a central nervous system and a brain. Finally, with Homo sapiens, we arrive at human consciousness. Matter becomes conscious of itself. There has been no more important revolution since the development of organic matter (life) from inorganic matter.

Charles Darwin explained that the species are not immutable, and that they possess a past, a present and a future, changing and evolving. In the same way Marx and Engels explain that a given social system is not something eternally fixed. Evolution shows how different life forms have dominated the planet for very long periods but have been made extinct as soon as the material conditions that determined their evolutionary success changed. These previously dominant species have been replaced by other species that were seemingly insignificant and even species that seemed to have no prospect of survival.Editorial cartoon depicting Charles Darwin as an ape 1871Editorial cartoon depicting Charles Darwin as an ape 1871

Nowadays the idea of “evolution” has been generally accepted, at least by educated persons. The ideas of Darwin, so revolutionary in his day, are accepted almost as a truism. However, evolution is generally understood as a slow and gradual process without interruptions or violent upheavals. In politics, this kind of argument is frequently used as a justification for reformism. Unfortunately, it is based on a misunderstanding. The real mechanism of evolution even today remains a book sealed by seven seals.

This is hardly surprising since Darwin himself did not understand it. It was only as recently as the 1970s, with the new discoveries in palaeontology made by Stephen J. Gould, who discovered the theory of punctuated equilibria, that it was demonstrated that evolution is not a gradual process. There are long periods in which no big changes are observed, but at a given moment, the line of evolution is broken by an explosion, a veritable biological revolution characterised by the mass extinction of some species and the rapid ascent of others.

We see analogous processes in the rise and fall of different socio-economic systems. The analogy between society and nature is, of course, only approximate. But even the most superficial examination of history shows that the gradualist interpretation is baseless. Society, like nature, knows long periods of slow and gradual change, but also here the line is interrupted by explosive developments—wars and revolutions, in which the process of change is enormously accelerated. In fact, it is these events that act as the main motor force of historical development. And the root cause of revolution is the fact that a particular socio-economic system has reached its limits and is unable to develop the productive forces as before.

History has more than once furnished us with examples of apparently powerful states that collapsed in a very short space of time. And it also shows how political, religious and philosophical views that were almost unanimously condemned became transformed into the accepted views of the new revolutionary power that arose to take the place of the old. The fact that the ideas of Marxism are the views of a small minority in this society is therefore no cause for concern. Every great idea in history has always started as a heresy and that applies as much to Marxism today as it did to Christianity 2,000 years ago.

The “evolutionary adaptations” that originally enabled slavery to replace barbarism, and feudalism to replace slavery in the end turned into their opposite. And now the very features that enabled capitalism to displace feudalism and emerge as the dominant socio-economic system have become the causes of its decay. Capitalism is displaying all the symptoms we associate with a socio-economic system in a state of terminal decline. In many ways it resembles the period of the decline of the Roman Empire as described in the writings of Edward Gibbon. In the period that is now unfolding before us, the capitalist system is heading for extinction.

Socialism, utopian and scientific

By applying the method of dialectical materialism to history, it is immediately obvious that human history has its own laws, and that, consequently, it is possible to understand it as a process. The rise and fall of different socio-economic formations can be explained scientifically in terms of their ability or inability to develop the means of production, and thereby to push forward the horizons of human culture, and increase the domination of humankind over nature.

But what are the laws that govern historical change? Just as the evolution of life has inherent laws that can be explained, and were explained, first by Darwin and in more recent times by the rapid advances in the study of genetics, so the evolution of human society has its own inherent laws that were explained by Marx and Engels. In The German Ideology, which was written before the Communist Manifesto, Marx wrote:

“The first premise of all human history is, of course, the existence of living human individuals. Thus the first fact to be established is the physical organisation of these individuals and their consequent relation to the rest of nature. (…) Men can be distinguished from animals by consciousness, by religion or anything else you like. They themselves begin to distinguish themselves from animals as soon as they begin to produce their means of subsistence, a step which is conditioned by their physical organisation. By producing their means of subsistence men are indirectly producing their actual material life.”

In Socialism, Utopian and Scientific, written much later, Engels provides us with a more developed expression of these ideas. Here we have a brilliant and concise exposition of the basic principles of historical materialism:

"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 all social structure; 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, not in men's brains, not in men's better insights into eternal truth and justice, but in changes in the modes of production and exchange.”

As opposed to the utopian socialist ideas of Robert Owen, Saint-Simon and Fourier, Marxism is based upon a scientific vision of socialism. Marxism explains that the key to the development of every society is the development of the productive forces: labour power, industry, agriculture, technique and science. Each new social system – slavery, feudalism and capitalism – has served to take human society forward through its development of the productive forces.Portrait of Robert OwenPortrait of Robert Owen

The basic premise of historical materialism is that the ultimate source of human development is the development of the productive forces. This is a most important conclusion because this alone can permit us to arrive at a scientific conception of history. Marxism maintains that the development of human society over millions of years represents progress, in the sense that it increases humankind’s power over nature and thus creates the material conditions for achieving genuine freedom for men and women. However, this has never taken place in a straight line, as the Victorians (who had a vulgar and undialectical view of evolution) wrongly imagined. History has a descending line as well as an ascending one.

Once one denies a materialist point of view, the only motor force of historical events that one is left with is the role of individuals – "great men" (or women). In other words, we are left with an idealist and subjectivist view of the historical process. This was the standpoint of the utopian socialists, who, despite their brilliant insights and penetrating criticism of the existing social order, failed to understand the fundamental laws of historical development. For them, socialism was just a "good idea", something that could therefore have been thought of a thousand years ago, or tomorrow morning. Had it been invented a thousand years ago, humankind would have been spared a lot of trouble!

It is impossible to understand history by basing oneself on the subjective interpretations of its protagonists. Let us cite one example. The early Christians, who expected the end of the world and the Second Coming of Christ at every hour, did not believe in private property. In their communities they practiced a kind of communism (although their communism was of the utopian kind, based on consumption, not production). Their early experiments in communism led nowhere, and could lead nowhere, because the development of the productive forces at that time did not permit the development of real communism.

At the time of the English Revolution, Oliver Cromwell fervently believed that he was fighting for the right of each individual to pray to God according to his conscience. But the further march of history proved that the Cromwellian Revolution was the decisive stage in the irresistible ascent of the English bourgeoisie to power. The concrete stage of development of the productive forces in 17th Century England permitted no other outcome.

The leaders of the Great French Revolution of 1789-93 fought under the banner of "Liberty, Equality and Fraternity". They believed they were fighting for a regime based on the eternal laws of Justice and Reason. However, regardless of their intentions and ideas, the Jacobins were preparing the way for the rule of the bourgeoisie in France. Again, from a scientific standpoint, no other result was possible at that point of social development.

Stages of historical development

The whole of human history consists precisely in the struggle of humankind to raise itself above the animal level. This long struggle began seven million years ago, when our remote humanoid ancestors first stood upright and were able to free their hands for manual labour. Ever since then, successive phases of social development have arisen on the basis of changes in the development of the productive force of labour – that is to say, of our power over nature.

Human society has passed through a series of stages that are clearly discernible. Each stage is based on a definite mode of production, which in turn expresses itself in a definite system of class relations. These further manifest themselves in a definite social outlook, psychology, morality, laws and religion.

The relationship between the economic base of society and the superstructure (ideology, morality, laws, art, religion, philosophy, etc.) is not simple and direct but highly complex and even contradictory. The invisible threads that connect the productive forces and class relations are reflected in the minds of men and women in a confused and distorted manner. And ideas that have their origin in the primeval past can linger on in the collective psyche for a very long time, persisting stubbornly long after the real basis from which they sprang has disappeared. Religion is a clear example of this. It is a dialectical interrelation. This was clearly explained by Marx himself:

"As to the realms of ideology which soar still higher in the air, religion, philosophy etc., these have a prehistoric stock, found already in existence and taken over in the historic period, of which we should today call bunk. These various false conceptions of nature, of man's own being, of spirits, magic forces, etc., have for the most part only a negative economic basis; but the low economic development of the prehistoric period is supplemented and also partially conditioned and even caused by the false conceptions of nature. And even though economic necessity was the main driving force of the progressive knowledge of nature and becomes ever more so, it would surely be pedantic to try and find economic causes for all this primitive nonsense.
"The history of science is the history of the gradual clearing away of this nonsense or of its replacement by fresh but already less absurd nonsense. The people who deal with this belong in their turn to special spheres in the division of labour and appear to themselves to be working in an independent field. And insofar as they form an independent group within the social division of labour, in so far do their productions, including their errors, react back as an influence upon the whole development of society, even on economic development. But all the same they themselves remain under the dominating influence of economic development." (Marx and Engels, Selected Correspondence, pp. 482-3.)

And again:

"But the philosophy of every epoch, since it is a definite sphere in the division of labour, has as its presupposition certain definite intellectual material handed down to it by its predecessors, from which it takes its start. That is why economically backward countries can still play first fiddle in philosophy." ( ibid., p. 483).Homo habilisA reconstruction of Homo habilis

Ideology, tradition, morality, religion etc., all play a powerful role in shaping people’s beliefs. Marxism does not deny this self-evident fact. Contrary to what the idealists believe, human consciousness in general is very conservative. Most people do not like change, especially sudden, violent change. They will cling to the things they know and have got used to: the ideas, religions, institutions, morality, leaders and parties of the past. Routine, habit and customs all lie like a leaden weight on the shoulders of humanity. For all these reasons consciousness lags behind events.

However, at certain periods great events force men and women to question their old beliefs and assumptions. They are jolted out of the old supine, apathetic indifference and forced to come to terms with reality. In such periods consciousness can change very rapidly. That is what a revolution is. And the line of social development, which can remain fairly constant and unbroken for long periods, has been interrupted by revolutions that are the necessary motor-force of human progress.

Early human society

If we look at the entire process of human history and prehistory, the first thing that strikes us is the extraordinary slowness with which our species developed. The gradual evolution of human or humanoid creatures away from the condition of animals and towards a genuinely human condition took place over millions of years. The first decisive leap was the separation of the first humanoids from their simian ancestors.

The evolutionary process is, of course, blind – that is to say, it does not involve an objective or specific goal. However, our hominid ancestors, first by standing upright, then by using their hands to manipulate tools and finally by producing them, found a niche in a particular environment that impelled them forward.

Ten million years ago apes constituted the dominant species on the planet. They existed in a great variety – tree dwellers, ground dwellers, and a host of intermediate forms. They flourished in the prevailing climatological conditions that created a perfect tropical environment. Then all this changed. About seven or eight million years ago most of these species died out. The reason for this is not known.

For a long time the investigation of human origins was bedevilled by the idealist prejudice that stubbornly maintained that, since the main difference between humans and apes is the brain, our earliest ancestors must have been apes with a large brain. The “big brain” theory utterly dominated early anthropology. They spent many decades searching – without success – for the “missing link”, which they were convinced would be a fossil skeleton with a large brain.

So convinced were they that the scientific community were completely taken in by one of the most extraordinary frauds in scientific history. On the 18th of December 1912 fragments of a fossil skull and jawbone were said to be that of the “missing link – Piltdown Man'. This was hailed as a great discovery. But in 1953 a team of English scientists exposed Piltdown Man as a deliberate fraud. Instead of being almost a million years old, the skull fragments were found to be 500 years old, and the jaw in fact belonged to an orang-utan.

Why was the scientific community so easily fooled? Because they were presented with something they expected to find: an early humanoid skull with a large brain. As a matter of fact, it was the upright stance (bipedalism), and not the size of the brain, which freed the hands for labour, that was the decisive turning point in human evolution.

This was already anticipated by Engels in his brilliant work on human origins, Labour in the Transition of Ape to Man. The celebrated American palaeontologist Stephen Jay Gould wrote that it was a pity that scientists had not paid attention to what Engels wrote, as this would have spared them a hundred years of error. The discovery of Lucy, the fossilised skeleton of a young female who belonged to a new species called Australopithecus Afarensis, showed that Engels was right. The body structure of early hominids is like our own (the pelvis, leg bones etc.) thus proving bipedalism. But the size of the brain is not much bigger than a chimpanzee.Friedrich EngelsFriedrich Engels

Our distant ancestors were small in size and slow-moving in comparison with other animals. They did not have powerful claws and teeth. Moreover, the human baby, which is only born once a year, is completely helpless at birth.  Dolphins are born swimming, cattle and horses can walk within hours of being born and lions are able to run within 20 days of birth.

Compare this to a human baby who will require months just to be able to merely sit without support. More advanced skills like running and jumping may take years to develop in a newborn human. As a species, therefore, we were at a considerable disadvantage in comparison to our numerous competitors on the savannah of East Africa. Manual labour, together with co-operative social organisation and language, which are connected with it, was the decisive element in human evolution. The production of stone tools gave our early ancestors a vital evolutionary advantage, triggering the development of the brain.

The first period, which Marx and Engels called savagery, was characterised by an extremely low development of the means of production, the production of stone tools, and a hunter-gatherer mode of existence. Due to this the line of development remains virtually flat for a very long period. The hunter-gathering mode of production originally represented the universal condition of humankind. Those surviving remnants that, until quite recently, could be observed in certain parts of the globe provide us with important clues and insights into a long-forgotten way of life.

It is not true, for example, that human beings are naturally selfish. If this were the case, our species would have been extinct over two million years ago. It was a powerful sense of cooperation that held these groups together in the face of adversity. They cared for the small babies and their mothers and respected the old members of the clan who preserved in their memory its collective knowledge and beliefs. Our early ancestors did not know what private property was, as Anthony Burnett points out:

“The contrast between man and other species is equally clear if we compare the territorial behavior of animals with property-holding by people. Territories are maintained by formal signals, common to a whole species. Every adult or group of each species holds a territory. Man displays no such uniformity: even within a single community, vast areas may be owned by one person, while others have none. There is, even today, ownership in people. But in some countries private ownership is confined to personal property. In a few tribal groups even minor possessions are held in common. Man has, in fact, no more a ‘property-owning instinct’ than he has an ‘instinct to steal’. Granted, it is easy to rear children to be acquisitive; yet the form of the acquisitiveness, and the extent to which it is sanctioned by society, varies greatly from one country to the next, and from one historical period to another.” (Anthony Burnett, The Human Species, p. 142.)

Perhaps the word “savagery” is unfortunate nowadays because of the negative connotations it has acquired. The 17th century English philosopher Thomas Hobbes famously described the lives of our early ancestors as one of “continual fear and danger of violent death, and the life of man solitary, poor, nasty , brutish, and short.” No doubt their life was a hard one, but these words hardly do justice to our ancestors’ way of life. The Kenyan anthropologist and archaeologist Richard Leakey writes:

"Hobbes's view that non-agricultural people have 'no society' and are 'solitary' could hardly be more wrong. To be a hunter-gatherer is to experience a life that is intensely social. As for having 'no arts' and 'no letters', it is true that foraging people possess very little in the form of material culture, but this is simply a consequence of the need for mobility. When the !Kung  move from camp to camp they, like other hunter-gatherers, take all their worldly goods with them: this usually amounts to a total of 12 kilograms (26 pounds) in weight, just over half the normal baggage allowance on most airlines. This is an inescapable conflict between mobility and material culture, and so the !Kung carry their culture in their heads, not on their backs. Their songs, dances and stories form a culture as rich as that of any people." (Richard Leakey, The Making of Mankind, pp. 101-3)

He continues, “Richard Lee [anthropologist and author of The !Kung San: Men, Women, and Work in a Foraging Society, 1979] considers that the women do not feel themselves exploited: ‘They have economic prestige and political power, a situation denied to many women in the 'civilized' world’.” (Ibid. p. 103)

In these societies classes in the modern sense were unknown. There was no state or organized religion and there was a deep sense of communal responsibility and sharing. Egotism and selfishness were regarded as deeply anti-social and morally offensive. The stress on equality demands that certain rituals are observed when a successful hunter returns to camp. The object of these rituals is to play down the event so as to discourage arrogance and conceit: “The correct demeanour for the successful hunter”, explains Richard Lee, “is modesty and understatement.”kung instrumentThe !Kung people


"The !Kung  have no chiefs and no leaders. Problems in their society are mostly solved long before they mature into anything that threatens social harmony. (…) People's conversations are common property, and disputes are readily defused through communal bantering. No one gives orders or takes them. Richard Lee once asked /Twi!gum whether the !Kung  have headmen. 'Of course we have headmen, he replied, much to Richard Lee's surprise. In fact, we are all headmen; each one of us is a headman over himself!' /Twi!gum considered the question and his witty answer to be a great joke.” (ibid. p.107)

The basic principle that guides every aspect of life is sharing. Among the !Kung  when an animal is killed, an elaborate process of sharing the raw meat begins along lines of kinship, alliances and obligations. Richard Lee emphasises the point strongly:

“Sharing deeply pervades the behaviour and values of !Kung foragers, within the family and between families, and it is extended to the boundaries of the social universe. Just as the principle of profit and rationality is central to the capitalist ethic, so is sharing central to the conduct of social life in foraging societies.” (Ibid.)

Boastfulness was frowned upon and modesty encouraged, as the following extract shows:

“A !Kung  man describes it this way: 'Say that a man has been hunting. He must not come home and announce like a braggart, 'I have killed a big one in the bush!' He must first sit down in silence until someone else comes up to his fire and asks, 'What did you see today?' He replies quietly, 'Ah, I'm no good for hunting. I saw nothing at all... Maybe just a tiny one.' Then I smile to myself because I now know he has killed something big. 'the bigger the kill, the more it is played down. (…) The jesting and understatement is strictly followed, again not just by the !Kung  but by many foraging people, and the result is that although some men are undoubtedly more proficient hunters than others, no one accrues an unusual prestige or status because of his talents." (Leakey, pp. 106-7.)

This ethic is not confined to the !Kung; it is a feature of hunter-gatherers in general. Such behaviour, however, is not automatic; like most of human behaviour, it has to be taught from childhood. Every human infant is born with the capacity to share and the capacity to be selfish, Richard Lee says. “That which is nurtured and developed is that which each individual society regards as most valuable.” In that sense the ethical values of these early societies are vastly superior to those of capitalism, which teach people to be greedy, selfish and antisocial.

Of course, it is impossible to say with certainty that this is an exact picture of early human society. But similar conditions tend to produce similar results, and the same tendencies can be observed in many different cultures on the same level of economic development. As Richard Lee says:

“We mustn't imagine that this is the exact way in which our ancestors lived. But I believe that what we see in the !Kung  and other foraging people are patterns of behaviour that were crucial to early human development.' Of the several types of hominid that were living two to three million years ago, one of them – the line that eventually led to us – broadened its economic base by sharing food and including more meat in its diet. The development of a hunting and gathering economy was a potent force in what made us human." (Quoted in Leakey,  pp. 108-9.)

In comparing the values of hunter-gatherer societies with those of our own times, we do not always get the better of it. For example, just compare the contemporary family, with its ghastly record of wife and child abuse, orphans and prostitutes, with the communal child-rearing practiced by humanity during most of its history; that is, before the advent of that strange social arrangement that men are fond of calling civilization:

"'You white people,' an American Indian said to a missionary, 'love your own children only. We love the children of the clan. They belong to all the people, and we care for them. They are bone of our bone, and flesh of our flesh. We are all father and mother to them. White people are savages; they do not love their children. If children are orphaned, people have to be paid to look after them. We know nothing of such barbarous ideas.'" (M. F. Ashley Montagu, ed., Marriage: Past and Present: A Debate Between Robert Briffault and Bronislaw Malinowski, Boston: Porter Sargent Publisher, 1956, p. 48.)

However, we must not have an idealised view of the past. Life for our early ancestors remained a hard struggle, a constant battle against the forces of nature for survival. The pace of progress was extremely slow. Early humans began making stone tools at least 2.6 million years ago. The oldest stone tools, known as the Oldowan continued for about a million years until about 1.76 million years ago, when early humans began to strike really large flakes and then continue to shape them by striking smaller flakes from around the edges, resulting in a new kind of tool: the hand axe. These and other kinds of large cutting tools characterize the Acheulean culture. These basic tools, including a variety of new forms of stone core, continued to be made for an immense period of time – ending in different places by around 400,000 to 250,000 years ago.

The Neolithic Revolution

The whole of human history consists precisely in the struggle of humankind to raise itself above the animal level. This long struggle began seven million years ago, when our remote humanoid ancestors first stood upright and were able to free their hands for manual labour. The production of the first stone scrapers and hand axes was the beginning of a process whereby men and women made themselves human through labour. Ever since then, successive phases of social development have arisen on the basis of changes in the development of the productive force of labour – that is to say, of our power over nature.

For most of human history, this process has been painfully slow, as The Economist remarked on the eve of the new millennium:

"For nearly all of human history, economic advance has been so slow as to be imperceptible within the span of a lifetime. For century after century, the annual rate of economic growth was, to one place of decimals, zero. When growth did happen it was so slow as to be invisible to contemporaries – and even in retrospect it appears not as rising living standards (which is what growth means today), merely as a gentle rise in population. Down the millennia, progress, for all but a tiny elite, amounted to this: it slowly became possible for more people to live, at the meanest level of subsistence." ( The Economist, December 31, 1999)

Human progress begins to accelerate as a result of the first and most important of these great revolutions which was the transition from the primitive hunter-gatherer mode of production to agriculture. This laid the basis for a settled existence and the rise of the first towns. This was the period Marxists refer to as barbarism, that is, the stage between primitive communism and early class society, when classes begin to form and with them the state.

The prolonged period of primitive communism, humankind's earliest phase of development, where classes, private property, and the state did not exist, gave way to class society as soon as people were able to produce a surplus above the needs of everyday survival. At this point, the division of society into classes became an economic feasibility. Barbarism arises out of the decay of the old commune. Here for the first time society is divided by property relations, and classes and the state are in the process of formation, although these things only emerge gradually, passing from an embryonic stage and eventually consolidating as class society. This period begins approximately 10,000 or 12,000 years ago.

On the broad scales of history, the emergence of class society was a revolutionary phenomenon, in that it freed a privileged section of the population – a ruling class – from the direct burden of labour, permitting it the necessary time to develop art, science and culture. Class society, despite its ruthless exploitation and inequality, was the road that humankind needed to travel if it was to build up the necessary material prerequisites for a future classless society.

Here is the embryo out of which grew the towns and cities (such as Jericho, which dates from about 7,000 BC), writing, industry and everything else that laid the basis for which we call civilization. The period of barbarism represents a very large slice of human history, and is divided into several more or less distinct periods. In general, it is characterised by the transition from the hunter-gathering mode of production to pastoralism and agriculture, that is, from Palaeolithic savagery, passing through Neolithic barbarism to the higher barbarism of the Bronze Age, which stands at the threshold of civilization.

This decisive turning point, which Gordon Childe called the Neolithic revolution, represented a great leap forward in the development of human productive capacity, and therefore of culture. This is what Childe has to say: "Our debt to preliterate barbarism is heavy. Every single cultivated food plant of any importance has been discovered by some nameless barbarian society." (G. Childe, What Happened in History, p. 64)

Farming began in the Middle East around 10,000 years ago, and represents a revolution in human society and culture. The new conditions of production gave men and women more time – time for complex analytical thought. This is reflected in the new art consisting of geometrical patterns – the first example of abstract art in history. The new conditions produced a new outlook on life, social relations and the relations that bind men and women to the natural world and the universe, whose secrets were probed in a way previously undreamt of. The understanding of nature is made necessary by the demands of agriculture, and advances slowly to the degree that men and women actually learn to conquer and subdue the hostile forces of nature in practice – through collective labour on a grand scale.Vere Gordon ChildeV. Gordon Childe

The cultural and religious revolution reflects the great social revolution – the greatest in all human history till now – that brought about the dissolution of the primitive commune and established private property of the means of production. And the means of production are the means of life itself.

In agriculture, the introduction of iron tools marks a big advance. It permits a growth in population and bigger and stronger communities. Above all, it creates a bigger surplus that can be appropriated by the leading families in the community. In particular, the introduction of iron marked a qualitative change in the process of production, since iron is far more effective than copper or bronze, both for the making of tools and weapons. It was far more available than the old metals. Here for the first time weapons and warfare become democratic. The most important weapon of the times was the iron sword, which first puts in an appearance in England about 5000 BC. Every man can have an iron sword. Warfare thus loses its aristocratic chiefly character and becomes a mass affair.

The employment of iron axes and sickles transformed agriculture. The transformation is shown by the fact that one acre of cultivated land can now maintain twice as many people as before. However, there is still no money, and this remained a barter economy. The surplus produced was not reinvested, as there was no way this could be done. Part of the surplus was appropriated by the chief and his family. Part of it was used up in feasting, which occupied a central role in this society.

In a single feast as many as 2-300 people could be fed. In the remains of one such feast the bones of 12 cows and a large number of sheep, pigs and dogs were discovered. These gatherings were not only the occasion for excesses of food and drink – they played an important social and religious role. In such ceremonies people gave thanks to the gods for the surplus of food. They permitted the mingling of the clans and the settling of communal affairs. Such lavish feasts also provided the chiefs the means by which to display their wealth and power and thus boost the prestige of the tribe or clan concerned.

Out of such meeting places gradually there arose the basis of permanent settlements, markets and small towns. The importance of private property and wealth increases along with the increased productivity of labour and the growing surplus that presents a tempting target for raids. Since the Iron Age was a period of continuous wars, feuds and raids, the settlements were often fortified with huge earthworks, such as Maiden castle in Dorset and Danebury in Hampshire.

The result of warfare was a large number of prisoners of war, many of whom were sold as slaves, and these – in the latter period – were traded as merchandise with the Romans. The geographer Strabo comments that “These people will give you a slave for an amphora of wine.” Exchange thus began on the periphery of these societies. Through exchange with a more advanced culture (Rome), money was gradually introduced, the earliest coins being based on Roman models.

The dominion of private property means for the first time the concentration of wealth and power into the hands of a minority. It brings about a dramatic change in the relations between men and women and their offspring. The question of inheritance now begins to assume a burning importance. As a result we see the rise of spectacular tombs. In Britain, such tombs begin to appear about 3,000 BC. They signify a statement of power of the ruling class or caste. They also provide an assertion of proprietary rights over a definite territory. The same thing can be seen in other early cultures, for example, the plains Indians of North America, for which detailed accounts exist in the 18 th centuries.

Here we have the first great instance of alienation. Man’s essence is alienated from him in a double or triple sense. First, private property signifies the alienation of his product, which is appropriated by another. Second, his control over his life and destiny is appropriated by the state in the person of the king or pharaoh. Last, but not least, this alienation is carried over from this life to the next – the inner being (“soul”) of all men and women is appropriated by the deities of the next world, whose good will must be continually obtained through prayers and sacrifices. And just as the services to the monarch form the basis of the wealth of the upper class of mandarins and nobles, so the sacrifices to the gods form the basis of the wealth and power of the priest caste that stands between the people and the gods and goddesses. Here we have the genesis of organised religion.

With the growth in production and the productivity gains made possible by the new economies of labour, there were new changes in religious beliefs and customs. Here too, social being determines consciousness. In place of ancestor worship and stone tombs for individuals and their families, we now see a far more ambitious expression of belief. The building of stone circles of staggering proportions attest to an impressive growth in population and production, made possible by the organised use of collective labour on a grand scale. The roots of civilization are therefore to be found precisely in barbarism, and still more so, in slavery. The development of barbarism ends up in slavery or else in what Marx called the “Asiatic mode of production.

Asiatic mode of production

The really explosive growth of civilization occurs with Egypt, Mesopotamia, the Indus Valley, China and Persia. In other words, the development of class society coincides with a massive upturn in the productive forces, and as a result, of human culture, which reached unprecedented heights. It is now believed that the emergence of the city, as well as the agriculture that preceded it occurred roughly simultaneously in different locations – Mesopotamia, the Indus Valley and the Huang Ho Valley, as well as Egypt. This occurred in the fourth millennium BC. In Southern Mesopotamia the Sumerians built Ur, Lagash, Eridu and other city states. They were a literate people who left behind thousands of clay tablets written in cuneiform script.

The main features of the Asiatic mode of production are:

1) An urban society with an agrarian base.
2) A primarily agricultural economy.
3) Public works which are frequently (but not always) identified with the need for irrigation and the upkeep and spread of intensive canal and drainage systems.
4) A despotic system of government, often with a god-king at the top.
5) A large bureaucracy.
6) A system of exploitation based on taxation.
7) Common (state) ownership of the land.

Although slavery existed (prisoners of war), these were not actually slave societies. Labour service was not free, but those who performed it were not slaves. There is an element of coercion, but the main thing is habit, tradition and religion. The community serves the god-king (or queen). It serves the temple (cf Israel). This is associated with the state, and is the state.

The origins of the state are here mixed up with religion, and this religious aura is maintained to the present. People are taught to look up to the state with feelings of awe and reverence, as a force standing above society, above ordinary men and women, who must serve it blindly.templeMillenium Old Temple

The village commune, the basic cell of these societies, is almost entirely self-sufficient. The few luxuries accessible to a population of subsistence farmers are obtained from the bazaar or from travelling peddlers who live on the margins of society. Money is scarcely known. Taxes to the state are paid in kind. There is no connection between one village and another and internal trade is weak. The real cohesion comes from the state.

There was an almost total lack of social mobility, reinforced in some cases by the caste system. The emphasis is on the group rather than the individual. Endogamous marriage prevails – that is, people tend to marry strictly within their class or caste.  Economically, they tend to follow the professions of their parents. In the Hindu caste system this is, in fact, obligatory. This lack of mobility and social rigidity helps to tie the people to the land (the village commune).

As examples of this kind of society we have the Egyptians, Babylonians and Assyrians, the Shang or Yin dynasty (traditionally dating from about 1766 to 1122 BC) was the first Chinese dynasty of which there is a record and the Indus Valley (Harappa) civilization that lasted from about 2300 to around 1700 BC in India. In an entirely separate development, the pre-Hispanic civilizations of Mexico and Peru, though with certain variations, display strikingly similar features.

The tax system, and other methods of exploitation such as obligatory labour service for the state (Corvée) is oppressive but accepted as inevitable and the natural order of things, sanctioned by tradition and religion. Corvée is unfree labour, often unpaid, that is imposed on the people, either by an aristocratic landowner, as in feudalism, or, as in this case, by the state. But whereas the corvée system is similar to that which is found in western feudalism, the system of land ownership is not at all the same. In fact, the British rulers of India had the greatest difficulty making sense of it.

Where towns and cities spring up it is usually along trade routes, on the banks of rivers, in oases or other main sources of water. The towns are the administrative and commercial centres for the villages. Here are traders and artisans: ironworkers, carpenters, weavers, dyers, shoemakers, masons, etc. Here also are the local representatives of the state power, the only ones with which the mass of the population are familiar: low grade civil servants, scribes and police or soldiers.

There are also moneylenders, charging usurious rates to the peasants who are fleeced in turn by the tax-collector, the merchant and the village usurer. Many of these ancient elements have survived until modern times in some countries of the Middle East and Asia. But the advent of colonialism destroyed the ancient Asiatic mode of production once and for all. It was, in any case, an historical dead-end from which no further development was possible.

In these societies the mental horizons of people are extremely limited. The most powerful force in peoples’ lives is the family or the clan, which educates them and teaches them about their history, religion and traditions. About politics and the world at large they know little or nothing. Their only contact with the state is the village headman who is responsible for collecting taxes.

What strikes one about these early civilizations is on the one hand their longevity, on the other, the extremely slow development of the productive forces and the extremely conservative nature of their outlook. This was an essentially static model of society. The only changes were the result of periodic invasions, e.g. by the nomadic barbarians of the steppes (the Mongols etc.), or occasional peasant revolts (China) that led to a change of dynasty.

However, the substitution of one dynasty for another does not signify any real change. The social relations and the state remain untouched by all the changes at the top. The end result was always the same. The invaders were absorbed and the system continued, undisturbed as before.

Empires rose and fell. There was a continuous process of fusion and fission. But through all these political and military changes, nothing fundamental changed for the peasantry at the bottom. Life continued its seemingly eternal (and divinely ordained) routine. The Asiatic idea of a never-ending cycle in religion is a reflection of this state of affairs. At the bottom we had the ancient village commune, based on subsistence agriculture that had survived virtually unchanged for millennia. Being predominantly agricultural, the rhythm of their lives is dominated by the eternal cycle of the seasons, the annual flooding of the Nile etc.

In recent years there has been a lot of noise in certain intellectual and quasi-Marxist circles about the Asiatic mode of production. But although Marx mentioned it, he did so only rarely and usually as an aside. He never developed it, which he certainly would have done if he had considered it important. The reason he did not do so was because it was an historical dead end, comparable to the Neanderthals in human evolution. It was a form of society, which, despite its achievements, ultimately did not contain within itself the seeds of future development. These were planted elsewhere: on the soil of Greece and Rome.  


Greek society was formed under different conditions to those of the earlier civilizations. The small city states of Greece lacked the vast expanses of cultivable land, the great plains of the Nile or Indus Valley and Mesopotamia. Hemmed in by barren mountain ranges, they faced to the sea, and this fact determined their whole course of development. Ill-suited both to agriculture or industry, they were pushed in the direction of the sea, becoming a trading nation and an intermediary, as the Phoenicians had done earlier.

Ancient Greece has a different socio-economic structure, and consequently a different spirit and a different outlook to the earlier societies of Egypt and Mesopotamia. Hegel says that in the East, the ruling spirit was freedom for the One (i.e. for the ruler, the god-king). But in Greece it was freedom for the many, that is to say, freedom for the citizens of Athens who did not happen to be slaves. But the slaves who did most of the work had no rights at all. Neither did women or foreigners.

For the free citizens, Athens was a most advanced democracy. This new spirit, infused with humanity and individualism, affected Greek art, religion and philosophy, which are qualitatively different to that of Egypt and Mesopotamia. When Athens was mistress of all Greece, she had neither a treasury nor a regular system of taxation. This was completely different to the Asiatic system in Persia and other earlier civilizations. But all this was based ultimately on the labour of the slaves, who were private property.

The main division was between free men and slaves. The free citizens did not usually pay taxes, which were regarded as degrading (as was manual labour). However, there was also a bitter class struggle in Greek society, characterized by a sharp division between the classes, based on property. The slaves, as chattel that could be bought and sold, were objects of production. The Roman word for a slave was instrumentum vocale, a tool with a voice. That puts it very clearly, and despite all the changes of the last 2,000 years the real position of the modern wage slave has not fundamentally changed since then.

It may be objected, Greece and Rome stood on the basis of slavery, which is an abhorrent and inhuman institution. But Marxists cannot look at history from the point of view of morality. Apart from anything else, there is no such thing as a supra-historical morality. Every society has its own morality, religion, culture, etc. which correspond to a given level of development, and, at least in the period we call civilization, also to the interests of a particular class.

Whether a particular war was good, bad or indifferent cannot be ascertained from the point of view of the number of victims, and much less from an abstract moral standpoint. We may strongly disapprove of wars in general, but one thing cannot be denied: throughout the whole course of human history, all serious questions have ultimately been settled in this way. That goes both for the conflicts between nations (wars) and also the conflicts between classes (revolutions).

Our attitude towards a particular type of society and its culture cannot be determined by moralistic considerations. What determines whether a given socio-economic formation is historically progressive or not is first and foremost its ability to develop the productive forces – the real material basis upon which all human culture arises and develops.

Hegel, that wonderfully profound thinker, writes: "It was not so much from slavery as through slavery that humanity was emancipated." (Lectures on the Philosophy of History, p. 407). Despite its monstrously oppressive character, slavery marked a step forward inasmuch as it permitted a further development of the productive power of society. We owe all the wonderful achievements of modern science to Greece and Rome – that is, to say, ultimately, to the labour of the slaves.

The Romans utilised brute force to subjugate other peoples, sold entire cities into slavery, slaughtered thousands of prisoners of war for amusement in the public circus, and introduced such refined methods of execution as crucifixion. Yes, all that is perfectly true. To us it seems a monstrous aberration. And yet, when we come to consider where all our modern civilization, our culture, our literature, our architecture, our medicine, our science, our philosophy, even in many cases our language, comes from, the answer is – from Greece and Rome.

Decline of slave society

Slavery contains an inner contradiction that led to its destruction. Although the labour of the individual slave was not very productive (slaves must be compelled to work), the aggregate of large numbers of slaves, as in the mines and latifundia (large scale agricultural units) in Rome in the last period of the Republic and the Empire, produced a considerable surplus. At the height of the Empire, slaves were plentiful and cheap and the wars of Rome were basically slave hunts on a massive scale.

But at a certain stage this system reached its limits and then entered into a lengthy period of decline. Since slave labour is only productive when it is employed on a massive scale, the prior condition for its success is an ample supply of slaves at a low cost. But slaves breed very slowly in captivity and so the only way a sufficient supply of slaves can be guaranteed is through continuous warfare. Once the Empire had reached the limits of its expansion under Hadrian, this became increasingly difficult.

The beginnings of a crisis in Rome can already be observed in the latter period of the Republic, a period characterised by acute social and political upheavals and class war. From the earliest beginnings there was a violent struggle between rich and poor in Rome. There are detailed accounts in the writings of Livy and others of the struggles between Plebeians and Patricians, which ended in an uneasy compromise. At a later period, when Rome had already made herself mistress of the Mediterranean by the defeat of her most powerful rival Carthage, we saw what was really a struggle for the division of the spoils.

Tiberius Gracchus demanded that the wealth of Rome be divided up among its free citizens. His aim was to make Italy a republic of small farmers and not slaves, but he was defeated by the nobles and slave-holders. This was a disaster for Rome in the long run. The ruined peasantry – the backbone of the Republic and its army – drifted to Rome where they constituted a lumpen-proletariat, a non-productive class, living off dole from the state. Although resentful of the rich, they nevertheless shared a common interest in the exploitation of the slaves – the only really productive class in the period of the Republic and the Empire.

The great slave rising under Spartacus was a glorious episode in the history of antiquity. The spectacle of these most downtrodden people rising up with arms in hand and inflicting defeat after defeat on the armies of the world's greatest power is one of the most incredible events in history. Had they succeeded in overthrowing the Roman state, the course of history would have been significantly altered.

The basic reason why Spartacus failed in the end was the fact that the slaves did not link up with the proletariat in the towns. So long as the latter continued to support the state, the victory of the slaves was impossible. However, the Roman proletariat, unlike the modern proletariat, was not a productive class but purely a parasitical one, living off the labour of the slaves and dependent on their masters. The failure of the Roman revolution is rooted in this fact.

The defeat of the slaves led straight to the ruin of the Roman state. In the absence of a free peasantry, the state was obliged to rely on a mercenary army to fight its wars. The deadlock in the class struggle produced a situation similar to the more modern phenomenon of Bonapartism. The Roman equivalent is what we call Caesarism.

The Roman legionnaire was no longer loyal to the Republic but to his commander – the man who guaranteed his pay, his loot and a plot of land when he retired. The last period of the Republic is characterised by an intensification of the struggle between the classes, in which neither side is able to win a decisive victory. As a result, the state (which Lenin described as "armed bodies of men") began to acquire increasing independence, to raise itself above society and to appear as the final arbiter in the continuing power struggles in Rome.

A whole series of military adventurers appear: Marius, Crassus, Pompey, and lastly Julius Caesar, a general of brilliance, a clever politician and a shrewd businessman, who in effect put an end to the Republic whilst paying lip-service to it. His prestige boosted by his military triumphs in Gaul, Spain and Britain, he began to concentrate all power in his hands. Although he was assassinated by a conservative faction who wished to preserve the Republic, the old regime was doomed.

After Brutus and the others were defeated by the triumvirate, the Republic was formally recognised, and this pretence was kept up by the first Emperor, Augustus. The very title "Emperor" (imperator in Latin) is a military title, invented to avoid the title of king that was so offensive to republican ears. But a king he was, in all but name.

The forms of the old Republic survived for a long time after that. But they were just that – hollow forms with no real content, an empty husk that in the end could be blown away by the wind. The Senate was devoid of all real power and authority. Julius Caesar had shocked respectable public opinion by making a Gaul a member of the senate. Caligula considerably improved upon this by making his horse a senator. Nobody saw anything wrong with this, or if they did they kept their mouths firmly shut.

It often happens in history that outworn institutions can survive long after their reason to exist has disappeared. They drag out a miserable existence like a decrepit old man who clings onto life, until they are swept away by a revolution. The decline of the Roman Empire lasted for nearly four centuries. This was not an uninterrupted process. There were periods of recovery and even brilliance, but the general line was downwards.

In periods like this, there is a general sense of malaise. The predominant mood is one of scepticism, lack of faith and pessimism in the future. The old traditions, morality and religion – things that act as a powerful cement holding society together – lose their credibility. In place of the old religion, people seek out new gods. In its period of decline, Rome was inundated with a plague of religious sects from the east. Christianity was only one of these, and although ultimately successful, had to contend with numerous rivals, such as the cult of Mithras.

When people feel that the world in which they live is tottering, that they have lost all control over their existence and that their lives and destinies are determined by unseen forces, then mystical and irrational tendencies get the upper hand. People believe that the end of the world is nigh. The early Christians believed this fervently, but many others suspected it. In point of fact what was coming to an end was not the world but only a particular form of society – slave society. The success of Christianity was rooted in the fact that it connected with this general mood. The world was evil and sinful. It was necessary to turn one's back on the world and all its works and look forward to another life after death.

Why the barbarians triumphed

By the time the barbarians invaded, the whole structure of the Roman Empire was on the verge of collapse, not only economically, but morally and spiritually. No wonder the barbarians were welcomed as liberators by the slaves and poorer sections of society. They merely completed a job that had been well prepared in advance. The barbarian attacks were a historical accident that served to express a historical necessity.

Once the Empire reached its limits and the contradictions inherent in slavery began to assert themselves, Rome entered into a long period of decline that lasted for centuries, until it was eventually overrun by the barbarians. The mass migrations that brought about the collapse of the Empire were a common phenomenon among nomadic pastoral peoples in antiquity and occurred for a variety of reasons – pressure on pasture land as a result of population growth, climate changes, etc.

Successive waves of barbarians swept out of the east: Goths, Visigoths, Ostrogoths, Alans, Lombards, Suevi, Alemanni, Burgundians, Franks, Thuringians, Frisians, Heruli, Gepidae, Angles, Saxons, Jutes, Huns and Magyars, pushed their way into Europe. The all-powerful and eternal Empire was reduced to ashes. With remarkable swiftness the Empire collapsed under the hammer blows of the barbarians.

The decay of the slave economy, the monstrously oppressive nature of the Empire with its bloated bureaucracy and predatory tax farmers, was already undermining the whole system. There was a steady drift to the countryside where the basis was already being laid for the development of a different mode of production – feudalism. The barbarians merely delivered the coup de grâce to a rotten and moribund system. The whole edifice was tottering, and they merely gave it a last and violent push.

In the Communist Manifesto Marx and Engels wrote: “Freeman and slave, patrician and plebeian, lord and serf, guild-master and journeyman, in a word, oppressor and oppressed, stood in constant opposition to one another, carried on an uninterrupted, now hidden, now open fight, a fight that each time ended, either in a revolutionary reconstitution of society at large, or in the common ruin of the contending classes.” (My emphasis, AW)

What happened to the Roman Empire is a striking illustration of the last-named variant. The failure of the oppressed classes of Roman society to unite to overthrow the brutally exploitative slave-state led to an inner exhaustion and a long and painful period of social, economic and cultural decay, which prepared the way for the barbarians.

The immediate effect of the barbarian onslaught was to wipe out civilization and throw society and human thought back for a thousand years. The productive forces suffered a violent interruption. The cities were destroyed or abandoned. The invaders were an agricultural people and knew nothing of towns and cities. The barbarians in general were hostile to the towns and their inhabitants (a psychology that is quite common among peasants in all periods). This process of devastation, rape and pillage was to continue for centuries, leaving behind a terrible heritage of backwardness, which we call the Dark Ages.

Yet although the barbarians succeeded in conquering the Romans, they themselves were fairly quickly absorbed, and even lost their own language and ended up speaking a dialect of Latin. Thus, the Franks, who gave their name to modern France, were a Germanic tribe speaking a language related to modern German. The same thing happened to the Germanic tribes that invaded Spain and Italy. This is what normally happens when a more economically and culturally backward people conquers a more advanced nation. Exactly the same thing happened later to the Mongol hoards that conquered India. They were absorbed by the more advanced Hindu culture and ended up founding a new Indian dynasty – the Moguls.


The rise of the feudal system following the collapse of Rome was accompanied by a long period of cultural stagnation in all of Europe north of the Pyrenees. With the exception of two inventions: the water wheel and windmills, there were no real inventions for about over a thousand years. One thousand years after the fall of Rome the only decent roads in Europe were Roman roads. In other words, there was a complete eclipse of culture. This was a result of the collapse of the productive forces, upon which culture ultimately depends. That is what we mean by a descending line in history. And let nobody imagine that such a thing cannot recur.

The barbarian invasions, wars and plagues meant that progress was punctuated with periods of retrogression. But eventually the chaotic conditions that coincided with the fall of Rome were replaced by a new equilibrium: feudalism. The decline of the Roman Empire caused a sharp falling off of urban life throughout most of Europe. The barbarian invaders were gradually absorbed and by the tenth century Europe entered slowly into a new period of ascent.

Of course, this statement is relative in character. Culture did not regain comparable levels to those of antiquity until the beginning of the renaissance in the late 14th and 15th centuries. Learning and science were strictly subordinated to the authority of the Church. Men’s energies were absorbed either in constant warfare or monastic dreams, but gradually the downward spiral came to an end and was replaced by a long upward slope.

The closing of avenues of communication led to a collapse of trade. The money economy was undermined and increasingly replaced by barter. In place of the integrated international economy of the slave system under the Empire, we had the proliferation of small isolated agricultural communities.

The basis of feudalism was already laid in Roman society, when the slaves were freed and turned into colons, tied to the land, who later became serfs. This process, which occurred at different times, assuming different forms in different countries, was accelerated by the barbarian conquests. The Germanic warlords became the lords of the conquered lands and their inhabitants, offering military protection and a degree of security in exchange for expropriation of the labour of the serfs.

In the early period of feudalism the atomization of the nobility allowed relatively strong monarchies but later the royal power found itself confronted with strong estates capable of challenging it and overthrowing it. The barons had their own feudal armies which they frequently led into the field against each other and also against the king.

The feudal system in Europe was mainly a decentralized system. The power of the monarchy was limited by the aristocracy. The central power was usually weak. The centre of gravity of the feudal lord, his power base, was his manor and estate. The state power was weak and the bureaucracy non-existent. This weakness of the centre was what later permitted the independence of the towns (royal charters) and the emergence of the bourgeoisie as a separate class.

The romantic idealisation of the Middle Ages is based on a myth. This was a bloody and convulsive period, characterised by great cruelty and barbarism and what Marx and Engels called a brutal display of energy. The Crusades were characterised by unusual viciousness and inhumanity. The German invasions of Italy were exercises in futility.

The last period of the Middle Ages was a troubled time, characterised by continuous convulsions, wars and civil wars – just like our own times. To all intents and purposes the old order was already dead. Although it still remained defiantly on its feet, its existence was no longer regarded as something normal – something that had to be accepted as inevitable.

For a hundred years England and France were engaged in a bloody war that reduced large parts of France to ruin. The battle of Agincourt was the last and bloodiest battle of the Middle Ages. Here, in essence, two rival systems were pitted against each other on the battlefield: the old feudal military order, based on the nobility and the idea of chivalry and service, clashed with a new mercenary army based on wage labour.crusaders

The French nobility was decimated, defeated shamefully by an army of mercenary commoners. In the first 90 minutes 8,000 of the flower of the French aristocracy was butchered and 1,200 taken prisoner. At the end of the day not only the whole of the French nobility lay dead and bleeding on the battlefield, but the feudal order itself.

This had important social and political consequences. From this moment, the French nobility’s grip on power began to weaken. When the English were driven from France it was by an uprising of the people led by a peasant girl, Joan of Arc. Amidst the wreckage of their lives, the chaos and bloodshed, the French people became conscious of their national identity and acted accordingly. The bourgeois began to demand their rights and charters and a new central monarchical power, leaning on the bourgeoisie and the people, began to seize the reins of power, forging a national state out of which modern France finally emerged.joan of arcJoan of Arc

The Black Death

When a given socio-economic system enters into crisis and decline, this is reflected not only in stagnation of the productive forces, but at every level. The decline of feudalism was an epoch when intellectual life was dead or dying. The dead hand of the Church paralysed all cultural and scientific initiatives.

The feudal structure was based on a pyramid in which God and the King stood at the top of a complex hierarchy, each segment of which was linked to the others by so-called duties. In theory, the feudal lords “protected” the peasants, who in return put food on their table and clothes on their backs, fed and enabled them to live a life of luxury and idleness; the priests prayed for their soul, the knights defended them and so on.

This system lasted a very long time. In Europe it lasted approximately one thousand years: from about the middle of the fifth to the middle of the fifteenth centuries. But by the 13th century feudalism in England and other countries was already reaching its limits. The growth in population put the whole system under colossal strain. Marginal lands had to be brought under cultivation, and much of the population merely eked out a bare living at the level of subsistence on small plots of land.

It was an “edge-of-chaos” situation, where the whole unsound edifice could be brought crashing down by a sufficiently powerful external shock. And what shock could be more powerful than this? The ravages of the Black Death, which killed off between one third and half the population of Europe, served to throw into sharp relief the injustice and misery, ignorance and intellectual and spiritual darkness of the fourteenth century.

It is now generally accepted that the Black Death played an important role in undermining feudalism. This was particularly clear in the case of England. Having already killed half the population of Europe, the plague spread to England in the summer of 1348. As the plague spread inland to the villages of rural England, the population was decimated. Whole families, sometimes, whole villages, were wiped out. As on the European mainland, about half the population perished. However, those who managed to survive frequently found themselves in possession of quite large amounts of land. A new class of rich peasants was being created.

The colossal loss of life led to an extreme shortage of labour. There were simply not enough labourers to gather in the harvest or artisans to perform all the other necessary functions. This laid the basis for a profound social transformation. Feeling their strength, the peasants demanded, and got, higher wages and lower rents. If the lord refused to meet their demands, they could always leave and go to another master who was willing to do so. Some villages were abandoned altogether.

The old bonds were first loosened and then broken. As the peasants threw off the yoke of feudal obligations, many flocked to the towns to seek their fortune. This, in turn, led to a further development of the towns and therefore furthered the rise of the bourgeoisie. In 1349 King Edward III passed what was possibly the first wages policy in history: the Statute of Labourers. This decreed that wages must be held at the old levels. But the law was a dead letter from the start. The laws of supply and demand were already stronger than any royal decree.

Everywhere there was a new spirit of rebelliousness. The old authority was already undermined and discredited. The whole rotten edifice was tottering for a fall. One good push, it seemed, would finish it. In France there were a whole series of peasant uprisings known as jacqueries. Even more serious was the Peasants Rising in England (1381), when the rebels occupied London and for a time had the king in their power. But ultimately these risings could not succeed.

These uprisings were just premature anticipations of the bourgeois revolution at a time when the conditions for this had not completely matured. They expressed the dead end of feudalism and the deep discontent of the masses. But they could not show a way out. As a result the feudal system, although substantially modified, survived for a period, manifesting all the symptoms of a diseased and declining social order. The last period of the Middle Ages was a troubled time, characterised by continuous convulsions, wars and civil wars – just like our own times.

The feeling that the end of the world is nigh is common to every historical period when a particular socio-economic system had entered into irreversible decline. This was the period when large numbers of men took to the roads, barefoot and dressed in penitential rags, flogging themselves till they bled. The flagellant sects awaited the end of the world, which they anxiously expected from one hour to the next.

In the end, what occurred was not the end of the world but only the end of feudalism, and what arrived was not the new Millennium but only the capitalist system. But they could not be expected to understand this. One thing was clear to all. The old world was in a state of rapid and irremediable decay. Men and women were torn by contradictory tendencies. Their beliefs were shattered and they were cut adrift in a cold, inhuman, hostile and incomprehensible world.

The rise of the bourgeoisie

When all the old certainties were overthrown. It was as if the lynchpin of the world had been removed. The result was terrifying turbulence and uncertainty. By the middle of the 15th century, the old system of beliefs began to unravel. People no longer looked to the Church to provide salvation, comfort and solace. Instead religious dissention arose in many different forms, and served as a guise for social and political opposition.

Peasants were defying the old laws and restrictions, demanding freedom of movement and asserting it by migrating to the towns without a license. Contemporary chronicles express the irritation of the lords at the unwillingness of the labourers to take orders. There were even some strikes.

Amidst all this darkness new forces were stirring, announcing the birth of a new power and a new civilization that was gradually growing up inside the womb of the old society. The rise of trade and the towns brought with it a new aspiring class, the bourgeoisie, which began to jostle for position and power with the feudal ruling classes, the nobility and the Church. The birth of a new society was announced in art and literature, where new trends began to emerge in the course of the next hundred years.

To all intents and purposes the old order was already dead. Although it still remained defiantly on its feet, its existence was no longer regarded as something normal – something that had to be accepted as inevitable. The general perception (or rather feeling) that the end of the world was approaching was not entirely wrong. Only it was not the end of the world but the end of the feudal system.

The rise of the towns, those islands of capitalism in a sea of feudalism, was gradually undermining the old order. The new money economy, appearing at the margins of society, was gnawing at the foundations of feudal economy. The old feudal restrictions were now unbearable impositions, intolerable barriers to progress. They had to be shattered, and they were shattered. But the victory of the bourgeoisie did not come all at once. A long period was required for it to gain a final victory over the old order. Only gradually did a new spark of life reappear in the towns.

The slow recovery of trade led to the rise of the bourgeoisie and a revival of the towns, notably in Flanders, Holland and northern Italy. New ideas began to appear. After the fall of Constantinople to the Turks (1453) there was a new interest in the ideas and art of classical antiquity. New forms of art appeared in Italy and the Netherlands. Boccaccio’s Decameron may be considered as the first modern novel. In England the writings of Chaucer are full of life and colour, reflecting a new spirit in art. The Renaissance was taking its first hesitant steps. Gradually, out of chaos a new order was arising.

The Reformation

By the 14th century capitalism was well established in Europe. The Netherlands became the factory of Europe, and trade flourished along the river Rhine. The cities of Northern Italy were a powerful locomotive of economic growth and commerce, opening up trade with Byzantium and the East. From about the 5th to the 12th centuries, Europe consisted of largely isolated economies. No longer! The discovery of America, the rounding of the Cape and the general expansion of trade gave a fresh impetus not only to the creation of wealth but to the development of men’s minds.

Under such conditions, the old intellectual stagnation was no longer possible. The ground was cut from under the feet of the conservatives and reactionaries, as Marx and Engels explained in The Communist Manifesto:

“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.”

It is no coincidence that the rise of the bourgeoisie in Italy, Holland, England and later in France was accompanied by an extraordinary flourishing of culture, art and science. Revolution, as Trotsky once said, has always been the driving force of history. In countries where the bourgeois revolution triumphed in the 17th and 18th centuries, the development of the productive forces and technology was complemented by a parallel development of science and philosophy, which undermined the ideological dominion of the Church forever.

In the epoch of the rise of the bourgeoisie, when capitalism still represented a progressive force in history, the first ideologists of that class had to fight a hard battle against the ideological bastions of feudalism, starting with the Catholic Church. Long before destroying the power of feudal landlords, the bourgeoisie had to break down the philosophical and religious defences mounted to protect the feudal system around the Church and its militant arm, the Inquisition. This revolution was anticipated by the revolt of Martin Luther against the authority of the Church.

During the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries Germany saw a move from an entirely agrarian economy and the rise of new social classes that clashed with the traditional feudal hierarchy. Luther’s attacks on the Roman Catholic Church acted as the spark that ignited revolution. The burghers and lesser nobility sought to break the power of the clergy, escape the clutches of Rome, and, last but not least, enrich themselves through the confiscation of church property.

But in the depths of feudal society, other more elemental forces were stirring. When Luther’s appeals against the clergy and ideas about Christian freedom reached the ears of the German peasants, they acted as a powerful stimulus to the repressed rage of the masses who had long suffered in silence the oppression of the feudal lords. Now they rose up to extract a terrible vengeance upon all their oppressors.

Beginning in 1524, the Peasants' War spread across the Germanic regions of the Holy Roman Empire during 1525 until its suppression in 1526. What happened after this has been repeated frequently in subsequent history. When confronted with the consequences of his revolutionary ideas, Luther had to choose a side, and he joined with the burghers, nobility, and princes in crushing the peasants.

The peasants found a better leader in the person of Thomas Müntzer. While Luther preached peaceful resistance, Thomas Müntzer attacked the priesthood in violent sermons, calling for the people to rise up in arms. Like Luther he cited biblical references to justify his actions: “Does not Christ say, ‘I came not to send peace, but a sword’?”

The most radical wing of the movement were the Anabaptists, who were already beginning to question private property, taking as their model the primitive communism of the early Christians described in The Acts of the Apostles. Müntzer maintained that the Bible was not infallible, that the Holy Spirit had ways of communicating directly through the gift of reason.

Luther was horrified and wrote the notorious pamphlet Against the Murderous, Thieving Hoards of Peasants. The revolt was crushed with unspeakable barbarity, which set Germany back for centuries. But the tide of bourgeois revolt that was reflected in the rise of Protestantism was now unstoppable.

Those lands where the reactionary feudal forces quelled the embryo of the new society before birth, were sentenced to the nightmare of a long and inglorious period of degeneration, decline and decay. The example of Spain is the most graphic in this regard.

The bourgeois Revolution

The first bourgeois revolution took the form of a national revolt of the Netherlands against the oppressive rule of Catholic Spain. In order to succeed, the wealthy Dutch burgers leaned on the men of no property: those courageous desperados drawn mainly from the poorest layers of society. The shock troops of the Dutch Revolution were known contemptuously by their enemies as the Sea Beggars.

This description was not altogether inaccurate. They were poor artisans, labourers, fishermen, homeless and dispossessed people – all those regarded as the dregs of society, but fired up with Calvinist fanaticism, they inflicted one defeat after another on the forces of mighty Spain. It was this that laid the basis for the rise of the Dutch Republic and a modern prosperous bourgeois Holland.france 63022 960 720

The next episode in the bourgeois revolution was even more significant and far-reaching in its implications. The English revolution of the seventeenth century assumed the form of civil war. It expressed itself as dual power, the royal power, resting upon the privileged classes or the upper circles of these classes – the aristocrats and bishops, based in Oxford  – was confronted by the bourgeoisie and the small landowners and plebeian masses, based around London.

The English Revolution only succeeded when Oliver Cromwell, basing himself on the most radical elements, that is, the armed plebeians, swept the bourgeoisie to one side and waged a revolutionary war against the Royalists. As a result, the king was captured and executed. The conflict ended with a purging of the Parliament and the dictatorship of Cromwell.

The lower ranks of the army, under the leadership of the Levellers – the extreme left wing of the revolution – tried to carry the Revolution further, questioning private property, but were crushed by Cromwell. The reason for this defeat must be found in the objective conditions of the period. Industry had not yet developed to the point where it could provide the basis for socialism.

The proletariat itself remained at an embryonic stage of development. The Levellers themselves represented the lower levels of the petty bourgeoisie, and therefore, despite all their heroism, were unable to have their own, individual historic path. After Cromwell’s death the bourgeoisie reached a compromise with Charles II that enabled it to hold real power while maintaining the Monarchy as a bulwark against any future revolutions against private property.

The American Revolution, which took the form of a war of national independence only succeeded to the degree that it involved the mass of poor farmers who waged a successful guerrilla war against the armies of King George of England.

The French Revolution of 1789-93 was on a far higher level than the English Revolution. This was one of the greatest events in human history. Even today it is an endless source of inspiration. And whereas Cromwell fought under the banner of religion, the French bourgeoisie raised the banner of Reason. Even before it brought down the formidable walls of the Bastille, it had brought down the invisible, but no less formidable, walls of the Church and religion.

At every stage the motor force that drove the French Revolution forward, sweeping aside all obstacles, was the active participation of the masses. And when this active participation of the masses ebbed, the Revolution came to a full stop and went into reverse. That was what led directly to reaction, firstly of the Thermidorian and later of the Bonapartist variety.

The enemies of the French Revolution always try to blacken its image with the accusation of violence and bloodshed. As a matter of fact the violence of the masses is inevitably a reaction against the violence of the old ruling class. The origins of the Terror must be sought in the reaction of the revolution to the threat of violent overthrow from both internal and external enemies. The revolutionary dictatorship was the result of revolutionary war and was only an expression of the latter.

Under the rule of Robespierre and the Jacobins, the semi-proletarian Sans-culottes carried the Revolution to a successful conclusion. In fact, the masses pushed the leaders to go far further than they had intended. Objectively, the Revolution was bourgeois-democratic in character, since the development of the productive forces and the proletariat had not yet reached a point where the question of socialism could be posed.

At a certain point, the process, having reached its limits, had to go into reverse. Robespierre and his faction struck down the Left wing and were then cut down themselves. The Thermidorian reactionaries in France hunted and oppressed the Jacobins, while the masses, worn out by years of exertion and sacrifice, had begun to fall into passivity and indifference. The pendulum now swung sharply to the right. But it did not restore the Ancien Regime. The fundamental socio-economic gains of the Revolution remained. The power of the landed aristocracy was broken.

The rotten and corrupt Directory was followed by the equally rotten and corrupt personal dictatorship of Bonaparte. The French bourgeoisie was terrified of the Jacobins and the Sans-culottes with their egalitarian and levelling tendencies. But it was even more terrified by the threat of royalist counterrevolution, which would drive it from power and put the clock back to pre-1789. The wars continued and there were still internal revolts by reactionaries. The only way out was to reintroduce dictatorship, but in the form of military rule. The bourgeoisie was looking for a Saviour and found one in the person of Napoleon Bonaparte.

With the defeat of Napoleon in the Battle of Waterloo, the last flickering embers of the fires lit by revolutionary France were extinguished. A long, grey period settled down on Europe like a thick coat of suffocating dust. The forces of triumphant reaction seemed firmly in the saddle. But that was only in appearance. Beneath the surface, the Mole of Revolution was busy digging the foundations for a new revolution.

The victory of capitalism in Europe laid the basis for a colossal upswing of industry, and with it, the strengthening of that class that is destined to overthrow capitalism and usher in a new and higher stage of social development – socialism. Marx and Engels wrote in The Communist Manifesto:

“A spectre is haunting Europe — the spectre of communism. All the powers of old Europe have entered into a holy alliance to exorcise this spectre: Pope and Tsar, Metternich and Guizot, French Radicals and German police-spies.”

These words describe the reactionary system that was established by the Congress of Vienna following the defeat of Napoleon in 1815. It was intended to eliminate the risk of revolution forever, to exorcise the spectre of the French Revolution forever. The brutal dictatorship of the “powers of old Europe” seemed as if it would last forever. But sooner or later things would turn into their opposite. Beneath the surface of reaction, new forces were gradually maturing and a new revolutionary class – the proletariat – was stretching its limbs.

The counter-revolution was overthrown by a new revolutionary wave that swept over Europe in 1848. These revolutions were fought under the banner of democracy – the same banner that was raised over the barricades of Paris in 1789. But everywhere the leading force in the revolution was not the cowardly, reactionary bourgeoisie but the lineal descendants of the French Sans-culottes – the working class, which inscribed on its banner a new kind of revolutionary ideal, the ideal of Communism.

The revolutions of 1848-9 were defeated through the cowardice and treachery of the bourgeoisie and its Liberal representatives. Reaction ruled once more until 1871, when the heroic proletariat of France stormed heaven in the Paris Commune, the first time in history that the working class overthrew the old bourgeois state and began to create a new kind of state – a workers’ state. That glorious episode only lasted a few months and was finally drowned in blood. But it left a lasting heritage and laid the basis for the Russian Revolution of 1917.

The Russian Revolution

For Marxists, the Bolshevik Revolution was the greatest single event in human history. Under the leadership of the Bolshevik Party of Lenin and Trotsky, the working class succeeded in overthrowing its oppressors and at least begin the task of the socialist transformation of society.

However, the Revolution took place, not in an advanced capitalist country as Marx had expected, but on the basis of the most frightful backwardness. To give an approximate idea of the conditions that confronted the Bolsheviks, in just one year, 1920, six million people starved to death in Soviet Russia.

Marx and Engels explained long ago that socialism – a classless society – requires the right material conditions in order to exist. The starting point of socialism must be a higher point of development of the productive forces than the most advanced capitalist society (the USA for instance). Only on the basis of a highly developed industry, agriculture, science and technology, is it possible to guarantee the conditions for the free development of human beings, starting with a drastic reduction in the working day. The prior condition for this is the participation of the working class in the democratic control and administration of society.Lenin addressing crowd 1918

Engels long ago explained that in any society in which art, science and government is the monopoly of a minority, that minority will use and abuse its position in its own interests. Lenin was quick to see the danger of the bureaucratic degeneration of the Revolution in conditions of general backwardness. In State and Revolution, written in 1917, he worked out a programme on the basis of the experience of the Paris Commune. Here he explains the basic conditions – not for socialism or communism – but for the first period after the Revolution, the transitional period between capitalism and socialism. These were:

1) Free and democratic elections and the right of recall for all officials.
2) No official to receive a wage higher than a skilled worker.
3) No standing army but the armed people.
4) Gradually, all the tasks of running the state to be carried out in turn by the workers: when everybody is a "bureaucrat" in turn, nobody is a bureaucrat.

This is a finished programme for workers' democracy. It is directly aimed against the danger of bureaucracy. This in turn formed the basis of the 1919 Bolshevik Party Programme. In other words, contrary to the calumnies of the enemies of socialism, Soviet Russia in the time of Lenin and Trotsky was the most democratic regime in history.

However, the regime of soviet workers' democracy established by the October Revolution did not survive. By the early 1930s, all the above points had been abolished. Under Stalin, the workers' state suffered a process of bureaucratic degeneration which ended in the establishment of a monstrous totalitarian regime and the physical annihilation of the Leninist Party. The decisive factor in the Stalinist political counter-revolution in Russia was the isolation of the Revolution in a backward country. The way in which this political counter-revolution took place was explained by Trotsky in The Revolution Betrayed.

It is not feasible for society to jump straight from capitalism to a classless society. The material and cultural inheritance of capitalist society is far too inadequate for that. There is too much scarcity and inequality that cannot be immediately overcome. After the socialist revolution, there must be a transitional period that will prepare the necessary ground for superabundance and a classless society.Meeting in Putilov 1917

Marx called this first stage of the new society "the lowest stage of communism" as opposed to "the highest stage of communism", where the last residue of material inequality would disappear. In that sense, socialism and communism have been contrasted to the "lower" and "higher" stages of the new society.

In describing the lower stage of communism Marx writes: "What we are dealing with here is a communist society, not as it has developed on its own foundations, but, on the contrary, just as it emerges from capitalist society; which is thus in every respect, economically, morally and intellectually, still stamped with the birth marks of the old society from whose womb it emerges." (Marx and Engels, Selected Works, Critique of the Gotha Programme, by Marx, Vol. 3, p. 17. From here on referred to as MESW.)

"Between capitalist and communist society," states Marx, "lies the period of the revolutionary transformation of the one into the other. Corresponding to this is also a political transition period in which the state can be nothing but the revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat."

As all the greatest Marxist theoreticians explained, the task of the socialist revolution is to bring the working class to power by smashing the old capitalist state machine. The latter was the repressive organ designed to keep the working class in subjection. Marx explained that this capitalist state, together with its state bureaucracy, cannot serve the interests of the new power. It has to be done away with. However, the new state created by the working class would be different from all previous states in history. Engels described it as a semi-state, a state designed in such a way that it was destined to disappear.third international

However, for Marx – and this is a crucial point – this lower stage of communism from its very beginning would be on a higher level in terms of its economic development than the most developed and advanced capitalism. And why was this so important? Because without a massive development of the productive forces, scarcity would prevail and with it the struggle for existence.

As Marx explained, such a state of affairs would pose the danger of degeneration: "This development of the productive forces is an absolutely necessary practical premise [of communism], because without it want is generalised, and with want the struggle for necessities begins again, and that means that all the old crap must revive." (MESW, The German Ideology, Vol. 1, p. 37, my emphasis)moscowtrialsandpurges3

These prophetic words of Marx explain why the Russian Revolution, so full of promise, ended in bureaucratic degeneration and the monstrous totalitarian caricature of Stalinism, which in turn prepared the way for capitalist restoration and a further regression. “All the old crap” revived because the Russian Revolution was isolated in conditions of frightful material and cultural backwardness. But today with the tremendous advance in science and technique, the conditions have been prepared whereby this would no longer be the case.

Unprecedented advance

Every phase of human development has its roots in all previous development. This is true both of human evolution and social development. We have evolved from lower species and are genetically related to even the most primitive life forms, as the human genome has conclusively proved. We are separated from our nearest living relatives the chimpanzees by a genetic difference of less than two percent. But that very small percentage represents a tremendous qualitative leap.

We have emerged from savagery, barbarism, slavery and feudalism, and each of these stages represented a definite stage in the development of the productive forces and culture. Hegel expressed this idea in a beautiful passage in the Phenomenology of Mind:

“The bud disappears when the blossom breaks through, and we might say that the former is refuted by the latter; in the same way when the fruit comes, the blossom may be explained to be a false form of the plant’s existence, for the fruit appears as its true nature in place of the blossom. The ceaseless activity of their own inherent nature makes these stages moments of an organic unity, where they not merely do not contradict one another, but where one is as necessary as the other; and constitutes thereby the life of the whole.”

Every stage in the development of society is rooted in necessity and emerges out of the preceding stages. History can only be understood if these stages are taken in their unity. Each had its raison d'être in the development of the productive forces, and each entered into contradiction with their further development at a certain stage, when a revolution was necessary to cast off the old forms and allow new forms to emerge.

As we have seen, the victory of the bourgeoisie was achieved by revolutionary means, although nowadays the defenders of capitalism do not like to be reminded of the fact. And as Marx explained, the bourgeoisie, historically, has played a most revolutionary role:

“The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionising the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society. Conservation of the old modes of production in unaltered form, was, on the contrary, the first condition of existence for all earlier industrial classes. Constant revolutionising of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones.” (Communist Manifesto)

Under capitalism the productive forces have experienced spectacular development, unprecedented in the history of mankind: despite the fact that capitalism is the most exploitative and oppressive system that has ever existed; despite the fact that, in Marx's words, "Capital came onto the stage of history dripping blood from every pore," it nevertheless represented a colossal leap forward in the development of the productive forces – and therefore of our power over nature.

During the last two centuries the development of technology and science has proceeded at a far faster rate than in all previous history. The curve of human development, which was virtually flat for most of our history, suddenly experienced a steep ascent. The dizzying progress of technology is the precondition for the final emancipation of humankind, the abolition of poverty and illiteracy, ignorance, disease and the domination of nature by man through conscious planning of the economy. The road is open to conquest, not only on Earth, but in space.

Capitalism in decline

It is the illusion of every epoch that it will last forever. Every social system believes that it represents the only possible form of existence for human beings; that its institutions, its religion, its morality are the last word that can be spoken. That is what the cannibals, the Egyptian priests, Marie Antoinette and Tsar Nicholas all fervently believed. And that is what the bourgeoisie and its apologists today wish to demonstrate when they assure us, without the slightest basis, that the so-called system of “free enterprise” is the only possible system – just when it is beginning to show all the signs of senile decay.

The capitalist system today resembles the Sorcerer’s Apprentice who conjured up powerful forces which he could not control. The fundamental contradiction of capitalist society is the antagonism between the social nature of production and the private form of appropriation. From this central contradiction many others arise. This contradiction is expressed by periodic crises, as Marx explains:

“In these crises, a great part not only of the existing products, but also of the previously created productive forces, are periodically destroyed. In these crises, there breaks out an epidemic that, in all earlier epochs, would have seemed an absurdity — the epidemic of over-production. Society suddenly finds itself put back into a state of momentary barbarism; it appears as if a famine, a universal war of devastation, had cut off the supply of every means of subsistence; industry and commerce seem to be destroyed; and why? Because there is too much civilisation, too much means of subsistence, too much industry, too much commerce. The productive forces at the disposal of society no longer tend to further the development of the conditions of bourgeois property; on the contrary, they have become too powerful for these conditions, by which they are fettered, and so soon as they overcome these fetters, they bring disorder into the whole of bourgeois society, endanger the existence of bourgeois property. The conditions of bourgeois society are too narrow to comprise the wealth created by them. And how does the bourgeoisie get over these crises? On the one hand by enforced destruction of a mass of productive forces; on the other, by the conquest of new markets, and by the more thorough exploitation of the old ones. That is to say, by paving the way for more extensive and more destructive crises, and by diminishing the means whereby crises are prevented.” (The Communist Manifesto)

This is an exact description of the present situation. It is a terrible paradox that the more humanity develops its productive capacity, the more spectacular the advances of science and technology, the greater the suffering, starvation, oppression and misery of the majority of the world's population. The sickness of capitalism on a world scale manifested itself in the collapse of 2008. This was the beginning of the biggest crisis in the entire 200 year existence of capitalism, and it is far from being resolved. This is an expression of the impasse of capitalism, which in the last analysis is a result of the revolt of the productive forces against the straitjacket of private property and the nation state.

Socialism or barbarism

For thousands of years culture has been the monopoly of a privileged minority, while the great majority of humanity was excluded from knowledge, science, art and government. Even now, this remains the case. Despite all our pretensions, we are not really civilized. The world we live in now certainly does not merit the name. It is a barbaric world, inhabited by people who have yet to overcome a barbarous past. Life remains a harsh and unrelenting struggle to exist for the great majority of the planet, not only in the underdeveloped world but in the developed capitalist countries as well.

Marx pointed out that there were two possibilities before the human race: socialism or barbarism. The question is therefore posed in the starkest terms: in the coming period, either the working class will take into its hands the running of society, replacing the decrepit capitalist system with a new social order based on the harmonious and rational planning of the productive forces and the conscious control of men and women over their own lives and destinies, or else we will be faced with a most frightful spectacle of social, economic and cultural collapse.

The crisis of capitalism represents not just an economic crisis that threatens the jobs and living standards of millions of people throughout the world. It also threatens the very basis of a civilised existence – insofar as this exists. It threatens to throw humankind back on all fronts. If the proletariat – the only genuinely revolutionary class – does not succeed in overthrowing the rule of the banks and monopolies, the stage will be set for a collapse of culture and even a return to barbarism.


Dialectics teaches us that sooner or later, things change into their opposite. It is possible to draw parallels between geology and society. Just as the tectonic plates, having moved too slowly, compensate the delay by a violent earthquake, so the lagging of consciousness behind events is compensated by sudden changes in the psychology of the masses. The most striking manifestation of dialectics is the crisis of capitalism itself. Dialectics are taking their revenge on the bourgeoisie who have understood nothing, predicted nothing and are capable of solving nothing.

The collapse of the Soviet Union created a mood of pessimism and despair amongst the working class. The defenders of capitalism launched a ferocious ideological counteroffensive against the ideas of socialism and Marxism. They promised us a future of peace, prosperity and democracy thanks to the wonders of the free market economy. Two decades have passed since then and a decade is not such a long time in the grand scheme of history. Not one stone upon another now remains of these comforting illusions.

Everywhere there are wars, unemployment, poverty and hunger. And everywhere a new spirit of revolt is arising and people are looking for ideas that can explain what is happening in the world. The old, stable, peaceful, prosperous capitalism is dead, and with it the old peaceful, harmonious relations between the classes. The future will be one of years and decades of austerity, unemployment and falling living standards. That is a finished recipe for a revival of the class struggle everywhere.

The embryo of a new society is already maturing within the womb of the old. The elements of a workers' democracy already exist in the form of the workers' organisations, the shop stewards committees, the trade unions, the cooperatives etc. In the period that opens up, there will be a life and death struggle – a struggle of those elements of the new society to be born, and an equally fierce resistance on the part of the old order to prevent this from happening.

It is true that the consciousness of the masses has been lagging far behind events. But that also will change into its opposite. Great events are forcing men and women to question their old beliefs and assumptions. They are being jolted out of the old supine, apathetic indifference and forced to come to terms with reality. We can already see this in outline with the events in Greece. In such periods consciousness can change very rapidly. And that is just what a revolution is.

The rise of modern capitalism and of its gravedigger, the working class, has made much clearer what is at the heart of the materialist conception of history. Our task is not merely to understand but bring to a successful conclusion the historic struggle of the classes by means of the victory of the proletariat and the socialist transformation of society. Capitalism has failed after all to “end” history. The task of Marxists is to work actively to hasten the overthrow of the old, decrepit system and help to bring about the birth of a new and better world.

From necessity to freedom

The scientific approach to history that historical materialism gives us does not incline us to draw pessimistic conclusions from the horrific symptoms of decline that confront us on all sides. On the contrary, the general tendency of human history has been in the direction of ever greater development of our productive and cultural potential.

The relation between the development of human culture and the productive forces was already clear to that great genius of antiquity, Aristotle, who explained in his book The Metaphysics that "man begins to philosophise when the means of life are provided," and added that the reason why astronomy and mathematics were discovered in Egypt is that the priest caste did not have to work. This is a purely materialist understanding of history.

The great achievements of the last hundred years have for the first time created a situation where all the problems facing humankind can easily be solved. The potential for a classless society already exists on a world scale. What is necessary is to bring about a rational and harmonious planning of the productive forces in order that this immense, practically infinite, potential can be realised.

Once the productive forces are freed from the straitjacket of capitalism, the potential exists to produce a great number of geniuses: artists, writers, composers, philosophers, scientists and architects. Art, science and culture would flower as never before. This rich, beautiful and wonderfully diverse world would at last become a place fit for human beings to live in.

In a certain sense socialist society is a return to primitive tribal communism but on a vastly higher productive level. Before one can envisage a classless society, all the hallmarks of class society, especially inequality and scarcity, would have to be abolished. It would be absurd to talk of the abolition of classes where inequality, scarcity and the struggle for existence prevailed. It would be a contradiction in terms. Socialism can only appear at a certain stage in the evolution of human society, at a certain level of development of the productive forces.

On the basis of a real revolution in production, it would be possible to achieve such a level of abundance that men and women would no longer have to worry about their everyday necessities. The humiliating concerns and fears that fill every thinking hour of men and women now will disappear. For the first time, free human beings will be masters of their destinies. For the first time they will be really human. Only then will the real history of the human race begin.

On the basis of a harmonious planned economy in which the tremendous productive power of science and technology will be harnessed for the satisfaction of human needs, not the profits of a few, culture will reach new and undreamed-of levels of development. The Romans described slaves as “tools with voices”. Nowadays we do not need to enslave people to do the work. We already have the technology to create robots that can not only play chess and perform elementary tasks on production lines but drive vehicles more safely than humans and even carry out quite complex tasks.

On the basis of capitalism, this technology threatens to displace millions of workers: not only lorry drivers and unskilled workers but people like accountants and computer programmers are threatened with losing their livelihoods. Millions will be thrown on the scrapheap while those who retain their jobs will be working longer hours than before.

In a socialist planned economy, the same technology would be used to reduce the working day. We could immediately introduce a thirty hour week, followed by a twenty hour week, a ten hour week or even less, while increasing production and expanding the wealth of society far more than what is conceivable under capitalism.

This would represent a fundamental change in people’s lives. For the first time, men and women would be freed from the drudgery of labour. They would be free to develop themselves physically, mentally and one might even add spiritually. Men and women will be free to lift their eyes to the heavens and contemplate the stars.

Trotsky once wrote: “How many Aristoteles are herding swine? And how many swineherds are sitting on thrones?” Class society impoverishes people, not just materially but psychologically. The lives of millions of human beings are confined to the narrowest limits. Their mental horizons are stunted. Socialism would release all the colossal potential that is being wasted by capitalism.

It is true that people have different characters and aptitudes. Not everyone can be an Aristotle, a Beethoven or an Einstein. But everybody has the potential to do great things in one field or another, to become a great scientist, artist, musician, dancer or footballer. Communism will provide all the conditions needed to develop those potentials to the fullest extent.

This would be the greatest revolution of all time. It would carry human civilization to a new and qualitatively superior level. In the words of Engels it would be Humankind’s leap from the realm of necessity to the realm of true freedom.

London 8 July, 2015