Marxian Development

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I Marx’s first thoughts.

“Just as Darwin discovered the law of development of organic nature, so Marx discovered the law of development of human history: … [that] the degree of economic development attained by a given people or during a given epoch form[s] the foundation upon which the state institutions, the legal conceptions, art, and even the ideas on religion, of the people concerned have been evolved, and in the light of which they must, therefore, be explained, instead of vice versa, as had hitherto been the case.” (Engels [1883], 467).

Engels’ eulogy, delivered at Marx’s burial in 1883, is an assertion of Marx’s pre-eminent role as a theorist of development in general and of the fundamental importance of economic development for Marxism. This essay briefly outlines Marx’s own ideas on the process and the ways in which later Marxists have built on and adapted these ideas.

Marx viewed human history as a giant spiral tracing the development of the productivity of labour (the forces of production) in relation to the changing social structure within which production took place (the social relations of production). The forces of production tend to grow through history[ii], although at varying speeds depending on whether the social relations create a favourable or unfavourable climate for material progress. At key moments the forces of production find themselves held back by the form of society and this creates pressure for revolutionary transition from one social system to another, for instance from feudalism to capitalism, which was to play a pivotal role in the development of human history.

Being a system driven by the pursuit of profit in competitive conditions, capitalism would impel a sharp acceleration in the development of the productive forces to such an extent that the universal elimination of want and of involuntary labour could become possible. But capitalism was also a uniquely unequal system, polarizing people into a minority of property owners and a majority of propertyless proletarians. Under capitalism the elimination of want was potential, only realizable after a transition to a fully socialist society. In that way Marx envisioned human society both advancing along the axis of scientific and material progress while at the same time following a circular movement from primitive communism, through various forms of class society and ultimately to a new communism and equality which would be combined with an advanced state of development of the forces of production[iii].

Marx regarded capitalism as a system which is abhorrent because it rests on exploitation and generates inequality but historically progressive because it brings about an unprecedented development of the productive forces and creates its own “gravediggers”, the propertyless working class.

From his early writings until the publication of the first volume of Capital in 1867, Marx had three great expectations. The first (repetition) was that the rapid capitalist industrialization which he observed in Britain would soon be repeated in other parts of the world. “The country that is more developed industrially” he wrote, “only shows, to the less developed, the image of its own future.” (Marx [1867])..

The second expectation (universalization) was that the spread of capitalist growth would lead not to independent capitalist countries but to a single, unified interdependent system. In the Communist Manifesto Marx and Engels expounded a famous vision of the way capitalism would pervade the globe:

“The bourgeoisie has, through its exploitation of the world market, given a cosmopolitan character to production and consumption in every country. … All old-established national industries … are dislodged by new industries … that no longer work up indigenous raw material, but raw material drawn from the remotest zones; industries whose products are consumed, not only at home, but in every quarter of the...
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