of Social Change
Marx's focus on the process of social change is so central to this
thinking that it informs all his writings. The motor force of history
for Marx is not to be found in any extra-human agency, be it "providence"
or the "objective spirit." Marx insisted that men make
their own history. Human history is the process through which men
change themselves even as they pit themselves against nature to
dominate it. In the course of their history men increasingly transform
nature to make it better serve their own purposes. And, in the process
of transforming nature, they transform themselves.
to all animals who can only passively adjust to nature's requirements
by finding a niche in the ecological order that allows them to subsist
and develop, man is active in relation to his surroundings. He fashions
tools with which to transform his natural habitat. Men "begin
to distinguish themselves fro animals as soon as they begin to produce
their means of subsistence. . . . In producing their means of subsistence
men indirectly produce their actual material life."
every day remake their own life" in the process of production
can do so only in association with others. This is what makes man
a zoon politicon. The relations men establish with nature through
their labor are reflected in their social relationships.
of life, both of one's own by labor and of fresh life by procreation,
appears at once as a double relationship, on the one hand as a natural,
on the other as a social relationship. By social is meant the cooperation
of several individuals, no matter under what conditions, in what
manner or to what end. It follows from this that a determinate mode
of production, or industrial stage, is always bound up with a determinate
mode of cooperation, or social stage, and this mode of cooperation
is itself a 'productive force.'
In their struggle against nature, and to gain their livelihood through
associated labor, men create specific forms of social organization
in tune with specific modes of production. All these modes of social
organization, with the exception of those prevailing in the original
stage of primitive communism, are characterized by social inequality.
As societies emerge from originally undifferentiated hordes, the
division of labor leads to the emergence of stratification, of classes
of men distinguished by their differential access to the means of
production and their differential power. Given relative scarcity,
whatever economic surplus has been accumulated will be preempted
by those who have attained dominance through their expropriation
of the means of production. Yet this dominance never remains unchallenged.
This is why "the history of all hitherto existing society is
the history of class struggles."
Free men and
slaves, patricians and plebeians, barons and serfs, guildmasters
and journeymen, exploiters and exploited have confronted one another
from the beginning of recorded time. Yet Marx, insisted on the principle
of historical specificity, that is, he thought it essential to note
that each particular class antagonism, rooted in particular productive
conditions, must be analyzed in its own right. Each stage in history
is conceived as a functional whole, with its own peculiar modes
of production, which give rise to distinctive types of antagonisms
between exploiting and exploited classes. Not all exploited classes
have a chance to assert themselves in successful combat against
their exploiters. The revolts of the slaves of antiquity or of the
German peasantry at the time of the Reformation were doomed to failure
because these classes did not represent a mode of production that
would dominate in the future. On the other hand, the bourgeoisie
in the last stages of feudalism and the proletariat in modern times
were destined to be victorious since they represented a future mode
of production and social organization.
While Marx can
be considered a historical evolutionist, it would be a mistake to
think of him as a believer in unilinear evolution. He was acutely
aware of periods of relative stagnation in human history--for example,
in Oriental societies--and he knew of historical situations characterized
by a stalemate, a temporary equilibrium, between social classes.
His writings on the regime of Napoleon III illustrate in masterful
fashion a historical situation in which the forces of the old class
order and of the new are so nearly balanced that neither is able
to prevail, thus giving rise to a "Bonapartist" stalemate.
Moreover, though throughout his life Marx held fast to the belief
that the future belongs to the working class, which will lead the
way to the emergence of a classless society, he was nevertheless
willing to consider the possibility that the working class may not
be equal to its "historical task" so that mankind would
degenerate into a new kind of barbarism.
of four major successive modes of production in the history of mankind
after the initial stage of primitive communism: the Asiatic, the
ancient, the feudal, and the modern bourgeois form. Each of these
came into existence through contradictions and antagonisms that
had developed in the previous order. "No social order ever
disappears before all the productive forces for which there is room
in it have been developed; and new higher relations of production
never appear before the material conditions of their existence have
matured in the womb of the old society."
specific to each particular mode of production led to the emergence
of classes whose interests could no longer be asserted within the
framework of the old order; at the same time, the growth of the
productive forces reached the limits imposed by previous productive
relations. When this happened, the new classes, which represented
a novel productive principle, broke down the old order, and the
new productive forces, which were developed in the matrix of the
old order, created the material conditions for further advance.
However, "the bourgeois relations of production are the last
antagonistic form of the social process of production." When
they have been overthrown by a victorious proletariat, "the
prehistory of human society will have come to an end," and
the dialectical principle that ruled the previous development of
mankind ceases to operate, as harmony replaces social conflict in
the affairs of men.
on the existential roots of ideas, his stress on the need to view
thinking as one among other social activities, has remained--no
matter what qualifications have to be made--one of the enduring
parts of his work. Together with his economic interpretation of
the course of human history, his theory of class relations, and
his focus on the alienating aspects of social life in modern society,
it has become a permanent part of the sociological enterprise.