Concerning the Theory of Productive Forces

Richard Gibson

April 1994

This paper is exploratory and experimental, seeking to examine what may be but one of many aspects of what went wrong with orthodox Marxism (subservience to nationalism, failure to understand the nature of the capitalist state as an enemy, cults of personality, over-emphasis on the understanding of truth as only emanating from the party center, privilege tolerated, even promoted, within the party, are all issues which would weave within a broader analysis which is not attempted here).

The thesis is that the Theory of Productive Forces, which in orthodox circles is seen as the explanation for and inspiration of all social change, is not a theory appropriately rooted in dialectical materialism, but is mechanically materialist. My argument is that social change is equally driven by human consciousness which itself is a material force, and that purposeful consciousness in an age of capitalism can, indeed must, be the wedge into a democratic egalitarian society.

I also suggest that if the Theory of Productive Forces is an unbalanced approach to social change, then it is possible to restore the potential of ideology and human agency as a material force in history and to reach beyond the boundaries established by the orthodoxy, to break through the stages or capitalist inequalities required by stage theory. Equality and democracy (as related to the mode and means of production, that is, democratic egalitarianism in decision-making and in distribution) are attainable without the stages of post-revolutionary inequality which only the Theory of Productive Forces would seem to require.

I contend that there is a materialist sense within this framework in that abundance created through inequality will never lead to equality, and further, that the struggle for equality will likely be sufficiently destructive to create the necessity of sharing scarcity. Therefore, it is not utopian idealism to urge equality and democracy, but simply a reasonable conclusion based on historical experience.

My case is made in this manner: I will demonstrate some of the original sources of the Theory of Productive Forces, relying first on Marx, Engels, Lenin and Stalin. I will then attempt to demonstrate that the statements of at least the initial three of these communists are somewhat contradictory. However, I will seek to indicate that the key interpreters of this theory in the West do indeed make a case based on important trends--but not the only trends--within the original Marx. Here I will rely on the work of Gerald Cohen.

I argue that Marx must not be iconicized, that Marxism must not be entombed but used as a guide to life and practice. While I believe there is evidence in all of Marx and Engels to prove that they themselves insisted on the dialectical relationship of matter and motion, of the material world and consciousness, it is of but secondary concern to the importance of learning from history in a dialectical and materialist way. Practice is the test of Marxism. Theory can only lead to the appearance of internal consistency. We have a historical base on which to build.

I will note briefly what has happened with regimes which relied, in part, on the Theory of Productive forces to wrench their way into advanced socialism, that is, regimes which sought to attain equality through the creation of abundance from the capitalist development of industry. However, I will show, also, that within these regimes, ranging from the French Revolution to the Chinese Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, were strands of the idea that equality is simultaneously a material and ideological force, indeed, there were outright attacks on the theory of productive forces coming from the Chinese left. Hence, in the more dialectical sense, in the analysis of historical practice, we can glimpse clues of what might guide the future, even if those clues never became the predominant aspects of what went before.

I will finally speculate on the possibilities for a revolutionary project which focuses its goal on the immediate attainment of equality, not in a crude sense, but in the classical sense of "from each according to their ability to each according to their need". My more particular goal is to demonstrate that the shipwreck of socialist regimes is significantly tied to the reintroduction of material and decision-making inequality, even after the most egalitarian of revolutions--and the rationale for this inequality lies in part in the Theory of Productive Forces.

For my own purposes, I want to see if it is possible that the vision which has guided socialist practice, in my view a form of technological determinism, was sufficiently anti-egalitarian to undermine related socialist and reformist projects, Paulo Freire's literacy projects for example, and to set the stage for "commandist" educational practices which were easily turned into their own opposites. This examination will lay a basis for scrutinizing Freire elsewhere.(1)

I believe I will make two interpretive contributions which, to my knowledge, may not have been broached in the literature: first, that the Theory of Productive Forces may necessarily lead to the reintroduction of capitalism and, second, a modest point that sectarianism and opportunism are twins, both born of misreading the unity and struggle within the material world, each privileging one at the expense of the other. While traditional Marxist criticism has focused on one or the other aspects of these twins, that criticism has not grasped the importance of seeing their simultaneous unity and hence has left a significant gate unguarded, that is, to investigate opportunism--which may indeed the key problem at any given moment--but to ignore the likelihood of aspects of the counterpart, is to miss a part of the equation that may become decisive. I will try to provide limited but concrete historical examples which will make sense of this assertion. (2)

Tension in Historical Materialism

Marxism, in much of its orthodoxy (here I will, for the sake of brevity, bow to those who treat Stalin as the bogey-man. To enter the discourse I will not engage a debate which needs to be historicized, that is, the demonization of Stalin who, in the most solid of Great Man analyses, is treated as the sole initiator of Soviet blunders. Hence I will equate orthodoxy with, say, Soviet interpretation around 1940), is fairly easily understood by most workers. It doesn't take too long to grasp that the central problem raised by Marx is the contradiction between the social nature of production and the individual ownership of what is produced. They own, you work. They gain, you lose.

From that things grow a bit more complex; the struggle of social classes, the alienation of work from an integrated life, the need for a state, a government, as a weapon of those in power, and ideological weapons like racism and sexism to divide and enslave those who do the work but never attain material well-being or the ability to control their working lives and decisions. Here, in my experience, level of agreement about the reliability of Marxism begins to break up. But it is not complexity that seems to disengage people; it's either false consciousness or disagreement.

However, in this apparently simple outline of contradiction and practice is a complexity of tensions within Marxism. The fundamental contradiction is broken into a series of subsequent contradictions, often in a fashion that fails to recognize their interpenetration. For example, some critics seem unable to link political economy with the importance of class struggle. In the abstract, this is a breakdown of dialectics, a view flattened within the one dimensional thesis-antithesis-synthesis debasing of dialects which cannot seem to grasp history as a multi-dimensional process rather than a wall chart. (3)

I quote at some length below to demonstrate the early tensions between being and consciousness:

"In the social production of their life, men enter into definite relations that are indispensable and independent of their will, relations of production which correspond to a definite stage of development of their early productive forces. The sum total of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which rises the legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness. The mode of production of material life conditions the social, political and intellectual life process in general. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness. At a certain stage of their development, the material productive forces of society come into conflict with the existing relations of production or--what is but a legal expression of the same thing--with the property relations within which they have been at work hitherto. From forms of development of the productive forces these relations turn into fetters. Then begins an epoch of social revolution. With the change of the economic foundation the entire immense superstructure is transformed. In considering such transformations a distinction should always be made between the material transformation of the economic conditions of production, which can be determined with the precision of natural science, and the legal, political, religious, aesthetic, or philosophic--in short, ideological forms in which men become conscious of this conflict and fight it out. Just as our opinion of an individual is not based on what he thinks of himself, so we cannot judge of such a period of transformation by its own consciousness; on the contrary, this consciousness must be explained rather from the contradictions of material life, from the existing conflict between the social productive forces and the relations of production. No social order ever perishes before all the productive forces for which there is room in it have 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 itself. Therefore, mankind always sets itself only such tasks as it can solve; since, looking at the matter more closely, it will always be found that the task itself arises only when the material conditions for its solution already exist or are at least in the process of formation." (4)

Here in a paragraph are three of Marx's key thoughts, that progress is necessarily written into the conquest of nature through human production and development, that the dialectics of social life contain the format to explain progress, and that people are sufficiently good within the workings of the dialectic to be streaming toward a better world. However, in the same paragraph are key contradictions unresolved, especially the imbalanced approach to the role of consciousness in social change. Still, the nod toward consciousness is there. .

Again, in the quotation below, the tension of the material world and consciousness:

"...there develops the division of labor, which was originally nothing but the division of labor in the sexual act, then that division of labor which develops virtue of natural predisposition (e.g. physical strength), needs, accidents, etc. Division of labor only truly becomes such from the moment when a division of material and mental labor appears. From this moment onward consciousness CAN really flatter itself that it is something other consciousness of existing practice, that it really represents something without representing something real; from now on, consciousness is in a position to emancipate itself from the world and to proceed to the formation of 'pure' theory, theology, philosophy, physics, etc. But even if this theory, theology, philosophy, ethics, etc.,comes into contradiction with the existing relations, this can only occur because the existing social relations have come into contradiction with existing forces of production..."(5)

On the other hand, consider these two clear notes on the importance of ideology and consciousness:

"It is clear that the arm of criticism cannot replace the criticism of arms. Material force can only be overthrown by material force, but theory itself becomes a material force when it has seized the masses." (6)

"Marx and I are ourselves partly to blame for the fact that the younger people sometimes lay more stress on the economic side than is due to it. We had to emphasize the main principle vis-a-vis our adversaries, who denied it, and we had not always the time, the place or the opportunity to allow the other elements involved in the interaction to come into their rights." (7)

Volume I of Capital describes the dispossession of the serfs, not by the productive forces, but by the mercantilists. Marx shows how the industrial revolution was made possible, not by steam engines, but by bringing the working class together in factories, a process which itself led to technological change. Skilled crafts-people are replaced, first, by other trades people who are brought together in one spot. Then this group is replaced by mass machinery and technology. So, in his favorite volume, Marx's emphasis was not determinist, but stressed the importance of the struggles of people who are born into competing classes.


"The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles." (not the "history of the developing productive forces"--mine).(8)

Marx was no mechanical materialist, as evidenced further by his willingness to explore the possibilities of skipping stages toward establishing socialism--in Russia for example. (9)

For our purposes here, it is not necessary to enter the debate of an old, economist Marx versus a young humanist Marx, or the purported split in views between a heavy-handed Engels and a more Hegelian Marx. Suffice it to say that I believe there was one Marx, that his views are consistent and move in a progression of increasing sophistication. There was no split between Marx and Engels who never disagreed publicly to my knowledge, with Engels always genteelly nodding to the primacy of Marx. The use of history, the incite behind materialism which stresses the concrete analysis of concrete conditions, helps explains Marxist emphasis on materialism.

The concern, to this point, is to indicate that there is a tension in dialectical materialism, within the very world view as well as in the writings of its founders. This tension is, I think, is best understood as a dialectical vision which recognizes the interpenetration of conscious, ideological activity in the interpretation of reality and the construction of communist practice, and the base of the material world which supplies the (ever-changing) conditions for that relationship. But it is power that settles this matter in life.

Let us turn to Lenin. Tucker notes the philosophical development of Lenin's view, from a more mechanical view of ideas as simply a reflection of the material world in "Materialism and Empiro-criticism" to a more sophisticated vision which would give greater weight to the unity of matter and motion in "On the Question of Dialectics". (10)

However, most of Lenin's practice (as well as his theoretical work which is often hard to distinguish from his practice itself) falls hard on the side of the Theory of Productive Forces as the lynch-pin of history, except when it stood in the way of his leading the revolution. A fairly good case was made by most of the Bolshevik party that the time was not ripe for revolution in 1917, yet Lenin, ever the revolutionary above all else, argued successfully to push ahead.

Even so, but four years later The New Economic Policy, an admitted retreat, was couched in terms related to the necessity of the development of an industrial base through capitalist production relations in order to create the material abundance necessary for equality--some day. I note that in many of the most egalitarian of revolutions, from the Bolsheviks to the Chinese--and the Cubans--while it was sufficient to MAKE a revolution with mass armies run on increasingly democratic and materially equal terms (with admitted shifts depending on the historical moment but taking the long view); it was seen as impossible to finalize the revolution on those pillars. Instead the Theory of Productive Forces became the underpinning for inequality and social-fascist practice.(11)

Which leads nicely to Stalin.

"...the history of development of society is above all the history of development of production, the history of the modes of production which succeed each other in the course of centuries, the history of the development of the productive forces and people's relations of production." (See my comment in regard to the opening of the Communist Manifesto above).


"Hence the clue to the study of the laws of history of society must not be sought in men's minds, in the views and ideas of society, but in the mode of production practiced by society in any given historical period; it must be sought in the economic life of society." (12)

However, even in Stalin there is a tip of the cap:

Stalin quotes Marx, "Theory becomes a productive force as soon as it has gripped the masses." (13)

But the test of dialectical materialism, even in Stalin, is practice:

"The basis of the relations of production under the Socialist system, which so far has been only established in the U.S.S.R., is the social ownership of the means of production. Here there are no longer exploited and exploiters." (14)

Here the absence of the negation of the negation in Stalin's dialectics might be important. On the one hand, in the unity of production relations and forces, how are new ideas to develop? On the other hand, if there is a unity of productive forces and human interests, how will technology develop? But more to the issue: this is apparently a stage at which technology alone can make the big drive toward equality. (15)

Opportunism and Sectarianism: Blocks to History and Practice

I offer the interlude below to work through one piece of the complexity that stands behind how it is that the Theory of Productive Forces has gained such ascendancy, and to raise issues confronting revolutionary and reformist movements in a new way.

The interpretation of history and political theory is not neutral activity. It is always partisan work. It follows that material interests are involved in decisions about what events will be noticed and how they will be interpreted, as well as which theories will become official policy or conceptual renegades finding surcease in underground movements. (16)

Moreover, while ruling elites rely heavily on racism, sex/gender, nationalism and class differences to divide people, history decisively demonstrates that another way to destroy movements is to split leaders from the masses of people.(17) This can be done not only by systems of rewards, but through the inculcation of history and ideologies which themselves alienate masses of people from decision-making power or from the control of the benefits of their work. Isolated revolutionary leaders--who live--quickly turn into demagogues. The causes for their isolation are life and death questions, not only to them, but to masses of people who risk their lives for a better world.

I believe opportunism and sectarianism, practices rising from and/or methods of interpreting errors in the reading of reality, lie at the base of much of the thinking which buttresses the Theory of Productive Forces. In other words, the historical interpretation of the primacy of materialism over dialectics, claims of economic determinism in Marx, are influenced by factors like the special interests and location of the interpreter. Surely some of this comes from forthright errors, some comes from a more colored perspective.

While Marx and Engels, and to some extent Lenin, fought opportunist and sectarianism in theory and practice; it remains that none of these three held sufficient power to really be put to the test of their ideas. Stalin did--and I believe his actions, simultaneously sectarian and opportunist, reflect his reasonable interpretation of Marxist theory. While his honesty may, in retrospect, be attenuated by the degree of his internal party privileges, it remains that his actions can easily be explained by significant theoretical tendencies within the Marxism-Leninism of his time. (18)

But I can neither bury nor praise Stalin. Rather, I do point out that an analysis of what went wrong in communist practice must go well beyond Great Man approaches and address specific historical circumstances and trace the theoretical developments within those circumstances. This rebuttal is not possible


Instead, this thought: Opportunism and sectarianism are twins. One appears, if somewhat cloaked, with the other. They are two faces of opposition to communist revolution rooted at once in fear of the people and mass struggle, and in support of privilege, bureaucracy and capitalist relations.

Lenin put it clearly: "Opportunism and social chauvinism have the same political content, namely, class collaboration, repudiation of the dictatorship of the proletariat, repudiation of revolutionary action, unconditional acceptance of bourgeois legality, confidence in the bourgeoisie and lack of confidence in the proletariat". (20)

Opportunism and sectarianism frequently rise from the middle-class. "...the petit bourgeoisie is being driven into the ranks of the working class--they are losing their economic base--and it should be no surprise that their views which deny the primacy of class struggle--appear again and again..." (21) This should be especially clear with experience with the neo-marxists of today. The idea of post-modernism, neo-marxism, the view that all is post-rational as there is no proletariat, no role for material struggle, no reason for a political party--all spell out the whining of the middle class in continuing crisis, correctly, simultaneously with only hope, then, with no hope--for itself. This is a profound example of the unity of opportunism and sectarianism: they respond to complexity with pluralism, they create a language only they can speak.

From "What is to be Done?", paraphrasing, "---

"The consciousness of the workers cannot be genuine class consciousness unless they learn to apply materialist analysis...opportunism underestimates the working class and overestimates the ruling class" (22)

Sectarianism/opportunism is a misinterpretation of reality, a misdirection in the struggle for the truth. While dialectical materialism understands the contradictory unity of matter and motion, the changing of reality; sectarianism overestimates the primacy of the material world, makes it appear that matter cannot change--or changes in a lock step, mechanical fashion, moved solely by itself; while opportunism argues that matter is changed only through ideas--not concrete struggle.

Sectarianism and opportunism combine to form the fatalistic belief that matter, the world, will inevitably change in ways we desire. Both deny the significance of reflective human agency--the battles of informed people. In a practical sense, sectarianism and opportunism are obstacles to base-building and results in the state of the communist movement: without enough of the people.

Both sectarianism and opportunism deny a political party and the masses the richness of each other's experiences. While Lenin's remarks were decidedly directed against opportunism, the bottom line of either failure, opportunism or sectarianism, is the failure to make a democratic, egalitarian revolution.

For example, in regard to communist parties, democratic centralism, a unity of opposites in struggle, takes place in the context of political reality. While the goal must be a mass party of sophisticated revolutionaries, it remains that political strictures can require a tighter internal operation. While it would appear that an analysis of the contradictory unity of centralism and democracy would be easily derived from a quick reconnaissance of the legal terrain, experience shows that anti-egalitarian practices within a party can lead to interpretations of the surrounding reality that tilt heavily on the side of centralism. Yet, at the same time, that centralism is usually just a mask for external opportunism, i.e., Stalin.

With this thought as an additional tool in approaching a richer understanding of the Theory of Productive Forces, I now look at the steps forward which I believe can be traced to the revolution in China, and to their influence on this thesis.

The Chinese Experience

I believe the Chinese Revolution was the most advanced of all successful revolutions to date. The Chinese built on the experience of the French Revolutionaries, the Communards, and the Soviets. I think the attention given to Western Marxists, like those from the Frankfurt school--which focused on the production of marketable non-practice, that attention which denies the importance of finding strengths and weaknesses in the historical practice of the Chinese, is flatly racist. The Chinese Revolution, in the most practicable ways, demonstrates the importance of ideology and consciousness. I count the Chinese contributions as these:

1. A mass party in practice, and the mass line.

2. Theory and practice of people's war and the people's army built almost wholly on a democratic and egalitarian basis.

3. The vision of a party cadre whose "privilege" was sacrifice--the 'serve the people' principle. The position of "red and expert", that is, the primacy of politics.

4. Theoretical sharpening of dialectical materialism and making philosophy available to the masses .

5. The intensification of the belief in the primacy of class struggle as seen through their attacks on revisionism, which seeks to deny class struggle as the motive force, and the Cultural Revolution which, I believe, was a left revolution, aimed at egalitarianism within the modes and means of production,in the tradition of Babeuf. It was wrecked by its own internal mistakes, including its failure to take apart the cult of personality around Mao, as well as by the Red Army--which it failed to convince. (23)

The Chinese, whose long revolution steeled their theory, understood, as did their predecessors in the American and French Revolutions, that people will struggle sharply for a nickel, but they will die for an idea. It was necessary to use the ideology of democracy and equality to get the masses to do battle, even when it may have been clear that the interests of most people would be superceded by the power of the few--again. (24)

However, the Chinese also began to attack the Theory of Productive Forces within the context of their polemics with Kruschev's "Goulash Communism". They drew on earlier Mao:

"True, the productive forces, practice and the economic base generally play the principle and decisive role, whoever denies this is not a materialist. But it must also be admitted that in certain conditions, such aspects as the relations of production, theory and superstructure in turn manifest themselves in the principal and decisive role." (25)

Even Lenin came under scrutiny:

"Lenin says, 'The transition from capitalism to socialism will be more difficult for a country, the more backward it is.' That would seem incorrect today. Actually, the transition is less difficult the more backward a country is, for the poorer they are the more the people want a revolution." (26)

However, once the productive forces are set aside as the sole inspiration, the Chinese take a Bolshevik twist:

"..the first thing is to prepare public opinion, seize state power, and then solve the question of ownership, after which comes the question of greatly developing the productive forces." (27)

Here the Chinese set aside half of the equation, that is, consciousness can overcome backward productive forces in making the revolution; but they leave unsaid the plan to settle "the question of ownership" as they did, by adopting the part of the theory of productive forces that calls for abundance as a necessary requisite for equality--and a stage of capitalism before socialism becomes an issue. Here is the gap in the Leninist view:

"He who only recognizes the class struggle is not yet a Marxist...A Marxist is one who extends the acceptance of the class struggle to the acceptance of the dictatorship of the proletariat... On this touchstone it is necessary to test a real understanding and acceptance of Marxism". (28)

The next issue at hand is the nature of the dictatorship of the proletariat---the end that so irreducibly sets the substance of the means. If, for example, if it is agreed from the outset that the dictatorship must restore capitalist methods of production, as well as capitalist social relationships, there is now considerable evidence that the goals of the dictatorship, any form of socialism, will be subverted at every step as it is implemented. Not only will the party leadership be quickly split from the masses by the material privileges of the party personnel, not only will the people again be quickly alienated from their work, but the sacrifices of millions of people will be lost in the restoration of capitalism, made in part palatable by a theory reified, beyond critique, in communist thought.

Yet, there is simply no way that institutionalized inequality will lead to equality by the mere march of production alone. What is missing, in part, is the understanding that masses of people have sacrificed their lives in the war for equality and democracy. It is undialectical, a denial of materialism---opportunist and sectarian at the same time--to deny that most of the people can be convinced that at the conclusion of a revolutionary upheaval what is needed is not a retreat to the old ways under new commissars, but equality and democracy, in that order, now.

With all of this as background, I now summarize the detailed analysis of the Theory of Productive Forces as written by the most orthodox of contemporary materialist Marxists, Gerald Cohen. I choose Cohen because he enjoys a solid reputation as a defender of the faith. (29)

Economic Determinism

The basis of the economic determinist view is that, in the endless struggle to survive, people improve their technologies which, in turn, transform their social relationships. One always precedes the other. Thus technology causes social change. To expand; in order to survive, every form of past society, but especially capitalism, requires scientific advance. Hence technologies advance. The technological growth eventually is obstructed by the existing social relations. This in turn, in the release of pressure through a social crisis, leads to the emergence of a new form of society.

Cohen thus describes the society which can give greatest room to technology as the ideal society. Moreover, it is a combination of the struggle against scarcity, and for abundance, which is the key determinant of all of social change.

Cohen, in his effort to explain Marx, defines the forces of production as the material goods used in production, including the ways those goods are conceived and put together--and encompassing raw materials, the geography, knowledge related to production, etc. Relations of production are links between people, contradictory or not. The mode of production is defined as a combination of forces of production and relations of production. The sum of production relations, alone, is the society's economic structure which is categorized along the lines of the relations of production (wage-labor, slavery, serfdom, and so on).

Cohen then makes the principal case for the Theory of Productive Forces:

"The productive forces tend to develop throughout history. Basic changes in the productive forces are largely, though not entirely, independent of influences stemming from the relations of production. Their main source is the desire of rational people to overcome natural scarcity. Thus, there is no zig-zag dialectic between forces and relations, with priority on neither side". (30)

"Forces select structures according to their capacity to promote development...The nature of a set of production relations is explained by the level of development of the productive forces embraced by it (to a far greater extent than vice versa)...(31)

Then, over time, the productive forces are retarded by the social relations at hand. Over-production, unemployment, a declining rate of surplus value and, hence, profit, imperialist war, all intervene to destabilize the expanding arrangement, the superstructure violates the base and, like a balloon stretching--the arrangement pops. (32)

It is remarkable that nowhere, in a book meticulously arranged and logically outlined with chapter sub-titles, is there a heading for class struggle or revolution. More refrigerators, presumably, might be the battle cry of the next communards, though some argue that "Land, Bread and Peace" was actually a step backward from "Liberty, Equality, Fraternity". (33)

Nor does Cohen seek to historicize his position within the context the socialist movement in the U.S.S.R or China. This is mechanical theory applied without its own material base--opportunism and sectarianism united again. What stands outside the forces of production and the class struggle, for Cohen's interpretation of Marx, is human rationality, people always seeking to better their lot by making better machines. What, however, in a crisis of capitalism as apparent as a world war, is there to prevent a bourgeois turn to fascism, organized decay, sufficiently destructive to retard the productive forces for generations? Human rationality itself is a political, class, question demanding historical analysis. It is here that we can see clearly how theory can lead to consistency, alone. Indeed, to historicize Cohen's position would be to trace economism back through, say, Kautsky, and Plekhanov.(34)

The Soviet claim of the fifties, "we will bury you", might well have involved Kruschev's plan to bury capitalism in a sea of refrigerators. The doctrine of productive forces offered a theoretical escape valve, an ideological explanation, for continued inequality in the socialist state, and, indeed, intensified exploitation of Soviet and Soviet-colonial labor. It explains piece-work, the Stahknovite movement, seven day weeks, Taylorism, alienation, continued divisions of mental and manual labor, cities, deification of scientists, all as a necessity for abundance--the newest pre-requisite stage of socialism. Yet there is persistent ambiguity. If the theory of productive forces was the ideological premise for forced collectivization and rapid industrialization in the U.S.S.R, what then would be the importance given to the historical indications of an impending German advance?

Cohen's one-dimensional view denies revolutionary agency, or virtually any human agency--except an innate drive to create improved technology. There is really no need for a party (absent in the text) when the productive forces will carry the day. Nor is there need for concentrated violence to convince elites of a new way to live--or the alternatives. Indeed what is needed, as the "Ghostbusters" knew, is scientists. Given an infinite number of laboratories and an infinite number of people in white coats; there is no holding us back.

In the battle of quotes, now comes Engels in 1893, "..the fatuous notion of the ideologists that because we deny an independent historical development to the various ideological spheres which play a part in history, we also deny them any EFFECT UPON HISTORY. The basis of this is the common undialectical conception of cause and effect as rigidly opposite poles, the total disregarding of interaction."(35)

Still, it is not possible to wholly refute the claim that Marx did present a case riddled with technological determinism. But his, "I am not a Marxist", would seem to set this issue aside. The question for Cohen, what did Marx say and when, is better posed as: What is a dialectical and historical report on the material world as it changes today? This is the only scaffold I would try to build on which to hang Cohen. The weight in quotations may make his case (though I believe I have presented counter-evidence). I say the history and the conditions of the real world make mine. Fortunately, ironically, I am aided by the absence of socialism in any one country. The unleashed productive forces simply did not carry the day.(36)

There is no reason to believe that there will be abundance following any social upheaval in the foreseeable future. Indeed, after a revolution, there is likely to be mass destruction, wreckage of the productive forces. A population that is won only to the good life as a motive for change will not long remain loyal to a regime that asks it to de-consume. What can drive and sustain revolutionary activity is the historically well-grounded calls for democracy and equality that propel all of human experience.

It follows that I do not think I have "let go the balloon", abandoned Marxist materialism, or entered into a world so dominated by ideology that I am unable to recognize the necessity of work, production. I contend, again, that capitalism is a world-wide system, that it can be taken up anywhere as a system that has outlived its usefulness, particularly in human terms--in terms of the damage it does some classes in order to meet the privileges of others. It is neither opportunism nor sectarianism, mechanical materialism nor unhinged dialectics to argue, within the bounds of history and the current conditions, that democratic equality is a material possibility, something masses of people can grasp, fight for, and win. Two prongs into that possibility are an analysis of what has mislead socialism so far, and what it is we think socialism can be. We still have a world to win, and less to lose every day.


1. See for example, Freire, Paulo (1971) "Pedagogy of the Oppressed", Continuum Publications, New York, or (1973) "Education for Critical Consciousness", Continuum, New York. The effort here will be helpful in addressing the more orthodox aspects of Freire, that is, his work in Grenada and throughout Latin America and Africa. While my focus will be to deal with Freire within his own framework of literacy=critical consciousness=revolution; I also hope to demonstrate elsewhere that his use of a flawed paradigm could not lead to the better world he envisioned.

2. Ephraim Nimni, in "Marxism and Nationalism" (1991, Pluto Press, Boulder), makes an interesting attack on the theory of productive forces as a theoretical explanation for nationalist positions within the Marxist framework. Unfortunately, rather than perceiving the source as a problem, he reverts to the nationalism of Otto Bauer as a way out. Christopher Pines, in "Ideology and False Consciousness, Marx and his Historical Progenitors", (1993, Suny Press, New York) opens interesting possibilities through his thorough-going description of Marx's views on the ability of various ruling classes to misrepresent their narrow self-interests as the interests of the masses. His effort helped give me confidence in the possibilities for egalitarian consciousness described in the brief Chines experience below.

3. See for example: Mayo, Henry B., (1979) Introduction to Marxist Theory, Oxford University Press, New York. Mayo's fundamentally anti-communist analysis is none-the-less strengthened by his ability to lay out the key debates within Marxism, as well as his polemics originating from the right. See especially his chapters on Historical Materialism and Class Struggle for an interesting severing of politics and economics.

4. Marx-Engels Reader (MER)(1972) Robert Tucker editor, from Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, Norton and Company, New York, p3.

5. MER, The German Ideology, p159.

6. MER, Contribution to the Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Right, p60.

7. MER, Engels, Letter to Joseph Bloch, 1890,p762.

8. MER, Communist Manifesto, p473.

9. MER, From the Introduction to the Communist Manifesto, Russian Edition, p472

10. Tucker, Robert, 1975, The Lenin Anthology, Norton, New York, p639.

11. See for example, Gueverra, Che (1969) On Guerrilla Warfare, Ramparts Publications, Los Angeles, for an interesting discussion of the relationship of leaders and the cadre and the people.

12. Franklin, Bruce, ed.(1972), The Essential (sic) Stalin, Major Theoretical Writings, (ESTW) Doubleday, New York. From Stalin's "Dialectical and Historical Materialism". p320. It is an interesting sidelight to this paper that Stalin, in his officially seminal article, wipes out, shall we say negates, the "negation of the negation" as a law of dialectics. Gustav Wetter explores this strategy in his anti-communist but most interesting, "Dialectical Materialism".

13. ESTW, p315. Stalin is more probing when dealing with an abstraction, language, then when faced with a particular social question. In "Marxism and Linguistics", Stalin argues that language is not a superstructure on the base. But, unable to work beyond a binary opposition, a thing being simply one or the other, Stalin is forced to posit that language stands outside and above class struggle. Even so, within his binary paradigm, Stalin does say, "...the superstructure is a product of the base, but this does not mean it merely reflects the base, that it is passive, neutral, indifferent to the fate of its base, to the fate of the classes, to the character of the system. On the contrary, no sooner does it arise than it becomes an exceedingly active force, actively assisting its base to take shape and consolidate itself, and doing everything it can to help build the new system finish off and eliminate the old base and the old classes." (from Lang, B.--1975--Marxism and Art--David Mackay Publishing, New York p81)

Marx also hinted that art, like language, might stand outside the bounds of class struggle--or that its relationship might be more interpenetrating than a binary contradiction. "But the difficulty is not in understanding the idea that Greek art and epos are bound up with certain forms of social development. It rather lies in understanding why they still constitute with us a source of aesthetic enjoyment and in certain respects prevail as the standard and model beyond attainment". (Introduction to the Critique of Political Economy--1981--International Publishers, New York, p21).

14. ESTW, 326

15. I note here that the differences between Stalin and Trotsky seem minimal when the Theory of Productive Forces is called to question. Trotsky's sense of permanent revolution (addressed most clearly, I believe, in The Third International After Lenin, is really propelled by the same theoretical base. What is debated then, is how to implement a flawed theory, and when. Rather than fundamental difference in goals or vision which, given Trotsky's behavior in regard to inegalitarian practice--for example in the army or his positions on smashing the trade unions, is unlikely; what we have is a secondary dispute. Trotsky is given short shrift in this article, then, not because he is not important, but because he is not, in my view, truly dissimilar.

16. It is probably no accident that Stalin's loss of memory about the negation of the negation took place around the same time he declared the U.S.S.R. a "state of all the people" which would need no further revolution to wend its way through socialism to communism, and that Mao's discovery of "non-antagonistic" contradictions comes around the same time he wanted to build a second alliance with the Guomindang.

17. Paulo Freire's "Pedagogy of the Oppressed" is specially clear on this issue and, remarkably, often mirrors Saul Alinsky's, "Rules for Radicals".

18. ESTW, Franklin makes this case in his introduction.

19. For a sophisticated deconstruction of a piece of the history behind Stalin's period, see for example, Getty, J. Arch (1988), "Origins of the Great Purges", Putnam, New York.

20. Lenin (1964) Against Revisionism, In Defense of Marxism, International Publishers, New York p110.

21. Ibid. p41

22. Lenin, (1967) What is to be Done, International Publishers, p75

23. For a good examination of the Red Army, see Samuel Griffith's "The Chinese People's Liberation Army" or Edgar Snow's, Red Star Over China. The "Selected Works of Zhu De" describe the egalitarian practices in the red army. William Hinton's "Fanshen" and "Shenfan" illuminate the experiences of the Chinese people in liberation and counter-revolution, and contain clues as to how the counter-revolution was created. Meisner's, "Mao's China", has an interesting take on the cultural revolution which lends some credence to the idea that the GPCR was a left movement that Mao did not initiate but was able to coopt--then smash. The pamphlet, "Whither China", in my possession, offers a view of the Cultural Revolution from a self-named "Ultra-Left Commune" which claims "...the Cultural Revolution is not a revolution of dismissing officials or a movement of dragging out people, not a purely cultural revolution, but it is 'a revolution in which one class overthrows another'. Going further, they claim that in Shanghai, in January 1967, there were indications of a higher stage of people's commune: "For the first time, the workers had the feeling that 'it is not the state which manages us; but we who manage the state'. p85. The Ultra-Left Commune, while calling into question the interests of the socialist state as a new form of oppression, nevertheless was unable to get past the deification of Mao--or stage theory which insists on the need for tiny steps toward equality. But even in the "Ultra-Left" ranks there are a"few who want to proceed until communism is realized".From a more conservative angle, see Macfarquhar's "The Origins of the Cultural Revolution, Volume I and II." I found Stuart Schram's recent "The Thought of Mao-Tse-Tung" to be the best piece interpreting Mao, superior even to his earlier, "Political Thought of Mao-Tse-Tung. Starr's, "Continuing the Revolution" contains an incisive commentary of the nature of the revolutionary state. The pamphlets, "The Differences Between Comrade Togliatti and Us", "More on the Differences Between Comrade Togliatti and Us" , "Where Do Correct Ideas Come From", and "Three Major Struggles on China's Philosophical Front, 1949-64)", contained the seeds of the critique of the theory of productive forces which I pursue herein.

24. For a discussion of the sense of equality which led me to believe there is no reason to wait any longer, see, "Babeuf's Conspiracy for Equality" by Phillipe Buonarroti, translated by B. O'Brien, Reprints of Economic Classics, Augustus Kelley, Bookseller, New York.

25. From "On Contradiction" by Mao Tse Tung, quoted in "Three Major Struggles on China's Philosophical Front",(TMS), no author named, Foreign Language Press, Peking, 1973. p24

26. Mao-Tse-Tung, (1977), A Critique of Soviet Economics, (CSE) Monthly Review Press, New York p50. There is a very interesting critique of Stalin in this book, usually quieted by the Chinese historical estimate of Stalin as 60% good, 40% bad.

27. TMS p25.

28. Lenin (1969), State and Revolution, China Publications, New York p92.

29. Cohen, Gerald (1978) Karl Marx's Theory of History, A Defence, Princeton University Press, Princeton New Jersey. Cohen's prominence as a defender of the materialist faith is recognized in "A Dictionary of Marxist Thought", edited by Tom Bottomore, Blackwell Publishing, New York 1990.

30. Cohen, p119

31. Cohen p316

32. Laurence Harris, in the Dictionary of Marxist Philosophy, uses a chain metaphor to describe Cohen's analysis, "...the development of the productive forces LEADS to a contradiction between them and the relations of production (which 'turn into their fetters') and the intensification of this contradiction LEADS to the breakdown of the existing MODE of production and its superstructure". One link necessarily, and ONLY, follows the next. For the want of the link the revolution was lost? p204

33. For an interesting discussion from an anarchist view of the nature of commodity fetishism and revolutionary possibilities beyond mechanical materialism, see any of the works of Freddy Perlman, especially the "Continuing Appeal of Nationalism", Black and Red publications, Detroit, 1971. Perlman's anarchist view also contains traces of the sense of democracy and equality which drives this paper. However, Perlman's key goal is to smash the state. I believe the state is necessary to defend what has been gained--but only a state tied to the practice of a mass line, the privilege of the state's employees being the opportunity to sacrifice for the common good.

34. See for example, Kautsky's "Historical Materialism", New London Publishers, London (1949) and Plekhanov, "The Development of the Monist View of History", International Publishers, (1974) New York. Althusser, in his efforts to interrelate superstructure and base, was also unable to break through this mechanical trap.

35. Selected Correspondence of Marx and Engels (1953) Foreign Language Publishing House, Moscow p542--their emphasis.

36. While I would not offer a case that Cuba is a socialist country within the bounds of arguing that the Cuban state is in the hands of the masses of Cuban workers, I do note that scarcity has long been a part of Cuban life and that for some time it has been politics, not cane production, which held together what remains of the Cuban revolution.