Feudalism, Capitalism, Socialism, Communism?

 March 2012


Dear Students and Fellow Workers,

This is to recover and expand the class discussion where student photos demonstrated to me that my handwriting needs some assistance. It’s not an assignment, but an invitation to review some of the key things we have addressed.

We were talking about two things: dialectical materialism (the philosophy of how things change), and historical materialism (the background of how society has changed in the past).

I have argued that history studies the social relations that people create in order to struggle to produce, reproduce, learn what is true, and be free.

Social relations involve classes, race, culture (religion), nations, sex/gender, etc. This analysis focuses mainly, but not only, on class. Freudian analysis, for example, is not in this picture, but perhaps it should be.

This is a link that summarizes what dialectical materialism is: http://richgibson.com/diamatoutline.html

As we apply that philosophical (and actually scientific) view to history, we can see that Feudalism gave birth to Capitalism which in some instances lay the ground for Socialism.

Socialism, I believe, failed because, in very brief, it was little more than capitalism with a party, promising benevolence, at the top. That party, in each instance, became a new class with interests, not for the majority, but for itself.

Communism has never existed except, to a degree, within some social justice movements but communism never ruled a government, a state.

Feudalism is characterized, at the top, by Kings, Queens, Knights, Priests, and as we work our way down the ladder, small artisans, peasants producing for their own consumption as well as for the Lords, and some surplus production is offered for sale. Those at the top of feudalism have an interest in keeping things as they are, ruling by grace of God. Successful feudalism, if there is such a thing, freezes societies (the Spanish empire over Mexico).

Inside feudalism grows an embryo of producers, bankers, explorers, technicians, scientists, artists, etc., who have an interest in change. Over time, a long time, a working class is born–people who are dispossessed from the land, who must sell their labor to live.

Within the contradiction of feudalists and the growing classes who oppose it, goods are beginning to be produced, not for use, but for sale: commodity production. As this form of production develops, more and more people are displaced from the land, becoming a early form of the working class.

Again, over time, the feudalists (Kings, Queens, etc) resist the changes that are inherent in the growth of commodity production, exchange, science (Galileo), etc. They have an interest in keeping things exactly as they are while the growing class beneath them, both workers and budding capitalists, have an interest in getting the feudalists out of their way. This, at base, is a contradictory relationship and quantity, capitalists and workers vs feudalists, eventually becomes a qualitative change.

Bourgeoisie (capitalist) revolution: France 1789. The French revolution is seen as the baseline of all future revolutions although it was, in part, propelled by the American revolution which declared that “all men (sic) are created equal,” that oppressed people have a duty to lay out their grievances in detail and, once that is done, the right to make a revolution (Declaration of Independence).

The French revolution swept across Europe, taking different forms in different areas, but the French armies were powerful. Capitalism is born in violence.

In England, actions for reforms from capitalists and workers alike set the Feudalists aside, made them something like ornaments.

Capitalism is a revolutionary system demanding new technology, science, exploration, etc. Culture is commodified and sold, just as all production is designed to create commodities for sale and then for profit, more specifically, for surplus value.

Surplus value is, in very brief, what is left from profits after taxes are paid, investments are made for new machinery, facilities, exploration, research, etc. Surplus value is like gasoline to cars, it is what makes capital move.

Within capitalism (see the negation of the negation in dialectical materialism) grows a working class which has contradictory interests to the capitalists (who personify capital and think they run it, but they do not–they run after it).

The working class is more and more dispossessed from the land, often by violence (Uganda today for example, but England two hundred years ago).

Inside capitalism we see a variety of contradictions:

*Production is socialized (thousands of workers in plants making commodities) yet appropriation and exchange are private: profits go to the capitalists.

*Finance and industrial capitalists are both united and at odds with each other.

*While capitalists formally resist government interference, they come to rely more and more on the government which, over time, becomes their executive committee and armed weapon: bailouts for finance and industrial capitalists; imperialist wars. The corporate state evolves.

*Big capitalist fish eat little capitalist fish and monopolies rise up, fast (Rockefeller, Carnegie, Mellon, etc).

*Anarchy exists in production and exchange (more and more commodities are created for sale, to the point of a crisis of overproduction, realized when workers can no longer buy what they produce).

*An excess of laborers grows; no jobs due to overproduction crises.

*Wars between empires (imperialist wars) for cheap labor, raw materials, markets, and regional control.

*As per the Industrial Workers of the World (anarcho-syndicalists), “the working class and the employing class have nothing in common.” (Actually, they do: contradiction).

*Feudalism, or its appearances, still exists within capitalism: the Church.

*Capitalism requires rapid, even astonishing advances in science (the Moon trips) but retains interests in preserving unscientific ideologies that are profitable divide and rule tools (racism).

*Capitalism commodifies sexuality (pole dancers abound) but, of course, requires it.

Socialism presumes a revolution happened, upending the social order (fanshen–a shovel turning over the earth, or, withdrawing the mandate from heaven).

Socialism presumes the working class will recognize its own interests, develop class consciousness, and use its might to defeat the old ruling, capitalist, class.

Under socialism, the government continues to exist as a weapon of the majority of people, a dictatorship of the proletariat. It is there to promote greater equality, to organize production and exchange, to defend against internal and external enemies, etc.

The common slogan of socialism: from each according to their work, to each according to their need.

In the three prime examples of Socialism, Russia (later the USSR), China, and Cuba, parties that led the revolution felt they had to restore capitalist elements of production and science in order to fend off external enemies–which were very real: invasions by the capitalist world, internal enemies, etc.

In the USSR, this return to capitalism was called the New Economic Policy (which later morphed into a series of tragedies as the Communist Party of the Soviet Union decayed).

In China, the return to capitalism was called New Democracy. This was followed by the Cultural Revolution which was, ostensibly, to reverse the privileged rule of the party and, after nearly a decade of struggle, was ended by the Red Army, “to restore order,” that is, inequality.

In Cuba, the resumption of capital has been systematic and openly announced recently.

In each case, Russia, China, and Cuba, life improved a good deal for the majority of people, at great cost, and the improvements also became elements of the capitalist reversal.

Socialism has been seen as a stage on the way to communism.

Communism assumes that sufficient equality exists that there is no need for government. “From each according to commitment to each according to need.” External enemies are defeated. The world is united. The divisions of labor are gone (mental/manual; town/country, etc). People can live in harmony, each developing his/her talents in freedom, to their fullest extent.

There are problems with socialist and communist patterns of thinking. Some are noted above. One key problem: class consciousness. What is it that would make the dispossessed recognize their own interests and make a revolution, or, from the other angle, what keeps them in place? Further, why, after making a revolution, has it been possible for socialist parties to reverse the sacrifices made, and restore capitalism–presuming that it’s not human nature?

Chalmers Johnson did the best work on these issues, criticizing Marxist theory, in all his writing but, in my view, some of the finest comes in his book of the 60's: “Revolution.”

The outline above draws from the work of Karl Marx and his lifelong co-worker, Engels.

When they wrote, about 150 years ago, they changed the world. The idea that being determines consciousness, which then reflects back on being, upended both the way philosophy and history were done---and that idea remains a battleground. They established new terrain for the fight over why things are as they are.

We can see that today in, for example, competing analysis of US' wars. One side would argue that the wars are for democracy, freedom, and humanity. The other side would say: cheap labor, raw materials, markets, regional control--profits. Or, in different views of the banking crisis: the bailouts were for the common good, to save the US and world economy. The other side would argue the bailouts were a simple example of class rule, via a government that serves a few, not the many.

How you see that is your choice: decide who you are in relation to others, using history and all the other disciplines, and they decide what to do.

Below is the classic summation of dialectical and historical materialism (how things change in the real word).

"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 material productive forces. The sum total of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which rises a 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 in conflict with the existing relations of production, or — what is but a legal expression for 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 their fetters.

 Then begins an epoch of social revolution. With the change of the economic foundation the entire immense superstructure is more or less rapidly 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 can we not 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.