The evolution of society -A comprehensive view

by Ray Nunes April 1999

We are living in the socio-economic system known as capitalism. It is not eternal. There have been other socio-economic systems before it which we will consider as this article proceeds, and it will not be the last. The point is that societies as well as human beings, evolve. However, the evolution of society, while it is bound up with the evolution of man, is not identical with it.

The Darwinist theory of evolution concerns the physical development of different aspects of nature: plants, animals and all the multifarious forms of organic life, including man. Darwinism regards man as part of the animal kingdom descended from a precursor type of ape, beginning something over five million years ago. Early forms of human beings, known as hominids, have left behind fossil evidence that appears on the scene up to perhaps three million years ago. But modern man, homo sapiens, evolved from hominid ancestors somewhere between 100,000 and 150,000 years ago, during which time the social organisation known as hunter-gatherer society appeared. Primitive man of this period was a tribal dweller of the old stone age, paleolithic man, who had just the beginnings of social organisation, based on the primitive technology provided by the stone implements of production at his disposal. The continued evolution of society grows out of this period. But that depends also on the advance of primitive technology such as enables the transition to a stable form of tribal society able to hold its own in the struggle to survive the hostile forces of nature such as predators, a lengthy process.

What, then, is the decisive stage for the emergence of society proper? That period when he starts producing (and reproducing) the necessities of life, commonly called the means of subsistence. This is the period which sets man apart from the animals, a transition from early, brutish life, proceeding through a scavenging, hunting and gathering stage to a stage of producing, and not just collecting, the material means of subsistence. Such production enabled the formation of stable tribal society, leading eventually to settled communities. This level of social organisation rested, in fact, on the improvement of stone-age technology, both in the instruments of labour and in the production skills required for their use. Today, stone-age technology seems trifling, but then it was a big factor in social development. The acquisition of new stone tools which could also serve as weapons gave men new power in the battle against hostile nature. In particular they aided the collectivity of tribal life and co-operation for survival. Regular production of the means of subsistence at last became a reality.

The social development which we have so far depicted is based upon the brilliant research and analysis of two intellectual giants of the 19th century, Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, whose joint theory of historical materialism, also known as the materialist conception of history, (for which Engels gives the main credit to Marx), created a revolution in human thought. They were the closest of colleagues, who painstakingly studied all that was known of early history, in the process discovering and establishing the laws of development of human society.

The decade 1830-1840 saw massive class struggles in Europe between the wage workers and the towns and the burgeoning class of capitalists, employers of wage labour, even when the latter were moving to political supremacy. This class struggle forced itself to the forefront in all spheres of life, and in doing so compelled European thinkers to consider history anew.

Already a revolutionary democrat, Marx was impelled by the great social movements of the period to make a profound study of the different forms of human society which had existed up to that time. He showed for the first time the overriding importance of economic development as the underlying cause of all important historical events and movements, singling out the class struggle as the motive force of history.

The Materialist Conception of History

An excellent statement of the main principles of historical materialism is given by Engels in his popular exposition of Marxism: Socialism, Utopian and Scientific. Here is a brief extract from it . ‘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 on what is produced, how it is produced and how the products are exchanged. From this point of view the final cause of all social changes and political revolutions are to be sought, not in men’s brains, not in man’s better insight into eternal truth and justice, but in changes in the mode of production and exchange. They are to be sought not in the philosophy, but in the economics of each particular epoch’.

What then, happened to primitive tribal society? What caused it to change and what did it change into? Fundamentally, the cause lay in changes in the mode of production of the material means of subsistence.

The prehistory of man

At the time Marx and Engels first reached their views on historical materialism, in the mid-nineteenth century, nothing was known of prehistory, of the period before written history. The great American anthropologist Lewis Morgan rectified this in his masterly work Ancient Society. Marx and Engels openly acknowledged their debt to Morgan, the first to discover and reconstruct the whole epoch of prehistory.

Morgan had lived among the Iroquois Indians for twenty five years, researching their way of life. From his work it became clear to Marx and Engels that for thousands of years existing tribes were based on a primitive communal form of social organisation, with little in the way of productive forces at their disposal. Gradually new implements were developed and invented, using stone, wood, horn and bone to make axes, knives, clubs, stone-tipped spears, chisels and fish hooks. Men also learned how to make and use fire. Nevertheless the level of the productive forces was still very low. This necessitated common labour. Common labour entailed common ownership of the means of production, with relations of equality, co-operation and mutual assistance among members of the tribe. Likewise, the products of people’s labour were shared equally. What is decisive here is the common ownership of the means of production. Hence the description of this social epoch by Marx and Engels as ‘primitive communism’.

Morgan’s work provided Marx and Engels with the scientific basis for establishing ‘primitive communism’ as the socio-economic formation which preceded slave society.

Primitive Communism

Primitive communism as a social-economic formation lasted far longer than any of its successors, from early tribal life to the beginnings of civilisation in the form of slave society. The Maori and other Pacific peoples , both Polynesian and Melanesian, lived under forms of primitive communism before the incursions into their lands by European countries, sparked off by the development of capitalism.

Primitive communism lasted a whole historical epoch, based on a certain level of development of the productive forces. The principle productive force then, as now, was man with his production skills and techniques. Each main epoch in the development of human society constitutes a specific mode of production, or social-economic formation, of which five are now known: they are: Primitive communism, Slavery, Feudalism, Capitalism and Socialism (that is, the lower stage of Communism).

What caused the decline of primitive communism? Ultimately, it was the development – over a very long period of new and more advanced productive forces. Metal tools and implements replaced those of stone and wood: the wooden plough with a metal ploughshare, bronze and iron axes, iron speartips and arrowheads; these along with pottery, made labour far more productive than formerly. Herds of domesticated livestock could be raised, and crops grown by settled communities. These two pursuits – stock raising and agriculture – became separated from each other in the first great social division of labour, some tribes concentrating on stock raising, others on agriculture. Later on, handicrafts such as metal working, tool and weapon making, and the making of clothes and footwear, also became separate branches of production.

Slave society and primitive communism showed that the development of the productive forces was they key thing in forcing on the transformation of one great socio-economic formation into another. the instruments of production developed independently of man’s will. Their growth was the principal factor in the changes of the productive forces at man’s disposal. But as the productive forces of the epoch worked within the framework of a given set of production relations, as they grew in size and productivity, so they came into ever-sharper conflict with the previously established production relations. Eventually, this conflict ended in the overthrow of existing production relations, ushering in a new social order, or socio-economic formation; those production relations (or the property relations within which they had to develop) had become a fetter on further social development. They had to be broken up, cast aside, and replaced by new ones at a higher level, giving new and higher production relations which help the new productive forces to develop. Just as slave society had superseded primitive communism, so feudal society superseded slave society.

What is the connection of slavery with today’s world? Engels answers: ‘It was slavery that first made possible the division of labour between agriculture and industry on a larger scale, and thereby also hellenism, the flowering of the ancient world. [Hellas = Greece). Without slavery, no Greek art and science; without slavery, no Roman Empire. But without the basis laid by Grecian culture, the Roman Empire, also no modern Europe. We should never forget that our whole economic, political and intellectual development presupposes a state of things in which slavery was as necessary as it was universally recognised. In this sense, we are entitled to say: Without the slavery of antiquity no modern socialism’.

From Slavery to Feudalism

Slave labour, earlier the source of great profits to the slaveowners, from being a form of social development finally became a hindrance to further development. With the decline and fall of the Roman Empire, the hub of slavery throughout Europe, so the old production relations of slave society no longer fitted the expansion of the new productive forces. Feudalism took the place of slavery. The barbarian Germanic tribes which overthrew and defeated Rome adapted their already existing gentile constitution to the actual conditions then prevailing. Large scale slave labour estates owned by Roman aristocrats were no longer profitable. Small-scale farming once more became the rule. Engels comments that estates were parcelled out among tenants and farm managers, ‘Mainly, however’, he notes, ‘these small plots were distributed to coloni, who paid a fixed amount annually, were attached to the land and could be sold together with the plots. These were not slaves, but neither were they free. They were the forerunners of the medieval serfs’.

Feudal production

Over a period of about four hundred years feudalism gradually became established throughout Europe. Kings and a landowning nobility arose, seizing land and reallocating part of it to dependent peasants and serfs who, in return worked their landlord’s land for nothing except the right for each to work a small plot for himself and his family.

Despite the fact that serfs and small peasants were exploited by landowners, because they could in a small way own their own means of production – a plot of land and tools to work it – and also own their own product, they had much more incentive to labour than slaves. They looked after and improved their tools, and sought to improve by wider use of fertiliser, the use of animal power for ploughing and transport, and the development of the three-field system; handmills were supplemented by water and windmills. New crafts developed: iron was produced from pig-iron; paper, gunpowder and printing were invented (or re-invented, having first appeared in China). The craftsman, often originally a serf, obtained increased status.

With greater production under the new system, trade increased, leading to the growth of new towns as trading centres. Artisans could own their own tools and products, and took the trouble to improve techniques. The towns played an ever more important role in feudal society, becoming havens for runaway serfs and centres of the new, developing industries out of which capitalism was born.

As the centuries passed, the growing middle class of the towns (middle because between the aristocracy and the peasants), the burghers or bourgeoisie, strove for independence from the rule of the landowning nobility. As trade and manufacture grew in importance, so too did the bourgeoisie. The new productive forces introduced in the towns included the system of manufacture – that is, simple co-operative labour in production. Most labouring people were serfs or peasants tied to the land. To provide labour for manufacture this connection had to be broken, and was.

Thus, within the framework of feudal class relations a great growth of capitalism and the capitalist class took place. Once more the productive forces had outstripped the productive relations and a new socio-economic formation had to overthrow the old; capitalism had to overthrow feudalism by force in order to seize political power and create the conditions for a new growth of the productive forces, which now were able to achieve an immense growth, based on the development of wage labour. This form of labour was at the same time social labour as distinct from the individual labour of the feudal artisan or peasant. It enabled giant strides to be made in production.

Marx and Engels gave a graphic summary of this process in the Communist Manifesto (1848):

The bourgeoisie, during its rule of scarce one hundred years, has created more massive and more colossal productive forces than have all preceding generations together. Subjection of nature’s forces to man, machinery, application of chemistry to industry and agriculture, steam navigation, railways, electric telegraphs, clearing of whole continents for cultivation, canalisation of rivers, whole populations conjured out of the ground – what earlier century had even a presentiment that such productive forces slumbered in the lap of social labour?

But capitalism is not the last word in social development. It, too, has seen in Soviet Russia and People’s China the overthrow of capitalism. that is a fact of history. That socialism was lost in all the countries where it had achieved state power, and capitalism has been restored is a serious blow to the aspirations of the working class, but, while a big setback , this is nevertheless only a temporary situation. History is still certain to throw up new socialist revolutions which will bring about a transformation in one after another sector of the human race. In the 1950s one-third of the population of the world was living under socialism. that time will come again, and ‘the end’ will be written to the capitalist world system.

History, as Marx and Engels proved in their immense intellectual labours, is a law-governed process, by which is meant natural, and not constitutional, law. Each mode of production, or socio-economic formation, has its own special laws of development.

As previously noted, the production relations of each epoch necessarily correspond to a certain level of the productive forces at society’s disposal, which, as we have already seen, consists of people with their production skills plus the tools or instruments of production. As Marx succinctly puts it: ‘The hand-mill gives you society with the feudal lord; the steam-mill with the industrial capitalist’.[1]

It is a common feature of human society in all periods of history that it can only exist by producing the necessities of life, such as food, clothing and shelter. In this very process of producing, people willy-nilly form definite relationships. These are called ‘relations of production’ or, more briefly, ‘production relations,’ and they concern how people stand towards the means of production; whether they own them in common, as under Communism, or whether one class owns them and can thus exploit another class as under slavery, feudalism and capitalism.

Whatever the epoch, these production relations form the foundation, the basis or economic structure of society. Under communism, primitive or advanced, the basis is classless, because the means of production are socially owned. Under slavery, the basis is the dominant production relations of slaveowners to slaves; under feudalism, it is those of feudal lords to serfs, and under capitalism, those of capitalists to workers.

In the foregoing sketch of development we have spoken of Primitive Communism, Slavery, Feudalism, Capitalism and Socialism. Each of these social systems consists, like a building, of two closely connected parts, a ‘basis’ and a ‘superstructure’. It includes different kinds of governing bodies – democratic assemblies or monarch’s courts, for instance; the state with its armed forces, police and law courts, churches, academies and so on. A set of ideas in regard to politics, religion, law, art and culture, etc. also grows up which form an ideological superstructure as part of the whole the most decisive The most decisive institution of the superstructure and the principal one on which the political power of a ruling class rests, is the state. In the imperialist (modern monopoly) stage of capitalism the monopoly capitalists have created a huge military-bureaucratic state machine as an instrument of suppression. In classless society there will be no state, for there will be no classes to suppress.

Under capitalism different political parties may be elected to office in ‘democracies’. They may make some reforms, but they cannot and do not make any fundamental change to the basis. For that, something very different is needed – a revolution. ‘Labour Governments’ come and go. But the capitalist basis remains.

In the physical world surrounding us or, as it is called, Nature, and in human society and human thought as well, change and development take place as a result of constant struggles between opposing tendencies or forces, i.e., opposites. Such opposites are called ‘contradictions’. And in human society the basic contradiction is that between the productive forces and the production relations. It is this contradiction that is the motive force which pushes forward the development of society. In a class-divided society such as capitalism the basic contradiction manifests itself as a struggle between classes.

New relations of production when they are established assist the productive forces to develop, but in time they become a barrier to the further growth of the latter. A conflict between the two develops and grows sharper until a point is reached where it culminates in a social revolution, when the old production relations are overthrown and replaced by new ones and society is reconstituted on a new basis. The old superstructure then undergoes big changes to bring it into line with the new basis.

Laws of social development

The evolution of man from other organic species was firmly established, except for religious obscurantists, by Darwin in the mid-nineteenth century. As Darwin showed, evolution was (and is) a law-governed process. So too is the development of human society.

This article is headed ‘The Evolution of Human Society’ in order to throw light on the development of society and on the laws which govern that process. It leaves unsaid much of the teachings of historical materialism so as to concentrate on the main essentials. As we have indicated, certain general laws of development hold good for society. These are:

1). The law of contradiction between the productive forces and the production relations. The operation of this law brings about the transformation of one socio-economic formation into another through the sharpening of the contradiction. It is the basic law of social development. In class-divided society it is expressed by the struggle between oppressed classes.

2). The law of basis and superstructure. Every social system consists of an economic basis and a superstructure erected upon it. A fundamental change in a social system takes place when a social revolution changes the basis and then proceeds to change the superstructure.

3). The law of class struggle. In a class-divided society the underlying economic contradictions are expressed in society as a class struggle which is the motive force of social development. The sharpening of this struggle brings about a social revolution.

A summing up

As can be seen, these are general laws, not laws solely applicable to capitalist society.

The materialist conception of history is the only scientific view of history. This conception for the first time places history on a proper foundation, showing the mass of the people as the real makers of history. It is they throughout history who have maintained society through their productive work; it is they who, in earlier generations have been the principal agents in improving the instruments of production along with scientific experiment, and it is they who advance society through their actions in class struggle. It is beyond doubt that such struggle will lead, in New Zealand as elsewhere, to a new socialist society.

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