What Makes Things Change?

Against the Current, No. 14, May/June 1988

Tony Smith

Analyzing Marx
By Richard W. Miller
Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1984. $31.50 hardback, $9.95 paperback.

RICHARD W. MILLER’S Analyzing Marx is in my view the most significant philosophical work ever written on Marx in English. Not the least of its contributions is the thorough and definitive refutation of technological determinism, both as an interpretation of Marx and as a plausible view of history in its own right.

There are three central questions any version of historical materialism must answer. Why is it that the economic structure of a society, its production relations, remains stable, when it does? What accounts for the development of the productive forces? What accounts for basic internal change when it does occur, and what accounts for the direction of that change?

The technological determinist gives clear answers to each. Economic structures are stable whenever they further the development of productive capacity better than any other arrangement. Productive forces mainly develop due to the innate desire to overcome natural scarcity. And significant social change occurs whenever a given economic structure holds back the development of the productive forces, and it occurs in the direction of an economic structure that can best further the development of those productive forces.

1his theory has the virtue of being easily testable. Unfortunately it fails all tests, a fact that Max Weber and others took as a refutation of Marxism. But Miller conclusively shows that Marx himself rejected all three key assertions of technological determinism.

Regarding the stability of economic structures, Marx insists that the political and ideological power of a ruling class is the basis for this stability, even when alternatives at least as conducive to the development of the productive forces are present.

Why Things Change

Marx’s discussion of the development of the productive forces emphasizes the powerful influence of the productive relations and commercial and political relations on that development. And if work relations are excluded from the productive forces (as they must be for the sharp separation of productive relations and productive forces required by technological determinism), then in Marx’s view it is not true that reference to the productive forces is ever sufficient to account for the timing and direction of significant change in economic structures.

Miller argues that Marx himself defends what he terms a means of production theory of history (henceforth “MOPT”). 1his theory has two variants, a narrow one found in Marx’s general theoretical writings on history that is compatible with most of his historical studies, and a broader version compatible with most of his general statements and with all his concrete historical writings.

Both the narrow and the broad versions explain the stability of economic structures in terms of the needs and the political and ideological power of a ruling class. And both point to a “zigzag dialectic” between the productive forces and other levels of social processes in accounting for the development of the former.

Regarding the question of the timing and direction of change in economic structures, the two versions diverge. The narrow version asserts that the productive forces, now including work relations, do play an essential role. If either new productive forces are developed or old ones are increased, and if the given economic structure discourages their effective use or further development, then a non-dominant class may be able to unite other subordinate groups in a struggle to set up a new economic structure better adapted to the productive forces.

However great the role of the productive forces here, this is not technological determinism. For one thing, in this version the productive forces include work relations; this cannot be the case in a plausible version of technological determinism.

Even more significant, while the economic structure that results may allow the productive forces to develop more than the initial economic structure, there is no reason whatever to assert that this arrangement will be more productive than other economic structures possible at the time.

In the broader version of the MOPT the growth of productive forces is not the essential source of change. Emphasis is given instead to contradictions within the economic structure itself.

The process of reproducing given relations of production may have as an inevitable but unintended consequence a shift in power within the classes making up the production relations and new-felt needs within those groups to whom power has shifted. In this manner a subordinate class may acquire sufficient mobility, discipline and security to overthrow the old ruling class. In Miller’s view the broader version is more adequate as an interpretation of Marx (217- 218).

This brief summary has not even begun to do justice to the scholarship and historical erudition Miller displays in this book My own view is that after Miller it will never again be intellectually respectable for a philosopher to interpret Marx as a technological determinist; that interpretation has been as convincingly refuted as any interpretation can be.

Given my complete agreement with Miller’s refutation, my discussion is limited to two issues concerning the MOPT itself: (1) the role of ideological factors in history; and (2) the practical implications of Miller’s theory of history for Third World countries.

What Are Production Relations?

The first issue I wish to raise concerns a contribution made by Miller that might not be noticed at first reading. Miller takes what he terms a “holistic” approach in dealing with what in the traditional vocabulary of historical materialism is termed the relationship between base and superstructure. In Miller’s view the relations of production, the base, explain developments in the super structural realms such as commerce, politics and ideology. Yet this does not mean that the relations of production can be adequately defined independently of what they explain.

Miller thus rejects the orthodox Marxist position that defines productive relations exclusively “as relations of control over people, labor power, raw materials, or productive forces in the process of material production” (177). He instead insists that the definition of these relations must also make reference to the “means and consequences” of control employed.

Otherwise, two problems result. One has no reason not to categorize ice-cream capitalists and automobile capitalists as members of different classes, since both control different types of objects. And one has no way of picking out precisely those features of the mode of production that are most relevant for explaining superstructural phenomena.

This holistic account is a profound advance over the received view of the base/superstructure distinction. It also leads Miller to an extremely important critique of the positivist presuppositions behind the received view. Here, however, I wish to stress a more practical implication of this account.

Social movements based on women, Blacks, oppressed religions and nationalities are, to some extent, the natural allies of Marxists. In many respects these movements are objectively (if not always subjectively) anti-capitalist in tendency.

Yet all too often these social movements and Marxism have been indifferent if not hostile to each other. Part of this is due to the nature of these movements themselves. They cut across class lines and include many who only wish to consolidate (or attain) their own class position as bourgeoisie. Marxists, of course, must be critical of this sector of these movements.

Yet there is another sort of reason for the tensions between Marxists and these social movements for which the former are to be blamed. Marxists have been too quick to reduce all issues to those of class, thus negating the specificity of the oppression faced by women, Blacks, religious and national groups. These latter forms of oppression have been dismissed as secondary, as “merely” superstructural, as “merely” ideological.

It is true that in working out his holistic account Miller tends to stress the political factors necessary to define production relations, for example, when he writes:

“[My] argument for locating internal change within the mode of production depends on flexibility in distinguishing the social relations of production from the political superstructure. If means and consequences of control could not be used to define relations of production, further factors for change would be available, located in the political realm as against the mode of production. Organized means of controlling human recalcitrance are always, in a certain broad sense, political. Yet such means, employed to control the surplus product, may be ultimately self-transforming…. Here, the holistic understanding of “relations of production” and of basic differences in type among economic structures is not optional” (258).

This simply expands the category of “class” from a narrowly economic meaning to one that includes a political component. If this were the entire story, then once again a Marxist would have neglected non-class forms of oppression and struggle. But while Miller may have made this mistake in earlier articles (see ”Producing Change: Work, Technology, and Power in Marx’s Theory of History,”

In After Marx, edited by Terence Ball and James Farr, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,1984, 63), in Analyzing Marx he explicitly asserts that ‘the political and ideological aspects are equally important” (206).

Understanding Oppression

Sex, race, religion and nationality are areas where an integral, holistic connection between ideology and the relations of production is significant. In many types of economic structure, sexist, racist, religious and nationalist ideologies have played an important role in the historical construction of the division of labor and in the reproduction of labor power, two essential features of the relations of production.

Miller quotes Marx’s own discussion of how ideological factors-“the press, the pulpit, the comic papers, in short … all the means at the disposal of the ruling class”-divided the working class along nationalistic lines (263). It is also possible to incorporate leading concerns of feminist struggles within Miller’s framework. Concerning the role of sexist ideology, Michele Barrett writes in Women’s Oppression Today:

“It is impossible to understand the division of labour, for instance, with its differential definitions of “skill,” without taking into account the material effects of gender ideology. The belief that a (white) man has a “right” to work over and above any rights of married women or immigrants has had significant effects in the organization of the labour force. Such a belief has therefore to be taken into account when analyzing the division of labour, but its location in material practices does not render it material in the same way.” (London: New Left Books, 1980, 68.)

Here we have a situation exactly parallel to a holistic incorporation of the political into the definition of the means of production. Without considering ideological factors we cannot fully define a set of production relations in which women end up in the low-skill sector of the labor market with its low pay, little training and ease of dispensability. (Part of the ideology in question is that which relegates women to domesticity and pro­ claims this to be natural and desirable.)

In this manner the specificity of the oppression faced by women, Blacks, religious and national groups can be united with a class perspective, without being either dismissed as secondary or reduced to class issues. This presents a theoretical foundation for a politics of coalition, for an alliance between Marxists and the non-bourgeois factions of the social movements against these non-class forms of oppression. Providing this foundation is not the least of the contributions made in Analyzing Marx.

What Kind of Revolution?

My second comment regards the historical justification of revolution in underdeveloped countries of the Third World. Miller mentions repeatedly that technological determinism, while not logically committed to antirevolutionary implications regarding revolts in the Third World, at the least can easily be pushed in that direction:

“Regimes in many countries with little advanced technology … call on Marxists to support a policy of modernizing technology without instituting socialism, on the grounds that this is a necessary preliminary to socialism. Technological determinism is an important basis for these appeals. The technological determinist emphasis on productivity also has poignant implications for countries … where capitalism is pushing per capita GNP ahead by leaps and bounds, despite poverty, degradation and repression. It does not seem that socialism would do a better job of increasing material productivity in these countries, even if it would eliminate much misery. A technological determinist interpretation of Marx suggests a Marxist argument against fighting for socialism now in these countries. “Capitalism is not yet obsolete here” is an argument which is, in fact, advanced by Communist parties, both Moscow- and Peking-oriented” (184).

Instead of revolution, technological determinists often call for an alliance with the national bourgeoisie in which the latter are supported on the grounds that they will develop the productive forces (271). Miller quite correctly takes pride in the fact that the MOPT has no such tendencies: 11In politics, the mode of production theory broadens the material preconditions for socialism, while providing a rationale for revolution as the necessary basis for radical change” (173-74).

Miller has done the service of introducing into contemporary philosophical discussion of Marxism an issue that goes back to the confrontation between Stalin and Trotsky in the 1920s and ’30s (and ultimately back to Marx’s own speculations regarding the possibility of a socialist revolution in czarist Russia).

Stalin, arguing from a technological determinist position, insisted upon a stages theory of history in which a capitalist stage must be gone through in order to develop the productive forces. Based on this view he had the Comintern order the Communist parties of various countries (for example, China in the mid- 1920s) to submit to the rule of the national bourgeoisie even in revolutionary situations.

Trotsky vehemently rejected this policy. His doctrine of permanent revolution states that social conditions may be such that the revolutionary situation demands that the working class seize state power, even if the productive forces in the country remain backward. If this is not done, if socialist groups simply acquiesce in the rule of the national bourgeoisie, the results will often be disastrous for progressive forces. (Chiang Kai-Shek’s slaughter of progressive peasants and workers is just one of many substantiations of this.)

To a considerable degree Miller is clearly in Trotsky’s camp. Miller’s assertion that in underdeveloped countries work relations may be extremely advanced is consistent with Trotsky’s notion of combined and uneven development. (“It is at the level of work-relations that production in so-called ‘less developed countries’ is already highly advanced” (186). For Miller’s version of combined and uneven development see 241-44, 270-71.)

Also consistent with Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution is Miller’s assertion that these advanced work relations may justify socialists seizing state power:

“At least in the so-called ‘less developed’ countries, a frequent argument of self-described socialists against fighting for socialism now is, ‘The productive forces aren’t ripe.’ This argument has much less initial plausibility in the broad mode of production theory than in the narrow one. On the broader view, even where capitalism does not inhibit productivity, it may have created a working class with the need and the power to overthrow it” (200).

However, he also suggests that advanced work relations in themselves are sufficient for a transition to socialism, regardless of the level of productive capacity: “If changing work-relations, not new technology, may be the means by which productive forces dissolve old economic structures, then Marx’s general theories do not suggest that technological progress is a necessary means, or even an effective one, for a regime to advance a technologically backward region toward socialism” (194-95).

Material Conditions

Here Miller diverges from Trotsky and, I believe, from Marx. Socialism for both involves worker democracy. Worker democracy demands that workers engage at length in learning processes and in discussions of various proposals for production and distribution.

Such learning and discussion requires extended leisure. Extended leisure demands a high level of productive efficiency, of potential output per unit of labor input. And this requires not just changed work relations but advances in technology in the narrowest sense, for example, automation.

Contrast Miller’s statement with Trotsky’s remark: “Societies are not so rational in building that the date for proletarian dictatorship arrives exactly at that moment when the economic and cultural conditions are ripe for socialism.” Changing work relations alone may account for why a revolution should be made by socialists, but by themselves they are not sufficient to make a revolutionary transition to socialism possible.

Miller’s position here is open to both a political and a theoretical criticism. Politically Miller’s point here (as distinct from his personal views and his position elsewhere) lends itself readily to “Third Worldism.” Third Worldism is the view that (1) for various reasons socialist revolution has been blocked in the first world industrialized countries; and (2) there fore the only potential agents for constructing socialism are found in the underdeveloped countries of the Third World. The political problem here is that the necessity for revolution in the first world countries can be either denied outright or underplayed.

In contrast, Trotsky, Lenin and the other leaders of the Russian Revolution never thought for a moment that a successful revolution in an underdeveloped country could in itself bring about socialism. Their view was that for socialism to be possible in Russia required the sharing of advanced productive capacity that would follow a successful revolution in the industrially advanced West.

On this point Miller repeats the viewpoint of Stalin’s doctrine of “socialism in one country.” Against this, Trotsky argued-rightly in my view-for revolutionary internationalism, the perspective that socialism can be instituted only on a global level combining revolutionary change in both industrialized first and underdeveloped Third World countries.

Theoretically, the above suggests a shortcoming in Miller’s general theory of history. In his justified reaction to technological determinism and its one-sided emphasis on the role of the productive forces in the narrow sense (excluding work relations) in history, he has gone too far in a one-sided neglect of their role.

Miller writes: “In Marx’s essential theory, productive enhancement has no primary role among process of internal change. In the nonessential narrowing toward which he sometimes inclined, productive enhancement still lacks the particular primacy and the technological character assigned it by technological determinism” (173).

This perspective can account for transitions from one type of class society to another, for example, slavery to feudalism or feudalism to capitalism. Here productive enhancement indeed is not a necessary condition for structural change, since the change in structure simply replaces one surplus-appropriating class with another.

Socialist Transition ls Different

But this is not adequate for transitions involving the arising or disappearing of any sort of surplus-appropriating class-in particular, the original transitions from primitive classless society to class society, and from class society to socialism. For these transitions, the broader MOPT must be supplemented because productive enhancement does play a primary role, and the narrow MOPT must be supplemental because productive enhancement does involve a 11technological character,” that is, the expanded output per unit of labor input resulting from new sorts of motor forces, machinery, etc.

I have already given reasons why the development of the productive forces (in a narrow sense excluding work relations) is a necessary precondition for creating a classless society based on workers’ democracy.

Miller explains the initial rise of class societies as due to exchange among tribes and the division of labor that followed from this trade (216, 242). This overlooks the fact that before classes that live off surplus extracted from the labor of others can arise, the productivity of that labor must have advanced to the point where this could happen.

Class societies were not possible where productive capacity was so low that the survival of the community required the labor of all able members. And the advance in productivity was not just a matter of changed work relations. It was first and foremost the development of techniques of agriculture and animal husbandry.

In at least one place Miller does hedge on the scope of his theory of history: “The mode of production theory describes mechanisms for basic internal change in all class-divided societies, if not all societies” (254).

As a theory of mechanisms for basic internal change in all class-divided societies I find his theory fully acceptable. But as a general theory of history it needs to combine the valid critique of technological determinism with an explicit recognition that development of the productive forces (in the narrow, technological sense) is a necessary condition for certain significant historical transitions.

This criticism, however, does not affect the evaluation with which my comments began: Analyzing Marx is in my view the most significant philosophical work ever written on Marx in English.

May-June 1988, ATC 14

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