Notes on A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy

Notes on A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy
(Karl Marx \ ed. Robert C. Tucker), preface p. 3 - 6

This passage set forth the materialist conception of history or historical materialism.
What is historical materialism?

Base and Superstructure
“...a guiding thread for my studies, can be briefly formulated as follows: 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.” (4)
  • Material productive forces or forces of production: see below
  • Relations of production: the way people organise themselves to satisfy their basic necessities of survival, people have to enter into social relations.

In Marxist theory, human society consists of two parts: the base and superstructure.

  • Base: forces of productions & relations of production / sum total of production
    • determines (conditions) the superstructure, but is susceptible to influences from the superstructure
  • Superstructure: everything other than production
  • Relationship between the base and superstructure is reciprocal.

Forces of production
Relations of production
...refers to the physical means and techniques of production to which labourers add value and transform raw materials into capital.

This includes the combination of the means of labour (tools, machinery, land, etc.) with human labour (techniques, knowledge).

...the relationships people enter in order to produce and reproduce their means of life (to survive)

Social relations of production occurs between people.

Technical relations of production occurs between people and object.

E.g. the relationship between those who own the means of production and those who do not.

Social Revolution

“At a certain stage of their development, the material productive forces of society come in conflict with the existing relations of production, or...with the property relations within which they have been at work hitherto… Then begins an epoch of social revolutions.” (4)
  • Social revolution occurs when there is conflict/contradiction within the base.
“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.” (5)
  • The process of being conscious of your social conditions, relations can change the system, but this change is explained through the ‘contradiction of material life, from the existing conflict between the social productive forces and the relations of production’.
  • Perhaps art can inflect and disrupt conventional social norms, thinking and therefore relations thereby changing the relations of production, creating conflicting within the base. An inquiry into the relations of production, and then a critique.
“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.” (5)
  • Only when new forms of bases developed can the superstructure of society change.
  • Not enough to be conscious, but the structures, potentialities for change have to exist concurrently as well.
Historical Materialism
What is historical materialism?

“Marxists are far from denying the importance of ideas or the active role of individuals in history. But precisely because we are active, we understand the limits of individual activity, and the fact that the appropriate social conditions must exist before our ideas and our activity can be effective. We understand, with Marx that people “make their own history… but under circumstances directly encountered, given and transmitted from the past.” We need to understand how society is developing in order to intervene in the process.” (http://www.marxist.com/historical-materialism-study-guide.htm)

Historical materialism is a methodological approach to the study of human societies and their development over time.

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