Socialist Studies Socialist Studies

Can Capitalism Progress?

History as Progress?

Most popular history writing is depicted as a bibliography of the good, the bad and the ugly: a Sergio Leone spaghetti Western. History becomes a series of dictators being defeated by the good. History, it seems, is all a simple matter of evil dictators.

What is this history for? Are historians merely prosecutors for the good and defenders for the bad? Is history a moral tale which states that good wins out and we progress to become better and better people – the Whig conception of history? Is history nothing more than a morality tale of human progress championed by historians such as T. B. Macaulay (HISTORY OF ENGLAND) and G.M. Trevelyan (ENGLISH SOCIAL HISTORY)?

Macaulay divided the world into civilised nations and barbarism, with Britain representing the high point of civilisation. The historian was Horatio at the gate defending Britain from the uneducated and the uncivilised. Trevelyan, writing later, believed parliamentary democracy was the guarantor of social progress.

As E.H. Carr noted of Whig History, in a lecture he gave in 1961:

"In the nineteenth century, British historians with scarcely an exception regarded the course of history as a demonstration of the principle of progress: they expressed the ideology of a society in a condition of remarkably rapid progress" (p.43).

And Carr went on to say:

"The English Whig historians of the nineteenth century attributed the rise of British power and prosperity to the development of political institutions embodying the principles of constitutional liberty" (What is History?, p. 90).

To see how reactionary the Whig Interpretation of history has become, we need look no further than to Michael Gove. In 2013, when Education Secretary, he tried to impose on school children a history curriculum, which had at it core, a narrative of Britain's "greatness". Gove believed that children should learn why Britain has always been an exceptional country and a beacon of hope for the rest of the world.

Gove made a statement to the House of Commons about the new history syllabus. He said:

"...in history there is a clear narrative of British progress with a proper emphasis on heroes and heroines from our past" (DAILY TELEGRAPH 7 February 2013).

Gove is not interested in real history. His history is myth and fable. A fiction. A convenient lie.

British capitalism came into existence through enclosing land, slavery, piracy, plunder and conquest. Its "heroes" were the slave traders, the exploiters of children in the mills and women down the mines. Its "heroes" were politicians using combination laws to prevent workers from organising into trade unions to protect themselves from the intensity and extent of class exploitation. And it's "heroes" were the architects of the Poor Law Reform, the work house, the philosophers of utilitarianism and the preachers of Malthusian restraint.

The capitalist class played a revolutionary role

It is said that the Whig interpretation of history got bogged down in the mud of the First World War. The Whig historian, G.M. Trevelyan was an ambulance driver just behind the front line and saw the horror of capitalism's war at first hand. The progressive optimism of the 19th century gave way to a dark pessimism in the mud and blood of Europe's battlefields. And after the Second World War, with its 55 million dead, concentration camps and genocide, and the detonation in August 1945 of the nuclear bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the optimism of human progress promised by the Whig conception of history has never returned.

The Marxian view of history, by contrast, in the words of Marx and Engels in the COMMUNIST MANIFESTO - emphasises that ultimately: "the history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles". Engels later clarified that this meant all 'written history', since for the vast bulk our existence human societies were based, by necessity, on cooperation and equality. Class was defined by Marx in an objective way with respect to the means of production and distribution.

Marx stressed the importance of what he called "Ithe forces of production". The forces of production are an aggregate of the knowledge, tools, and natural and human resources of production in any given social system. For Marx, the development of the forces of production gave human beings the ability to increasingly satisfy their material needs. And it was through class struggle that the capitalist class played such a revolutionary role in developing the forces of production, including social and co-operative labour.

Capitalism was a "progressive" social system as it emerged out from Feudalism. In fact, it was praised by Marx and Engels in the COMMUNIST MANIFESTO. They wrote:

"It has accomplished wonders far surpassing Egyptian pyramids, Roman aqueducts, and Gothic cathedrals; it has conducted expeditions that put in the shade all former Exoduses of nations and crusades..."

And

"The bourgeoisie, during its rule of scarce one hundred years, has created more massive and more colossal productive forces than have all proceeding generations altogether".

The capitalist class played a revolutionary role in replacing feudalism with capitalism. Here is Marx and Engels again:

"The bourgeoisie, wherever it has got the upper hand, has put an end to all feudal, patriarchal, idyllic relations. It has pitilessly torn asunder the motley feudal ties that bound man to his 'natural superiors', and has left remaining no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest, than callous 'cash payment'..."

This is what capitalism progressed towards: 'naked self-interest' and 'callous cash payment'.

Capitalism and Contradictions

Capitalism, though, had a serious problem. Capitalism was rocked by contradictions between the forces of production and the relations of production over which the capitalist class and its political representatives had no control. Marx and Engels wrote:

"Modern bourgeois society,...,a society that has conjured up such gigantic means of production and of exchange, is like the sorcerer, who is no longer able to control the powers the nether world whom he has called up by his spells..." (COMMUNIST MANIFESTO).

These contradictions came to the surface in the early nineteenth century and were to manifest themselves in economic crises and the class struggle between employers and employees; capitalists who owned the means of production and workers who did not. Marx and Engels wrote:

"The productive forces at the disposal of society no longer tend to further the development of the conditions of bourgeois property; on the contrary, they have become too powerful for these conditions, by which they are fettered, and so soon as they overcome these fetters, they bring disorder into the whole of bourgeois society..."

Capitalism no longer "progressed" forward in history. There might still be "progressive" liberals who are under the illusion that capitalism can "progress" into the future and become "better and better" but they are few and far between.

The Blairite Historian, David Cannadine tried to paper of the cracks of division in capitalism by proposing in his book THE UNDIVIDED PAST: HISTORY BEYOND OUR DIFFERENCES a conflict-free history of a "common humanity" progressing forward together towards a global unity. He writes:

"...relations between the 'bourgeoisie' and the 'proletariat' have been characterised more in the long run by conversation, collaboration and cooperation than anger, antagonism and animosity"

That was in 2011. With the rise of Nationalism in Europe and the US, fascist parties in European Parliaments, the bitterness of Brexit and the "us and them" of globalisation, and the political conflicts within the EU; "the progressive forces" of a "common humanity" never got off the ground. The book was old-fashioned and reactionary before it was released in paper-back.

Another recent attempt was made by the economist Joseph Stiglitz. He wrote a book PEOPLE, POWER AND PROFITS: PROGRESSIVE CAPITALISM FOR AN AGE OF DISCONTENT.(2019) He laments that capitalism only benefits the rich and privileged. He wants a "progressive capitalism" of restraint, regulation and re-distribution to address what he sees as the endemic inequality in a social system which has "cash nexus" as its only aspiration. He wrote:

"Some 90 percent have seen their incomes stagnate or decline in the past 30 years. This is not surprising, given that the United States has the highest level of inequality among the advanced countries and one of the lowest levels of opportunity - with the fortunes of young Americans more dependent on the income and education of their parents than elsewhere"

The only beneficiaries of capitalism can only ever be the capitalist class. Billionaires have now more wealth than the 4.6 billion people who make up 60 percent of the planet's population. Meanwhile, around 735 million people are still living in extreme poverty. Many others are just one hospital bill or failed harvest away from slipping into it (Oxfam 2020).

Capitalism cannot "progress". Capitalism now acts as a "fetter on production". The profit system holds back, through its class relations, the possibility of a society that can directly meet the needs of all. It prevents an association "in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all". To release the productive forces to benefit all society requires the establishment of socialism.

The World's Working Class

Rather than "progress", capitalism merely passes from one economic crisis to the next, from one economic cycle of class exploitation to the next and from one war to the next. It is not a progressive force its 19th century liberal advocates believed it to be. And capitalism cannot break out of this cycle. The social system is the problem.

Help is at hand. What capitalism also called into existence was the working class. One of the most important passages in the COMMUNIST MANIFESTO is the sketch of the development of the working class as it was formed out from the enclosure of the commons, theft of church property, vagrancy legislation, expulsion from the land, the imposition of Combination Acts, and the emptying of the Guilds.

The working class went through various stages of development. The working class began as a disorganised class and lashed out at the conditions it confronted - machine breaking, riot and rick burning. As workers began to organise as a class, they formed into trade unions, despite their illegality, into political organisations like the Chartists and then into a political party. They were even helped in their political education by the capitalist class. Capitalism drags the workers, so said Marx and Engels, "...into the political arena...it furnishes the proletariat with weapons for fighting the bourgeoisie"

Workers can and do gain socialist consciousness. Not only can we organise ourselves into socialist political parties we can produce socialist manifestos and, in the class struggle, we can produce socialist ideas. Furthermore we no longer need intellectuals like Marx and Engels to do the theory for us, we can do it ourselves. We certainly do not need leaders. We think and act as socialists. We produce our own socialist theory and do not need it "injected" into the working class, as Karl Kautsky and Vladimir Lenin erroneously believed.

What frightens the historians of the ruling class is that the political development of the working class is real. It cannot be wished away. That is why they want a controlled history curriculum which focuses children's attention away from our history towards theirs. The heroes and heroines of Mr Gove are not our heroes and heroines. We do not want "Heroes" or "heroines" just socialists. As the Strangler"s memorably sang: “No more heroes anymore".

The working class is now a global class facing a global capitalist class over the question of the ownership and control of the means of production and distribution. From an incoherent beginning the working class now runs capitalism from top to bottom albeit in the interest of the capitalist class. Now workers must run society in our own interests if we want the potential of the forces of production realised to meet the needs of all society. Workers must now become socialists and form themselves into principled socialist parties. This is the history we are interested in, the development of our class through class struggle and socialist consciousness, not the six wives of Henry the Eighth and the political machinations of 19th century Prime Ministers.

Is this movement of "the immense majority" smooth and linear? Even Marx and Engels thought it could be disrupted; one step forward and two steps backwards. Marx and Engels refer to the organisation of workers "continually being upset again by the competition between the workers themselves" (COMMUNIST MANIFESTO). They also entertained the possibility that there might not be a socialist outcome in the class struggle. There might even be the destruction of the contending classes.

Nevertheless, the class struggle is "the motor force of history". The class struggle is in fact a political struggle. The only way the cycle of capitalist history - its periodic economic crises and wars, the obscene wealth of the 1%, grinding poverty and environmental degradation - can be resolved is through socialist revolution. In modern history the principal driving force for revolutionary socialist change is the world's working class. And for socialism to be possible not only must socialists be in the majority but they have to be a conscious and political majority.

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