Question re: Marx's theory of historical materialism?
March 28, 2010 6:32 AM   Subscribe

According to some sources, Marx argued that the mechanism of social change was the contradiction between the material forces of production and the relations of production, whilst elsewhere it is argued that Marx saw social change as arising from the conflicting interests of different social classes. My question is, assuming that Marx stated that both of these contradictions brought about social change, what is the relationship between class conflict and the conflict between relations and forces of production?
posted by FuckingAwesome to Religion & Philosophy (5 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
See: Social Conflict Theory perhaps.

As I understand it, he might say that all societies are structured according to how they go about production. A class system is the inevitable result of the capitalist relation of production. So the class system found in capitalism might be a subset of of the larger set of how the relations of production might occur in society.

That would just be my idea, and not a particularly well-informed one.
posted by jefeweiss at 7:45 AM on March 28, 2010

First, you have to separate out Marx from his interpreters. Your wording of your question implies you are not doing this. Since my memory of my 400-level history class on Marx is now close to 20 years old, I can't rember all of the definitions exactly. However, I will give it a shot.

One would think that class conflict occurs when the material forces of production (the actual class providing the work of production) are not the same as the relations of production (who is controlling and obtaining the value of that production). In other words, the capitalist expropriates the difference between the money he or she makes off selling the good produced and the amount he or she pays for the labor. Class conflict occurs when there is a great imbalance between the two--when the actual relationship of production does not reflect the ecomomic reality beneath it.
posted by Ironmouth at 8:33 AM on March 28, 2010

Until you indicate why you think the two are mutually exclusive, you're unlikely to get a satisfying answer.
posted by gum at 10:21 AM on March 28, 2010

gum is right that you could do a lot more to clarify what you think the problem is with reconciling these two things; Ironmouth is right (though that second paragraph seems very garbled to me) that you should probably be a bit more careful to distinguish between Marx's own language and concepts and later ones (your casual reference to "historical materialism," a phrase Marx himself never used, is a red flag [as it were] here).

To oversimplify in a potentially helpful way: you're asking about two different levels of Marx's theoretical apparatus, the political (class struggle) and the economic (mode of production). When Marx writes of class struggle (in places like the Communist Manifesto), he is describing in broad strokes the conflicts that structure a society, often in order to advocate political action to an audience uninterested in the finer details of his economic analysis. When he writes of the conflicts between the forces and the relations of production (e.g. in Capital), he is working at a much finer descriptive level to explain what he sees as the forces driving change in economic history. Now, things are obviously ultimately more complicated than this — because Marx clearly believes (in some form, though not usually as baldly as people state it) in economic determination of politics, and also because Marx's economic categories are also political: things like "relations of production" don't exist in a pre-political economic state but are negotiated by a constant process of everyday workplace struggle between workers and their employers. Still, sitting down and reading some texts where Marx is working on each of these levels — say, the Manifesto for the basic politics-as-class-struggle and some portion of Capital I and/or III for the mode-of-production idea — and comparing the analysis, the terminology, and the questions he's trying to answer seems like the only way to really permanently resolve your confusion.

There are many trustworthy books that might help you with this, all the way from the perhaps excessive simplicity of Rius's Marx for Beginners to clear single-volume guides like Etienne Balibar's The Philosophy of Marx and Ernest Mandel's Introduction to Marxist Economic Theory. You might also be interested in an online reading of Capital with David Harvey, who's also just published a new Companion to Marx's Capital that might well be a great help to you.
posted by RogerB at 12:45 PM on March 28, 2010 [1 favorite]

You might find this reasonably short article relevant: The Myth of Marx’s Economic Determinism
...In other words, even as they pick out good quotations from Marx’s corpus, the economic determinists ask the wrong questions and consequently look for the wrong answers. Imposing their questions on Marx, they ignore Marx’s questions. Marx does not focus on -- indeed, he does not even address -- the issue of whether human beings have free will. He is not attempting to create a causal (or monocausal) theory of human life, similar to theories in chemistry and physics, which allow for causal statements and scientific prediction. He is not concerned with causality or inevitability in history.

Marx, rather, thinks of human beings as active creators and shapers of their natural and social worlds who find their scope for free action drastically constrained by systems of private property and especially capitalism. He is concerned with the relations among forces of production, relations of production, and consciousness, but he is concerned to see those relations as an interrelated coherent totality in which human beings live and to present that totality in a systematic manner. Throughout his writings Marx is dialectical, looking at how practices (and the concepts that represent them) develop and change over time and in interaction with other practices...
posted by Abiezer at 3:08 PM on March 28, 2010

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