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Vol. 75/No. 3      January 24, 2011

Socialism and transformation
of productive forces
(Books of the Month column)

Below is an excerpt from Humanism and Socialism by George Novack, one of Pathfinder’s Books of the Month for January. Can the conflicts that arise in society be resolved through education and appeals to conscience? Or do they reflect irreconcilable antagonisms between classes with conflicting interests? Novack explains how Marxism bases itself upon the decisive role of the revolutionary struggle of working people to bring forth a world free of national oppression and class exploitation. Copyright © 1973 by Pathfinder Press. Reprinted by permission.

Humans began to make history, Marxism explained, as soon as they acquired the ability to cooperate in the production of the means of life. In the course of transforming their conditions of existence they fashioned and refashioned themselves. The material basis for the making of history, and the main propulsion of its progress, consisted in the development of the social productive forces and all the skills and culture growing out of them.

Humans are the subject of history—and history acquired a general objective meaning running through the successive stages of its unfolding by what it did to and for humanity. The end result of the collective endeavors through the millennia has been the discovery of many new human capacities through the development of productive forces. The nature of these capacities could not have been calculated in advance nor interpreted without a knowledge of the motive forces of the seemingly dispersed and chaotic character of historical development.

Even though individual activities and partial collective enterprises were purposeful, the overall development of the social productive forces and the relations issuing from them have proceeded in a wholly unconscious and unplanned manner that Marx characterized as “natural-historical.” Their outcome was not decided upon and enforced by any prior aim. The consequences were determined for humankind by laws and forces beyond their control or comprehension through a myriad of conflicting acts and cross-purposes. No centrally directing agency—divine or human—willed, foresaw, or directed the actual course of events or what eventuated from it.

Civilization at large could not be brought under the deliberate control of its members until three prior conditions were fulfilled: (1) The powers of production had to be raised to a qualitatively new level through science and technology; (2) the laws of historical development had to be ascertained; and (3) a social power that could act consciously in accord with these laws had to acquire economic, political, and cultural supremacy.

The successive forms of social organization from tribal life through feudalism lacked the material means, the collective knowledge, and the social forces for such an undertaking. These prerequisites were first made possible through the evolution of capitalism… .

[T]he competitiveness and anarchy of the capitalist system forbade the orderly and rational fostering of economic growth or assuring of social equality. Capitalist society brought the productive forces to a new threshold of maturity. But the socialist movement of the working class was the first to supply both the scientific understanding and the consciously organized force that could align the further course of social evolution with the aims and aspirations of the laboring masses… .

The ends that human society could realize and its members recognize at each stage of this journey were not arbitrarily decided by people but set for them by the level of the productive forces at their disposal and the position they occupied in the march of historical progress. These aims were given a definite concrete content during each period of development. Each epoch presents a specific set of tasks to be achieved that may be more or less clearly perceived and solved with greater or lesser success by its contemporaries. These could be surpassed and displaced by other and grander objectives only when a new era of advancement was inaugurated by the revolutionary consequences of the further growth of the productive forces.

At certain times, as in the Middle Ages, people thought that the final meaning of human life had been revealed to them. This was an illusion. However absolute the ends of humanity may be for a specific span of socioeconomic evolution, they are essentially relative, provisional, and changing because of the continued expansion (and, at times in the past, the contraction) of its social powers.

The deepest meaning of human destiny certainly cannot be ascertained at the present rudimentary stage of evolution when our species has hardly been given the chance to cultivate its unique capabilities. Indeed, any further significance could be wiped out if human life were to be ended by a natural or human-made planetary catastrophe.

All the same, it is possible to comprehend what the past achievements of universal history amount to and what their proximate meaning is for us at this juncture. If the objectives for progressive humanity are determined at each stage by the real possibilities and material conditions of life, the primordial task of the present is predicated upon the actual achievements of our predecessors and the inherent limitations they were incapable of overcoming. Under class society it was impossible to avoid the conflicts of interests over the social surplus of wealth and the attendant consequences. This antagonism is no longer inevitable.

The work of humankind and its worth have been to raise the powers of production to a level where every member of the human race can be guaranteed whatever is required for the unfolding of her or his capacities and the enjoyment of life. This fact determines the paramount goal of enlightened humanity. It is to do away with the private ownership of the sources of wealth and the privileges and powers this confers in order to construct a society of superabundance that can throw off the tyrannies of labor, money, and the state; that can shed the alienation these produce and proceed to realize the potential of a free humanity.

This liberating prospect depends upon the continued progress of science and technology and the equitable distribution of their fruits. This can be assured only by the rationally reorganized society that will emanate from the world socialist revolution.  
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