The Method of Political Economy and the Coming Revolution
What is the subject matter and method of political economy according to Engels? First, though, what is political economy? Today we tend to teach economics as a special discipline and political science as another separate subject. This is an attempt by the bourgeoisie to keep politics and economics independent of one another. Marx and Engels, as did most nineteenth century thinkers, thought they were closely interrelated.
Political economy for Engels was the study of the laws governing the PRODUCTION and EXCHANGE “of the material means of subsistence in human society.” While production and exchange are human functions they are intimately related to each other and have a reciprocal causative relationship.
However, there are many different ways to carry out production and exchange and they vary from society to society and culture to culture. Thus: “Political economy is therefore essentially a HISTORICAL science.” By which Engels means its laws are not like those of physics-- the same for all-- but conditioned by historical circumstances.
Nevertheless there are some general statements that can made. For example, Engels thinks it doesn’t matter what society you are dealing with the modes of production and exchange will CONDITION the way the society distributes its social product.
He says large and small scale farming always have very different distribution patterns. This is because the former is associated with class struggle (masters and slaves, lords and serfs, capitalists and wage slaves) while the latter can exist without class struggle (i.e., without classes).
Modern large scale industry can be contrasted with Medieval local handicraft production controlled by guilds. The latter lacks large capitalists and permanent wage slaves and the former is, along with the modern credit system and "free competition" (the exchange form of modern industry and credit) responsible for both these new classes.
Differences in distribution leads to CLASS DIFFERENCES and the development of the STATE which originally came about to defend small groups from external aggression and to protect the common interests (irrigation systems in the East according to Engels). As classes begin to develop the state takes on another function, that "of maintaining by force the conditions of existence and domination of the ruling class against the subject class."
New forms of distribution are not simply neutral developments of the interaction of the MODE OF PRODUCTION and the FORM OF EXCHANGE. In fact as new modes of production and exchange develop the old forms of distribution, the state, and the laws act as drags trying to maintain the older forms of distribution. The new mode production and exchange faces a long struggle before it can cast off the older forms of distribution.
Engels thought that capitalism, in his time about three hundred years old, was undergoing just such an antithesis in its forms of distribution which was leading to its downfall. He described the antithesis as follows: on the one hand CONCENTRATION OF CAPITAL at one pole of society (that of the bourgeoisie) and at the other pole CONCENTRATION OF THE PROPERTYLESS MASSES without much capital into cities and towns. He thought that as far a capitalism goes this double concentration "must of necessity bring about its downfall."
Well, Engels' timing was a bit off and the development of monopoly capitalism (modern imperialism), two world wars, premature revolutions in underdeveloped regions of the world, and the development of vast new markets in the third world have postponed the day of reckoning.
Capitalism is now over four hundred fifty years old and the CONCENTRATIONS Engels spoke of are even greater and more unstable. Capitalism has, in fact, run out of places to go and can no longer rely on the expansion of new markets to pull it out of the disruptions and market collapse caused by cyclical overproduction. The DOWNFALL expected by Engels is once again on the agenda and the current inability of the US, Europe, Japan, and much of the rest of the world to overcome the present world wide capitalist crisis means that the final conflict may be closer than any of us thinks.
As long as capitalist production is on the rise everyone, Engels says, welcomes it, even the victims of its way of distributing its products. Capitalism just seems to be the way economics works. The first hints that something is wrong with the system does NOT come from "the exploited masses themselves"-- it comes from "within the ruling class itself." Engels gives as examples the great utopians Saint-Simon, Fourier and Owen.
The appearance of these early objectors indicates that the system has reached the top of its curve and is just beginning to decline. The utopians became aware of the horrible conditions of living the system was forcing upon its wage slaves and were full of moral indignation. But, Engels says, "moral indignation, however justifiable, cannot serve economic science as an argument, but only as a symptom."
If capitalist horrors became more and more manifest in Engels' day just think what they are like today. Millions around the world are unemployed or living in poverty and even slavery (or should I say billions)-- armed conflicts on every continent save Australia and Antarctica over resources and land, and the very oceans as well as the atmosphere, is in the process of being destroyed in the pursuit of capitalist profits.
The duty of economists is to explain how all of this is the consequence of the capitalist mode of production (although many economists prostitute themselves in the service of the system for the rewards of position and money at the cost of truth) and beyond that "to reveal, within the already dissolving economic form of motion, the elements of the future new organisation of production and exchange which will put an end to those abuses." Today only the communist , socialist, and workers parties are able to do this on a grand scale.
In his day, Engels pointed out that political economy had concentrated on the analysis of the capitalist system and had not yet described other modes of production from the past. In the century or so since his death this has been remedied by Marxist historians, archaeologists, anthropologists, linguists and others.
In the meantime capitalism has developed even greater productive capacities than Engels imagined-- but these "colossal productive forces" the capitalists can no longer control-- they can't control their exploitation of the earth without destroying it-- Exxon, BP, and other giant oil companies, they can't mine it without polluting its water and air, blowing off the tops of its mountains, creating huge rivers of toxic sludge, cutting down its rain forests and melting its glaciers and driving thousands of species toward extinction.
It only remains for us to show that all the vast powers of production the capitalists can no longer control "are only waiting to be taken possession of by a society organized for co-operative work on a planned basis to ensure to all members of society the means of existence and the free development of their capacities and indeed in constantly increasing measure."
We should be yelling this from the roof tops: "We're mad as Hell and we're not going to take it anymore!" Put that in your tea bag and brew it. If the BP oil "spill" in the Gulf of Mexico doesn't convince you that the power of modern industry cannot be safely left in the control of for profit corporations, I'm afraid nothing will.
The science of political economy can be traced back to the beginnings of capitalism. Its most famous proponent was Adam Smith (The Wealth of Nations) but it was also advanced by the great French thinkers of the Enlightenment. However, Engels points out, these thinkers thought they were dealing with universal laws of economics, just as physical scientists propose universal laws of nature.
"To them," Engels says, "the new science was not the expression of the conditions and requirements of their epoch, but the expression of eternal reason; the laws of production and exchange discovered by this science were not the laws of a historically determined form of those activities, but eternal laws of nature; they were deduced from the nature of man."
It was the work of Marx and Engels that really matured this science and saw that rather than eternal laws of nature economic laws of production and distribution were relative to economic systems-- feudalism, capitalism, etc. This is one reason Engels, in his book Anti-Dühring, could hold Dühring in such disdain who could write, after Das Kapital, that he would, in his own words, explain "the most general LAWS OF NATURE governing all economics...."
There are a few more ideas exposited by Herr Dühring that Engels wants to correct. First, Dühring thinks that capitalists, for instance, use FORCE as a means to exploit working people. Engels says this is wrong. Engels maintains that EVERY socialist worker KNOWS that force does not cause exploitation it only PROTECTS it: "the relation between capital and wage labour is the basis of" exploitation and this relation is an economic one not one based on force.
Engels says Dühring also confounds the difference between PRODUCTION and CIRCULATION (i.e., exchange) by lumping them together under and heading of production and then adds DISTRIBUTION as a second and INDEPENDENT department of the economy. Far from this being the case, Engels tells us, distribution is in fact DEPENDENT on the production and exchange relations of any given society. In fact, if we know these two relations for any given historical society we can "infer the mode of distribution" in it.
So, Engels point is that, after a rough start in the seventeenth century and blooming forth in the Enlightenment, the science of political economy became fully scientific in the last half of the nineteenth century with the theories of Marx and the work of those economists who were influenced by him. Through their work working people of the world slowly became aware of their true role in production and distribution (the creation of surplus value) and how it is the exploitation of their labor power that is the basis of the capitalist system.
It is important to note that, for Marxists, it is not the idea that capitalism is somehow unjust and immoral (á la Dühring) that is the key point. Engels writes: "If for the impending overthrow of the present mode of distribution of the products of labour, with its crying contrasts of want and luxury, starvation and surfeit, we had no better guarantee than the consciousness that this mode of distribution is unjust, and that justice must eventually triumph, we should be in a pretty bad way, and we might have a long time to wait."
Engels appears to be a bit too optimistic. We are still waiting for the "impending overthrow" of capitalism. It has been overthrown in a few places but it has also been restored in large areas where it was previously overthrown. So, I think we are still waiting for a general overthrow-- which is long overdue. We should be impatient, but not unduly so. We have been waiting a hundred years or so while many of our fellows have been waiting over two thousand years for the overthrow of this earthly order with even less likelihood of being gratified. But we still "might have a long time to wait."
Well, just why did Engels think we would have a short wait? The reason was that unlike previous centuries when the only forces opposed to the exploitation of the masses of people by the few were based on appeals to morality or ethics, the nineteenth century saw the creation of a MATERIAL FORCE, not an ideal or religious one, that could actually contest and overthrow the existing economic order based on exploitation.
Two great revolutions had recently created movements calling for the end of class exploitation and for the equality of the people-- the English and French bourgeois revolutions. But these movements, Engels says "up to 1830 had left the working and suffering classes cold." But in Engels' day this call and this movement has in one generation "gained a strength that enables it to defy all the forces combined against it and to be confident of victory in the near future."
What made Engels so confident? There were two factors. First, modern industrial capitalism had created a working class ("called into being" a proletariat) that not only had the power to overthrow class privilege but the class system itself and further this is something it must do "on pain of sinking to the level of the Chinese coolie." Second, the bourgeoisie "has become incapable of any longer controlling the productive forces" created by modern industry. The bourgeoisie is "a class under whose leadership society is racing to ruin like a locomotive whose jammed safety-valve the driver is to weak to open."
History has a way of sometimes frustrating our expectations. To the working people of the generation following that of Engels, Lenin and the Russian Revolution represented the promise of the socialist victory. The bourgeois locomotive went off the rails and the resulting crash created two world wars and brought down the colonial empires of the Western Powers (at least de jure.)
However, unbeknownst to Engels, another engine was waiting in the roundhouse. This was the engine of US Imperialism which reconstructed the failed bourgeois system after the Second World War and brought about the downfall of the Russian Revolution. For a generation the call for the abolition of the classes left the workers of the US and it allies once again cold.
Meanwhile, against all expectations, the "Chinese coolies" had liberated themselves and created their own working class and are now creating a modern society based on a mixed economy. However, Engels was not too far off the mark. The advanced workers (in terms of pay scales) of the West are seeing their incomes sinking to the level of the Chinese. This will continue unless they "warm up" to the idea of socialism.
What are the future chances of socialism? Engels two factors are still at work. Capitalism is ripe for overthrow. As far as factor one is concerned. The class consciousness of the workers directed towards this end does not seem to be as developed as in Engels' day. This is due to the massive pro capitalist propaganda both in the educational system and the mass media. But this hold is weakening and working people around the world are slowly beginning to wake up from their long sleep and see capitalism for what it really is. A naked system of human exploitation that can and must be replaced.
As for the second factor. The bourgeoisie is out of control! The rain forests, the oceans and the atmosphere are being destroyed by their run away system. These words of Engels are absolutely true today: "both the productive forces created by the modern capitalist mode of production and the system of distribution of goods established by it have come into crying contradiction with that mode of production itself, and in fact to such a degree that, if the whole of modern society is not to perish, a revolution in the mode of production and distribution must take place, a revolution that will put an end to all class distinctions."
Unfortunately, I cannot agree with Engels that these two factors give me confidence that the Revolution will soon arrive. But that our society will perish if it doesn't seems all too apparent.
Coming up: The Force Theory of Herr Eugen Dühring.
About the Author:
Thomas Riggins is a retired philosophy teacher (NYU, The New School of Social Research, among others) who received a PhD from the CUNY Graduate Center (1983). He has been active in the civil rights and peace movements since the 1960s when he was chairman of the Young People's Socialist League at Florida State University and also worked for CORE in voter registration in north Florida (Leon County). He has written for many online publications such as People's World and Political Affairs where he was an associate editor. He also served on the board of the Bertrand Russell Society and was president of the Corliss Lamont chapter in New York City of the American Humanist Association.