CAPITALISM THE system we live under today, is unequal and undemocratic.
This is because capitalism is a class society, based on the exploitation
of the working-class (the majority of the population) by the capitalist
class (a small minority of the population) who own and control industry
and financial institutions, and dominate governments and the political
We are told that capitalism is the best way of organising society; that
socialism is impossible. We are told that history is made by famous
individuals like kings, queens and politicians, and that working-class
people have no power to change society.
We are even told by some people that there is no way of understanding
how society develops: followers of post-modernism, a theory which gained
popularity in the 1990s, believe that there are no general laws that
govern the development of society.
None of these things are true. The theory of historical materialism,
developed by Marx and Engels, provides a framework for analysing human
society and the laws of its development. It explains that class societies
have not always existed; that in fact the earliest human societies were
classless ones based on co-operation not exploitation.
This pamphlet shows how the ruling class today tries to fool people
into accepting that there is no alternative to capitalism, but also how
the reality of life forces people to search for an alternative and
explains the battle of ideas that this creates.
Most importantly, it discusses why the working-class have the power to
overthrow the capitalist system and create a society that abolishes class
exploitation altogether; a society that combines the democracy, equality
and freedom seen in early societies with the advantages of modern
economic, scientific and technological developments: a socialist society.
1. Human society is based on material forces
Materialism vs idealism
MARX AND Engels worked out their theory of how human society develops
in a struggle against 'idealist' philosophers.
Many people think of socialism as being 'idealist' - that is that it is
a nice idea, but unrealistic (what Marx and Engels called 'utopianism').
On the contrary, the ideas of socialism and Marxism are very practical and
realistic because they are based on analysing the real world and how it
Unlike the way most people understand the word today, 'idealism'
originally meant a trend within philosophy. The idealists believed that
ideas come first, and that material reality comes into being as a result
of these ideas. An idealist (in philosophy) would say that changes in
material reality are caused by ideas, not by material forces; that ideas
have an existence that is independent of and unrelated to material
While we recognise that ideas play an important part in social change,
Marxists are materialists (again, in the philosophical sense). To a
materialist, human society and history is shaped by material social and
economic forces - real things and processes - and ideas are the reflection
of this material reality in human consciousness.
Marxists believe that human society is based on material forces. In
other words, in order for any human society to exist, humans must produce
the necessities of life which enable us to survive: food, shelter, water,
etc. These are material things without which we would die out. But the way
we interact to produce these necessities, who controls the products of our
labour and how they use them, determines the type of society we live in.
At the beginning: evolution
WITHOUT CERTAIN physical factors, human society as we know it could not
have developed: the large human brain, the voice box and the opposable
thumb. The development and growth of the brain and the voice box happened
because of the way early humans evolved in interaction with their
environment. They were less well adapted to their environment than many
species and compensated for this by working together in large groups and
The growth of the physical size of the human brain, which is much
larger than any other animals’ when compared to our body weight, was
both a result of the growth of human intelligence (driven by the need to
co-operate and make tools) and a cause of its further growth. With a
larger amount of brain available for use, early humans had more potential
to develop their intelligence further.
The opposable thumb allows us to hold, make and use tools. Without the
fine handling skills it made possible, early humans wouldn't have been
able to develop and use the sophisticated tools that allowed them to
survive and prosper in a changing environment.
Without the range of sounds the human voicebox allows us to make, early
societies could never have developed the complex languages that made them
able to communicate ideas and co-operate on a large scale.
To summarise: the development of new skills to cope with the struggle
for survival caused physical changes. In turn these physical changes
opened up new possibilities for language, tool-making and mental abilities
(such as abstract thought), developing human intelligence further. Both of
these processes continued to develop each other.
Hunter-gatherer society/Primitive Communism
WE ARE taught to think that class society has always existed - that
class exploitation is a natural and unavoidable part of human society. But
this is not true. The earliest human societies were classless societies
based on co-operation and consensus, without the systematic exploitation
or oppression of any one group by another.
This type of society, which is usually called hunter-gatherer society,
was not a brief change from the 'normal' exploitation and oppression we
see in class society. It was the only way human society was
organised for over 100,000 years, until class society began developing
around 10,000 years ago. Even today there are a few areas around the world
where hunter-gatherer societies still exist, though this may not be the
case for much longer (all of them are under pressure to become absorbed
into the capitalist world economy).
Why were hunter-gatherer societies run so differently to society today?
The answer lies in the way in which the production of the necessities of
life were organised.
They depended on finding enough food to survive through a combination
of hunting and scavenging wild animals and gathering wild plants. They
were at the mercy of their environment and had no way of storing more than
small amounts of food long-term, particularly as they usually had to
travel long distances to find food.
Everyone was involved in producing the necessities of life (food,
shelter etc) because otherwise the group would starve. There was no room
for an elite to develop who could exploit the labour of others.
There were often differences in the work people did. For example in
many hunter-gatherer societies women appear to have done more childcare
while men tended to do more hunting, although this basic division of
labour was very flexible and did not exist everywhere.
However, where they did happen these differences were due to practical
reasons and not given value-judgments about the status of particular types
of work, or the people doing them (as they are today). It was only when
class society arose that childcare and other work more associated with
women became devalued and the systematic oppression of women began. (For
more information about the oppression of women and the role of the family
under class society, see the section Why are women oppressed? in
the Socialist Women’s pack – available separately).
Hunter-gatherer societies tended to operate in small groups (the size
of groups depended on the availability of resources) which were linked to
a number of other small groups in the same area. Studies of
hunter-gatherer societies carried out in the last century show that in
many cases they had developed a complex system of sharing resources within
and between the groups as a kind of insurance against famine or conflict.
In hunter-gatherer society, if one group does well it is in their own
long-term interests to share the fruits of their success with other
groups. If they have a surplus of food they cannot eat or store they give
some to other groups, understanding that if another group is successful
the original group will be able to share their surplus. This not only
helps the groups through the times when food is scarce, it also reduces
conflict between them. When everyone is dependent on each other, it is in
everyone's interests to avoid conflict.
Marx and Engels described hunter-gatherer society as 'primitive
communism', because the way in which the necessities of life are produced
and distributed in hunter-gatherer society - its 'mode of production' - in
turn produces a democratic and co-operative method of decision-making. The
quote below describes how this worked among G/wi-speaking bushmen in the
central Kalahari reserve of Botswana in the late 1950s and early 1960s.
‘Consensus is reached by a process of examination of the various
proffered courses of action and rejection of all but one of them. It is a
process of attrition of alternatives other than the one to which there
remains no significant opposition. That one, then, is the one which is
adopted. The fact that it is the band [group] as a whole which decides . .
. is both necessary and sufficient to legitimise what is decided and to
make the decision binding on all who are concerned with, and affected by,
Political process in G/wi bands by George Silberbauer
(from Politics and history in band societies, edited by Eleanor
Leacock and Richard Lee, published by Cambridge University Press, 1982).
We are often told that the selfishness, brutality and war we see in the
world today are part of human nature; that humans are not designed to
co-operate and live as equals. But the existence of 'primitive communist'
societies all over the world for such a long period of time proves that
this is not the case.
Human nature has almost endless possibilities. Life under
hunter-gatherer society was certainly not perfect: there was bound to be
hardship and disagreements between individuals. But the way society was
organised under hunter-gatherer society helped to bring out the most
positive and co-operative aspects of human nature. At the same time, more
negative things such as greed and selfishness were pushed into the
background. A socialist society, like hunter-gatherer society, would be
able to bring out the best in human nature.
The Neolithic revolution . . .
AROUND 10,000 years ago two discoveries began to revolutionise the way
human society was organised: the cultivation of plants (agriculture) and
the domestication of animals.
These two achievements, known as the Neolithic revolution, enabled
humans to gain a degree of control over their environment for the first
time ever. The productivity of labour increased enormously: instead of
travelling to where they could find adequate food at different times of
the year, humans could grow or keep their own supplies of food and were no
longer completely dependent on natural conditions.
This led to the establishment of more permanent settlements, where
reserves of food could be stored and where crops and animals could be
cared for and protected against raids. The amount of food available
increased dramatically, while there was also a rapid growth in the size of
the population in Neolithic society.
For the first time ever, human society was able to produce a permanent
surplus (the amount of food and goods produced over and above what they
needed to survive). This allowed a section of society to be released from
the day-to-day work of producing the necessities of life without
endangering the survival of the group.
This meant that a section of society were able to concentrate much more
on specific specialist tasks, which ranged from conducting rituals
believed to help bring food and fortune to the group to tool-making and
the development of new techniques such as the smelting of metal and firing
of pottery. This led to new and more productive ways of using human labour,
for example by the use of metal tools in agriculture.
As the productivity of labour increased and some societies became more
complex, a layer of administrators also emerged. For example the first
known writing system in the world was developed by the Sumerians in the
years leading up to 3,000 BC.
The development of Sumerian society, which arose between the Tigris and
Euphrates rivers not far from modern-day Baghdad, was based on irrigation:
human-made systems of channels to take rainwater and river water to fields
of crops. This massively increased the yield of crops. But to organise the
work of digging irrigation channels to support a large and growing
population, and also to make sure that the water was distributed
efficiently, Sumerian society needed administrators.
Early Sumerian writing took the form of symbols, scratched into clay
tablets to record simple transactions (e.g. so many sheep, or so much
grain). But over several hundred years, as the tasks of the administrators
grew and became more complex, these early symbols were developed into a
real system of writing agreed and understood by all Sumerian
administrators (the ability to write and read was a closely-guarded
. . . & the rise of class society
THE ‘SPECIALISTS’ and administrators who were freed from the work
of producing the necessities of life played an enormously progressive role
in helping develop the productive forces. However, over a long period of
time many of these 'specialists' and their descendants became entrenched
in their positions through the accumulation of wealth, status and
In many areas they began to become a ruling elite, a new class with
different interests to others in society. They attempted to make rules in
order to protect their privileged position. The most successful of these
new elites established special bodies of servants/warriors that they paid
to enforce their rules within the group, as well as protecting the group
from attacks from outside.
This did not happen without resistance. In some groups it appears that
an emerging ruling class was blocked from consolidating their grip on
power and collective organisation was re-established. However, such groups
tended to be weaker than those with a ruling class, where the productive
forces had been developed further. Therefore unless they were
geographically isolated from other more developed societies, the
collectively-run hunter-gatherer groups generally became absorbed into
them anyway, often by defeat in war and enslavement.
The development of human society is based on the development of the
THE DEVELOPMENT of tools/machinery or techniques that increase the
productivity of human labour, such as the horse-drawn plough, irrigation
or the invention of factory production, increases:
the size of the population a society can support;
the specialisation or division of labour that is possible within
The type of society we live in is based on the way production is
THERE HAVE been many different ways in which production is organised in
human society, leading to many different kinds of class society. Below are
examples of three of the most well-known types of class society - slavery,
feudalism and capitalism - which explain how the way in which production
was organised helped to shape each society.
Slavery: The ancient slave societies, for example Ancient Egypt,
Greece and Rome, were based on the exploitation of slave labour on a
massive scale. Large cities where wealthy landowners lived were supported
by huge numbers of slaves (mostly captured in war) who worked the land and
made most of the goods such as oil, wine, pottery and jewellery that made
the slave societies so rich.
Feudalism: is a peasant-based economy where the peasants control
what they produce on their ‘own’ plot of land but are forced to give a
portion of the fruits of their labour to the feudal lord who owns or
controls the land where they live. This surplus taken by the lord can take
many forms, for instance: the peasant doing a certain number of days
labour on the lord's land; giving a certain proportion of the year's
produce; or paying money rent.
The landowning aristocracy are the ruling class under feudalism.
Although the state usually centres round the monarchy, the royal family is
generally drawn from the landowning aristocracy and follows their
Capitalism: the economic system which dominates the world today, is
based on private ownership of the means of production (manufacturing
industry, the raw materials and resources needed for industry and, today,
even the seeds necessary for food production) and exploitation of the
labour of the working-class.
The working-class, with no land or substantial inherited wealth, have
no means of supporting themselves and are forced to sell their labour to
survive. Capitalists buy this labour power, then get their money back and
make profits by selling necessities and other products to the
working-class and other classes in society.
The struggle of ideas in society reflects the struggle of class forces
IDEAS ARE not neutral or 'above' society in any way. In class society
the ideas of the ruling class dominate because of the ruling class's
economic, political and legal dominance (the amount of money/power/force
at their command).
The ideology (system of ideas) of any ruling class reflects their
material interests. For example feudal monarchies in many countries around
the world defended their privileges and power by appealing to religious
ideas and institutions. In England the church supported the feudal
monarchy’s ‘divine right' to rule, saying that ordinary men and women
had no right to question a monarch who had been chosen by God.
Ideas that are considered 'common sense' are often actually the product
of a particular type of class society. The philosopher Plato argued in the
4th century BC that what happened in nature was determined by ideas
instead of material forces. He believed that therefore you didn't need to
do practical experiments to develop an understanding of how natural
processes work: it could all be worked out by thought.
His outlook was formed by the type of society he lived in, Ancient
Greece, which was a slave society where physical work was considered
demeaning and unnecessary for the elite. It took well over a thousand
years for Plato's wrong idea to be overturned and for the importance of
scientific methods of measurement and experimentation to be recognised.
Although the ideas of the ruling class are dominant, they are
constantly being challenged by other ideas. This struggle of ideas
reflects the struggle of class forces in society. Opposition to the
dominant ruling class ideology is a reflection of the material interests
of other classes.
Government, legal system and ideology
THE GOVERNMENT, legal system and ideology of any society are called the
'superstructure' that grows out of the economic base of society. The form
that the superstructure of any society takes is determined first of all by
the economic relations that that society is based on.
However, this does not mean that the economic system determines
everything in a society. Local traditions and the particular way a society
has developed also influence the political and legal system. For example,
many capitalist societies still have a monarchy, which is really a
feudal/pre-capitalist institution. Republics and monarchies, parliamentary
'democracies', fascist and military dictatorships are all systems of
government utilised by the capitalist class.
In Britain today the laws are made and implemented mainly by
representatives of the ruling capitalist class. Other classes, such as the
working-class and middle-class, also make their voices heard, but the way
that the legal system is set up protects the interests of the ruling
class. For example, in British law many offences against private property
(such as theft, criminal damage etc) are considered more serious than
offences against a person (assault, GBH, even murder in some cases).
This leads to a bizarre situation where the majority of women in jail
in Britain are there for crimes of poverty such as stealing food or
failing to pay fines, while the private companies that run the railways
are allowed to get away with killing people in train crashes caused by
their pursuit of profit before safety. In the global monopolised world we
live in today it is legal for a multinational company to patent existing
plants, such as species of rice that have been grown for hundreds of
years, and to charge farmers anywhere in the world for the 'right' to grow
Ideology changes as material conditions change
THE FOLLOWING statements express ideas that are widely accepted today
in Britain. Compare them with the examples of ideas that were widely
accepted in Britain at the end of the 19th century:
'Men are stronger than women'
'greed is part of human nature: you can't have an equal society'
'racism will always exist'
'Men are physically and mentally superior to women'
'white people are superior to Black people'
'Britain is helping its colonies by bringing civilisation to them'
Both sets of statements reflect the ruling class ideology that says
division and greed are natural and necessary. But changes in the material
conditions of British capitalism during the last 100 or so years has
forced capitalist commentators to change the way that they express their
At the end of the 19th century in Britain, women were legally
considered to be the property of their husbands or fathers and had no
right to inherit property, vote or go to university.
In 1884-5 European powers met at a conference in Berlin to divide
Africa between them. At the end of the 19th century, because of her
economic and naval strength, Britain ruled an empire that covered
one-third of the world's land-surface. The British Empire provided raw
materials and mineral wealth for British industry, and a huge market for
manufactured goods from Britain. The British ruling class tried to justify
their colonialism (which in most of Britain's colonies amounted to
military occupation) with openly racist ideas.
During the 20th century mass movements for independence finally broke
up the British Empire and Britain was overtaken by the USA as the dominant
world economic power. Struggles for women's rights, combined with the
increasing demand for women workers in industry and the confidence and
economic muscle their new position in the workforce gave them, have won
women many rights that did not exist in the 19th century. These material
changes are what has forced capitalist commentators in Britain to adapt
the way they present their ideology.
The power of ideas comes from the material forces they represent
MARX AND Engels did not 'invent' the idea of socialism: it had existed
for a long time. Movements such as the Diggers, who fought for an end to
private ownership of land during the English Civil War, had put forward
basic socialist ideas much earlier. However, early socialist movements
were overwhelmingly utopian, putting forward the idea of a better society
but without a real understanding of how it could be achieved.
Marx' and Engels' contribution was to show that socialist ideas had a
scientific and objective foundation and to put it in context by explaining
how human society had developed. They were able to develop a worked-out
ideology for socialism: Marxism.
The strength of socialist and Marxist ideas comes from the fact that
they accurately reflect and explain the material conditions that the
working-class experience under capitalism:
the alienation, exploitation and oppression of the working-class
the collective nature of the labour of the working-class
the contradiction between the enormous productive power of
capitalism and its inability to develop the productive forces for the
benefit of all or provide enough of the necessities of life for
everyone (seen today in the biggest gap between rich and poor since
While these material conditions exist, working-class people will be
forced to search for a socialist alternative. However the popularity of
socialism will not be enough to remove capitalism and replace it with a
socialist form of society.
2. Changing the course of history
"THE MOST indubitable feature of a revolution is the direct
interference of the masses in historic events. In ordinary times the
state, be it monarchical or democratic, elevates itself above the nation,
and history is made by specialists in that line of business - kings,
ministers, bureaucrats, parliamentarians, journalists. But at those
crucial moments when the old order becomes no longer endurable to the
masses, they break over the barriers excluding them from the political
arena, sweep aside their traditional representatives, and create by their
own interference the initial groundwork for a new regime . . ."
Preface, The History of the Russian revolution, Trotsky.
Revolutionary change - how society develops
OVER TIME the contradictions built into the economic, political and
legal structures of each class society grow. Eventually they become a
block on the productive forces (the productivity of human labour), holding
back their development. The old ruling class try desperately to block
change in order to cling on to their privileges and power.
In this situation the only way that society can move forward is for the
old ruling class to be removed from power and a new way of organising
society to be put in its place. This means a revolution.
The English Civil War
IN ENGLAND the capitalist class won political power in a revolution,
though they don't talk about it much today. The English Civil War in the
mid-17th century, where parliamentarians confronted monarchists on the
battlefield, was a war between two opposing classes and their supporters:
the feudal aristocracy and the monarchy, against the rising capitalist
The feudal system in England had begun to reach the limits of its
development over 200 years before. Improvements in agricultural methods
and the clearing of forests and other areas to provide more land for
cultivation had enormously increased agricultural productivity, but could
go little further under the feudal system of small peasant plots.
A slump in grain prices combined with big increases in the price of
luxury items put pressure on the lifestyle of the feudal aristocracy. They
in turn tried to squeeze more out of the peasantry, demanding rent in
money rather than grain or labour.
In the mid-14th century the Black Death epidemic struck, which
eventually killed up to 40% of the population. The shortage of labour this
caused in the countryside gave the peasantry more power in their ongoing
struggle with the feudal lords, who were forced to allow better conditions
and lower rents. The landless poor, who were forced to work for others in
order to survive, were able to demand better wages - both in the country
and in the towns.
As the feudal ruling class sank into decline, the embryo of a new
society was beginning to form in the towns and cities. Encouraged by a
growth in long-distance trade, artisans and merchants gathered at town
markets to sell their goods. Artisans also found buyers for their goods
locally, particularly among the feudal lords and the richer peasants.
The towns in England (and most of Western Europe) had relative freedom
from direct control by the feudal lords and soon the artisans and rich
merchants were forming guild organisations and corporations to protect
These processes - of growth in the production of goods to sell at
market and the increasing crisis in feudal power in the countryside - both
reinforced each other. Town guilds and corporations were beginning to
introduce capitalist relations, employing a growing army of wage-labourers.
But however much the economic power of this embryonic capitalist class
grew, the government and legal system of England were still based on the
interests of the feudal aristocracy.
Eventually the struggle for political power between the feudal
aristocracy and the rising capitalist class was decided by a Civil War.
The capitalists drew the most oppressed sections of the population behind
them in their struggle. They overthrew the monarchy (it was later
restored), established parliament (which was dominated at that time by
representatives of the capitalists) as the supreme political authority and
established a legal system that supported the interests of the capitalist
However, human society doesn't develop in a straight line, stepping
from one type of society to the next and constantly developing. Society
can also go backwards.
What happens when revolutions fail?
UNFORTUNATELY, REVOLUTIONS against the existing order are not always
successful. If revolutions against an outdated mode of production and its
ruling class fail again and again then the decaying system will sink
further into decline. The development of society can be thrown backwards
for hundreds of years.
The ancient slave societies of Egypt, Greece and Rome developed
science, technology and literature enormously. This flowering of culture
was made possible because these societies rested on the exploitation of
huge armies of slave labour. But in time these powerful empires began to
come up against the limits of slavery (and in the case of the Roman
Empire, the limits of constant expansion).
One example of how the limits of slavery held society back is the way
that scientific advances and inventions that slavery produced were not
always put to use in order to increase the efficiency of human labour. For
example the Ancient Egyptians understood all the principles necessary to
build the steam engine, and the waterwheel was invented in Roman times.
However, neither of these inventions were put to use systematically or
generally; instead, they were used to make toys to amuse the rich and
powerful. This was because the economic system of slavery, where slave
labour was so cheap and easily available, did not encourage the spread of
this new technology that could have developed the productivity of human
labour immensely and taken society forward.
Instead of being overthrown and replaced by a more progressive form of
society, the ancient slave economies began to fall apart internally until,
divided and weak, they were conquered by foreign invaders. The collapse of
the Roman Empire threw society in most of Western Europe back for
centuries before it began to develop once more.
THE ACHIEVEMENTS of capitalism, in developing the productive forces,
are immense. The mechanisation of the production process, electrification,
the development of railways, an extensive road network and motorised
vehicles, the invention of computers and the development of virtually
instantaneous communication around the world, have transformed trade and
produced goods and wealth in previously unimaginable quantities.
But these advances have come at a price. The rise of wage labour and
the 'free market' enabled even more intensive exploitation of the
working-class. The capitalists own and control the tools, factories and
raw materials (the means of production). Because they have no land or
independent source of wealth, workers are forced to sell their labour to
the capitalists in order to survive.
Capitalists, in competition with each other, attempt to force down the
wages of their workforce in order to increase their profits. The threat of
unemployment, and of unemployed workers who would work for less, is used
as a stick to beat their workers with to make them accept worse wages and
Under early capitalism (eg, at the beginning of the Industrial
Revolution in Britain), the living and working conditions of the masses
were worse than they had been for the majority under feudalism. It was
only with the development of working-class struggle, including the setting
up of the trade unions, that workers and the unemployed began to improve
The enormous wealth and the power it made possible were monopolised by
the capitalist class and used to make yet more money by exploiting the
labour of the working-class. The first capitalist countries (like Britain)
used their economic and military might to establish empires by seizing
control of territories abroad, where the natural resources and the labour
of the local population were callously exploited to maximise the wealth,
power and prestige of the imperial ruling class.
The working-class - 'gravediggers' of capitalism
MARX AND Engels showed that capitalism was only the most recent form of
exploitative class society. They also explained that as capitalism
developed it was also creating the seeds of its own destruction. The
central role that the growing working class played in the production
process produced a class that could not only challenge the rule of the
capitalists but was also capable of building a new and more progressive
From a historical viewpoint, capitalism's most important achievement
was to develop the productive forces to a level where a socialist society
is possible. Without the material basis for abolishing hunger, poverty and
illiteracy worldwide, a socialist society is impossible.
Capitalism has achieved this material basis. According to the United
Nations: "It is estimated that the additional cost of achieving and
maintaining universal access to basic education for all, basic health care
for all, reproductive health care for all women, adequate food for all and
safe water and sanitation for all is roughly US $40 billion a year . . .
This is less than 4% of the combined wealth of the 225 richest
people." (UN Human Development Report, 1997.)
Yet under capitalism even this relatively minor redistribution of
wealth will never happen. The private ownership of industry, transport and
communications is holding the productive forces back. The modern
globalised world economy is continually trying to overcome the limits of
capitalism, for instance: national boundaries and the inability of workers
to buy back the goods that they produce because they are not paid the full
value of their labour. But time after time these limits plunge the system
The parasitic nature of modern capitalism is shown by the massive
growth in financial speculation as opposed to investment in real industry.
The incredible communications systems that have been developed could allow
a socialist society to democratically plan a modern economy in detail to
meet people's needs. But under capitalism they are monopolised by the
biggest multinationals to ensure they squeeze every extra drop of profit
out of both their workers and the buying public.
A socialist society could end the wastage of resources on weapons of
mass destruction, huge military machines, the duplication and distortion
of scientific research, the wastage of food to keep world prices high etc.
But in order to achieve this the private ownership of the major industries
and financial institutions must be removed and replaced by common
ownership and workers' democracy.
The role of individuals in history
A REVOLUTION is not something that can be conjured up by any individual
or organisation. It is a process that occurs when the contradictions
within any class society have reached crisis point: when the masses,
feeling that they can no longer put up with their oppression, rise up to
challenge the rule of the current ruling class. (To find out more about
what happens in a revolution, see the pamphlet on Changing the World -
the role of a revolutionary party in this series.)
Marxists reject the idea, put forward by some mainstream historians,
that strong individuals are responsible for making history by themselves.
Putting major historical events down to one individual's ambition or
strong personal beliefs helps to mystify history, not to explain it.
While Marxists believe that revolutions are made by the masses, we also
understand that in a mass movement or a revolution - particularly at
certain critical stages - the intervention of the right individuals can
make the difference between the success or failure of the movement.
However, this does not mean that individuals can replace mass movements
or mass involvement in a revolution in any way.
People who can help channel mass movements in the right direction do
not fall ready-made from the sky. They are shaped and prepared by the
economic and political period that they have lived through, and
particularly the class struggles and mass movements they have participated
in. In this way, the experience and lessons of past movements are absorbed
by these individuals, which they then bring back to the movement to help
ensure its success.
The difference between a socialist revolution and all previous ones
A SOCIALIST revolution has to be led by the working-class. Revolutions
against previous forms of class society, were led by a minority class who
exploited the anger of the masses in their struggle to gain political
power for themselves (eg, the capitalist revolutions against the feudal
However, today the working-class are the majority of the population in
many countries. In order to free itself from oppression and exploitation,
the working-class has to abolish class society altogether. The socialist
revolution is the first revolution in human history that has the power to
put an end to class exploitation. It is also the first revolution to be
carried out by a class that has become fully conscious of the historical
task it faces.
This consciousness does not exist yet. People's experience of
capitalism pushes them towards socialist conclusions in different ways and
at different times. Encouraging the development of class consciousness and
socialist ideas is one of the tasks of a revolutionary party, which can
draw different sections of the working-class and radical middle class
together, uniting them in a common fight. (For more information, see the
pamphlet on the role of a revolutionary party.)
The end of class society
A SOCIALIST society would abolish classes, allowing the collective and
truly democratic running of society to reappear for the first time since
hunter-gatherer society. But this would be on an entirely higher material
basis: instead of living at subsistence level completely dependent on the
local environment, society would be based on productive forces that are
capable of providing more than enough for every person's needs.
In the transition from capitalism to socialism, after a successful
socialist revolution, the state would be run by the working class (and
also the poor peasantry and landless masses in the many countries where
they exist). But even this, though it would be a state based on workers'
democracy rather than class exploitation, would eventually wither away as
socialism and then a genuine communist society was built.
The material basis for the state is the suppression of one class (in
this case the capitalists) by another (in this case the working-class,
supported by other oppressed classes like the peasantry and landless
As a classless society develops, the material basis for any state
organisation that stands above the population disappears. The necessary
tasks that the state performs in class society - planning, administration,
etc - would be organised and carried out by the population as a whole
according to their own democratic decisions.
'Socialism or barbarism'
IF ONE revolution is unsuccessful in overthrowing capitalism, the
consequences can be severe. Fascism and dictatorship are 'solutions' that
the capitalist class often resort to 'maintain order' after a failed
revolution. But if in the long-term no revolution succeeds in establishing
a socialist society, even these horrific prospects would pale into
insignificance next to the disintegration of capitalism worldwide.
Throughout human history as the productive forces have developed, so
has the destructive potential of human society. As each new form of class
society arises the exploitation of the oppressed classes within it seems
to become more and more total. Increased productivity and technology
enable more and more complete control and exploitation of the masses, as
well as more and more powerful and horrific weapons to destroy human life.
The nuclear weapons held by governments around the world could destroy
the planet many times over. The environmental destruction of capitalist
industry goes hand in hand with private ownership and profiteering. As the
capitalist system lurches from crisis to crisis, the growing instability
it creates increases the number of wars and conflicts and uses up the
natural resources of the world with less and less thought for the future.
Unless a series of socialist revolutions around the world succeed in
abolishing capitalism, the disintegration of a society with such awesome
destructive power could be a disaster unparalleled in human history.
A socialist society would not only free the productive forces from the
limits of capitalism and free humans from wage slavery and the alienation
from labour that capitalism produces; it would also ensure that production
and technology were used for constructive not destructive purposes.
material reality – things and processes in the real world that
can be touched or measured
mode of production – the way in which the production of
necessities of life and other goods is organised
productive forces – the productivity of human labour (the amount
of goods produced by a fixed amount of human labour), which is developed
and increased with the help of technology, scientific knowledge and more
efficient ways of organising labour power
ideology – system of ideas
progressive – something that helps take society forward by
helping develop the productive forces
Marx and Engels classified the first types of class society as
'barbarism' and the rise of the ancient slave empires of Egypt, Rome and
Greece as 'civilisation'. Today these terms seem out-dated and tainted by
association with the ideology of imperialism.
Therefore in this pamphlet I have used more specific terms that have
arisen from research carried out since Marx and Engels were writing - such
as Neolithic society, slave societies, etc - to describe each type of
The German Ideology (part 1) - Marx and Engels
The Communist Manifesto - Marx and Engels
What Happened in History? - Gordon Childe
Man Makes Himself - Gordon Childe
Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State - Engels