‘The Equilibrium between Society and Nature’ Part One (1921) by Nikolai Bukharin from Historical Materialism: A System of Sociology. International Publishers, New York. 1925.

Bukharin on a climbing excursion to the top of the Caucuses Mt. Elbrus, c. 1934.

The first half of the fifth chapter, ‘The Equilibrium between Society and Nature,’ from Bukharin’s 1921 ‘Historical Materialism,’ containing sub-chapters: Nature as the Environment of Society, Relations between Society and Nature; the Process of Production and Reproduction, and The Productive Forces; and the Productive Forces as an Indicator of the Relations between Society and Nature. Bukharin’s work on Historical Materialism was widely read and taught, in the U.S. in the years between its 1925 publishing and Bukharin’s 1929 political fall, when it was subject to savage editorials was removed from the ‘canon.’ Though not without its many critics, unsurprisingly some of its science has been superseded and concepts disputed. However, particularly since was rediscovered by the radical sustainability movement and , in t has been an important text, despite, even because of its faults, and has become a subject of study, criticism and debate among Marxist ecologists, naturalists, environmental planners, and Eco-Socialists. A truly stimulating presentation of Bukharin’s thoughts; at their best, expansive, imaginative, challenging. Part two to follow.

‘The Equilibrium between Society and Nature’ (1921) Part One by Nikolai Bukharin from Historical Materialism: A System of Sociology. International Publishers, New York. 1925.

‘The Equilibrium between Society and Nature’

a. Nature as the Environment of Society

A consideration of society as a system involves the recognition of “external nature” as its environment, i.e., chiefly the terrestrial globe with all its natural properties. Human society is unthinkable without its environment. Nature is the source of foodstuffs for human society, thus determining the latter’s living conditions. But nothing could be more incorrect than to regard nature from the teleological point of view: man, the lord of creation, with nature created for his use, and all things adapted to human needs. As a matter of fact, nature often falls upon the “lord of creation” in such a savage manner that he is obliged to admit her superiority. It has taken man centuries of bitter struggle to place his iron bit in nature’s mouth.

Now man, as an animal form, as well as human society, are products of nature, parts of this great, endless whole. Man can never escape from nature, and even when he “controls” nature, he is merely making use of the laws of nature for his own ends. It is therefore clear how great must be the influence of nature on the whole development of human society. Before proceeding to a study of the relations existing between nature and man, or of the forms in which nature operates on human society, we must consider first of all with what phases of nature man comes chiefly in contact. We have only to look about us in order to perceive the dependence of society on nature: “The soil (and this, economically speaking, includes water) in the virgin state in which it supplies man with necessaries or the means of subsistence ready to hand, exists independently of him, and is the universal subject of human labor. All those things which labor merely separates from immediate connection with their environment, are subjects of labor spontaneously provided by nature. Such are fish which we catch and take from their element water, timber which we fell in the virgin forest, and ores which we extract from their veins ” As the earth is his original larder, so too it is his original tool house. It supplies him, for instance, with stones for throwing, grinding, pressing, cutting, etc.”1) Nature is the immediate object of labor in the acquisitive industries (mining, hunting, portions of agriculture, etc.). In other words, nature determines what raw materials are to be manipulated. Man, as we have seen above, is constantly making use of the laws of nature in his struggle with her. “He makes use of the mechanical, physical and chemical properties of some bodies in order to make other substances subservient with his aims:” 2) Man makes use of the power of steam, electricity, etc., the attraction of the earth for bodies (law of gravitation), etc. It is impossible, therefore, for the state of nature at a certain place and at a certain time not to act upon human society. Climate (quantity of moisture, winds, temperature, etc.), configuration of surface (hills or valleys, distribution of water, character of rivers, presence of metals, minerals, all the resources buried in the earth), the character of the shore (in the case of a maritime community), the distribution of land and water, the presence of various animals and plants, etc., such are the chief elements of nature that influence human society. Whales and fish may not be caught on land; agriculture may not be pursued on rocky mountains; deserts are a poor place for forestry; you cannot live in tents in cold countries during the winter, nor do you heat your but in hot weather … if no metals are in the ground, you cannot conjure them down from heaven or suck them out of your finger-tips, etc.

In detail, the influence of nature is found expressed in the following conditions:

Distribution of land and water. In general, man is a land animal; the ocean therefore has a double influence: it divides: and, on the other hand, furnishes a transportation route. The former influence is earlier than the latter. The influence of the coast-line is chiefly in its possessing – or not possessing – good harbors. With few exceptions (Cherbourg, for instance), modern seaports are established where the natural curves of the seacoast provide natural harbors. The surface of the earth, whose influence on man is felt through the animal and vegetable kingdoms, has also a more direct influence – varying greatly in accordance with the stage in evolution – by determining the nature and direction of transportation routes (paths, highways, railroads, tunnels, etc.).

Bukharin, gives speech at funeral of American journalist John Reed, 1920.

Stones and minerals. Construction work depends on the nature of the available stone quarries. In mountainous regions, the hard varieties (for instance, porphyry, basalt, etc.) predominate; in valleys, softer varieties. The importance of minerals and metals has increased particularly in recent days (iron, coal). Certain minerals furnish the principal reason for the migration of nations, as well as colonization. (The presence of tin lured the Phoenicians northward; gold drew them to South Africa and East India; gold and silver brought the Spaniards to America.) The centers of modern heavy industry are determined by the location of deposits of iron ore and coal. The character of the soil, together with the climate, have their influence on the vegetable kingdom.

Continental bodies of water. Water is of value, in the first place, for drinking purposes (therefore it is so precious in the desert); second, we have its significance for agriculture (the soil – depending on the amount of water in it – must be drained or irrigated). It is well known how significant are the inundations of the great rivers (Nile, Ganges, etc.) for agriculture, and how great was the influence of this circumstance on the ancient Egyptians and East Indians. Water is also important as motive power (water-mills are among the earliest inventions; therefore, cities arose in close proximity to regions rich in water; more recently, the utilization of water power in electrification may be mentioned, the so called `white coal,” now widely exploited in America, Germany, Norway, Sweden and Italy). Finally, there is the fact that water furnishes transportation routes, which some scholars consider its most important function.

The Climate’s influence is chiefly through its effect on production. The species of plants to be cultivated depend on the climate, which also determines the length of the agricultural season (very short in Russia; lasting nearly a year in southern countries); labor forces are therefore liberated in northern climates, becoming available for industry, etc. Climate also has an influence on transportation (traffic by sleigh in winter; harbors frozen up or open in winter, also rivers, etc.). A cold climate requires a greater quantity of labor devoted to nourishment, clothing, housing, artificial heating, etc.; in the north, more time is spent indoors; in the south, more in the open air.

The Flora has a varying influence: at lower levels of culture, the paths depended on the nature of the forests (inaccessible primeval forests), the species of trees determine the character of construction, fuel, etc., also the chase, agriculture, even the specific variety of agriculture. The same is true of cattle breeding. The fauna, for primitive tribes, constitutes a powerful hostile element, serving chiefly for nutrition, in other words, as the object of the chase and of fishery; later, there came the taming of beasts, with a further effect on production and transportation (draught animals).

The Ocean has always been of great importance; travel and freight are cheaper by sea; the ocean also furnishes the theater for many branches of production (fisheries, whaling, sealing, etc.). (Cf. A. Hettner: Die geographischen Bedingungen der menschlichen Wirtschaft in Grundriss der Nationalökonomik, Tübingen 1914.) The influence of climatic conditions may be illustrated as follows: in the matter of average annual temperatures (so called isotherms on the charts), “it may be observed that the greatest populations have congregated between the isotherms of + 16· C. and + 4· C. The isotherm + 10· C. coincides pretty closely with the central axis of this climatic and cultural zone, and on this isotherm lie the richest and most populous cities of the globe: Chicago, New York, Philadelphia, London, Vienna, Odessa, Peking; on isotherm + 16· we find: St. Louis, Lisbon, Rome, Constantinople, Osaka, Kioto, Tokio; on isotherm + 4·, we have: Quebec, Oslo, Stockholm, Leningrad, Moscow. Very few cities of more than 100,000 inhabitants are found south of isotherm + 16·: Mexico, New Orleans, Cairo, Alexandria, Teheran, Calcutta, Bombay, Madras, Canton. The northern limit – isotherm + 4· – is more sharply drawn; north of it, the only important cities are Winnipeg (Canada) and the administrative centers of Siberia.” (L. I. Mechnikov: Civilization and the Great Historical Rivers, quoted from the Russian edition, Petersburg, 1898, pp.38, 39.)

b. Relations between Society and Nature; the Process of Production and Reproduction

We already know that in any system the cause for alterations in the system must be sought in its relations with its environment; also, that the fundamental direction of growth (progress, rest, or destruction of the system), depends precisely on what the relation is between the given system and its environment. An alteration in this relation impels us to seek a cause producing a change in the system itself. Where shall we seek the constantly changing relations between society and nature?

We have already seen that this changing relation is in the field of social labor. As a matter of fact, how does the process of adaptation of human society to nature express itself? What is the character of the unstable equilibrium between society and nature?

Human society, ever since it began, has had to abstract material energy from external nature; without these loans it could not exist. Society best adapts itself to nature by abstracting (and appropriating to itself) more energy from nature; only by increasing this quantity of energy does society succeed in growing. Let us suppose, for example, that on a certain day all labor should stop-in factories, machine-shops, mines, on railroads, in the forests and fields, by land and sea. Society would not be able to maintain itself for a single week, for even in order to live on the existing supplies, it would have to transport, forward, and distribute them. “Every child knows that any nation would perish of hunger if it should stop work, I shall not say for a year, but only for a few weeks.”3) Men cultivate the ground, raise wheat, rye, maize; they breed and graze animals; they raise cotton, hemp and flax; they cut down trees, break stone in quarries, and thus satisfy their demands for food, clothing, and shelter. They seize coal and iron-ore in the bowels of the earth and create great machines of steel, with the aid of which they dig down into nature in various directions, changing the entire earth into a gigantic workshop, in which men beat with hammers, work at the benches, dig holes underground, see to it that the great engines run smoothly, cut tunnels through the mountains, cross the oceans in huge ships, bear burdens through the air, trace a great network of rails over the earth, lay cables at the bottom of the sea-and everywhere, from the noisy city centers to the remote country nooks on the earth’s surface, they work like beavers for their “daily bread”, always by adapting themselves to nature and adapting nature to themselves. One part of nature, external nature, the part that we are calling the “environment”, is opposed to another part, which is human society. And the form of contact between these two parts of a single whole is the process of human labor. “Labor is, in the first place, a process in which both man and nature participate, and in which man of his own accord, starts, regulates, and controls the material reactions between himself and nature. He opposes himself to nature as one of her own forces.”4) The immediate contact between society and nature, i.e., the abstraction of energy from nature, is a material process. “Man sets in motion his arms and legs, head and hands, the natural forces of his body, in order to appropriate nature’s productions in a form adapted to his own wants.”5)

This material process of “metabolism” between society and nature is the fundamental relation between environment and system, between “external conditions” and human society.

In order that society may continue to live, the process of production must be constantly renewed. If we assume that at any moment a certain amount of wheat, shoes, shirts, etc., have been produced, and that all these are eaten, worn, used up, in the same period, it is clear that production must at once repeat its cycle; in fact, it must be constantly repeated, each cycle following immediately upon the other. The process of production, viewed from the point of view of a repetition of these productive cycles, is called the reproductive process. For a realization of the reproductive process it is necessary that all its material conditions be repeated, for example: for the production of textile fabrics, we need looms; for looms we need steel; for steel we need iron ore and coal; for transporting the latter substances we need rail, roads, and therefore also rails, locomotives, etc., also highways, steamers, etc.; warehouses, factory buildings, etc.; in other words, we need a long series of material products of the most varied nature. Of course, all these material products deteriorate – some faster than others – in the process of production; the foodstuffs obtained by the weavers are eaten up; the weaving looms wear out; the warehouses become old, need overhauling; locomotives get out of repair, cars, the ties, must be replaced. In fact, a constant replacement (by new production) of worn-out, used up, consumed objects, in all their various material forms, is a necessary condition of the process of reproduction. At any given moment, human society requires for continuing the progress of reproduction a certain quantity of foodstuffs, buildings, mining products, finished industrial products, replacement parts for transportation units, etc. All these things must be produced if society is not to lower its standard of living, beginning with wheat and rye, coal and steel, and ending with microscopes and chalk for schools, book-bindings, and news-print paper. All these things are a necessary part of the material turnover of society; they are the material components of the social process of reproduction.

We therefore regard the metabolism between society and nature as a material process, for it deals with material things (objects of labor, instruments of labor, and products obtained as a consequence-all are material things); on the other hand, the process of labor itself is an expenditure of physiological energy, nerve energy, muscular energy, whose material expression is in the physical motions of those engaged at work. “If we examine the whole process from the point of view of its result, of the product, it is plain that both the instruments and the subject of labor, are means of production, and that the labor itself is productive labor”.6)

Even bourgeois professors, sticking to their “specialty”, reluctantly recognize the material character of the process of production. Thus, Professor Herkner (Arbeit und Arbeitsteilung, in Grundriss der Sozialökonomie, vol. ii, p.170) writes: “An investigation of the essence of labor requires the understanding of two types of processes ” In the first place, bodily labor is expressed in certain external movements. The smith’s left hand, for instance, seizes the red-hot iron with a pair of tongs, placing it on the anvil, while his right imparts form to it through blows with the hammer “. The number, variety and size of the results of labor may be determined ” It is possible to describe the entire labor process, as well as the instruments of labor used in it,” etc. Herkner calls this labor in the objective sense”. On the other hand, the same process may be regarded from the point of view of the thoughts and feelings produced in the worker; this is labor “in the subjective sense”. Since we are concerned with the mutual relation between society and nature, and since this mutual relation happens to coincide with objective (material) labor, we may now ignore the subjective phase of this process. It is therefore important for us to examine the material production of all the material elements necessary for the process of reproduction.

But the fact that instruments of precision, for instance, are material things, and that their production is a part of material production, necessary in the process of reproduction, does not justify the conclusion drawn by Kautsky (Die Neue Zeit, vol. 15, p.233) or Cunow (Die Neue Zeit, vol. 39, p. 408) namely, that mathematics and its study are a portion of production, merely because they are necessary for this production. However, if all persons should suddenly lose the faculty of speech, and if there should be no other means of communication aside from this lost faculty, it would at once transpire that production also would cease. Language therefore is also “necessary” for reproduction, like many other elements in any society. Yet it would be ridiculous to consider language as a part of production. Nor need we here cudgel our brains with another allegedly troublesome question: which came first, the chicken or the egg; society or production? This question is an absurd one; society is inconceivable without production; production is inconceivable without society. But it is important to determine whether the alteration in a system is conditioned by the alterations taking place between the system and its environment. If so, we must next ask: wherein is this alteration to be sought? The answer is: in material labor. This mode of formulating the question disposes of most of the “profound” objections to historical materialism, and it becomes evident that the “first cause” of social evolution is to be found precisely here. But more of this later.

The metabolism between man and nature consists, as we have seen, in the transfer of material energy from external nature to society; the expenditure of human energy (production) is an extraction of energy from nature, energy which is to be added to society (distribution of products between the members of society) and appropriated by society (consumption) ;this appropriation is the basis for further expenditure, etc., the wheel of reproduction being thus constantly in motion. Taken as a whole, the process of reproduction therefore includes various phases, together constituting a unit, at the bottom of which is again the same productive process. It is obvious that human society comes most directly into contact with external nature in the process of production; it rubs elbows with nature at this point; therefore, within the process of reproduction, the productive phase determines also that of distribution and consumption.

The process of social production is an adaptation of human society to external nature. The process is an active one. When any type of animal adapts itself to nature, this type is subject, at bottom, to the constant action of its environment. When human society adapts itself to its environment, it also adapts the environment to itself, not only becoming subject to the action of nature, as a material, but also simultaneously transforming nature into a material for human action. For example, when certain forms of insects or birds have a coloring similar to that of their environment (mimicry), this phenomenon is not a result of any effort on the part of these organisms, and certainly not a result of their action on external nature. This result was obtained at the price of the destruction of countless myriads of individual animals, in the course of many thousands of years, with those best adapted surviving and multiplying. Human society struggles with nature; man plows the ground, constructs roads through impassable forests, conquers the forces of nature, uses them for his own ends, changes the whole face of the earth; this is an active, not a passive, adaptation, and constitutes one of the basic differences between human society and the other types of animals.

This was already well understood by the French Physiocrats in the Eighteenth Century. Thus, we find in Nicolas Baudeau (Première introduction de la philosophie ècononomique, ou analyse des états poliées, 1767, Collection des Economistes et des Réformateurs sociaux de France, published by Dubois, Paris, 1910, p.2): “All animals are daily attempting to find products produced by nature, i.e., food furnished by the earth itself. Certain species . . . collect these commodities and preserve them . . . . Man only, destined (this thought is expressed teleologically. N.B.) to investigate the mysteries of nature and its fruitfulness, can obtain more useful products than he finds on the surface of the earth in its wild and unworked condition. This activity (cet art) is perhaps one of man’s noblest traits on earth.”

“Man,” writes the geographer L. Mechnikov (op. cit., p.44), “who shares with all other organisms the valuable property of adaptation to his environment, dominates all by reason of the more precious ability – peculiar to him – of adapting the environment to his needs.

Strictly speaking, active adaptation (by means of labor) is found in elementary outline among certain types of so called social animals (beavers, who build dams; ants, who erect large hills; plant-lice, who exploit certain plants; bees, etc.); the primitive forms of human labor were also animal-like, instinctive forms of labor.

c. The Productive Forces; the Productive Forces as an Indicator of the Relations between Society and Nature

Thus, the interrelation between society and nature is a process of social reproduction. In this process, society applies its human labor energy and obtains a certain quantity of energy from nature (“nature’s material”, in the words of Marx). The balance between expenditure and receipts is here obviously the decisive element for the growth of society. If what is obtained exceeds the loss by labor, important consequences obviously follow for society, which vary with the amount of this excess.

Nikolai Bukharin at the Congress of educators, USSR 1925.

Let us suppose a certain society must devote all its working time to covering its most rudimentary needs. It is obvious that the products obtained will be consumed as rapidly as new products are produced. This society will therefore not have enough time to produce an additional quantity of products, to extend its requirements, to introduce new products; it will hardly be able to make ends meet, will live from hand to mouth, will eat up what it produces, consuming just enough to keep on working; all its time will be spent in the production of an unvarying quantity of products. This society will remain at the same low level of existence. It will be impossible for its demands to increase; it will have to suit its wants to its resources and both will remain unchanged.

Now let us suppose that for some reason the same quantity of necessary products is obtained with an expenditure, not of all of society’s time, but of only one-half of this time (for example, the primitive tribe has migrated to a place where there is twice as much game, twice as many beasts of all kinds, or where the earth is twice as fruitful; or, the tribe has improved its method of working the soil, or devised new tools, etc.).

In such a case, society will be free for one-half of its former working time. It may devote this free time to new branches of production: to the manufacture of new tools; to the obtaining of new raw materials, etc., and also to certain forms of mental labor. Here the growth of new demands becomes possible, for the first time we have an opportunity for the birth and development o£ so called “mental culture”. If the free time now available is used only partly in perfecting the former types of labor, it follows that in the future the former demands may be satisfied by devoting to them even less than one-half the entire labor time (new perfections in the labor process arise); in the next cycle of reproduction, still less time is required, etc., and the time thus rendered available will be devoted in greater and greater measure to the manufacture of more and more improved tools, instruments, machines, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, to new branches of production, satisfying new wants; and, in the third place, to “mental culture”, beginning with those phases that are more or less connected with the process of production.

Let us now suppose that the same quantity of necessary objects which formerly demanded the expenditure of the entire labor time, now require not one-half this time, but twice the time (for instance, owing to an exhaustion of the soil); it is clear that unless new modes of labor are resorted to, or new lands settled, this society will decline, a portion of its numbers will die out. Let us further suppose that a highly developed society, with a rich “mental culture”, with the most varied wants, an infinite number of different branches of production, with “arts and sciences” in full bloom, suddenly finds difficulty in satisfying its needs; perhaps, owing to certain reasons, the society is not able to manipulate its technical apparatus (for example, there may be constant class war, with no class gaining the upper hand, and the productive process, with its highly developed technique, dies out); it is then necessary to return to an older stage of labor, in which, for covering the former demands, a much greater period of time would be required, at present an impossibility; production will be curtailed, the standard of living will go down, the flourishing “arts and sciences” will wither; mental life will be impoverished; society, unless this lowering of its standard is the result of merely temporary causes, will be “barbarianized”, will go to sleep.

The most noteworthy feature in all these cases is the fact that the growth of society is determined by the yield or productivity of social labor; the productivity of labor means the relation between the quantity of product obtained and the quantity of labor expended; in other words, the productivity of labor is the quantity of product per unit of working time, for example, the amount of product turned out in one day, or in one hour, or in one year. If this amount of product obtained per working hour is doubled, we say the productivity of labor has increased 200 per cent., if it is halved, we say it has gone down 50 per cent.

Obviously, the productivity of labor is a precise measure of the “balance” between society and nature; it is a measure of the mutual interaction between the environment and the system by which the position of the system in the environment is determined, and an alteration of which will indicate inevitable changes throughout the internal life of society.

In considering the productivity of social labor, we must also consider among labor expenditures the amount of human labor which is devoted to the production of suitable instruments of labor. If, for example, a certain product has hitherto been manufactured by human hands only, practically without tools, and now begins to be made with the aid of complicated machinery, and if the application of this machinery makes possible the manufacture of twice the quantity of products in the same time as formerly, this will not mean that the productivity of labor of the entire society will be doubled. For we have not counted the expenditure of human labor that went into the manufacture of the machines (or, more correctly, we have not counted the labor that is indirectly involved in the product because it went directly into the machines). The total productivity of labor will therefore be found to have somewhat less than doubled.

Those who love to harp on petty things may object to the conception of the productivity of social labor, and its adaptation to society as a whole, as does P. P. Maslov (Capitalism, in Russian). For example, one may raise the objection that the conception of the productivity of labor is valid only as applied to single branches of production. In a certain year, in so many working hours, so many pairs of boots were turned out. In the following year, twice as many in the same time. But how may we compare and add together the productivity of labor in the fields – let us say – of pig-breeding and orange-culture? Is this not as silly as the comparison between music, bills of exchange, and sugar-beets, of which Marx spoke so scornfully? Such objections may be answered in two ways; in the first place, all the useful products appropriated by society may be measured comparatively, as useful energies; we already express rye, wheat sugar-beets, and potatoes, in calories; if we have not yet advanced so far as to be able to express these other things in actual practice, we must not attach too much importance to this inability; we must recognize that such a process will ultimately be possible; in the second place, we are already able to compare with each other, by indirect and complicated methods, quantities of quite varied objects. This is not the place for indicating the method pursued, but we shall adduce a simple case. If, for example, in a certain year, in a certain number of hours of labor, there were produced 1,000 pairs of boots plus 2,000 packages of cigarettes plus 20 machines, and in another year, in the same labor period: 1,000 pairs of boots plus 1,999 packages of cigarettes plus 21 machines plus 100 woolen sweaters, we may maintain without error that the productivity of labor has increased on the whole. Of course, we can also imagine the objection that not only products of consumption are produced, but also instruments of production. This would, of course complicate the calculation considerably, but suitable methods may be devised for including this circumstance.

Addressing Young Communists in 1925.

Thus, the relation between nature and society is expressed in the relation between the quantity of useful energy turned out. and the expenditure of social labor, i.e., the productivity of social labor. The expenditure of labor consists of two components: the labor that is crystallized and included in the instruments of production, and the “living” labor, i.e., the direct expenditure of working energy. If the productivity of labor as a quantity be regarded from the point of view of the component material factors of this quantity, we find we are dealing with three quantities: first, the quantity of products obtained; second, the quantity of instruments of production; third, the quantity of the productive forces, i.e., living workers. All these quantities are mutually dependent. For, if we know what workers are involved, we shall also know what they will produce in a given length of time; these two quantities determine the third quantity, the product turned out. Taken together, these two quantities constitute what we call the material productive forces of society. If, in the case of a certain society, we know what instruments of production it controls, how many such instruments, what kinds of workers and how many, we shall also know what will be the productivity of social labor, and what will be the degree to which this society has conquered nature, etc. In other ‘words, the instruments of production and the working forces give us a precise material measure for the stage attained in the social evolution.

We may also glance a little deeper; we may go so far as to say that the instruments of production determine even the nature of the worker. For example, when the linotype machine is added to the system of social labor, workers will be found to run the machine. The elements acting in the labor process are therefore not merely an aggregation of persons and things, but a system in which all things and all persons stand, as it were, at their posts, having become adapted to each other. The existence of certain means of production implies also the existence of workers to manipulate them. Furthermore, the means of production themselves may be distinguished into two great groups: raw materials and instruments of labor. Even the instrument of labor (tool) performs an active part; with it, the worker works the raw material. The existence in a certain society of certain tools necessarily implies the existence of the raw material for which these tools are intended (of course, in the normal course of reproduction). We may therefore definitely state that the system of social instruments of labor, i.e., the technology of a certain society, is a precise material indicator of the relation between the society and nature. The material productive forces of society and the productivity of social labor will find their expression in this technical system. “Relics of bygone instruments of labor possess the same importance for the investigation of extinct economical forms of society (societies of various types, N. B.) as do fossil bones for the determination of extinct species of animals. It is not the articles made, but how they are made and by what instruments, that enables us to distinguish different economic epochs.”

The question may also be approached from another angle. The “adaptation” of animals to nature consists in an alteration of the various organs of these animals: their feet, jaws, fins, etc., which constitutes a passive, biological adaptation. But human society adapts itself not biologically, but technically, actively, to nature. “An instrument of labor is a thing, or a complex of things, which the laborer interposes between himself and the subject of his labor, and which serves as the conductor of his activity. He makes use of the mechanical, physical, and chemical properties of some substances in order to make other substances subservient to his aims . . .thus nature becomes one of the organs of his activity, one that he annexes to his own bodily organs, adding stature to himself in spite of the Bible.”7) Human society in its technology constitutes an artificial system of organs which also are its direct, immediate and active adaptation to nature (it may be stated parenthetically that this renders superfluous a direct bodily adaptation of man to nature; even as compared with the gorilla, man is a weak creature; in his struggle with nature he does not “interpose” his jaws, but a system of machines). When viewed from this point of view, the question leads us to the same conclusion: the technical system of society serves as a precise material indicator of the relation between society and nature.

In another passage in Capital, Marx says: “Darwin has interested us in the history of Nature’s Technology, i.e., in the formation of the organs of plants and animals, which organs serve as instruments of production for sustaining life. Does not the history of the productive organs of man, of organs that are the material basis of all social organization deserve equal attention? ” Technology discloses man’s mode of dealing with Nature, the process of production by which he sustains his life, and thereby also lays bare the mode of formation of his social relations, and of the mental conceptions that flow from them” (Capital, vol. i, Chicago, 1915, p.406, footnote). “The use and fabrication of instruments of labor, although existing in the germ in certain species of animals, is specifically characteristic of the human labor-process, and Franklin therefore defines man as a tool-making animal” (ibid., vol. i, p. 200). It is interesting to observe that the earliest tools were actually constructed “according to the image” of the organs of the human body. “Utilizing the objects found `at hand’ in the immediate environment, the first tools put in their appearance as a prolongation, expansion, or reduction of bodily organs” (Ernst Kapp: Grundlinien einer Philosophie der Technik, Braunschweig, 1877, p.42). “Blunt tools are anticipated in the human fist, while edged tools are anticipated in the finger-nails and the incisor teeth. The hammer, with its pene, gives rise to the various forms of axe and hatchet; the index finger, held rigid, with its sharp nail, is imitated in the borer; a single row of teeth is duplicated in file and saw, while the gripping hand and the closing jaw are expressed in the head of a pair of tongs and in the jaws of the vise. Hammer, axe, knife, chisel, borer, saw, tongs-all are primitive tools” (ibid., pp. 434q.). “The finger, crooked, becomes a hook; the hollow of the hand, a bowl; sword, spear, rudder, shovel, rake, plow, trident, represent the various directions and postures of arm, hand and fingers” (ibid., p. 45)~ The example of primitive tools also shows how simple instruments were developed into more intricate ones: “The staff evolves into a number of different forms; it becomes a club for purposes of vigorous aggression; a pointed stick for turning over the ground; a spear for palings and for throwing at game” (Friedrich von Gottl-Ottlilienfeld: Wirtschaft and Technik in Grundriss der Nationalokonomie, vol. ii, p. 228).

The close connection between technology and the so called “cultural wealth” is obvious. We need only to compare present-day China and Japan. In China-by virtue of a number of circumstances – the productivity of social labor, and the social technology, developed very slowly, and China may therefore be considered, for the moment, a stagnant civilization. The new capitalist technology will here exert a revolutionizing influence. In Japan, on the other hand, great advances in technical evolution have been made in recent decades, and Japan’s culture has correspondingly developed rapidly; a glance at the state of Japanese science will show this.

In the early Middle Ages, culturally at a lower level than so called antiquity, “technology made a great retrogression as compared with antiquity, and many methods and mechanical inventions of the ancient world were forgotten ” The sole exception was the technique of warfare and the metallurgy of iron connected with that technique” (W. K. Agafonov: Modern Technology, in Russian, vol. iii, p.16 . Obviously, no cultural accumulation was possible on this technical foundation: society’s living sap was too poor to make a “full life” possible. The swift growth of Europe coincides with the capitalist machine technology; the century 1750-1850 witnessed a revolution in technology; steam-engine, steam transportation, coal, machine methods in obtaining iron etc. There followed the application of electricity, turbine engines, Diesel motors, the automobile, aviation. The technical basis of society, and its productive forces, rose to unprecedented heights. Under these circumstances, of course, human society was capable of developing a very intricate and versatile “mental life”. If we examine the ancient civilizations, with their comparatively intricate mental life, the backwardness of even their technology as compared with the capitalist technology of modern Europe and America is very striking. More or less complicated machines were used chiefly for construction work, water supply systems, and mining. Even the greatest establishments came into being not by reason of their perfect instruments, but owing to their use of an immense number of living labor forces. “Herodotus reports that 100,000 men carried stones for three months for the pyramid of Cheops (2800 B.C.), and ten years had to be spent in the preliminary work of making a road leading from the quarries down to the Nile” (Agafonov: ibid., p.5). The comparative poverty of ancient technology is apparent from the definition of a “machine”, given by the ancient Roman engineer Vitruvius “A machine is an articulated connection of wood, affording great advantages in lifting weights” (ibid., p.3). These wooden “machines” were used chiefly for “raising weights”, but they had to be supplied with much human or animal labor.


1. Karl Marx: Capital, Chicago, 1915, vol. i., pp.198, 199.
2. Ibid., p.199.
3.Karl Marx’s letters to Kugelmann, in Die Neue Zeit, 1901-1902, part ii, No. 7, p.222.
4.Capital, Chicago, 1915, vol. i, pp.197, 198.
5.Ibid., p.198.
6.Karl Marx: Capital, vol i, p.201.
7.Karl Marx: Capital, vol. i, pp.199-200.

Historical Materialism: A System of Sociology by Nikolai Bukharin. International Publishers, New York. 1925.

Contents: Introduction, The Practical Importance of the Social Sciences, Cause and Purpose in the Social Sciences (Causation and Teleology), Determinism and Indeterminism (Necessity and Free Will), Dialectical Materialism, Society, The Equilibrium between Society and Nature, The Equilibrium between the Elements of Society, Disturbance and Readjustment of Social Equilibrium, The Classes and the Class Struggle. 311 pages.

International Publishers was formed in 1923 for the purpose of translating and disseminating international Marxist texts and headed by Alexander Trachtenberg. It quickly outgrew that mission to be the main book publisher, while Workers Library continued to be the pamphlet publisher of the Communist Party.

PDF of full book: https://archive.org/download/dli.ministry.13983/E00417_Historical%2520Matrialism_text.pdf

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