The second half of the fifth chapter, ‘The Equilibrium between Society and Nature,’ from Bukharin’s 1921 ‘Historical Materialism,’ containing sub-chapters: Equilibrium Between Nature and Society; Its Disturbances and Readjustments; and The Productive Forces as the Point of Departure in Sociological Analysis.
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 and was removed from the ‘canon’ it 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 one here.
‘The Equilibrium between Society and Nature’ Part Two (1921) by Nikolai Bukharin from Historical Materialism: A System of Sociology. International Publishers, New York. 1925.
d. The Equilibrium Between Nature and Society; Its Disturbances and Readjustments
Considered as a whole, we find that the process of reproduction is a process of constant disturbance and reestablishment of equilibrium between society and nature.
Marx distinguishes between simple reproduction and reproduction on an extending scale.
Let us first consider the case of simple reproduction. We have seen that in the process of production, the means of production are used up (the raw material is worked over, various auxiliary substances are required, such as lubricating oil, rags, etc.; the machines themselves, and the buildings in which the work is done, as well as all kinds of instruments and their parts, wear out); on the other hand, labor power is also exhausted (when people work, they also deteriorate, their labor power is used up, and a certain expenditure must be incurred in order to reestablish this labor power). In order that the process of production may continue, it is necessary to reproduce in it and by means of it the substances that it consumes. For example, in textile production, cotton is consumed as a raw material, while the weaving machinery deteriorates. In order that production may continue, cotton must continue to be raised somewhere, and looms to be manufactured. At one point the cotton disappears by reason of its transformation into fabrics, at another point, fabrics disappear (workers, etc., use them) and cotton reappears. At one point, looms are being slowly wiped out, while at another they are being produced. In other words, the necessary elements of production required in one place must be produced somewhere else; there must be a constant replacement of everything needed in production; if This replacement proceeds smoothly and at the same rate as the disappearance, we have a case of simple reproduction, which corresponds to a situation in which the productive social labor remains uniform, with the productive forces unchanging, and society moving neither forward nor backward. It is clear that this is a case of stable equilibrium between society and nature. It involves constant disturbances of equilibrium (disappearance of products in consumption and deterioration) and a constant reestablishment of equilibrium (the products reappear); but this reestablishment is always on the old basis: just as much is produced as has been consumed; and again just as much is consumed as has been produced, etc., etc. The process of reproduction is here a dance to the same old tune.
But where the productive forces are increasing, the case is different. Here, as we have seen, a portion of the social labor is liberated and devoted to an extension of social production (new production branches; extension of old branches). This involves not only a replacement of the formerly existing elements of production, but also the insertion of new elements into the new cycle of production. Production here does not continue on the same path, moving in the same cycle all the time, but increases in scope. This is production on an extending scale, in which case equilibrium is always established on a new basis; simultaneously with a certain consumption proceeds a larger production; consumption consequently also increases, while production increases still further. Equilibrium results in each case in a wider basis; we are now dealing with unstable equilibrium with positive indication.
The third case, finally, is that of a decline in the productive forces. In this case, the process of reproduction falls asleep: smaller and smaller quantities are reproduced. A certain quantity is consumed, but reproduction involves a smaller quantity still; less is consumed; and still less is reproduced, etc. Here again, reproduction does not repeat the same old cycle in each case; its sphere grows narrower and narrower; society’s condition of life becomes poorer and poorer. The equilibrium between society and nature is reestablished on a level that goes lower and lower each time.
Society meanwhile is adapting itself to this continually narrowing standard of living, which can only be done by the partial disintegration of society. We are here dealing with unstable equilibrium with negative indication. The reproduction in this case may be termed negatively extended reproduction, or extended insufficiency of production.
Having discussed the subject from all angles, we have found the same result always, each case depending on the character of the equilibrium between society and nature. Since the productive forces serve as a precise expression of this equilibrium, these forces enable us to judge its character. Our remarks would apply just as well if we were speaking of the technology of society.
e. The Productive Forces as the Point of Departure in Sociological Analysis
From all that has been said above, the following scientific law results inevitably: any investigation of society, of the conditions of its growth, its forms, its content, etc., must begin with an analysis of the productive forces, or of the technical bases, of society. Let us first take up a few of the objections that are made – or might be made – against this view.
In the first place, let us consider some objections advanced by scholars who in general accept the materialist point of view. One of these, Heinrich Cunow, says 8) that technology “is related to a very great extent with the conditions of nature. The presence of certain raw materials (das Vorkommen bestimmter Rohmaterialien) determines, for example, whether it is possible for certain forms of technology to develop at all, as well as the direction which they will take. For instance, where certain species of stone, or woods, or ores, or fibers, or shell-fish, are not present, the natives of these regions will of course never be able to develop of themselves these natural substances, or make tools and weapons from them.” At the beginning of this chapter we have already adduced data as to the influence of the natural conditions. Why should we not begin with these conditions in nature? Why should the starting point of our methodology not be nature itself? There is no doubt that its influence on technology is as great as Cunow says, and, in addition, nature of course existed before society. Are we not therefore sinning against true materialism when we base it on an analysis of the material technical apparatus of human society?
However close a examination of the question will show how erroneous are Cunow’s conclusions. To be sure, where there are no deposits of coal, no coal can be dug from the ground. But, we might also add, you can’t dig it out with your fingers either; and it will be somewhat hard to make use of it if you don’t know its useful qualities. “Raw materials”, in fact, do not “exist” in nature as Cunow says. “Raw materials” according to Marx are products of labor, and they have as little existence in the bowels of nature as has a painting by Raphael or Herr Cunow’s waistcoat (Cunow is here confusing “raw materials” with all sorts of “objects of labor).9) Cunow completely forgets that a certain stage of technology must have been reached before wood, or, fibers, etc., may play the part of raw materials. Coal becomes a raw material only when technology has developed so far as to delve in the bowels of the earth and drag their contents into the light of day. The influence of nature, in the sense of providing materials, etc., is itself a product of the development of technology; before technology had conquered coal, coal had no “influence” at all. Before technology with its feelers had reached the iron-ore, this iron-ore was permitted to sleep its eternal slumber; its influence on man was zero.
Human society works in nature and on nature, as the subject of its labor. But the elements existing as such in nature are here more or less constant and therefore cannot explain changes. It is the social technology which changes, which adapts itself to that which exists in nature (there is no possibility of adapting oneself to empty space; it .is the cannon, and not the hole, that is manufactured). Technology is a varying quantity, and precisely its variations produce the changes in the relations between society and nature; technology therefore must constitute a point of departure in an analysis of social changes.10
L. Mechnikov expresses this idea very stupidly: “Far be it from me to give support to the theory’ of geographical fatalism, which is often opposed as a propagating principle of the all-determining influence of the environment in history. In my opinion . . . the changes must be sought not in the environment itself, but in the mutual relations arising between the environment and the natural capacities of its inhabitants for cooperation and team work of a social order (my italics, N. B.). It follows that the historical value of one geographical environment or another-even assuming that it remain physically unchanged under all circumstances – can and must vary with the degree of capacity of its inhabitants for voluntary team work” (Mechnikov, ibid., pp.27, 28). All of which does not prevent Mechnikov himself from overestimating “geography”. (Cf. Plekhanov’s criticism in the collection Criticism of Our Critics.) The passive character of the influence of nature is now recognized by almost all geographers, although bourgeois scholars of this type of course know nothing of historical materialism. Thus, John McFarlane (Economic Geography, London) writes concerning the “natural conditions of economic activity” (chap. i): “These physical factors ” do not determine the economic life absolutely, but they do have an influence upon it, which is unquestionably more noticeable in the earlier stage of human history, but which is just as real in the advanced civilizations, after man has learned to adapt himself to his environment and to draw, more and more, an increased benefit from it.” The role played by coal, and the dependence of our industry upon it, are well known. As the technique of winning and working peat changes, the significance of coal may decrease, and this would involve an immense dislocation of the industrial centers. The progress of electrification assigned a more important role to aluminium, formerly of subsidiary importance. Water as a form of power was once of great importance (the millwheel, then declining, and now again rising; turbines, “white coal”). Space relations in nature remain the same; but distances are decreased for men by the use of transportation devices; the development of aviation is changing the picture still more.
This influence of transportation (a very variable quantity, depending on technology) is of decisive importance even in the geographic location of industry. Extremely interesting observations on this point are to be found in Alfred Weber’s “Theory of the Location of Industry”, in his Industrielle Standortslehre in Grundriss, pp.58, 59, et seq., Section vi; also in Weber’s Uber den Standort der Industries, part i: Reine Theorie des Standortes, 1909.
A poetic expression of the growing power of man over nature, his active power, is given by Goethe in his poem Prometheus”
Cover thy spacious heavens, Zeus,
With clouds of mist,
And, like the boy who lops
The thistles’ heads,
Disport with oaks and mountain-peaks;
Yet thou must leave
My earth still standing;
My cottage, too, which was not raised by thee;
Leave me my hearth,
Whose kindly glow
By thee is envied.
(Translated by Edgar Alfred Bowring, The Poems of Goethe, New York, 1881, pp.191, 192.)
It is therefore obvious that the differences in the natural conditions will explain the different evolution of the different nations, but not the course followed by the evolution of one and the same society. The natural differences, when these nations combine into a society, later become a basis for the social division of labor. “It is not the absolute fruitfulness of the soil, but its differentiation, the manifoldness of its natural products, which constitutes the basis of the social division of labor, and which spurs man on, to the multiplication of his own needs, abilities, instruments and modes of labor, owing to changes in the natural circumstances in which he dwells” (Marx, Capital, vol. i).
Another group of objections to the conception of social development that we have advanced above is based on the decisive and fundamental importance of the growth of population. For the tendency to multiplication is ineradicably present in human nature, where it has existed since before the beginnings of history. This tendency is of animal, biological nature; it is older than human society. Does not this process stand at the beginning of the entire evolution? Does not the increasing fruitfulness and density of the population determine the course of social evolution?
Actually, this would be reasoning backward along a law of nature, for it is on the stage of development of the productive forces, or, what amounts to the same thing, on the stage of technical development, that the very possibility of a numerical growth of population depends. A more or less continuous increase in population is nothing more nor less than an extension and growth of the social system, which is possible only when the relation between society and nature has been altered in a favorable direction. It is not possible for a greater number of persons to live unless the bases of life are widened. On the other hand, an impoverishment of these bases of life will inevitably express itself in a smaller population. The question of how this happens is another matter whether it is by a lowering of the birth rate, or by its artificial regulation, or by a process of dying out, by an increase in the mortality from diseases, by a premature exhaustion of the organisms and a decrease in the average length of life; the fact remains that this fundamental relation between the bases of the life of society and the quantity of its population will express itself in one way or another.
Besides, it is entirely erroneous to represent the growth of population as a purely biological (“natural”) process of multiplication. This process depends on any number of social conditions: on the division into classes, the position of these classes, and consequently, on the forms of the social economy. Now, the forms of society, its structure, as we shall show below, depend on the level reached in the evolution of its productive forces. It is quite clear that the relation between the growth of technology and the movement of population, i.e., alterations in its number, are not at all simple. Only naive persons could imagine that the process of multiplication proceeds as primitively and simply among human beings as among animals. For example, for an increase of population, in society, it is always necessary that the productive forces should be increased, otherwise, as we have already shown, the excess population will have nothing to eat. And, on the other hand, an increase in material well-being does not always and in all classes produce a more rapid multiplication: while the proletarian family may be artificially limiting the number of its children because of the hard conditions of life, a society lady may be renouncing motherhood in order not to spoil her figure, while a French peasant wishes to have no more than two children because he does not want his farms to be divided up. The movement of population is therefore a result of a number of social conditions, and is dependent on the form of society and on the situation of the various classes and groups within society.
We may therefore make the following statement with regard to population; an increase in the population indisputably presupposes an increase in the productive forces of society; in the second place, each epoch, each form of society, the varying situations of the various classes, result in special laws for the movement of population. “An abstract law of population exists for plants and animals only, and only in so far as man has not interfered with them”; ” “every special historic mode of production has its own special laws of population, historically valid within its limits alone”.11) But the historic mode of production, i.e., the form of society, is determined by the development of the productive forces, i.e., the development of technology. We thus see that the absence of natural law in the movement of population is a decisive factor, while the growth of the productive forces, and the uniformity of this growth (or decline), of themselves determine the movement of population.
The bourgeoisie has repeatedly attempted to replace the social laws by means of “laws” showing the necessity of the divinely ordained poverty of the masses, and that this condition is independent of the social order. It is to this effort that we must trace the overestimating of “geography”, etc., in the doctrine of environment, natural phenomena being dragged in by the ears in order to explain historical events. Thus, Ernst Miller “proved” the dependence of historical evolution on terrestrial magnetism; Jevons “explained” industrial crises by means of sun-spots, etc. Here belongs also the famous attempt of the English clergyman economist, Robert Malthus, to explain the discomforts of the working class on the basis of man’s sinful desire for multiplication. Malthus’ “abstract law of population” is formulated in the thesis that population grows more rapidly than the means of subsistence; the latter increase in arithmetical progression while the population increases in geometrical progression. Among modern scientists, the conceptions of bourgeois scholars are undergoing radical changes, and Malthus’ theory is now in disfavor; this is due to the fact that (first in France, then in other countries also) the increase in population is so slow that the bourgeoisie fears a lack of able-bodied soldiers (cannon-fodder), and therefore attempts to encourage the working class to produce more children.
The Physiocrats were already aware of the dependence of population increases on the stage reached by the productive forces. Le Mercier de la Rivière (L’ordre naturel et essentiel des sociétés politiques, 1767, pp.5, 6) says: “If men should nourish themselves with products furnished by the earth itself . . . without any preliminary labor, an immense extent of area would be required for the subsistence of even a small number of persons; but we know from experience that by reason of our natural constitution (l’ordre physique de notre constitution) we tend to multiply considerably. This natural property would be a contradiction, a discord in nature . . . if the natural order of reproduction of the means of subsistence did not permit them to multiply to the same extent as we do:” (My italics, N. B.) Further on, we read: “I am not at all afraid of the arguments that will be brought to bear against me, based on certain American tribes, in order to prove that the natural order of births makes cultivation unnecessary. I know there are some tribes that have practically no cultivation (ne cultivent point ou presque point) of the soil; yet, though soil and climate are equally favorable to them, they destroy their children, kill their old, and make use of medicaments to prevent the natural course of birth.” Ernst Grosse (Formen der Familie and Formen der Wirtschaft, 1896, p.36) says among other things: “The Bushmen and the Australians are accustomed, for a good cause, to wear `hunger-belts’. The Patagonians suffer need practically always. And in the tales of the Eskimos, famine plays ” a great role “. A population limited to such imperfect production can of course never become very numerous “. Therefore, primitive hunters usually see to it themselves that their numbers shall not exceed what can be fed with the available foodstuffs. Infanticide with this purpose is very common in Australia. A large child mortality takes care of the rest” – “We even hear, of tribes in the Polynesian Islands, that they have regulations permitting only a minimum of children to each family, a fine being imposed for violations.” (P. Mombert: Bevölkerungslelare in Grundriss der Sozialökonomie, part ii, Tiibingen, 1914, p.62.) . Mombert mentions the following facts after describing the economic advance in the Carolingian Era (transition to the three-field system, etc.): “As a consequence of this great expansion in the production of foodstuffs, we meet with an exceptionally large increase of population in Germany” (p.64.). In the Nineteenth Century, Europe presents an immense advance in the field of agricultural production, “accompanied by a great increase in the European population, far exceeding any such increase in the past” (p.64). There ensues a period in which the increase in population, due to the above cause, moves faster than the increase in the means of subsistence. The result is: emigration to America. The same law may be observed in Russia (cf. the studies of M. N. Pokrovsky).
We must finally point out a number of other objections to the theory of historical materialism, namely, those theories that are known as “racial theories”. These theories may be described as follows: society consists of men; these men do not appear always the same in history, but different; they have different skulls, different brains, different skin and hair, different physical structure, and consequently, different abilities. It is clear that at the banquet of history there will be many called but few chosen. Some races have shown themselves to be “historical”, for the names of these races re-echo over the world, and the professors of all the universities concern themselves with them; other races, the “lower races”, are by nature capable of nothing; they cannot produce anything of note; at bottom, they constitute a historical nonentity; these races are not worthy of the name “historical races”. They may serve at best as a fertilizer for history, as the peoples of colonies, as “savages” of various kinds, tilling the soil for European bourgeois civilization. It is this difference of race that is the true reason for the differing evolution of society. Race must be the point of departure in the discussion of evolution. Such, in broad outline, is the race theory. On the subject of this theory, G. V. Plekhanov made the following perfectly correct observation: “In considering the question of the cause of a certain historical phenomenon, sensible and serious people often content themselves with solutions which solve nothing at all, being merely a repetition of the question in other forms of expression. Suppose you put one of the above mentioned questions to a scholar’; ask him why certain races develop with such remarkable slowness, while others advance rapidly on the path of civilization. Yourscholar’ will not hesitate to reply that this phenomenon is to be explained by racial qualities. Can you see any sense in such an answer? Certain races develop slowly because it is a racial quality with them to develop slowly; others become civilized very rapidly, because their principal racial characteristic is the ability to become civilized very rapidly.”12)
In the first place, the race theory is in contradiction with the facts. The “lowest” race, that which is said to be incapable, by nature, of any development, is the black race, the Negroes. Yet it has been shown that the ancient representatives of this black race, the so called Kushites, created a very high civilization in India (before the days of the Hindoos) and Egypt; the yellow race, which now also enjoys but slight favor, also created a high civilization in China, far superior in its day to the then existing civilizations of white men; the white men were then children as compared with the yellow men. We now know how much the ancient Greeks borrowed from the Assyro-Babylonians and the Egyptians. These few facts are sufficient to show that the “racial” explanation is no explanation at all. It may be replied: perhaps you were right, but will you go so far as to say that the average Negro stands at the same level, in his abilities, as the average European? There is no sense in answering such a question with benevolent subterfuges, as certain liberal professors sometimes do, to the effect that all men are of course equal, that according to Kant, the human personality is in itself a final consideration, or that Christ taught that there are no Hellenes, or Jews, etc.13) To aspire to equality between races is one thing; to admit the similarity of their qualities is another. We aspire to that which does not exist; otherwise we are attempting to force doors that are already open. We are now not concerned with the question: what must be our aim? We are considering the question of whether there is a difference between the level, cultural and otherwise, of white men and black men, on the whole. There is such a difference; the “white” men are at present on a higher level, but this only goes to show that at present these so called races have changed places.
This is a complete refutation of the theory of race. At, bottom, this theory always reduces itself to the peculiarities of races, to their immemorial “character”. If such were the case, this “character” would have expressed itself in the same way in all the periods of history. The obvious inference is that the “nature” of the races is constantly changing with the conditions of their existence. But these conditions are determined by nothing more nor less than the relation between society and nature, i.e, the condition of the productive forces. In other words, the theory of race does not in the slightest manner explain the conditions of social evolution. Here also it is evident that the analysis must begin with the movement of the productive forces.
There is great disagreement among scholars concerning race and race subdivisions. Topinard (quoted by Mechnikov, ibid., p. 54) correctly remarks that the designation “race” is being used for quite subsidiary purposes, far instance, we hear of an Indo-Germanic, Latin, Teutonic, Slavic, English, race, although all these designations mark accidental aggregates of the most varied anthropological elements. In Asia, the races were mixed so often and so thoroughly that the race which is characteristic of original Asiatic conditions is perhaps to be sought beyond the Pacific Ocean or at the Arctic Circle. In Africa, the same process was frequently repeated. In America, where a similar condition may be observed in historical times, we find no primitive races, but only the results of endless mixtures and cross-breedings. Eduard Meyer very convincingly observes: “As for the question of race, it is of course possible that the human race appeared at its origin in a number of varieties, or was subdivided into such at an early epoch; I am incompetent to judge of this. But it is absolutely certain that all the human races are constantly mingling ” that a sharp line may not be drawn between them – the tribes of the Nile Valley are a typical example – and that so called pure racial types may be found only in places where certain tribes have been kept in a condition of artificial isolation owing to external circumstances, as, for example, on the islands of Borneo and Australia. But there is no justification for the assumption that we are dealing with primitive natural conditions of the human race even here; it seems far more probable that this homogeneity, on the contrary, is the result of isolation” (ibid., pp.74., 75). Professor R. Michels (Wirtschaft und Rasse, in Grundriss der Sozialökoromie, part ii, p.98 et seq.), gives a number of interesting examples, excellently showing the mutability of so called race traits, in the field of labor. For example: the power of resistance of Chinese workers is very high, enabling them to bear heavy burdens; thence the widespread use of Chinese coolies. But it is quite clear that the “burdens” imposed upon the coolies are a result, in part, of a semi-colonial enslavement. Negroes are considered poor workers, but a French proverb says: “I have worked like a negro” (j’ai travaillé comme un nègre). Negroes rarely became employers, perhaps because they were boycotted by the whites, etc. The examples in the domain of national differences are even more interesting: “When the first railroads were built in Germany, a German uttered the warning that railroads were of no value in view of the German national character, which – thank God! – was expressed in the splendid principle of festina lente (“make haste slowly”); railroads could be of use perhaps to a different race, a different mode of life, a different mode of thought. Kant rebuked the Italians for their practical-mindedness, for their highly developed banking system; yet today we know that other regions take precedence of Italy in this respect,” etc. Michels draws the absolutely correct conclusion “that the degree of economic utility of any people is about equivalent to the degree of technical and moral-intellectual `civilization’ attained by it at the given moment” (p.101).
The adherents of the race theory succeeded in making their most absurd statements during the World War, which they attempted to explain as a race conflict, although the absolute ridiculousness of this notion was manifest to any person in his sound mind; for the Serbs, allied with the Japanese, were fighting the Bulgarians; the English, allied with the Russians, were fighting the Germans. Gumplowicz is considered the principal advocate of the race theory in sociology.
8. Die Neue Zeit, Vol. 39, part ii, pp.350 et seq.
9. “If, on the other hand, the subject of labor has, so to say, been filtered through previous labor, we call it raw material. All raw material is the subject of labor, but not every subject of labor is raw material.” (Capital, Vol. i, p. 199.)
10. Cunow’s mistakes do not prevent him from raising a number of very appropriate objections to Gorter, P. Barth, and others, who confuse the method of production with technology. We shall discuss this subject later.
11. Capital, vol. i, p.693.
12. A Criticism of Our Critics (in Russian), St. Petersburg, 1906, p.283
13. Cf. for example, Khvostov, Theory of the Historical Process, p.247: “It is extremely probable that . . , the truth is on the side of the advocates of race equality.”
The books named after the previous chapters; also: L. Mechnikov Civilization and the Great Historical Rivers (in Russian). P. Maslov: Entwicklungstheorie der Volkswirtschaft. P. Maslov: Die Agrarfrage, vol. i. P. Maslov: Kapitalismus. N. Bukharin: Die Oekonomik der Transformationsperiode, chap. vi. Cunow: Die Stellung der Technik in der Marxschen Wirtschaftsauffassung (Die Neue Zeit, vol. 39, part ii, no.15). Rosa Luxemburg: Die Akkumulation des Kapitals (on the process of reproduction). Karl Kautsky: Entwicklung und Vermehrung in Natur und Gesellschaft. Karl Kautsky: Are the Jews a Race?
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