In post-modern writing, history appears as an essentially meaningless and inexplicable series of random events or accidents. It is governed by no laws that we can comprehend. A variation on this theme is the idea, now very popular in some academic circles that there is no such thing as higher and lower forms of social development and culture. This denial of progress in history is characteristic of the psychology of the bourgeoisie in the phase of capitalist decline.
Henry Ford is reported to have said “history is bunk”. For those of you who are not familiar with the intricacies of American slang, the word bunk signifies nonsense – and non-sense signifies something which has no meaning. This not very elegant phrase adequately expresses an opinion that has gathered strength in recent years. The illustrious founder of the Ford motor company further refined his definition of history when he described it as “just one damn thing after another“, which is one way of looking at it.
The same idea is expressed rather more elegantly (but no less erroneously) by the supporters of the post-modernist craze that some people seem to regard as valid philosophy. Actually, this idea is not new. It was expressed long ago by the great English historian Edward Gibbon, the author of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. In the celebrated phrase of Edward Gibbon, history is “little more than the register of the crimes, follies and misfortunes of mankind.” (Gibbon, vol. 1, p. 69)
History appears here as an essentially meaningless and inexplicable series of random events or accidents. It is governed by no laws that we can comprehend. To try to understand it would therefore be a pointless exercise. A variation on this theme is the idea, now very popular in some academic circles that there is no such thing as higher and lower forms of social development and culture. They claim that there is no such thing as “progress” which they consider to be an old fashioned idea left over from the 19th century, when it was popularised by Victorian Liberals, Fabian socialists and – Karl Marx.
This denial of progress in history is characteristic of the psychology of the bourgeoisie in the phase of capitalist decline. It is a faithful reflection of the fact that, under capitalism progress has indeed reached its limits and threatens to go into reverse. The bourgeoisie and its intellectual representatives are, quite naturally, unwilling to accept this fact. Moreover, they are organically incapable of recognising it. Lenin once observed that a man on the edge of a cliff does not reason. However, they are dimly aware of the real situation, and try to find some kind of a justification for the impasse of their system by denying the possibility of progress altogether!
So far has this idea sunk into consciousness that it has even been carried into the realm of non-human evolution. Even such a brilliant thinker as Stephen Jay Gould, whose dialectical theory of punctuated equilibria transformed the way that evolution is perceived, argued that it is wrong to speak of progress from lower to higher in evolution, so that microbes must be placed on the same level as human beings. In one sense it is correct that all living things are related (the human genome has conclusively proved this). Man is not a special creation of the Almighty, but the product of evolution. Nor is it correct to see evolution as a kind of grand design, the aim of which was to create beings like ourselves (teleology – from the Greek telos, meaning an end). However, in rejecting an incorrect idea, it is not necessary to go to the other extreme, leading to new errors.
It is not a question of accepting some kind of preordained plan either related to Divine intervention or some kind of teleology but it is clear that the laws of evolution inherent in nature do in fact determine the development from simple forms of life to more complex forms. The earliest forms of life already contain within them the embryo of all future developments. It is possible to explain the development of eyes, legs and other organs without recourse to any preordained plan. At a certain stage we get the development of a central nervous system and a brain. Finally with homo sapiens, we arrive at human consciousness. Matter becomes conscious of itself. There has been no more important revolution since the development of organic matter (life) from inorganic matter.
To please our critics, we should perhaps add the phrase from our point of view. Doubtless the microbes, if they were able to have a point of view, would probably raise serious objections. But we are human beings and must necessarily see things through human eyes. And we do assert that evolution does in fact represent a development of simple life forms to more complex and versatile ones – in other words progress from lower to higher forms of life. To object to such a formulation seems to be somewhat pointless, not scientific but merely scholastic. In saying this, of course, no offence is intended to the microbes, who after all have been around for a lot longer than us, and if the capitalist system is not overthrown, may yet have the last laugh.
Culture and imperialism
If, in order not to offend microbes and other species, one is not allowed to refer to higher and lower forms of life, then still less – according to the latest fashion – can one be permitted to assert that the barbarians represent a lower form of social and cultural development than slavery – let alone capitalism. To argue that the barbarians possessed their own culture is not to say a great deal. From the time the first humans produced stone tools it is correct to say that every period has had its own culture. That these cultures have not been sufficiently appreciated until recently is certainly true. The bourgeois have always had a tendency to exaggerate the achievements of some cultures and to denigrate others. Behind this lies the vested interests of those who seek to enslave, dominate and exploit other peoples, and to disguise this oppression and exploitation under the hypocritical mantel of cultural superiority.
Under this banner, the Christians of northern Spain (true descendants of the barbarian Goths, by the way) destroyed the irrigation systems and the wonderful culture of Islamic Al-Andaluz, and went on to destroy the rich and flourishing cultures of the Aztecs and Incas. Under the same banner, the British, French and Dutch colonialists systematically enslaved the peoples of Africa, Asia and the Pacific. Not content with reducing these peoples to the worst kind of slavery, they were robbed not only of their land but of their souls. The Christian missionaries finished off the job started by the soldiers and slave-drivers, robbing the people of their cultural identity.
All this is perfectly true, and it is necessary to treat the culture of every people with the respect and affection it deserves. Every period, every people, has added something to the great treasure-house of human culture that is our collective heritage. But does this signify that one culture is as good as any other? Does it mean that one cannot assert that between the earliest stone axes (some of which show a remarkable degree of aesthetic sense) and Michelangelo’s statue of David, no artistic progress is discernable? In a word, is it not possible to speak about progress in human history?
In logic, there is a well-known method that reduces an argument to absurdity by carrying it to its extreme. We see something similar to this in certain modern trends in anthropology, history and sociology. It is a well-known fact that science under capitalism becomes less and less scientific, the closer it gets to society. The so-called social sciences are not really sciences at all, but ill-concealed attempts to justify capitalism, or at least to discredit Marxism (which boils down to the same thing). This was certainly true of the past, when so-called anthropologists did their best to justify the enslavement of so-called backward races by denigrating their culture. But matters are not much better now when certain schools attempt to bend the stick the other way.
It is quite true that the imperialists have deliberately downplayed or even denied the culture of “backward peoples” in Africa, Asia and so forth. The English pro-imperialist poet Kipling (author of The Jungle Book) called them “lesser breeds without the law”. This cultural imperialism was undoubtedly an attempt to justify the colonial enslavement of millions of people. It is also true that all the most barbarous and inhuman actions of the past pale in insignificance with the horrors inflicted on the human race by our allegedly civilised capitalist system and its counterpart, imperialism.
It is a terrible paradox that the more humanity develops its productive capacity, the more spectacular the advances of science and technology, the greater the suffering, starvation, oppression and misery of the majority of the world’s population. This fact has been recognised by even supporters of the present system. But they do nothing to rectify it. Nor can they, since they refuse to recognise that the reason for the present impasse in which human society finds itself is the very system they defend. But it is not only the bourgeois who refuse to draw the necessary conclusions. The same is true of many who consider themselves left-wing and radical. There are some well-meaning people, for example, who maintain that the source of all our troubles is the growth of science, technique and industry, and that it would be a good thing if we were to go back to a pre-capitalist mode of existence!
The Victorians had a very one-sided view of history, which they saw as a kind of triumphal march, an unstoppable march upwards towards progress and enlightenment – led, of course, by English capitalism. This idea also served as a convenient justification for imperialism and colonialism. The “civilised” British went to India and Africa, armed with the Bible (and also a number of warships, cannon and high-powered rifles) to introduce the ignorant natives to the joys of western culture. Those who showed a lack of enthusiasm for the refinements of British (and also Belgian, Dutch, French and German) culture were rapidly “educated” by bullets and bayonets.
Nowadays the bourgeois is in a quite different frame of mind. Faced with growing evidence of the global crisis of capitalism, they are plunged into a mood of uncertainty, pessimism and dread for the future. The old songs about the inevitability of human progress seem to be quite out of tune with the harsh reality of the times. The very word “progress” calls forth a cynical sneer. And this is no accident. People are beginning to grasp the fact that in the first decade of the 21st century, progress has indeed come to a full stop. But this merely reflects the impasse of capitalism, which has long ago exhausted its potential for progress and become a monstrous obstacle in the path of human advance. To this extent – and only to this extent – one can say that it is impossible to talk about progress.
This is not the first time we have seen such a tendency. In the long period of decline that preceded the fall of the Roman Empire, it seemed to many that the end of the world was approaching. This idea was particularly strong in Christianity where it forms the entire content of the Book of Revelation (the Apocalypse). People were really convinced that the world was coming to an end. In fact, what was coming to an end was only a particular kind of socio-economic system – the slave system that had reached its limits and was unable to develop the productive forces as it had done in the past.
A similar phenomenon can be observed in the later Middle Ages, when the self-same idea was in vogue: the end of the world. Masses of people joined the flagellant sects that travelled through Europe, whipping and torturing themselves to expiate the sins of mankind in preparation for the Day of Judgement. Here again, what was coming to an end was not the world but the feudal system that had outlived its usefulness and was eventually overthrown by the rising bourgeoisie.
However, the fact that a particular socio-economic form has outlived its historical usefulness and become a reactionary obstacle to the advance of the human race does not mean that progress is a meaningless concept. It does not mean that there has been no progress in the past (including under capitalism), or that there cannot be progress in the future – once capitalism is abolished. Thus, an idea that seems at first sight to be eminently reasonable turns out to be a disguised defence of capitalism against socialism. To make even the smallest concession to such an idea would be to abandon a consistent revolutionary position and fall into a reactionary one.
Society is constantly changing. History attempts to catalogue these changes and tries to explain them. But what are the laws that govern historical change? Do such laws even exist? If they do not, then human history would be entirely incomprehensible, as both Gibbon and Henry Ford believed. However, Marxists do not approach history in this manner. Just as the evolution of life has inherent laws that can be explained, and were explained, first by Darwin and in more recent times by the rapid advances in the study of genetics, so the evolution of human society has its own inherent laws that were explained by Marx and Engels.
Those who deny the existence of any laws governing human social development invariably approach history from a subjective and moralistic standpoint. Like Gibbon (but without his extraordinary talent) they shake their heads at the unending spectacle of senseless violence, the “inhumanity of man against man” (and woman) and so on and so forth. In place of a scientific view of history we get a parson’s view. However, what is required is not a moral sermon but a rational insight. Above and beyond the isolated facts, it is necessary to discern broad tendencies, the transitions from one social system to another, and to work out the fundamental motor forces that determine these transitions.
By applying the method of dialectical materialism to history, it is immediately obvious that human history has its own laws, and that, consequently, it is possible to understand it as a process. The rise and fall of different socio-economic formations can be explained scientifically in terms of their ability or inability to develop the means of production, and thereby to push forward the horizons of human culture, and increase the domination of humankind over nature.
Marxism maintains that the development of human society over millions of years represents progress, but that this has never taken place in a straight line, as the Victorians (who had a vulgar and undialectical view of evolution) wrongly imagined. The basic premise of historical materialism is that the ultimate source of human development is the development of the productive forces. This is a most important conclusion because this alone can permit us to arrive at a scientific conception of history.
Before Marx and Engels history was seen by most people as a series of unconnected events or, to use a philosophical term “accidents”. There was no general explanation of this, history had no inner lawfulness. Once one accepts this point of view, the only motor force of historical events is the role of individuals – “great men” (or women). In other words, we are left with an idealist and subjectivist view of the historical process. This was the standpoint of the utopian socialists, who, despite their colossal insights and penetrating criticism of the existing social order, failed to understand the fundamental laws of historical development. For them, socialism was just a “good idea”, something that could therefore have been thought of a thousand years ago, or tomorrow morning. Had it been invented a thousand years ago, humankind would have been spared a lot of trouble!
It was Marx and Engels who for the first time explained that, at bottom, all human development depends on the development of productive forces, and thus placed the study of history on a scientific basis. Because the first condition for science is that we are able to look beyond the particular and arrive at general laws. For instance, the early Christians were communists (although their communism was of the utopian kind, based on consumption, not production). Their early experiments in communism led nowhere, and could lead nowhere, because the development of the productive forces at that time did not permit the development of real communism.
In the recent period it has become fashionable also in some “left” intellectual circles to deny the existence of progress in history. In part, these tendencies represent a healthy reaction against the kind of cultural imperialism and “eurocentricity” that I referred to earlier. One human culture is said to be equally as valid as any other. In this way, the European progressive intellectual feels that he or she has in some way “compensated” for the systematic rape and pillage perpetrated against the peoples of the former colonies by our forefathers – plunder which, of course, continues to the present day although under different disguises.
The intentions of these people may be laudable, but their premises are completely wrong. In the first place, it is rather cold comfort for the millions of oppressed and exploited people of Asia, Africa and Latin America to learn that their ancient cultures have now been rediscovered by European intellectuals and are held in high esteem by the latter. What is necessary is not symbolic gestures and terminological radicalism but a genuine struggle against imperialism and capitalism on a world scale. However, in order that this struggle should be successful, it must be placed on a firm basis. The prior condition for success is a relentless fight for Marxist theory. It is of course necessary to put the record straight and fight against all kinds of racist and imperialist prejudices. But in fighting against an incorrect idea it is necessary to guard against going too far, since a correct idea when pushed to extremes turns into its opposite.
Human history is not an uninterrupted line towards progress. Alongside the line of ascent, there is a line of descent. There have been periods in history when, for different reasons, society has been thrown back, progress interrupted, and civilisation and culture undermined. This was the case in Europe after the fall of the Roman Empire, in the period known at least in the English language as the Dark Ages. Recently, there has been a tendency on the part of some academics to rewrite history so as to present the barbarians in a more favourable light. This is not “more scientific” or “more objective” but simply childish.
How not to present the question
Recently British TV’s Channel Four began a three part series called Barbarians, presented by Richard Rudgley, anthropologist and author of Lost Civilisations of the Stone Age. Having watched the second part of the series on the Angles and Saxons, the Germanic tribes that invaded the British Isles, I have been able to form a pretty good idea of Rudgley’s central thesis. He argues that they left behind a society more civilised than the one they conquered. “The Roman Empire’s reliance on slavery was replaced by a fairer society where workmanship and craft skills were encouraged and valued,” Rudgley argues.
People generally believe that the Roman legacy to Britain was a civilised society later brutalised by the barbarian tribes that invaded during the Dark Ages. Not so, says Rudgley: “In my journey to understand the Dark Ages, I am finding that many of the things I value have their roots – not in Roman civilisation – but in the world the barbarians built in the ruins of the Roman Empire.”
Rudgley has made an astounding discovery: the Saxons knew how to build ships – and fast ones, at that. He argues that the barbarians brought truly vast talents and crafts to these shores. He says: “Their skills were immense. You have only to look at some of the metalwork, woodwork and jewellery from the period.” But the Romans knew how to build not just ships, but roads, aqueducts, cities and a lot besides. Rudgley overlooks the trifling detail that these things were destroyed or allowed to fall into neglect by the barbarians, and that this led to a catastrophic disruption of trade and a steep drop in the development of the productive forces and culture, which was thrown back for a thousand years.
He quotes approvingly the words of expert sword-maker Hector Cole, who says: “The Saxon swordsmiths were specialists. They were making structured blades 600 years before the Japanese.” There is no doubt about this. All the barbarian tribes of this period were experts at making war and proved it by slicing through the Roman defences like a hot knife through butter. The Romans of the late Empire even began to imitate some of the military skills of the barbarians, adopting the short bow perfected by the Huns. But none of this in any way proves that the barbarians were on a comparable level of development to the Romans, and much less a superior one.
Rudgley explains that the sea crossings by which the Angles and Saxons entered Britain were not a mass invasion led by warriors but small groups of peaceful migrants looking for new settlements. Here he gets two things hopelessly mixed up. There is no doubt that the barbarians were looking for territory upon which to settle. The reasons for the mass movements of the peoples in the fifth century are probably varied. One theory is that a change of climate that raised the sea level on the coastal areas of what is now the Netherlands and north Germany, making these lands uninhabitable. A more traditional view is that they were under the pressure of other tribes migrating from the East. In all probability, it was a combination of these factors and others. In general the causes of such mass migration can be placed under the heading of historical accident. What is important is the results they produced in history. And this is just what is under dispute.
The initial contacts between the Romans and barbarians were not necessarily of a violent character. There was considerable trade along the eastern frontier for centuries, which led to a progressive Romanisation of those tribes living in proximity to the Empire. Many became mercenaries and served in the Roman legions. Alaric, the Gothic leader who was the first to enter Rome, was not only a former soldier of Rome but a Christian (albeit of the Arian kind). It is also fairly certain that the first Saxons to enter Britain were peaceful traders, mercenaries and settlers. This is indicated by the tradition that they were invited into Britain by the Romanised British “king” Vortigern, after the departure of the Roman legions.
But at this point, Rudgley’s analysis begins to break down. He has entirely missed the point about trade between civilised nations and barbarians, which was invariably connected with piracy, spying and war. The barbarian traders would take careful note of the strengths and weaknesses of the nations with which they were in contact. If there were signs of weakness, the “peaceful” commercial relations would be followed up by armed bands in search of plunder and conquest. It is sufficient to read the Old Testament to see that this was precisely the relation between the pastoral-nomadic Israeli tribes and the ancient Canaanites, who, as civilised urban peoples, stood on a higher level of development.
The assertion that the Romans stood on a higher cultural level than the barbarians can easily be demonstrated by the following fact. Although the barbarians succeeded in conquering the Romans, they themselves were fairly quickly absorbed, and even lost their own language and ended up speaking a dialect of Latin. Thus, the Franks, who gave their name to modern France, were a Germanic tribe speaking a language related to modern German. The same thing happened to the Germanic tribes that invaded Spain and Italy.
The one glaring exception to this rule appears to be the fact that the Angles and Saxons who invaded Britain were not absorbed by the more advanced Celtic Romano-Britons. The English language is basically a Germanic language (with a later admixture of Norman French from the 11th century on). In fact, the number of words of Celtic origin in the English language is insignificant, whereas there is a very large number of Arabic words in the Spanish language. The reason for this is that the Arabs in Spain stood on a far higher cultural level than the Spanish speaking Christians who conquered them. The only conceivable explanation is that the Anglo-Saxon barbarians (whom Mr Rudgley regards as very nice peaceful people) must have pursued a policy of genocide against the Celtic people whose lands they seized in bloody wars of conquest.
Sentimentality or science?
We can therefore lay down a firm rule: an invading people whose culture stands at a lower level than the people conquered by it will be eventually absorbed by the culture of the conquered, and not vice-versa. It may be objected that this occurred because the numbers of the invaders were relatively small. But this does not stand up to examination. In the first place, as Rudgley himself argues, very large numbers were involved in these vast migrations – whole peoples in fact. Secondly, there are many other historical examples that prove the opposite.
The Mongols who invaded India and established the Mogul dynasty that lasted until the British conquered India were completely absorbed into the more advanced Indian way of life. Exactly the same thing happened in China. However, when the British conquered India, they were not absorbed by the native culture but on the contrary, as Marx explains, completely shattered the old Indian society that had endured for thousands of years. How was this possible? Only because Britain, where the capitalist system was developing rapidly, stood on a higher level of development than India.
Of course, it is possible to say that before the coming of the British, the Indians had a very high level of cultural development. Although the European conquerors looked down on the Indians as at least semi-barbarians, nothing could be further from the truth. On the basis of the very ancient Asiatic mode of production, Indian culture reached prodigious levels. Their achievements in the fields of art, sculptures, architecture, music and poetry were so brilliant that they even aroused the admiration of the more cultured representatives of the British Empire.
It is equally possible to deplore the supposedly civilised British for the extremely brutal way in which they crushed the Indians through a combination of trickery, lies, murders and massacres. That is all true, but it entirely misses the point. The real question that must be asked is this: why were the British not absorbed by the Indian culture as the Mongols had been? After all, in this case, it is true that the numbers of British who settled in India were insignificant when compared to the multi-millioned masses of this vast subcontinent. Yet after two hundred years, it was the Indians who learned English, and not vice-versa.
Today, half a century after the departure of the British, English is still the official language of India and remains the lingua franca of all educated Indians and Pakistanis. How is this to be explained? Only by the fact that capitalism represents a higher level of development than either feudalism or the Asiatic mode of production. That is the decisive fact. To complain about this, protest against “cultural imperialism” and so on may have a certain value in the field of agitation (there is absolutely no doubt about the truly barbarous conduct of the imperialists in general). But from a scientific point of view, such comments do not get us very far.
To approach human history from a sentimental point of view is worse than useless. History knows no morality and operates according to different laws altogether. The task of any person who wishes to understand history is first of all to leave aside all moralistic elements, since there can be no supra-historical morality – no “morality in general” – but only particular moralities that pertain to particular historical periods and definite socio-economic formations and have no relevance outside them.
From a scientific point of view, therefore, it makes no sense to compare the moral standards of the conduct, say, of the Romans and barbarians, the British and the Indians, the Mongols and the Chinese. Barbarous and inhuman practices have existed in every period of history, so if we take that as a yardstick to judge the human race, one would have to draw the most pessimistic conclusions (many have done so). As a matter of fact, one could argue that the greater the degree of development, the greater the capacity to inflict terrible suffering on a large number of people. The state of the world in the first decade of the 21st century would seem to confirm this gloomy assessment of human history.
Some people have drawn the conclusion that perhaps the problem is that there has been too much development, too much progress, too much civilisation. Would we not be happier living in a simple agricultural environment – run, of course, on strictly ecological lines – tilling our own fields (without tractors), making our own clothes, baking our own bread, and so on? That is to say, would we not be better if we returned to – barbarism?
Given the terrible state of society and the world under capitalism, we can readily understand that there are people who want to somehow escape from an unpleasant reality and put the clock back to a golden age. The trouble is that such an age never existed. Those (usually middle-class) people who talk grandly about the wonders of life in the good old days of agricultural communes have no idea of how tough life was in those times. Let us quote from the manuscript of a medieval monk who, unlike our modern New Age fanatics, knew what life under feudalism was really like. This is an extract from a medieval author, a monk called Aelfric, who wrote a book to teach Latin conversation at Winchester:
Master: What do you do, ploughman, how do you do your work?
Pupil: Sir, I work very hard. I go out at dawn to drive the oxen to the field, and yoke them to the plough. However hard the winter, I dare not stay at home for fear of my lord; and having yoked the oxen and made the ploughshare and coulter fast to the plough, every day I have to plough an acre or more.
M: Do you have anyone with you?
P: I have a boy to drive the oxen with the goad, and he is now hoarse with cold and shouting.
M: What other work do you have to do in the day?
P: A great deal more. I have to fill the oxen’s bin with hay, and give them water, and carry the dung outside.
M: And is it hard work?
P: Yes, it is hard work, because I am not free.
A couple of weeks of backbreaking and soul-destroying toil of this sort would surely provide a guaranteed cure for the illusions of the most die-hard romantic! What a pity we cannot order a brief trip on a time-machine for this purpose.
What is barbarism?
The word “barbarism” is used in different contexts for different things. It can even have the force of a simple insult, when we refer to the barbaric behaviour of certain over-enthusiastic football fans. To the ancient Greeks (who first coined the word) it meant simply “one who does not speak the language” (i.e. Greek). But to Marxists, it usually signifies the stage between primitive communism and early class society, when classes begin to form and with them the state. Barbarism is a transitional phase, in which the old commune is already in a state of decay and in which classes and the state are in the process of formation.
Like all other human societies (including savagery, the phase of hunter-gathering societies based on primitive communism, which produced the marvellous cave art of France and northern Spain), the barbarians certainly had a culture, and were capable of producing very fine and sophisticated objects of art. Their techniques of warfare show that they were also capable of extraordinary feats of organisation, and this was shown when they defeated the Roman legions. The Romans even began to copy some of the barbarians’ military tactics, and introduced the short bow, perfected by the Huns and other tribes for shooting from horseback.
The period of barbarism represents a very large slice of human history, and is divided into several more or less distinct periods. In general, it is characterised by the transition from the hunter-gathering mode of production to pastoralism and agriculture, that is, from Palaeolithic savagery, passing through Neolithic barbarism to the higher barbarism of the Bronze Age, which stands at the threshold of civilisation. The decisive turning-point was what Gordon Childe called the Neolithic revolution, which represented a great leap forward in the development of human productive capacity, and therefore of culture. This is what Childe has to say:
“Our debt to preliterate barbarism is heavy. Every single cultivated food plant of any importance has been discovered by some nameless barbarian society.” (G. Childe, What Happened in History, p. 64)
Here is the embryo out of which grew the towns and cities, writing, industry and everything else that laid the basis for which we call civilisation. The roots of civilisation are to be found precisely in barbarism, and still more so, in slavery. The development of barbarism ends up in slavery or else in what Marx called the Asiatic mode of production.
It would be incorrect to deny the contribution of barbarian peoples to human development. They played a role, and a vital one, at a certain stage. They possessed a culture, and an advanced one for the time in which they lived. But history does not stand still. The further development of the productive forces led to new socio-economic forms that stood on a qualitatively higher level. Our modern civilisation (such as it is) derives from the colossal conquests of Egypt, Mesopotamia and the Indus Valley, and even more, from Greece and Rome.
While not denying the existence of barbarian culture, Marxists have no hesitation in affirming that the latter was historically superseded by the cultures of Egypt, Greece and Rome that grew out of barbarism, overtook and replaced it. To deny this fact would be to fly in the face of the facts.
The role of slavery
If we look at the entire process of human history and prehistory, the first thing that strikes us is the extraordinary slowness with which our species developed. The gradual evolution of human or humanoid creatures away from the condition of animals and towards a genuinely human condition took place over millions of years. For the first period that we call savagery, characterised by an extremely low development of the means of production, the production of stone tools, and a hunter-gatherer mode of existence, the line of development remains virtually flat for a very long period. It begins to accelerate precisely in the period known as barbarism (particularly with the Neolithic revolution) when the first stable communities became towns (such as Jericho, which dates from about 7,000 BC).
However, the really explosive growth occurs with Egypt, Mesopotamia, the Indus Valley (and also China), Persia, Greece and Rome. In other words, the development of class society coincides with a massive upturn in the productive forces, and as a result, of human culture, which reached unprecedented heights. This is not the place to mention all the discoveries made by, say the Greeks and Romans. There is a celebrated scene in the Monty Python film The Life of Brian, where a rather over-enthusiastic “freedom fighter” asks the rhetorical question: “What have the Romans ever done for us?” To his great annoyance, he got a long list of answers. We should not make the same mistake as this fictional character!
But, it may be objected, Greece and Rome stood on the basis of slavery, which is an abhorrent and inhuman institution. The marvellous achievements of ancient Athens were all predicated on slavery. Its democracy – probably the most advanced in the world to date – was the democracy of a minority of free citizens. The majority – the slaves – had no rights at all. I recently received a letter, which compares slave society unfavourably to barbarism. I reproduce an extract:
“Actually primitive societies are the least barbaric in world history. For instance, their wars were/are mostly ritual with almost no victims. The barbarism of nazism and the Balkan wars is a typical feature of capitalism, just like feudalism or slave society had their typical barbaric features. The most barbarous facts in history are all in one way or another consequences of class society.”
The above lines pose the question of war not in a materialist but in a moralistic sense. War has always been barbaric. It is about killing people in the most efficient manner. One can readily agree that the wars of primitive societies killed a lot fewer people than modern wars. That is to a great extent because the development of science and technique have led to a perfection of human productivity, not only in industry and agriculture, but also on the battlefield. Engels explains in Anti-Dühring how the history of warfare can only be understood in terms of the development of the means of production. The Romans were a lot more efficient at killing people than the barbarians (at least in the period of ascent of Roman power), and we are incomparably more efficient than the Romans in this sphere, and many others besides.
Marxists cannot look at history from the point of view of morality. Apart from anything else, there is no such thing as a supra-historical morality. Every society has its own morality, religion, culture, etc, which correspond to a given level of development, and, at least in the period we call civilisation, also to the interests of a particular class. Whether a particular war was good, bad or indifferent cannot be ascertained from the point of view of the number of victims, and much less from an abstract moral standpoint. We may strongly disapprove of wars in general, but one thing cannot be denied: throughout the whole course of human history, all serious questions have ultimately been settled in this way. That goes both for the conflicts between nations (wars) and also the conflicts between classes (revolutions).
Nor can our attitude towards a particular type of society and its culture be determined by moralistic considerations. From the standpoint of historical materialism it is a matter of complete indifference that some barbarians (including, it seems, my own ancestors, the ancient Celts) were head-hunters who burned people alive inside large wicker statues to celebrate midsummer’s day. That is no more reason to condemn them than the fact that they also produced fine jewellery and declaimed poetry can be used to praise them. What determines whether a given socio-economic formation is historically progressive or not is first and foremost its ability to develop the productive forces – the real material basis upon which all human culture arises and develops.
The reason why human development was so painfully slow for such a long period of time was precisely the very low level of development of the productive forces. The real development begins already in the phase of barbarism, as explained above. This was a progressive development in its day, but was overtaken, negated and superseded by a higher form that was slavery. Old Hegel, that wonderfully profound thinker, writes: “It was not so much from slavery as through slavery that humanity was emancipated.” (Lectures on the Philosophy of History, p. 407)
The Romans utilised brute force to subjugate other peoples, sold entire cities into slavery, slaughtered thousands of prisoners of war for amusement in the public circus, and introduced such refined methods of execution as crucifixion. Yes, all that is perfectly true. And yet, when we come to consider where all our modern civilisation, our culture, our literature, our architecture, our medicine, our science, our philosophy, even in many cases our language, comes from, the answer is – from Greece and Rome.
It is not a difficult task to read out a long list of the crimes of the Romans (or the feudal lords or the modern day capitalists). It is even possible to compare them unfavourably, at least in some respects, to the barbarian tribes against which they were more or less constantly at war. This is not new. In fact, you can read numerous passages in the writings of the Roman historian Tacitus who does precisely that. But it does not carry us a single step forward in our understanding of history. Only by consistently applying the method of historical materialism is this possible.
The rise and fall of Rome
Although the labour of the individual slave was not very productive (slaves must be compelled to work), the aggregate of large numbers of slaves, as in the mines and latifundia (large scale agricultural units) in Rome in the last period of the Republic and the Empire, produced a considerable surplus. At the height of the Empire, slaves were plentiful and cheap and the wars of Rome were basically slave hunts on a massive scale. But at a certain stage this system reached its limits and then entered into a lengthy period of decline.
The beginnings of a crisis in Rome can already be observed in the latter period of the Republic, a period characterised by acute social and political upheavals and class war. From the earliest beginnings there was a violent struggle between rich and poor in Rome. There are detailed accounts in the writings of Livy and others of the struggles between Plebeians and Patricians, which ended in an uneasy compromise. At a later period, when Rome had already made herself mistress of the Mediterranean by the defeat of her most powerful rival Carthage, we saw what was in effect a struggle for the division of the spoils.
Tiberius Gracchus demanded that the wealth of Rome be divided up among its free citizens. His aim was to make Italy a republic of small farmers and not slaves, but he was defeated by the nobles and slave-holders. This was a disaster for Rome in the long run. The ruined peasantry – the backbone of the Republic and its army – drifted to Rome where they constituted a lumpen-proletariat, a non-productive class, living off dole from the state. Although resentful of the rich, they nevertheless shared a common interest in the exploitation of the slaves – the only really productive class in the period of the Republic and the Empire.
The great slave rising under Spartacus was a glorious episode in the history of antiquity. The echoes of this titanic uprising reverberates down the centuries and is still a source of inspiration. The spectacle of these most downtrodden people rising up with arms in hand and inflicting defeat after defeat on the armies of the world’s greatest power is one of the most incredible events in history. Had they succeeded in overthrowing the Roman state, the course of history would have been significantly altered.
Of course, it is not possible to say exactly what the outcome would have been. Undoubtedly the slaves would have been freed. Given the level of development of the productive forces, the general tendency could only have been in the direction of some kind of feudalism. But at least humanity would have been spared the horrors of the Dark Ages, and it is likely that economic and cultural development would have proceeded more quickly.
The basic reason why Spartacus failed in the end was the fact that the slaves did not link up with the proletariat in the towns. So long as the latter continued to support the state, the victory of the slaves was impossible. But the Roman proletariat, unlike the modern proletariat, was not a productive but a purely parasitical class, living off the labour of the slaves and dependent on their masters. The failure of the Roman revolution is rooted in this fact.
Marx and Engels point out that the class struggle eventually ends either in the total victory of one of the classes, or else in the common ruin of the contending classes. The fate of Roman society is the clearest example of the latter case. The defeat of the slaves led straight to the ruin of the Roman state. In the absence of a free peasantry, the state was obliged to rely on a mercenary army to fight its wars. The deadlock in the class struggle produced a situation similar to the more modern phenomenon of Bonapartism. The Roman equivalent is what we call Caesarism.
The Roman legionnaire was no longer loyal to the Republic but to his commander – the man who guaranteed his pay, his loot and a plot of land when he retired. The last period of the Republic is characterised by an intensification of the struggle between the classes, in which neither side is able to win a decisive victory. As a result, the state (which Lenin described as “armed bodies of men”) began to acquire increasing independence, to raise itself above society and to appear as the final arbiter in the continuing power struggles in Rome.
A whole series of military adventurers appears: Marius, Crassus, Pompey, and lastly Julius Caesar, a general of brilliance, a clever politician and a shrewd businessman, who in effect put an end to the Republic whilst paying lip-service to it. His prestige boosted by his military triumphs in Gaul, Spain and Britain, he began to concentrate all power in his hands. Although he was assassinated by a conservative faction which wished to preserve the Republic, the old regime was doomed.
In his play Julius Caesar, Shakespeare says of Brutus: “This was the noblest Roman of them all.” Certainly, Brutus and the other conspirators who killed Caesar did not lack personal courage, and their motives may or not have been noble. But they were hopeless utopians. The republic that they tried to defend had been a rotten corpse for a long time. After Brutus and the others were defeated by the triumvirate, the Republic was formally recognised, and this pretence was kept up by the first Emperor, Augustus. The very title “Emperor” (imperator in Latin) is a military title, invented to avoid the title of king that was so offensive to republican ears. But a king he was, in all but name.
The forms of the old Republic survived for a long time after that. But they were just that – hollow forms with no real content, an empty husk that in the end could be blown away by the wind. The Senate was devoid of all real power and authority. Julius Caesar had shocked respectable public opinion by making a Gaul a member of the senate. Caligula considerably improved upon this by making his horse a senator. Nobody saw anything wrong with this, or if they did they kept their mouths firmly shut.
The emperors continued to “consult” the senate, and even contrived not to laugh out loud when so doing. In the last period of the Empire, when, as a result of the decline of production, corruption and looting, the finances were in a lamentable state, wealthy Romans were regularly “promoted” to the rank of senator in order to extract extra taxes from them. One such reluctant legislator was said by some Roman humorist to have been “banished into the senate”.
It often happens in history that outworn institutions can survive long after their reason to exist has disappeared. They drag out a miserable existence like a decrepit old man who clings onto life, until they are swept away by a revolution. The decline of the Roman empire lasted for nearly four centuries. This was not an uninterrupted process. There were periods of recovery and even brilliance, but the general line was downwards.
In periods like this, there is a general sense of malaise. The predominant mood is one of scepticism, lack of faith and pessimism in the future. The old traditions, morality and religion – things that act as a powerful cement holding society together – lose their credibility. In place of the old religion, people seek out new gods. In its period of decline, Rome was inundated with a plague of religious sects from the east. Christianity was only one of these, and although ultimately successful, had to contend with numerous rivals, such as the cult of Mithras.
When people feel that the world in which they live is tottering, that they have lost all control over their existence, that their lives and destinies are determined by unseen forces, then mystical and irrational tendencies get the upper hand. People believe that the end of the world is nigh. The early Christians believed this fervently, but many others suspected it. In point of fact what was coming to an end was not the world but only a particular form of society – slave society. The success of Christianity was rooted in the fact that it connected with this general mood. The world was evil and sinful. It was necessary to turn one’s back on the world and all its works and look forward to another life after death.
In fact, these ideas were already foreshadowed by philosophical tendencies in Rome. When men and women lose all hope in existing society, they have two options: either to try to arrive at a rational understanding of what is happening in order to fight to change society, or else to turn their back on society altogether. In the period of decline, Roman philosophy was dominated by subjectivism – stoicism and scepticism. Proceeding from a different angle, Epicurus taught people to seek happiness and learn to live without fear. It is a sublime philosophy, but in the given context, could only appeal to the more intelligent sections of the privileged classes. Finally, the Neo-Platonist philosophy of Plotinus verges on overt mysticism and superstition, eventually providing a philosophical justification for Christianity.
By the time the barbarians invaded, the whole structure was on the verge of collapse, not only economically, but morally and spiritually. No wonder the barbarians were welcomed as liberators by the slaves and poorer sections of society. They merely completed a job that had been well prepared in advance. The barbarian attacks were an historical accident that served to express an historical necessity.
Why the barbarians triumphed
How was it possible for a highly developed culture to be so easily overcome by a more backward and primitive one? The seeds of Rome’s destruction were sown long before the barbarian invasions. The basic contradiction of the slave economy is that it was, paradoxically, based on a low productivity of labour. Slave labour is only productive when it is employed on massive scale. The prior condition for this is an ample supply of slaves at a low cost. Since slaves breed very slowly in captivity, the only way a sufficient supply of slaves can be guaranteed is through continuous warfare. Once the Empire had reached the limits of its expansion under Hadrian, this became increasingly difficult.
Once the Empire reached its limits and the contradictions inherent in slavery began to assert themselves, Rome entered into a long period of decline that lasted more than four hundred years, until it was eventually overrun by the barbarians. The mass migrations that brought about the collapse of the Empire were a common phenomenon among nomadic pastoral peoples in antiquity and occurred for a variety of reasons – pressure on pasture land as a result of population growth, climate changes, etc.
In this case, the more settled peoples of the western steppes and eastern Europe were driven from their lands by pressure from more backward nomadic tribes living to the east, the Hsiung-nu, better known to us as the Huns. Did these barbarians possess a culture? Yes, they possessed a kind of culture, as every people from the dawn of history had a culture. The Huns had no knowledge of agriculture, but their horde was a formidable fighting machine. Their cavalry had no equal in the world at that time. It was said of them that their country was the back of a horse.
However, unfortunately for Europe, the Huns in the fourth century came up against a more advanced culture, a civilisation that knew the art of building, lived in towns and cities, and possessed a disciplined army – China. The fighting prowess of these dreaded warriors from the Mongolian steppes was no match for the civilised Chinese, who built the Great Wall – a formidable engineering feat – to keep them out.
Defeated by the Chinese, the Huns turned westwards, leaving behind them a trail of appalling destruction and devastation. Passing through what is now Russia, they clashed with the Goths in present-day Romania in 355 AD. Although the Gothic tribes stood on a higher level of development than the Huns, they were cut to pieces and forced to flee westwards. The survivors – some 80,000 desperate men, women and children on primitive wagons – came up against the frontiers of the Roman Empire at a time when the decline of slave society had reached a point where its capacity to defend itself was severely weakened. The Visigoths (western Goths), who stood on a lower level of development than the Romans, nevertheless defeated them. The Roman historian Ammianus Marcellinus described this clash of two alien worlds as “the most disastrous Roman defeat since Cannae.” (Ammianus, xxxi, 13)
With remarkable swiftness most of the towns were laid waste and abandoned. It is true that this process did not start with the barbarians. The decay of the slave economy, the monstrously oppressive nature of the Empire with its bloated bureaucracy and predatory tax farmers, was already undermining the whole system. There was a steady drift to the countryside where the basis was already being laid for the development of a different mode of production – feudalism. The barbarians merely delivered the coup de grâce to a rotten and moribund system. The whole edifice was tottering, and they merely gave it a last and violent push.
The seemingly impregnable Roman line along the Danube and Rhine buckled and collapsed. At a certain stage different barbarian tribes, including the Huns, converged in a united onslaught against Rome. The Gothic chieftain Alaric (who, incidentally was an Arian Christian and a former Roman mercenary) led 40,000 Goths, Huns and freed slaves across the Julian Alps and eight years later sacked Rome itself. Although Alaric, who seems to have been a relatively enlightened person, tried to spare the citizens of Rome, he could not control the Huns and freed slaves, who gave themselves up to murder, plunder and rape. Priceless pieces of sculpture were destroyed and works of art were melted down for their precious metals. This was only the beginning. In the following centuries, successive waves of barbarians swept out of the east: Visigoths, Ostrogoths, Alans, Lombards, Suevi, Alemanni, Burgundians, Franks, Thuringians, Frisians, Heruli, Gepidae, Angles, Saxons, Jutes, Huns and Magyars, pushed their way into Europe. The all-powerful and eternal Empire was reduced to ashes.
Was civilisation thrown back?
Is it correct to say that the overthrow of the Roman Empire by the barbarians threw human civilisation back? Despite the recent noisy campaign by the “Friends of Barbarism Society”, there can be no doubt about this, and it can easily be demonstrated with facts and figures. The immediate effect of the barbarian onslaught was to wipe out civilisation and throw society and human thought back for a thousand years.
The productive forces suffered a violent interruption. The cities were destroyed or abandoned as people fled to the land in search of food. As even our old friend Rudgley is forced to admit: “The only architectural remains left by the Huns are the ashes of the cities that they burned.” And not just the Huns. The first act of the Goths was to burn the city of Mainz to the ground. Why did they do this? Why did they not simply occupy it? The answer is related to the backward stage of economic development of the invaders. They were an agricultural people and knew nothing of towns and cities. The barbarians in general were hostile to the towns and their inhabitants (a psychology that is quite common among peasants in all periods).
St. Jerome describes the results of this devastation when he writes: “That in those desert countries nothing was left except the sky and the earth; that after the destruction of the cities and the extirpation of the human race, the land was overgrown with thick forests and inextricable brambles; and that universal desolation, announced by the prophet Zephaniah, was accomplished in the scarcity of the beasts, the birds and even of the fish.” (Quoted in Gibbon, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, vol. 3, p. 49)
These lines were written 20 years after the death of Valens the emperor, when the barbarian invasions started. They describe the state of affairs in Jerome’s native province, Pannonia (present-day Hungary) where successive waves of invaders caused death and destruction on an unimaginable scale. In the end, Pannonia was completely depopulated and later occupied by the Huns and finally the present day population of Magyars. This process of devastation, rape and pillage was to continue for centuries, leaving behind a terrible heritage of backwardness – in fact, of barbarism – which we call the Dark Ages. Let us give just one quote:
“The Dark Ages were stark in every dimension. Famines and plagues, culminating in the Black Death and its recurring pandemics, repeatedly thinned the population. Rickets affected the survivors. Extraordinary climatic changes brought storms and floods, which turned into major disasters because the empire’s drainage system, like most of the imperial infrastructure, was no longer functioning. It says much about the Middle Ages that in the year 1500, after a thousand years of neglect, the roads built by the Romans were still the best on the continent. Most of the others were in such a state of disrepair that they were unusable; so were all European harbours until the eighteenth century, when commerce again began to stir. Among the lost arts was bricklaying; in all of Germany, England, Holland, and Scandinavia, virtually no stone buildings, except cathedrals, were raised for ten centuries. The serfs’ basic agricultural tools were picks, forks, rakes, scythes, and balanced sickles. Because there was very little iron, there were no wheeled ploughshares with mouldboards. The lack of ploughs was not a major problem in the south, where farmers could pulverise the light Mediterranean soils, but the heavier earth in northern Europe had to be sliced, moved and turned by hand. Although horses and oxen were available, they were of limited use. The horse collar, harness, and stirrup did not exist until about 900 AD. Therefore tandem hitching was impossible. Peasants laboured harder, sweated more, and collapsed from exhaustion more often than their animals.” (William Manchester, A World Lit Only by Fire, pp. 5-6)
The rise of the feudal system following the collapse of Rome was accompanied by a long period of cultural stagnation in all Europe to the west of the Pyrenees. With the exception of two inventions: the water wheel and windmills, there were no real inventions for about over a 1000 years. In other words, there was a complete eclipse of culture. This was a result of the collapse of the productive forces, upon which culture ultimately depends. Failure to understand this makes a scientific understanding of history completely impossible.
Human thought, art, science and culture was reduced to the most primitive level, and only experienced a relative recovery when the ideas of the Greeks and Romans were introduced into medieval Europe – by the Arabs. True, the knot of history was retied again in the period we call the Renaissance. The slow recovery of trade led to the rise of the bourgeoisie and a revival of the towns, notably in Flanders, Holland and northern Italy. But it is an actual fact that civilisation was thrown back for a thousand years. That is what we mean by a descending line in history. And let nobody imagine that such a thing cannot recur.
Socialism or barbarism
The whole of human history consists precisely in the struggle of humankind to raise itself above the animal level. This long struggle began seven million years ago, when our remote humanoid ancestors first stood upright and were able to free their hands for manual labour. The production of the first stone scrapers and hand axes was the beginning of a process whereby men and women made themselves human through labour. Ever since then, successive phases of social development have arisen on the basis of changes in the development of the productive force of labour – that is to say, of our power over nature.
For most of human history, this process has been painfully slow, as the Economist remarked on the eve of the new millennium:
“For nearly all of human history, economic advance has been so slow as to be imperceptible within the span of a lifetime. For century after century, the annual rate of economic growth was, to one place of decimals, zero. When growth did happen it was so slow as to be invisible to contemporaries – and even in retrospect it appears not as rising living standards (which is what growth means today), merely as a gentle rise in population. Down the millennia, progress, for all but a tiny elite, amounted to this: it slowly became possible for more people to live, at the meanest level of subsistence.” (The Economist, December 31, 1999)
The relation between the development of human culture and the productive forces was already clear to that great genius of antiquity, Aristotle, who explained in his book The Metaphysics that “man begins to philosophise when the means of life are provided,” and added that the reason why astronomy and mathematics were discovered in Egypt is that the priest caste did not have to work. This is a purely materialist understanding of history. It is the complete answer to all the nonsense of the utopians who imagine that life would be splendid if only we could “go back to nature” – that is, go back to an animal level of existence.
The possibility of real socialism depends on the development of the means of production to a level far in excess of even the most developed capitalist societies, like the USA, Germany or Japan. This was explained by Marx even before he wrote the Communist Manifesto. In the German Ideology he wrote that “where want is generalised all the old crap revives.” And by “all the old crap” he meant class oppression, inequality and exploitation. The reason why the October Revolution degenerated into Stalinism was that it remained isolated in a backward country where the material conditions for building socialism were absent.
Despite the fact that capitalism is the most exploitative and oppressive system that has ever existed; despite the fact that, in Marx’s words, “Capital came onto the stage of history dripping blood from every pore,” it nevertheless represented a colossal leap forward in the development of the productive forces – and therefore of our power over nature. The development of industry, agriculture, science and technology has transformed the planet and laid the basis for a complete revolution that for the first time will make us free human beings.
We have emerged from savagery, barbarism, slavery and feudalism, and each of these stages represented a definite stage in the development of the productive forces and culture. The bud disappears when the flower blossoms and we may consider that as a negation, one thing contradicting the other. But in point of fact, these are necessary stages, and must be taken in their unity. It is absurd to deny the historical role of barbarism, or any other stage of human development. But history moves on.
Every phase of human development has its roots in all previous development. This is true both of human evolution and social development. We have evolved from lower species and are genetically related to even the most primitive life forms, as the human genome has conclusively proved. We are separated from our nearest living relatives the chimpanzees by a genetic difference of less than two percent. But that very small percentage represents a tremendous qualitative leap.
In the same way, the development of capitalism has now laid the basis for a new and qualitatively higher (yes, higher) stage of human development, which we call socialism. The present crisis on a world scale is nothing but a reflection of the fact that the development of the productive forces is coming into conflict with the straitjacket of private ownership and the nation state. Capitalism has long ago ceased to play any progressive role, and has become a monstrous obstacle to further development. This obstacle bust be removed if humanity is to go forward. And if it is not removed in time, a terrible threat hangs over the heads of the human race.
The embryo of a new society is already maturing within the womb of the old. The elements of a workers’ democracy already exist in the form of the workers’ organisations, the shop stewards committees, the trade unions, the co-operatives etc. In the period that opens up, there will be a life and death struggle – a struggle of those elements of the new society to be born, and an equally fierce resistance on the part of the old order to prevent this from happening.
At a certain stage this conflict – which can already be seen in outline in the general strikes in Europe, the revolutionary movements in Argentina and other Latin American countries, and the revolt of the youth everywhere – will reach a critical point. No ruling class in history has ever given up its power and privileges without a ferocious struggle. The crisis of capitalism represents not just an economic crisis that threatens the jobs and living standards of millions of people throughout the world. It also threatens the very basis of a civilised existence – insofar as this exists. It threatens to throw humankind back on all fronts. If the proletariat – the only genuinely revolutionary class – does not succeed in overthrowing the rule of the banks and monopolies, the stage will be set for a collapse of culture and even a return to barbarism.
In fact, for most people in the West (and not only in the West) the most obvious and painful manifestations of the crisis of capitalism are not economic but those phenomena that affect their personal lives at the most sensitive and emotional points: the breakdown of the family, the epidemic of crime and violence, the collapse of the old values and morality with nothing to put in their place, the constant outbreak of wars – all of this gives rise to a sense of instability, a lack of faith in the present or the future. These are the symptoms of the impasse of capitalism, which in the last analysis (but only in the last analysis) is a result of the revolt of the productive forces against the straitjacket of private property and the nation state.
It was Marx who pointed out that there were two possibilities before the human race: socialism or barbarism. The formal democracy, which the workers of Europe and the USA regard as something normal is actually a very fragile structure that will not survive an open showdown between the classes. The “cultured” bourgeoisie will not hesitate to move in the direction of dictatorship in the future. And beneath the thin layer of culture and modern civilisation, there are forces that resemble barbarism at its worst. The recent events in the Balkans are a stark reminder of this. Civilised norms can easily break down and the demons of a long-forgotten past can overwhelm even the most civilised nation. Yes, indeed, history knows a descending line as well as an ascending one!
The question is therefore posed in the starkest terms: in the coming period, either the working class will take into its hands the running of society, replacing the decrepit capitalist system with a new social order based on the harmonious and rational planning of the productive forces and the conscious control of men and women over their own lives and destinies, or else we will be faced with a most frightful spectacle of social, economic and cultural collapse.
For thousands of years culture has been the monopoly of a privileged minority, while the great majority of humanity was excluded from knowledge, science, art and government. Even now, this remains the case. Despite all our pretensions we are not really civilised. Our world does not merit the name. It is a barbaric world, inhabited by people who have yet to overcome a barbarous past. Life remains a harsh and unrelenting struggle to exist for the great majority of the planet, not only in the underdeveloped world but in the developed capitalist countries.
However, historical materialism does not incline us to draw pessimistic conclusions, but on the contrary. The general tendency of human history has been in the direction of ever greater development of our productive and cultural potential. The great achievements of the last hundred years have for the first time created a situation where all the problems facing humankind can easily be solved. The potential for a classless society already exists on a world scale. What is necessary is to bring about a rational and harmonious planning of the productive forces in order that this immense, practically infinite, potential can be realised.
On the basis of a real revolution in production, it would be possible to achieve such a level of abundance that men and women would no longer have to worry about their everyday necessities. The humiliating concerns and fears that fill every thinking hour of men and women now will disappear. For the first time, free human beings will be masters of their destinies. For the first time they will be really human. Only then will the real history of the human race begin.