Questions on Historical Materialism

Answers of Jose Maria Sison
to Questions by Anghelo Godino

August 16, 2020

[Taken From PRISM]

[2nd of 4 Webinars on Sison's book, Basic Principles of Marxism-Leninism, conducted by the Anakbayan-Europe and the National Democratic Online School]


1. Today, we will discuss historical materialism. It is the application of dialectical materialism (which was our last topic) on the study of the various forms of society and their development from one form to another. Nothing is permanent except change—this also applies to society. What are these different forms of society that we have had so far?

JMS: From a long primitive existence of food gathering and hunting, humankind has developed five major forms of society in the following sequence: primitive communal, slave, feudal, capitalist and socialist. The classless primitive communal society took the most part of human existence to develop from the old stone age to new stone age, from nomadic clans to settled tribes and further on to inter-tribal alliances and societies that began to use metals, especially bronze, for production and war and engaged in agriculture and animal husbandry.

Class society has prevailed and has changed quite more rapidly than primitive communal society and in a cumulative way because of the development of the mode of production and superstructure of society. There is a discernible sequence of the different forms of societies because a certain form of society cannot arise without germinating first in the womb of a previous form of society.

The universal law of contradiction is at work in every form of society and in the transition from one form of society to another. But different forms of society can co-exist, interlap and overlap over varying geographical scales. Just consider how the settler colonial society of the US imposed itself on the Indian native tribes and then used African slaves to make feudal plantations and create the big agriculture surplus to export some of it to England and import modern equipment to build industrial capitalism.

2. Historical materialism also seeks to comprehend the interaction between the material base and the superstructure of society. What is meant by the material base of society?

JMS: The material or economic base of society is otherwise called the mode of production in the exact terminology of Marxism. It consists of the forces of production and the relations of production. The forces of production in turn consist of the people in production and the means of production available to them. In class society, the relations of production are determined by the class that privately owns the means of production, organizes the people in production and distributes the means of subsistence to those who toil.

As regards to the interaction of the mode of production and the superstructure, the former arises or develops in time ahead of the latter which however in further time can either delay or accelerate the development of the productive forces, depending on the character and main current (reactionary or revolutionary) of the relations of production and the entire superstructure. In due course, we can further discuss the interaction of mode of production and superstructure after we explain the content of the latter.

3. The mode of production is significant in society. It consists of the forces of production and the relations of production. What are these? And can you please give examples on the role of the mode of production in the the development of society from one form to the other?

JMS: In slave society, the slave owning class owned the metal tools, land, work animals and other means of production. They also owned the slaves and used them as beasts of burden to produce the biggest amount of surplus. They had power of life and death over the slaves, gave meagre rations and appropriated all the products of their labor. Slavery was perpetuated due to inheritance of status, failure to pay debts, commission of felonies and captivity in wars, abductions and trade.

In countries where slavery evolved to feudal society, the slave owners used the slaves to open and cultivate large agricultural lands. These would be called the latifundias in the ancient Roman empire. Then, it became unwieldy for the slave owners to manage the slaves on vast areas of lands who could slacken in their assignments or even run away . Thus, the so-called enlightened slave owners opted to become feudal lords and turned the slaves into rent-paying serfs.

In feudal society, the people in production that produced the biggest amount of surplus, especially with deep plowing that used metal instruments, were the serfs who worked on the agricultural land or who tended to the animal farms owned by the landlords. The landlords allotted pieces of land for the serfs to till and obliged them to pay rent and render extra services.

In the womb of feudal society, handicrafts, trading and other sideline occupations based in the towns developed and gave birth to the bourgeoisie who emerged from the ranks of the masters of the handcrafts guilds and from the traders between town and countryside. From the stage of handicraft workshops where the individual artisans could make whole products, manufacturing developed with ever higher division of labor among the workers. Still further on, industrial capitalism arose with largescale machine production, using electro-mechanical and chemical processes and concentrating larger numbers of workers in factories, mines and other work sites.

In socialist society, the private ownership of the means of production is replaced by state and collective forms of ownership. Class exploitation by the capitalist class ceases. State economic planning ensures the growth and improvement of the productive forces in accordance with priority given to satisfying the basic needs of the people and expanding production. Agriculture is the basis of the economy and the basic and heavy industries are the lead factor, with light industry producing the consumer and producer goods for households. The growth of the economy is aimed at raising the wage level and the people’s standard of living and paving the road to communism.

4. How about the superstructure of society? What is meant by that?

JMS: The superstructure consists of the political and cultural institutions, organizations, ideas, practices and social relations above the mode of production at the base of society. It is sustained by a major part of the surplus product created by the exploited class. It reflects the dominant interests of the ruling class. It encompasses all the personnel, instruments and methods for coercing or moulding the mentality of the people to give loyalty to the incumbent social order.

The highest form of political organization in the superstructure is the state. It seeks to perpetuate the law on the ownership of the means of production of the social order. For the purpose, it uses persuasive political methods as well as the use of organized violence. The state becomes conspicuous as an instrument of class oppression, consisting of such apparatuses of coercion as the army, police courts and prisons, whenever the ruling exploiting classes use it to suppress just demands for reforms and revolutionary movements.

The cultural institutions and organizations, ideas and practices express the interests of the ruling class, the dominant religions, the formal education available, the history and characteristics of dominant and related ethnolinguistics communities. They serve to endorse and support the ruling system, captivate the thoughts and sentiments of the people and appropriate their traits, customs and habits.

5. What is the relationship between the mode of production and the superstructure?

JMS: The ruling class in any society controls both the mode of production and the superstructure and uses them to perpetuate their class dominance. The mode of production is in charge of the economic wherewithals of the society and provides the economic surplus for maintaining and expanding the superstructure.

The working people are responsible for sustaining the facilities, lives and activities of the politicians, the military and police, the philosophers,the academicians, scientists, priests, artists and creative writers who inhabit the superstructure. The superstructure involves a few political and cultural personages but they are attended to and assisted by many more people who belong to the exploited and oppressed classes.

When the forces of production grow to such an extent that they run against the existing relations of production, the class struggle becomes conspicuous and becomes reflected in the various aspects of the superstructure. As I have earlier pointed out, the mode of production arises or develops in time ahead of the superstructure which however in further time can either delay or accelerate the development of the productive forces, depending on the main current or character (reactionary or revolutionary) of the relations of production and the entire superstructure.

6. Can you please discuss the superstructure of the various forms of society?

JMS: The political and cultural institutions, ideas, social relations and practices in the superstructure reflect in general the mode of production, especially the relations of production. While the superstructure evokes mainly the political and cultural dominance of the ruling class, it also reflects in due time the growth and advance of productive forces and growing resistance of the exploited class to the dominant relations of productions as well as to the dominant political and cultural relations.

In the superstructure of slave society, the state arose as an instrument of class rule. It consisted of the government with distinct agencies, with personnel for decision-making and for administering society and most importantly with the apparatuses of coercion which enforced the laws to maintain slavery. In the institutions of learning and in cultural works, the idealist kind of philosophy was favored against the materialist kind. The rulers invoked supernatural authority to legitimize their rule even as there were political and cultural mechanisms where the freemen could participate.

In the superstructure of feudal society, the state was the principal instrument of the monarchy and the feudal aristocracy who drew power for their ownership of land and control over the serfs. In Europe, the Roman Catholic Church became a powerful partner of the state. It gained power by being the spiritual legitimizer of the feudal system and by accumulating land. But contradictions and tensions could arise now and then between the church and state even as these collaborated in influencing and dominating the minds and behavior of the people. In the long course, the resistance of the serfs often invoked the scripture and the liberal bourgeoisie arose to invoke science and reason against the feudal system.

In the superstructure of capitalist society, the state is the class dictatorship of the bourgeoisie. It has developed further as a system of organized violence against the proletariat and other other exploited classes as well an instrument of persuasion and conjuring the illusion of democracy through elections and parliamentarism, for making the laws and mechanisms to perpetuate private ownership of capital and land and for engaging in colonialism and eventually modern imperialism. To develop and draw more profits, the bourgeoisie used science and technology, built academic institutions and even instituted public education more than the feudal system did in order to serve the expanding industry, businesses and government.

In the superstructure of socialist society, the state is the class dictatorship of the proletariat to stand for upholding and developing socialism and defending the people against the bourgeoisie and imperialism. The institutions and organizations are expanded tremendously and they promote the materialist-scientific outlook, methodology and morality of socialism. The proletariat as the leading class is dedicated to building socialism as the first phase of communism or as a phase transitory to communism.

7. When can we say that a society is ripe for radical transformation?

JMS: It was Lenin who clarified when a society is ripe for radical transformation. First, the society is already stricken by a crisis that is so severe that the ruling exploitative class can no longer rule in the old way. Second, the the people are desirous of revolutionary change. And third, a revolutionary party has arisen and developed to be strong enough to lead the revolution.

In the time of Lenin, Russia was ripe for revolution when Tsarism and then the bourgeois government of Kerensky could not extricate themselves from imperialist crisis and war, the broad masses of the people and the soviets of workers, peasants and soldiers wanted revolution and the Bolshevik Party was strong enough and ready to lead the revolution.

The semicolonial and semifeudal ruling system in the Philippines is in a chronic socioeconomic and political crisis. The oppressed and exploited people are therefore desirous of revolutionary change. And the Communist Party of the Philippines has grown from small to big and from weak to strong on a nationwide scale and is strong enough to carry on the people’s democratic revolution through protracted people’s war.

8. What are the roles of the mode of production and the superstructure in the process of the transformation of society?

JMS: The mode of production starts to become outmoded when the forces of production have grown so much as to strain and tend to break the existing relations of production. When the working class grows so big because of the growth of industrial production, the capitalist ruling class can no longer solve the recurrent and ever worsening crisis of overproduction, even by resorting to monopoly capitalism, fascism and war, then the conditions are ripe for revolution by the working class.

But the class struggle is not limited to economic struggle in the mode of production or economy, it must also become a class struggle in the superstructure, in the political and cultural fields. The class struggle in the superstructure whips up and inflames the over-all class struggle. The capitalist class thinks it can limit the class struggle to the confines and premises of his factory over issues of wages and working hours. But the workers gain more freedom of action and gain political power through political and cultural organizations and movements of the entire working class and the rest of the exploited people.

9. Is transformation of a society possible if the class being ruled does not fight?

JMS: No radical or significant transformation of society is possible if the class being exploited and ruled does not fight or remains weak because of of objective limitations due to material conditions or they are not aroused, organized and mobilized to fight effectively. Even if in ancient times, the slave society could evolve into a feudal society, there were the slave revolts and slave runaways to persuade the slave masters that it was more clever and profitable to convert the slaves into serfs.

In the feudal society of France, the liberal bourgeoisie was able to win the liberal democratic revolution and seize power from the monarchy and landed aristocracy by raising the rags of the poor plebeians and serfs as their flag and actually availing of their anti-feudal class hatred and mobilization in the revolution.

But now, there is the industrial proletariat, an exploited class that is the most productive and politically progressive force and that has the potential for taking power from the bourgeoisie and other exploiting classes and for allying itself with and emancipating all other exploited classes. This is a class for carrying out the radical rupture from the millennia of private ownership of the means of production, which has been the basis of exploitative class society.

10. Is having a vanguard party required for social transformation? Has society not been changed before by mere spontaneous uprising? What is the importance of a leading party?

JMS: In the current world era of modern imperialism and proletarian revolution, it is absolutely necessary to have a vanguard proletarian party to lead the revolution in any society ruled by the industrial monopoly bourgeoisie as in capitalist countries or by the comprador big bourgeoisie as in the semicolonial and semifeudal Philippines. Anywhere in the world in the current era, no proletariat and people can wage a revolution against the domestic bourgeoisie without taking into account the intervention or aggression of the international bourgeoisie or at least a bloc of imperialist powers.

The proletariat is the class that has the ideological, political and organizational strength and resources to lead the revolution against the big bourgeoisie and has close relations with the peasantry and other exploited classes as allies. In slave society, the slaves engaged in uprisings against their slave masters but did not have all the necessary means and conditions for leading the transformation to the next possible form of society, feudalism.

In the long feudal history of China, there were big peasants uprisings but there were yet no conditions for feudalism to advance to capitalism. Then when a peasant uprising succeeded in overthrowing a feudal dynasty, it merely served to install a new feudal dynasty. In modern times, peasant uprisings can help a liberal democratic revolution as in France in 1788-89 or the peasants can ally themselves with the proletariat to make the socialist revolution as in Russia and then in China in the era of modern imperialism and world proletarian revolution.

11. Please explain how social transformation has occurred in the history of mankind. From primitive communal, slavery, feudalism, and capitalism. And how certain are we that the next social transformation will be towards socialism?

JMS: In all major social transformations, from primitive communal society to the various forms of class society, the universal law of contradiction was at work and took various forms in accordance with the concrete conditions. In primitive communal society, significant contradictions occurred quite slowly in tens of thousands of years of because of the most underdeveloped mode of production.

It took a lot of time to advance from the old stone age to new stone age, from the savage period of the nomadic clans and the barbaric period of the tribes. And it also took a lot of time to advance from barbaric period to class society through the development of bronze tools and the settled agriculture of intertribal societies. The progress of social development depended on what kind of instruments of production the people had at a given time.

By the time that so-called civilization came, starting with the slave society as the first form of class society, social progress could become much faster than before because of well-developed metallurgy, agriculture breeding more people, the rise of literacy and numeracy and advances in the division of labor, together with the class division of society between the few owners of the means of production and the many who did not own such means and had to work for others in order to survive and subsist.

As the means of production advanced so did the people in production increase and improve their productive skills. When the growth of productive forces breaks the the existing relations of production, a new form of society is on the way and the class struggle intensifies in class society and becomes reflected by and becomes dialectically interactive with the class struggle in the political and cultural aspects of the superstructure.

We have seen in a few centuries how industrial capitalism has made achievements in economic and social development several times far greater than all previous forms of society with the use of electro-mechanical, chemical and biological processes. Quantum physics has brought about further advances in the application of science in both the mode of production and superstructure. Unfortunately, the monopoly bourgeoisie uses all these advances for exploiting the proletariat and other working people, worsening the crisis of overproduction and unleashing state terrorism and wars of aggression.

After all the irrationalities and injustices under neoliberalism in the last four decades, the toiling masses of workers and peasants are rising up in anti-imperialist and democratic struggles for a socialist future. The crisis of the world capitalist system is now rapidly worsening. And the only way to overcome the dangerous escalation of inter-imperialist contradictions is for the proletariat and peoples of the world to unite and intensify their struggles against imperialism and all reaction. We are now in transition to the resurgence of the world proletarian revolution.