The basis of Marx and Engels' theory on the development trajectory of the Eastern society is a very complicated issue. This issue involves not only the identification of historical facts on the development of Eastern society, but also the understanding and application of basic concepts and principles of historical materialism. There are many differences and controversies between scholars in China and beyond.
It is very important to correctly understand Marx and Engels’ theory on the development trajectory of the Eastern society to prevent misunderstanding and misinterpretation and to know well the correct theoretical basis. Part I mainly focuses on five aspects of the basic principles of historical materialism: Social forms and their classification; purposiveness of human activities and regularity of social development; historical determinism, subject choice, and their relations; historical progress and its measure; and the integrity of Marxism. These five basic principles of historical materialism have a direct guiding significance for studying Marx and Engels' theory on the development trajectory of the Eastern society.
Social forms and their classifications
The social forms and their classifications constitute one of the basic theories in historical materialism, and serve as a theoretical foundation for studying the development trajectory of the Eastern society. The most sensitive and controversial issues concerning Marx and Engels’ theory of the development trajectory of the Eastern society are related to their theory of social forms and their classifications. Therefore, an accurate understanding of Marx and Engels’ theory on the development trajectory of the Eastern society calls for an in-depth investigation of their views on social forms and their classifications.
Human society is a vast and complex system. Due to the interaction of various factors, social development often assumes varied stages and types. The concept of social forms concerns the structures and characteristics of different societal stages and types. According to the needs of social practices, we may classify societal stages and types using different angles and methods, mainly: the classification of the five social forms, the classification of the three social forms, and the classification of the technical social forms.
Classification of the five social forms
Based on production relations, Marx and Engels classified human history into five successive social forms: the primitive society, the slave society, the feudal society, the capitalist society, and the future communist society (with socialism as its initial stage). This classification takes world history as a whole. However, it does not mean that every country or nation must go through the succession of the above five social forms. Some Chinese scholars argue that Marx and Engels never-proposed this classification; rather, it was Stalin who proposed it in Dialectical and Historical Materialism in 1938. Such argument contradicts historical facts. We can claim, rather accurately, that this classification exists in all representative works of Marx and Engels. To substantiate this claim, a chronological analysis is offered below of the works of Marx and Engels.
The German Ideology by Marx and Engels in 1845 to 1846 is the first book that marks the basic formation of the historical materialism. In this book, the two authors presented their initial classification of social forms and social development laws. They analyzed social structure and its evolution based on the contradictory movements of productive forces and production relations. They attributed human history to the development in production relations (forms of ownership) which in turn are attributed to productive forces. The embryo of their theory of social forms and social classification is based on different forms of ownership, which in turn are based on the development of productive forces and division of labor. They divided the pre-capitalistic history into three forms of ownership: the tribal ownership, the classical ancient communal ownership and state ownership, and the feudal or hierarchical ownership.1 In terms of economic structure, the “tribal ownership” is equivalent to the public ownership of land by clan communes. In terms of social structure, the declining clan communes were replaced by the emerging slave society. Marx and Engels had not distinguished clan communes from rural communes at that time. The "tribal ownership” they referred to is equivalent to the ownership form in Western Europe when primitive societies transitioned into slave societies. However, without yet a scientific idea of the primitive society, Marx and Engels considered tribal ownership as the first independent stage in the development of human society. The aforementioned ancient communal and state ownership is generally equivalent to the slavery of ancient Greece and Rome. Feudal or hierarchical ownership refers to the feudal system in Western Europe. These three forms of ownership represent a chronological sequence rather than spatial juxtaposition. Marx and Engels believed that these three forms of ownership were the precursors to the capitalistic society. If we add the ownership forms of capitalism and communism (which will replace capitalism in the future), there are exactly five forms of ownership. Hence, we now have the classification of the five social forms: the tribal ownership society, the slave society, the feudalists society, the capitalistic society, and the communistic society.
The Communist Manifesto, written by Marx and Engels between December 1847 and January 1848 and published in February 1848, describes the class structures and class struggles in the slave society, the feudalistic society, and the capitalistic society. It posits that the capitalistic society will be replaced by a future communist society. Marx and Engels believed that “the history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles,” as they had not yet found any classless societies. Engels' note to the above quotation seen in the English edition of The Communist Manifesto published in 1888 further explained this point:
In 1847, the pre-history of society, the social organization existing before recorded history, was all but unknown. Since then, Haxthausen discovered common ownership of land in Russia, Maurer proved it to be the social foundation from which all Teutonic races started in history, and by and by rural communes were found to be, or to have been, the primitive form of society everywhere from India to Ireland. Finally, Morgan made the brilliant discovery of the essence of the gens and its relation to the tribe, uncovering the prototypical inner organization of this primitive communistic society.2
The four social forms of the slave society, the feudalistic society, the capitalistic society, and the communistic society, together with the primitive society before the class society, constitute the five social forms under discussion.
Marx offered his first precise expression of his classification theory of social forms and their evolution in Wage Labour and Capital, published in April 1849. He said.
The relations of production in their totality constitute what is called the social relations, society, and, moreover, a society at a definite stage of historical development, a society with distinctive characteristics. Ancient society, feudalistic society, bourgeois (or capitalistic) society are such totalities of relations of production, each denoting a particular stage of development in human history?
Marx’s three social forms of the classical ancient society, the feudalistic society, and the bourgeois society, plus the primitive communistic society (precursor to classical ancient society) and the future communistic society (to replace the bourgeois society), in that order, are the five social forms experienced or to be experienced in human history.
Marx made his first complete presentation of the evolutionary sequence of the five social forms in his Preface to the Critique of Political Economy written in 1859. He said, “In a broad outline, the Asiatic, ancient, feudal and modern bourgeois modes of production may be designated as epochs marking progress in the economic development of society.”4 Marx also pointed out that the capitalistic society will certainly be replaced by the communistic society, as dictated by the evolutionary sequence of the five social forms. Rather than spatially juxtaposed, different forms of the same society, the Asiatic, ancient, and feudal modes of production represent different epochs in human society. However, some theorists in China believe that what Marx called the Asiatic, the ancient Greek and Roman, and the feudal social forms are just three different modes of the same social form, which stands contrary to Marx’s original intention. What follows is a discussion of the “Asiatic mode of production” and its role in human development.
A note by Marx for Volume I of Capital published in 1867 says:
Small peasant economy and independent handicraft partially forms the basis for feudalistic production and partially coexists with capitalism after disintegration of the feudalistic production. At the same time, they form the economic foundation of the classical communities at their peak, after disappearance of the primitive oriental commune and before the slave society dominates production.5
This involves the social forms commonly known as the slave society, the feudalistic society, and the capitalistic society. The “primitive oriental common ownership” is equivalent to “the Asiatic mode of production” mentioned in the Preface to the Critique of Political Economy. Therefore, the evolutionary sequence of the five social forms is: the Asiatic society, the slave society, the feudalistic society, the capitalistic society, and the future communistic society that replaces the capitalistic society.
In Anti-Duhring written between September 1876 and July 1878, Engels regarded “slavery, serfdom or bondage, and wage-labour” as three successive social forms of a class society.6 These, plus the pre-slave society and the future communistic society, give five social forms as well.
Morgan’s Ancient Society published in 1877 played a significant role in completing Marx and Engels' theory of the five social forms. Before the release of Ancient Society, Marx and Engels learned that the Asiatic communes, the classical ancient communes, and the Germanic communes were not the most primitive forms. However, they had not yet developed knowledge on how these social forms emerged historically or what society was like before that. Therefore, in Preface to the Critique of Political Economy and Capital, Marx set the “Asiatic mode of production” as the first stage of human history. Morgan's Ancient Society used North American Indians’ situation to demonstrate that patriarchal clans in Ancient Greece and Rome were derived from matriarchal clans. The Asiatic communes, the classical ancient communes, and the Germanic communes arose after the disintegration of their local patriarchal clans. In other words, these communes arose during the disintegration of their primitive precursors. By now, their positions in the development of human society were scientifically determined. The theory of the five social forms was finally complete when the primitive society, rather than the “Asiatic mode of production,” was set as the first social form in human development.
In Origin of Family, Private Property and the State published in 1884, Engels stated:
With slavery, which attained its fullest development under civilization, came the first great cleavage of society into an exploiting and an exploited class. This cleavage persisted during the whole civilized period. Slavery is the first form of exploitation, the form peculiar to the ancient world; it is succeeded by serfdom in the middle ages, and wage labor in the more recent period. These are the three great forms of servitude, characteristic of the three great epochs of civilization.7
Primitive society, the three class societies after the collapse of the primitive society, and the future classless communistic society give the evolutionary sequence of the five social forms.
Our brief review has now revealed that the theory of the five social forms was proposed by Marx and Engels in the 1840s and completed in the late 1870s and 1880s after arduous and profound theoretical exploration. This theory is visible throughout Marx and Engels’ important and representative works. It’s hard to
Social forms and their classifications 5 conceive why some scholars would deny that Mare had once put forward the theory of the five social forms. What would be the basis of their denial? Negation of Mare's theory of the five social forms would require refutation of every single piece of evidence presented thus far, which would prove largely impossible. More than likely, few of the deniers of the theory of the five social forms have ever seriously investigated relevant works of Mare and Engels or whether the theory resonates with the actual course of world history. Some deny this theory, this work of a lifetime effort, perhaps merely on the basis of certain Western viewpoints, or their own preconceptions, or even personal preferences.