'Evolution applies to social organization, too'
(Books of the Month column)
Printed below are excerpts from The Long View of History, one of Pathfinder's Books of the Month for January, by noted Marxist George Novack. The pamphlet contains two talks given by Novack in 1955: "How humanity climbed to civilization" and "The main course of American history and its next stage."
They offer a popularized sketch of the key line of evolution from fish—the first backboned species—to humans, from savagery to civilization, and from Indian life to contemporary capitalism in the United States. The talks were designed as an introduction to a study of the march of humankind from the viewpoint of scientific socialism.
Novack aimed to show that the same principles of evolution that were uncovered with each new fossil record of natural life were indispensable tools in understanding social development and human history as well. "Contradictory as it is," Novack explained, "many scholars and scientists who take the order of evolution of organic species for granted, stubbornly resist the extension of the same lawfulness to the changing species of social organization. They will not admit that there has been, or can be, any definite and discernible sequence in the social development of mankind analogous to the steps in the progress from the invertebrates to the fish, through the reptile and mammalian creatures, up to the advent of mankind."
Copyright © 1960 by Pathfinder Press, reprinted by permission.
BY GEORGE NOVACK
I propose first to trace the main line of human development, from our remote animal ancestors to the present, when humanity has become lord of the earth but not yet master of its own creations, not to mention its own social system. After that, I will deal with the central course of evolution in that specific segment of society that occupies the bulk of North America and represents the most developed form of capitalist society.
I will try to show not only how our national history is related to world development but also how we, collectively and individually, fit into the picture. This is a broad and bold undertaking, a sort of jet-propelled journey through the stratosphere of world history. It is forced upon us by the urge to grasp the whole vast spread of events and to understand our specific place within them, as well as by the very dynamic of scientific theory in sociology, which has its highest expression in Marxism. The movement based upon scientific socialism, which prepares most energetically for the future, likewise must probe most deeply into the past.…
We can single out four critical turning points in the timetable of evolution. The first was the origin of our planet about three or four billion years ago. The second was the emergence of life in the form of simple one-celled sea organisms about two and a half billion years ago. (These are only approximate but commonly accepted dates at the present time.) Third was the appearance of the first backboned animals about four to five hundred million years ago. Last was the creation of mankind, within the past million years or so….
It required four to five hundred million years to create the biological conditions necessary for the generation of the first subhumans. This was not brought about through anyone's forethought or foresight, or in accord with any plan, or with the aim of realizing some preconceived goal. It happened, we may say, as the lawful outcome of a series of blind and accidental developments in the forms of natural life, spurred forward in the struggle for survival, which eventually culminated in the production of a special kind of primate equipped with the capacities for acquiring more than animal powers.
At this juncture, about a million or so years ago, the most radical of all the transmutations of life on this planet took place. The emergence of mankind embodied something totally different which became the root of a unique line of development. What was this? It was the passage from animal separatism to human collectivism, from purely biological modes of behavior to the use of acquired social powers.
Where did these added artificial powers come from that have marked off emerging mankind from all other animal species, elevated our species above the other primates, and made mankind into the dominant order of life? Our dominance is indisputable because we command the power to destroy ourselves and all other forms of life, not to speak of changing them.
The fundamentally new powers mankind acquired were the powers of production, of securing the means of sustenance through the use of tools and joint labor, and sharing the results with one another….
In its evolution to our own century, civilized society can be divided into three main epochs: slavery, feudalism, and capitalism. Each of these is marked off by the special way in which the ruling propertied class at the head of the social setup manages to extract the surplus wealth upon which it lives from the laboring mass who directly create it. This entire period covers little more than the past five to six thousand years….
As a result of a long list of technological and other social advances, merging with a sequence of exceptional historical circumstances, feudalized Europe became the nursery for the next great stage of class society, capitalism. How and why did capitalism originate?
The epoch-making innovation upon which capitalism rested was the institution of working for wages as the dominant relation of production. Most of you have gone into the labor market, to an employment agency or personnel office, to get a buyer for your labor power. The employer buys this power at prevailing wage rates by the hour, day, or week and then applies it under his supervision to produce commodities that his company subsequently sells at a profit. That profit is derived from the fact that wage workers produce more value than the capitalist pays for their labor.
Up to the twentieth century, this mechanism for pumping surplus labor out of the working masses and transferring the surpluses of wealth they create to the personal credit of the capitalist was the mightiest accelerator of the productive forces and the expansion of civilization. As a distinct economic system, capitalism is only about 450 years old; it has conquered the world and journeyed from dawn to twilight in that time. This is a short life-span compared to savagery, which stretched over a million years or more, or to barbarism, which prevailed for four thousand to five thousand years. Obviously, the processes of social transformation have been considerably speeded up in modern times….
Capitalism has produced many things, good and bad, in the course of its evolution. But the most vital and valuable of all the social forces it has created is the industrial working class.
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