(This educational material has been prepared as part of the course “The Political Economy of Capitalism”)
3. Economic laws.
In society, as in nature, there are no isolated phenomena. All phenomena in the economic life of the society are interconnected and depend on one another.
For example, in the USSR the means of production – factories, plants, land – were the property of the whole people. Therefore, the relations between the people in the process of the production of material goods were characterised as relations of cooperation and mutual assistance. In turn, these relations conditioned the socialist character of the distribution of the results of production – in proportion to the labour invested in the common cause by each member of Soviet society.
It is a different matter under capitalism, where factories and plants are privately owned. The relations formed between people in the process of production are now fundamentally different, namely capitalist. The distribution of the results of labour is of the same character – all the product produced in society belongs not to those who produce it, not to the workers, not to the working class, but to the owners of the means of production, the bourgeoisie. Nor is there any peace in the bourgeois class itself – each private capitalist fights with the other to get more and more of the social product (profit) into their own possession. As a result, in bourgeois society there is a continuous competitive struggle – a struggle for survival, between workers and the bourgeoisie, among workers and within the bourgeoisie itself; and therefore people’s attitude towards one another in this kind of society isn’t friendly, as in socialism, but wary, as towards potential enemies or foes, who might offend, steal, rob, etc.
Thus, out of one economic phenomenon – ownership of the means of production – another phenomenon inevitably follows – a certain mode of distribution of the material goods. This relation, this interdependence, interconnection between one phenomenon and another is expressed in this or that economic law.
What is an economic law?
An economic law expresses the necessary, causally determined essential connections between economic phenomena. Because these connections are stable, relatively constant, they inevitably repeat themselves.
But we mustn’t assume that the role of people in this is passive – as if all you need to do is kick back and wait for economic laws to do everything for you. Not at all. In reality, every economic phenomenon cannot take place without people’s participation. The creators of history are the people themselves. They, says Marx, are both authors and actors in their own drama.
However, the will and desire of people alone is not enough to change this or that economic order. For instance, the capitalist order arose and developed in spite of the fact that the ruling class of the feudal lords not only refused it, but opposed it by all available means. Or take communism, for example. People in many countries of the world wanted to establish this social order immediately. Even the most active advocates of capitalist society, though certainly not among the bourgeois class, but among hired workers, would like to live under communism. But they want to switch from capitalism to communism at once, not realising that for communism to triumph, many conditions have to be met. It turns out that the life of society, like that of nature, is subject to certain objective laws, i.e., laws that do not depend on the will and consciousness of man.
Economic laws are also in effect when we are not even aware of their existence. Human society progressively developed because of the action of objective economic laws, although they were discovered and recognised relatively recently, in the middle of the 19th century, only with the rise of Marxist political economy. The same can be said about the laws of nature. No one knew of the existence of the laws of conservation of matter, energy and gravitation until they were discovered in their time by great scientists.
But, as we have already said, it is wrong to imagine that the objective character of economic laws assumes an automatic course of development of social phenomena, that people, social organizations can only blindly follow the spontaneous processes occurring in society by themselves. Here is how this position was expressed by Doctor Ryakhin, the character of Gorky’s story “The town of Okurov”: “You, old man, shouldn’t worry. You should look at it philosophically: a man can neither speed up events nor delay them, just as he cannot stop the rotation of the earth, the development of progressive paralysis or, for example, this idiotic rain. Everything that should be – will be, what cannot be – will not be, no matter what you do! That, old man, has been proven by Marx, and that’s that!”
Of course, this understanding of the objective nature of economic laws has nothing to do with Marx and Marxism. On the contrary, Marxism teaches that people can recognise economic laws and use them to their advantage. On the basis of studying the nature of the economic phenomena of bourgeois society, of the conditions which give rise to the laws of the development of the capitalist mode of production, a correct programme for the revolutionary transformation of society can be developed. With the abolition of the bourgeois mode of production, the economic laws of capitalism also cease to be effective. That means that people are not powerless before the objective laws of society just as they are not powerless before nature.
We know very well that the laws of physics, chemistry, biology and other natural sciences, learned by man, are widely used in the interests of people and are very much changing the world around us. The “idiotic rain” that the fatalist Dr. Riachin spoke of is now can be subjected to the will of humans – technology is already available that can cause rain or postpone it for a while.
It is the same in public life. “‘Social forces,’ wrote F. Engels, ‘like the forces of nature, act blindly, violently, destructively, until we know them and take them into account… But once their nature is understood, they can transform in the hands of associated producers from demonic masters into submissive servants. Here is the same difference as between the destructive power of electricity in a thunderbolt and the tame electricity in a telegraph machine or an arc lamp, the same difference as between accidental fire and fire acting in the service of man.”
There is much in common between economic laws and the laws of nature. Both are objective, independent of the will and consciousness of people. But at the same time, they differ from each other.
First, the laws of nature arise and act without the participation of people, while economic laws can only be implemented in the process of human activity.
Secondly, the laws of nature are eternal, while only a small part of economic laws operate at all stages of the historical development of humanity. Most economic laws are transient: along with the disappearance of economic conditions, the laws themselves, which express these conditions, disappear.
Any socio-economic formation is characterised by the interrelation of productive forces and production relations. Therefore, the economic law, expressing the relationship and interaction between these sides of the mode of production, is a universal law, valid at all stages of the development of human society. The law of increasing labour productivity, etc., is also universal.
The economic laws, which act within the limits of only one mode of production, are called specific laws. Among these laws, one law is singled out, which expresses the basic essence, the main features of production relations of the given society. This law is called the basic economic law of that society.
The scope of some economic laws is not confined to the limits of one formation, although they have no universal significance. Such is the law of value, for example, which is valid in the conditions of the simple commodity economy, which exists in many formations, including capitalist society and socialism.
We should also mention those economic laws which are characteristic only of a particular stage in the development of a particular mode of production. For example, in the monopolistic phase of capitalism there is the law of monopolistic high profits. Similarly, in the lower phase of communism, there is the law of distribution according to labour, which is no longer in force in the higher stages of this mode of production.
Any of the specific economic laws (apart from the basic economic law) expresses this or that aspect of the production relations of this mode of production. However, since all sides of the relations of production in society are inseparably connected with one another, the laws of each mode of production do not operate in isolation from one another but in close connection with one another.