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Turbulence in Social Development and the Stratification of the Superstructure

A.B. Razlatsky

From a general point of view, history presents itself as a precise sequence of social-economic formations which succeed one another. This sequence, it would seem, is so obvious, so far beyond doubt, that, in considering any state from any specific historical period, indicating its precise position in this sequence would pose no difficulty. 

However, anyone studying the concrete history knows that this is far from the case. Detailed investigation at once reveals that in those states which from time immemorial have been considered as slave owning states, those states on the basis of which slave-ownership was studied and described, in those very states, the slave owner's production methods did not play a decisive role! Moreover, having clearly pinned a specific period to this scale of social formations, it is revealed that the preceding period, no less clearly belongs to a later, higher region of the scale. This is a source of much confusion. It is no accident that even the most conscientious and thoughtful investigators, confronted with such facts, either openly place historical materialism, with its theory of the transformation of one formation into another, in doubt, or cautiously evade a historical materialist interpretation of the material under investigation. This situation is not only to be found among the obvious, but also among the thoroughly camouflaged vulgarizers. Without a moments hesitation they will distort the historical data, squeezing them, by means of ready lies, into the scale which itself remains beyond doubt. 

The vulgarizers are wrong. Historical materialism is correct. But, what is perhaps more surprising, is that those who have doubts about it are far closer to the truth and to historical materialism, than those who are afraid to retreat even one step from it. 

Above all, the point is that historical materialism and specific historical research are categorically, in principle, on incomparable scales. And there is a real reason for this incomparability. That which at the highest level of generalization appears to be a monotone (in the mathematical sense[1]) forward movement from formation to formation, appears, when considered in detail, to be composed of altogether fantastic patterns. So, a long chain can be considered to be a line and its sag can be described by a mathematical formula, that of the catenary curve; but will we find any expression of this conformity to law if we study a specific link in the chain, or even just as small piece of such a link? 

Speaking more precisely, the flow of history is not linear, not laminar[2], but has a turbulent character; that is, while preserving its general direction, it is composed of vortices[3], within which the motion can go off at an angle, and even backwards. 

In other words, for example, if we consider humanity's most remote past, then finding itself in difficult conditions, let us say for climatic or other reasons, that tribe or gens survived which was able to raise itself to a higher level of organization, which found itself in a position to master a more complicated form of cooperation. But, having lived through the hard times, or, at the end of a migration, having arrived in a territory more favourable for existence, such a tribe or gens lost the need to exert themselves in order to maintain the higher organization, and returned to the earlier, primitive organizational forms. And such spurts of development recurred repeatedly until such time as, on the one hand, external conditions compelled the tribe to consolidate the higher organizational forms, and on the other hand, the experience of cooperation was accumulated within the framework of such forms. Or rather, even the consolidation of the higher forms over an extended period did not secure their stability, for with the improvement of the conditions of existence they again disintegrated. It was necessary for a definite stablization of conditions for an entire region, for the aboriginal population, and even the presence of a tendency for conditions to deteriorate, in order that the higher organizational forms could become stable, and thereupon might be transformed into ever higher organizational forms. 

Population growth serves as a natural source of the tendency for the conditions of existence to deteriorate, for the necessity to divide the natural wealth among an increasing number of consumers. This is the most important cause of the development of organizational forms. But, obviously, it is not merely a cause but also a condition of such development. In any case, for the realization of such higher forms, a certain minimum, we might say a critical mass, of individuals is required. And, the higher the organizational form, the larger the critical mass required for its existence. Consequently, an altogether crucial role in social processes is played by simple population growth, by the concentration of population in a particular area. 

Another historically important factor consists in the fact that the transition to a new organizational level is always tied to the mastery of the elements of new, more effective, production methods which permit the increase of the quantity of material goods, and so too the improvement of the conditions of existence. But this improvement of conditions, in its turn, produces a tendency toward disintegration of the newly achieved forms, stimulating a return to previous, less developed relations. 

In this way, the tendency toward degradation appears to be an attribute of development itself. However, the elements of relations formed in the development phase, do not disappear; they loose support through degradation, but are maintained as cultural elements. They become imbued with a more mystical, ritualistic meaning; destined in their own time for victory over extraordinary difficulties, they later serve as mysterious remedies which are used as a sort of ritual method for preparing for and overcoming minor difficulties. In this form, they can be handed down from generation to generation. This is the experience, which in conditions demanding a new elevation, a new complexity of organization, permits this raising, this jumping over the level of earlier achievements. In addition, in periods of degradation, a synthesis of forms, inherited from various preceding developments, may take place. This is the result of more complicated forms, which when necessary can accommodate a more complicated content. 

If, from a slaveholding society it was possible only to return to the primeval condition, then higher forms were richer in this respect, in that, for them, it was possible to return to any of the preceding forms. Profound degradation may occur as a consequence of essential changes, pandemics, climatic shock and so forth. As a result social formations from a lower level may arise; however, within their cultural elements they maintain a place for developments from times gone by. So, for example, within communal social formations, the presence of collective agriculture provides evidence of the previous achievement of the form of slave ownership; and individual, family agriculture is evidence of past feudal forms that have been outlived. However, in general, all the variation in cultural forms, appearing as echos of of a past social elevation, still remain open for investigation and clarification. 

Now we must turn our attention once again to one of the particularities of organizational structure, arising in the course of the development of human society. The fundamental relations, characterizing the level of social development are the relations between the class of immediate producers and the ruling class. However, the ruling class itself may have quite a complicated organization. 

The point is that the new relations arising below supplant the previous relations above, in the higher social layers. So in the slave holding period, relations between the slave holders themselves retained the character of all the various forms of the primeval relations. These too developed, and the limit of their development is given by the level of relations of the lower strata. That is, for example, relations amongst slave owners could themselves take on the form of slave relations. 

With the appearance of feudal relations, slave relations were reproduced at a higher level. Whereas at higher levels still, relations similar to the primeval could be maintained. Such a translocation or displacement of relations is itself a process which accompanies the development of society uninterruptedly. 

In this sense, we have a right to consider the relations between the immediate producers and the ruling class as fundamental; for as all the superseded forms of relations in the superstructure are translocated, they somehow stratify the superstructure into definite layers, clearly retaining the characteristics of fundamental forms which had been superseded earlier, and the higher up, the older the forms. 

These relations, the stratification of the superstructure are subject to the same historical law as are the fundamental relations, that is they are able to change, to develop and to degrade. 

We have noted that periods of great social revolution transform the fundamental relations into higher ones. However in history there are well known examples of social cataclysms of a lesser scale which somehow fail to bring about change in social relations. In actual fact this is wrong. If changes in the fundamental relations do not result from revolutionary events, this, as a rule, signifies that the revolutionary process confined itself to changing relations in one or a number of the stratified layers of the superstructure. But, as in the case of the fundamental relations, this does not signify a final consolidation of the new stratification; that is, afterwards, the processes of degradation are a real possibility, turning the superstructure back to older and more backward structures. 

Based on one and the same fundamental relations, the superstructure can be stratified differently, expressing various historical paths along which society can come into being, subject however to the condition that the older the form, the higher the level of the layer in the superstructure within which it is maintained. 

That, in the course of great social revolutions, signifying a change of formations, the superstructure suffers a radical rupture, does not mean that the stratification of the superstructure has changed in a radical fashion. However, it may, as a result, loose its upper layer, and must gain a lower layer, corresponding to the fundamental relations of the past, although this may not happen all at once. 

Naturally, as the processes of development and degradation of social organizations unfold over time, the presence of a multilayered stratification of the superstructure greatly complicates the social picture of any society which has actually existed in history and gives rise to numberless variations in the real historical form which come into collision with concrete historical investigation. But it is important to realize that it is precisely this complexity and variation which is comprehended by the Marxist theory of formations when considered at a scale comparable to the specific historical investigation. 

Historical materialism gives a broad picture of the movement of formations, this permits the specific historian to attribute this or that event to a definite epoch. But especially with events taking place at the boundary of an epoch one should be extremely cautious, since from them a progressive transformation to a more perfect form is not inevitable, degradation and return to a preceding epoch is almost as likely. 

The study of relations within the superstructure, in general ought to correspond to the epoch, but only if account is taken of its stratification since corresponding layers of the superstructure can retain a place for the most ancient relations. 

[1] In the mathematical sense, a monotone forward movement is one which always goes forward and never goes back. 

[2] A term from fluid dynamics denoting a smooth, streamline flow. 

[3] A whirlpool or eddy 

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