There are several factors that influence social and historical development, but in order to have a correct understanding of the development of society one must know and appreciate the main determining factors. History is not a record of unconnected ‘accidents’ or ‘events’, neither is it dependent upon the whims and attitudes of individuals, ‘great men’ or kings. Social life develops according to definite laws and these laws and determining factors must be understood if we intend to function correctly in the creation and development of a new society.
Concerning the ideas of a given society or period, it will be erroneous to seek the origins of those ideas in the institutions or in the minds of people expressing them. Ideas arise out of material conditions, out of the social life of the nation. At a given period in the economic basis of the society concerned. In a nutshell – the ideas of people depend on their environment.
We must not base our conception of history upon abstract principles of reason or truth, but upon the concrete, in the material conditions. Therefore the main determining factor of social development is the material life; the production relations, and relations of people involved. Society does not progress according to abstract utopian ideals or upon the good wishes of philanthropists: but according to the need to satisfy the material needs of people; this being achieved by corresponding development and changes in the main economic and social basis of society; by corresponding changes in the relationships between humans in society. Yet a one-sided view that lays too much stress upon economic development is also incorrect, a form of economic determinism that disregards the role and significance of ideas.
Social ideas arise according to the tasks before society, but arising only after the material conditions set new tasks; men in feudal times who strove for a capitalist system demanded free conditions for enterprise and commodity production – they did not dream of ‘nationalisation’ or ‘municipalisation’ because the conditions of the time did not generate such ideology. Once ideas and new demands arise they then develop in opposition and contradiction to the old ideas and system. Thus the developing production forces, when they cannot satisfy the majority of interests, spawn new ideas and desires to change for the better. Thus these ideas are in the main adopted by those who would benefit by social change. Therefore, once material conditions give rise to compatible ideas, they also generate their antithesis. It is the struggle between the old and the new that is one of the most important factors in the history of society. These new ideas react upon the society that gave rise to their existence. Theory thus only becomes a real force only when it is the ideas and aspirations of the majority.
The factors to be considered when studying the history of society, especially the term material conditions and material life, are various and some more important than others, and are not all determining factors. One factor is geographical environment; a constant and also necessary condition, and can accelerate or retard a society’s development. It is not a determining influence because geographical changes on the whole take pace at a much slower rate that social changes.
Another factor is population, its growth and density. Population does develop or retard society, but it again is not a determining factor. Population growth and density does not give the clues as to why social changes take place. The powerful force that is the significant factor in social change is the method of procuring the means of life necessary for existence, the mode of production of material values. Essentially the productive forces are the instruments of means, possessing certain productive experiences and skills of those who operate those means. These skills add up to the productive forces, which excludes the owners who do not participate in the production of needs.
An important aspect of these forces is the relations of the nation’s people, especially those engaged in the production of commodities and services. relations of production today are social relations. The profound point to note is that the history of society and its development amounts basically to a history of the means and modes of production, and the study of the relations of people to these forces. Man’s ideas are a reflection of these laws and realities. One must always bear in mind that the new economic systems do not develop after social change but within the old system. Man thus cannot make history according to idealist whims, with disregard to social processes. Men make their own history by studying and understanding the laws and processes that are taking place and have taken place. In this way mankind can act in such a manner so as to ensure that a desired and necessary social change takes place.
In summary – the development of productive forces is the key to our knowledge of history. Production relations conform to the productive forces. But often production forces leave behind the level of the relations and thus the ideas favouring a different system are born. Thence the demand for a different mode of economic and social life. here the different social classes assume their roles – it is the antagonism between those who prefer one mode and those who desire another that demonstrates the struggle between old and new. It becomes obvious that social change means one class supercedes another as the ruling class. This is social revolution, the upheaval and replacement of one production mode by a more advanced and necessary mode. Hitherto each system has come and gone when its time has run out. The epoch of primitive communalism was replaced by slavery, which in its turn was replaced by feudalism, and thence to capitalist relations, and so on.