Socioeconomic Formation

The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Socioeconomic Formation


a historically determined stage in the development of a society; in the words of Marx, “a society at a definite stage of historical development, a society with a peculiar, distinctive character” (see K. Marx and F. Engels, Soch., 2nd ed., vol. 6, p. 442).

The concept of the socioeconomic formation, which is central to historical materialism, has two distinguishing characteristics: (1) its historicism and (2) the fact that it encompasses every society in its entirety. As worked out by the founding fathers of materialism, this concept made it possible to replace the abstract notions about society in general that were characteristic of earlier philosophers and economists by the concrete analysis of different types of societies, each developing in accordance with its inherent specific laws. Every socioeconomic formation is a distinct social organism; the difference between one formation and another is no less profound than the difference between biological species. In the afterword to the second edition of Das Kapital, Marx cited a Russian reviewer to the effect that the book’s true value lies in “the disclosing of the special laws that regulate the origin, existence, development, and death of a given social organism and its replacement by another, and higher one” (K. Marx, ibid., vol. 23, p. 21).

Unlike such categories as “productive forces,” “the state,” or “law,” which reflect different facets of social life, the concept of the socioeconomic formation embraces all the organically interrelated aspects of social existence. Every socioeconomic formation is based on a certain mode of production. Production relations in their aggregate form the essence of any given formation. Each socioeconomic formation has its own system of production relations constituting its economic base, and each such system has its corresponding political, legal, and ideological superstructure.

Socioeconomic formations are so structured as to organically incorporate, in addition to economic relations, all the social interrelations of the various human communities in any given society (such as relations between social groups, nationalities, or nations) as well as certain aspects of daily and family life and life-style (see V. I. Lenin, Poln. sobr. soch., 5th ed., vol. 1, pp. 138–39).

The study of socioeconomic formations reveals the repeated occurrence of the same type of social order in different countries that are at the same stage of social development. This circumstance, as Lenin pointed out, in its turn made it possible to proceed from the description of social phenomena to rigorously scientific analysis of such phenomena—the type of analysis by which one can determine, for example, what is characteristic of all the capitalist countries and what distinguishes one from the other. At the same time, the specific laws that govern the development of each socioeconomic formation apply equally to all the countries where the given formation exists or establishes itself. Thus no specific set of laws applies to any capitalist country individually-—for example, to the USA, Great Britain, or France; rather, these laws assume different forms stemming from specific historical conditions and national characteristics.

V. I. Lenin, in his discussion of the draft program of the RSDLP at the beginning of the 20th century, was critical of G. V. Plekhanov for ignoring the distinctive features that capitalism had assumed in Russia and for too abstract an approach to the tasks facing the Russian proletariat. Socialism, as the first phase of the communist formation, likewise has its own general laws, and all countries that follow the socialist path of development are necessarily subject to these laws. The revisionist point of view—ignoring these general laws and claiming that each country needs its own special “model” of socialism—leads to nationalism. The same negative consequences, however, may result from the dogmatic approach whereby each country’s specifically historical national characteristics are ignored or seen as conforming to a stereotyped pattern. Socialism can only be successfully established on the basis of its objectively determined general laws, creatively applied within each country with due regard to its specific historical features. It is such recognition of the unity of the general and the particular that forms the basis of the communist and labor parties’ internationalist policy.

Generalizing the history of human development, Marxist singles out the principal socioeconomic formations that mark the step-by-step progress of history—namely, the primitive communal, slaveholding, feudal, capitalist, and communist systems. All peoples, without exception, started from the primitive communal system—a nonantagonistic socioeconomic formation. As this system disintegrated, antagonistic socioeconomic formations based on class differences came into being.

Drawing on certain statements by Marx and Engels, some scholars propose a classification that includes another type of early class society; in addition to the slaveholding and feudal modes of production, they have singled out a special Asiatic mode of production and its corresponding socioeconomic formation. The existence of this mode of production has been debated in the philosophical and historical literature, and the question is yet to be definitively resolved. “The bourgeois relations of production,” wrote Marx, “are the last antagonistic form of the social process of production. . . . This social formation brings the prehistory of human society to a close” (K. Marx and F. Engels, Soch., 2nd ed., vol. 13, pp. 7, 8). In the natural order of things, as foreseen by Marx and Engels, the bourgeois social formation is replaced by the communist formation that marks the true beginning of human history.

The successive replacement of one socioeconomic formation by another is primarily the result of new productive forces that arise in antagonistic contradiction to obsolete production relations; this is the stage at which existing production relations impede rather than promote the development of productive forces. Marx’ general rule is operative here—namely, that no socioeconomic formation ever dies before all the productive forces that are allowed to develop within it have been fully played out, while new production relations of a higher order can never come into being until material conditions are ripe for their emergence out of the womb of the old society (ibid.). The transition from one socioeconomic formation to another is effected through social revolution, which resolves the antagonistic contradictions between productive forces and production relations as well as between the base and the superstructure.

Unlike the successive replacement of socioeconomic formations, the replacement of one phase, or stage, by another within the same formation (for example, the replacement of premonopolistic capitalism by imperialism) takes place without social revolution, even though it represents a qualitative leap. Within the framework of the communist socioeconomic formation, the gradual and planned transformation of socialism into communism takes place as a consciously controlled natural process.

The Marxist-Leninist doctrine of socioeconomic formations is the key to an understanding of the unity and diversity of the history of mankind. The sequential replacement of each of the formations described above constitutes the main line of human progress and determines its unity. At the same time, the development of individual countries, peoples, and regions of the world is subject to considerable variation: first, all peoples do not necessarily pass through all the class formations; second, variation may result from individual characteristics or distinct local features; and third, the transition from one socioeconomic formation to another may assume a number of different forms. Societies in transition are usually characterized by the presence of various socioeconomic structures that differ from a fully established economic system in failing to encompass the entire economy and social life as a whole. Such structures may represent vestiges of the old socioeconomic formation as well as the embryo of the new one.

The diversity of forms of historical development does not only stem from differences in the specific conditions of various countries of the world; it is also related to the fact that different social orders coexist in some countries as a result of uneven rates of historical development. History’s entire course has been marked by the interaction between countries and peoples that have moved ahead and those that have been left behind, as each new socioeconomic formation always establishes itself first in a single country or group of countries. Such interaction might have the effect of accelerating or, on the contrary, of delaying the historical development of any given people.

The primitive communal order is the common point of departure in the development of all peoples. All the world’s peoples will ultimately attain communism. Some of them, however, may bypass certain socioeconomic formations based on class; for example, the ancient Germans, Slavs, and Mongolians were among the tribes and nationalities that did not go through the slaveholding stage as a distinct socioeconomic formation; in some cases, feudalism was bypassed as well. In the modern age, we see many instances of the noncapitalist path of development, in which a people makes the gradual transition to socialism without going through the capitalist stage. Two different orders of historical phenomena should be distinguished here: (1) cases in which a given people’s natural development was forcibly interrupted as a result of conquest by a more advanced nation (as in the case of the Indian tribes of North America, the nationalities of Latin America, and the aborigines of Australia, whose development was interrupted by the European conqueror’s incursions); and (2) cases in which favorable historical circumstances enabled some previously backward peoples to overtake those who were more advanced.

The general crisis of capitalism has made it possible for a number of peoples to bypass the capitalist socioeconomic formation and to make the direct transition from feudal and prefeudal relations to socialism; such, for example, was the path taken by the Mongolian People’s Republic. This can only be accomplished with state aid from more advanced countries in which the working class has gained power through revolution. As Lenin pointed out, “while the development of world history as a whole follows general laws it is by no means precluded, but, on the contrary, presumed, that certain periods of development may display peculiarities in either the form or the sequence of this development” (Poln. sobr. soch., 5th ed., vol. 45, p. 379).

The discovery of the successive replacement of socioeconomic formations provided an objective basis for dividing the historical process into basic historical epochs. The transition from one socioeconomic formation to another or the replacement of one phase by another within a single socioeconomic formation always signifies the transition to a new historical epoch. A distinction, however, should be drawn between these concepts. A socioeconomic formation denotes a specific stage in the development of society, while a historical epoch is a specific segment of history within which different formations may coexist temporarily by virtue of the uneven course of the historical process. At the same time, the basic meaning and content of each epoch depend on “which class stands at the hub of one epoch or another, determining its main content, the main direction of its development, the main characteristics of the historical situation in that epoch, etc.” (V. I. Lenin, ibid., vol. 26, p. 142). Furthermore, every historical epoch is characterized by a broad spectrum of social phenomena and contains typical as well as atypical events. Partial movements, both forward and backward, occur within each epoch, as well as individual deviations from the average rate and type of movement. We also find, in history, transitional epochs between one socioeconomic formation and the next. The basic content of the current epoch, for example, is the transition from capitalism to socialism on a worldwide scale. The mark of this epoch is the collapse of capitalism and the birth of socialism. It is the epoch of socialist revolutions and revolutions for national liberation.

The most important aspect of the Marxist-Leninist theory of socioeconomic formations is its acknowledgment of the progressive nature of social development, leading to the inescapable conclusion that capitalism is doomed and communism is destined to triumph. It is for this very reason that bourgeois philosophers and sociologists oppose this theory. Many bourgeois philosophers and historians—for example, W. Windelband and H. Rickert of the Heidelberg neo-Kantian school—would make a distinction between the social and the natural sciences, maintaining that the naturalist investigates recurrent phenomena, while the historian deals with nonrecurrent individual events. This argument has served as the basis for denying the existence of objective historical laws and thereby precluding the scientific explanation of historical events.

Various other concepts have been proposed in place of the concept of socioeconomic formations. Thus, M. Weber proposed the concept of an “ideal type” constructed by the historian in accordance with his own “cultural values.” This idea was meant to deny the objective nature of the socioeconomic formation as a category reflecting the actual stages in society’s development. A. Toynbee formulated the concept of “civilizations”; according to his count, from 21 to 26 or even more civilizations can be identified in history. Another concept, proposed by P. A. Sorokin, was that of historical “supersystems” based on one or another dominant world view. Such idealist theories coexist in bourgeois sociology with certain widely held notions that emphasize the primacy of technological factors in determining the stages of society’s development. This category includes W. Rostow’s theory of stages of economic growth and the theories of the “single industrial society” and “postindustrial society.” The major flaw in these conceptions is that they ignore the decisive role of production relations as indexes to the various types of societies.

The Hudson Institute in the USA, in its forecasts for the year 2000, uses the following classification: (1) the postindustrial society, which includes such countries as the USA, Japan, Canada, and Sweden; (2) the advanced industrial society, or society of consumption, which includes the countries of Western Europe, the USSR, the German Democratic Republic, the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic, and Australia; (3) the industrial-stage society, which includes Mexico, Argentina, and Chile; and (4) the society of the developing countries, or preindustrial stage, which includes China, India, South Africa, and the Arab countries. This type of classification ignores the radical differences in social structure between the capitalist and socialist countries; it assigns the leading part in history’s progress to the capitalist countries that are industrially most advanced but that preserve an obsolete social system. In reality, however, it was the socialist countries that blazed the trail of historical progress in our time, since it is in these countries that the most progressive social order is already firmly established.

Because of the uneven course of historical development, changes in the various aspects of social life do not always take place at the same time. Thus the socialist transformation of society in our time began in the relatively less developed countries, faced with the need to overtake the technologically and economically advanced capitalist countries where the social revolution is still a thing of the future.

In the final analysis, the advent of a new and progressive socioeconomic formation necessarily presupposes the attainment of a qualitatively higher stage in the material and technological basis of society, a new economic system, and a new social and cultural order. The countries of the socialist community are faced with the historical task of integrating the achievements of the scientific and technological revolution with the advantages of the socialist economic system. Socialism alone creates the conditions under which the scientific and technological revolution can truly meet the interests of man and society. In its turn, the ultimate task of social revolution—building the communist society—can only be accomplished by accelerating the rate of development of science and technology. The process by which the communist society is created proves the validity of the Marxist-Leninist doctrine of socioeconomic formations.


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The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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