Revolution, and the Fire in the Hearth

 Justin Aukema


In 1917 the Japanese economist Kawakami Hajime wrote his famous Tale of Poverty. The book was a noble attempt to deal with the highly prescient problem of poverty in Japan and globally. Kawakami was correct in his general observation and premise that there was a glaring contradiction between the rise of capitalist wealth on the one hand and the massive poverty and suffering of the multitudes on the other. But he was mistaken in his subsequent thesis and solution to this which was that poverty was caused by the overconsumption of the rich, or, what I call his “luxury thesis.” By viewing poverty as an illness that could be “cured” without fundamental social change, Kawakami initially failed to grasp the phenomenon as a necessary prerequisite of capitalist economy. But he was on the right track, and he modified his views on poverty years later in his 1930 A Second Tale of Poverty. Moreover, he made numerous important observations that paved the way for his second treatise on the subject.

In this short article, I focus on one of these aspects, the conflict between productive forces and productive (or social) relations. I have previously discussed how Kawakami compared this conflict as well as the process of capital accumulation to a balloon which will pop unless the air is periodically let out of it. Therefore, I will skip over this aspect here. Instead, I want to focus on an example that Kawakami gives in his first Tale of Poverty and to demonstrate how this in fact perfectly illustrates his discussion of the conflict between productive forces and relations in A Second Tale of Poverty. In other words, although Kawakami himself eventually came to view the first Tale of Poverty as a mistaken embarrassment, I argue that, in fact, it contained important kernels that both predict and help illuminate his later observations.

The fire in the hearth

Kawakami begins the first Tale of Poverty by writing about the glaring contrast and contradiction of capitalism which is the massive wealth it creates for some on the one hand versus the intense poverty it causes everyone else on the other. He then compares this to a fire in a hearth. Capitalist economy, he says, is like having a huge hearth that could potentially keep everyone in the room warm. However, in reality what happens is that only a tiny fire is lit in the large hearth, so that it is ultimately only enough to keep a few people warm rather than everyone. This illustrates our current economy, he says, since although we have the ability to provide for everyone we simply do not. There is something holding us back.

This metaphor is a highly precise description of how capitalism works. But in fact Kawakami did not fully understand the mechanisms behind his own metaphor in the first Tale of Poverty. It would take him until his A Second Tale of Poverty, more than a decade later, to grasp its full meanings. This is that the hearth metaphor illustrates the conflict between capitalist productive forces and productive relations.

In A Second Tale of Poverty, Kawakami spends many pages discussing how capitalism develops the productive forces, including the accumulation of social wealth, but then how this eventually outgrows the very social relations, the wage relationship, that gave rise to it. When this happens, the advancement of the productive forces themselves threaten to cause the collapse of the old system and to usher in social change. Now, I have discussed elsewhere how this happens by introducing Kawakami’s analogy of the balloon, so I will skip over the details here. But put simply, this conflict is the root origin of capitalist crisis, and it leaves two available routes to stem the crisis. One is to change social relations to provide another more adequate base for the developed productive forces. And the other is to purposely destroy or limit the productive forces themselves so that capital accumulation can continue unperturbed and without change to the underlying social relations. Needless to say, it is this second option that has been repeatedly mobilized up to this point.

Yet although Kawakami strikes upon one of the most important tenets of Marxist historical materialism in A Second Tale of Poverty, he subsequently fails to connect this to his earlier metaphor of the hearth in the first Tale of Poverty. This is unfortunate since it so nicely illustrates the conflict he is trying to explain. In other words, the hearth represents the productive forces and capabilities currently developed under capitalist social relations. However, restrictive social relations now come to act as a fetter on these productive forces, so that the full potential of the hearth, which here could represent, for example, various forms of technology or social labor etc., are never utilized. Instead, their total output remains only a small fire, like burning a single log or piece of coal, and is enough to keep just a few people warm rather than the entire populace.

Conclusion: The revolutionary meaning of the hearth

It is a basic Marxist tenet that the development of the productive forces eventually and periodically come into conflict with current capitalist social relations. Yet there remains, as I have written elsewhere, a major misunderstanding around this. Many on the Left see this formula and then assume that we need to continue developing the productive forces. In other words, it means that we need to keep building a bigger hearth. This is taken to further extremes with the accelerationists. Furthermore, proponents of this view assume that this development will inevitably result in changed social relations, will be largely absent of class conflict, and will occur sometime in the future.

But while the formula itself (conflict between PF vs. PR) is right, the standard interpretation of it is completely wrong. This is clearly observed by returning to Kawakami’s hearth as a metaphor for current productive forces. If we were to keep building a bigger and bigger hearth, do you think that everyone in society would eventually feel the warmth of its blaze? Of course, the answer must be no, because current capitalist productive relations act as an inhibitor on this. That is to say, they prevent the ever-present possibility and potential from becoming a reality. Put more bluntly, this means that we already have the ability to provide for everyone but we simply do not because capitalist social relations act like a restrictive force against this.

Furthermore, the radical implication of this is that we do not need to develop productive forces any further because they are already developed enough right now. Nor must we wait for some future date when we might possibly be able to provide for everyone because we already can.

Now things become much clearer. As I have stated elsewhere, the first step on the revolutionary path is to understand that the time for action is already ripe. We simply have to realize this and then formulate a plan of action. But the idea that we need to wait for future development is a chimera, and a dangerous one at that. This is because the notion perpetuates only the hazardous tendencies of capitalism (i.e. the cyclical crisis of capital expansion and destruction) without actually effecting fundamental social change. Furthermore, so-called “degrowth” strategies are equally mistaken because no benefit will come from destroying productive forces that have already been developed. Put differently, and to return to the hearth example, it would neither make sense to destroy the hearth itself nor to (re)make a smaller one. The real task, rather, is one of distribution, control, and the relations of production.

To conclude, the notion of inherent conflict between productive forces and social relations, the cornerstone of historical materialism, is indubitably correct. The mistake, however, is to assume that we still need to wait on the former. As Kawakami’s revolutionary example of the hearth in tandem with his writings on historical materialism indicate, we most definitely do not.

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