Historical materialism

Historical materialism is the methodological approach to the study of society, economics, and history which was first articulated by Karl Marx (1818-1883). Marx himself never used the term but referred to his approach as "the materialist conception of history". Historical materialism looks for the causes of developments and changes in human societies in the way in which humans collectively make the means to live, thus giving an emphasis, through economic analysis, to everything that co-exists with the economic base of society (e.g. social classes, political structures, ideologies). The fundamental proposition of historical materialism is premised in the following materialist conception:
It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness.|20px|20px|Karl Marx| Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy

Historical materialism as an explanatory system has been expanded and refined by thousands of academic studies since Marx’s death. Although Marx said he was only proposing a guideline to historical research, by the twentieth century the concept of historical materialism became a keystone of modern communist doctrine.

Key ideas

Historical materialism started from a fundamental underlying reality of human existence: that in order for human beings to survive and continue existence from generation to generation, it is necessary for them to produce and reproduce the material requirements of life. While this may seem obvious it was only with Marx that this was seen as foundation for understanding human society and historical development. Marx then extended this premise by asserting the importance of the fact that, in order to carry out production and exchange, people have to enter into very definite social relations, most fundamentally production relations.

However, production does not get carried out in the abstract, or by entering into arbitrary or random relations chosen at will. Human beings collectively work on nature but do not do the same work; there is a division of labor in which people not only do different jobs, but some people live from the work of others by owning the means of production. How this is accomplished depends on the type of society. Production is carried out through very definite relations between people. And, in turn, these production relations are determined by the level and character of the productive forces that are present at any given time in history. For Marx, productive forces refer to the means of production such as the tools, instruments, technology, land, raw materials, and human knowledge and abilities in terms of using these means of production.

Following Marx, writers who identify with historical materialism usually postulate that society has moved through a number of types or modes of production. That is, the character of the production relations is determined by the character of the productive forces; these could be the simple tools and instruments of early human existence, or the more developed machinery and technology of present age. The main modes of production Marx identified generally include primitive communism or tribal society (a prehistoric stage), ancient society, feudalism and capitalism. In each of these social stages, people interact with nature and produce their living in different ways. Any surplus from that production is allotted in different ways. Ancient society was based on a ruling class of slave owners and a class of slaves; feudalism based on landowners and serfs; and capitalism based on the capitalist class and the working class. The capitalist class privately owns the means of production, distribution and exchange (e.g. factories, mines, shops and banks) while the working class live by exchanging their socialized labour with the capital class for wages.

Marx identified the production relations of society (arising on the basis of given productive forces) as the economic base of society. He also explained that on the foundation of the economic base there arise certain political institutions, laws, customs, culture, etc., and ideas, ways of thinking, morality, etc.. These constituted the political/ideological superstructure of society. That all of this not only have as their origin in the economic base but also ultimately correspond to the character and development of that economic base, i.e. the way people come together in order to produce and reproduce the material requirements of life.

Historical materialism can be seen to rest on the following principles:

  • 1. The basis of human society is how humans work on nature to produce the means of subsistence.
  • 2. There is a division of labor into social classes (relations of production) based on property ownership where some people live from the labor of others.
  • 3. The system of class division is dependent on the mode of production.
  • 4. The mode of production is based on the level of the productive forces.
  • 5. Society moves from stage to stage when the dominant class is displaced by a new emerging class, by overthrowing the "political shell" that enforces the old relations of production no longer corresponding to the new productive forces. This takes place in the superstructure of society, the political arena in the form of revolution, whereby the underclass "liberates" the productive forces with new relations of production, and social relations, corresponding to it.

Marx’s clearest formulation of his "Materialist Conception of History" was in the 1859 Preface to his book A contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, whose relevant passage is reproduced here:

"In the social production of their existence, men inevitably enter Into definite relations, which are independent of their will, namely relations of production appropriate to a given stage in the development of their material forces of production. The totality of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which arises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of consciousness. The mode of production of material life conditions the general process of social, political and intellectual life. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness. At a certain stage of development, the material productive forces of society come into conflict with the existing relations of production or — this merely expresses the same thing in legal terms — with the property relations within the framework of which they have operated hitherto. From forms of development of the productive forces these relations turn into their fetters. Then begins an era of social revolution. The changes in the economic foundation lead sooner or later to the transformation of the whole immense superstructure. In studying such transformations it is always necessary to distinguish between the material transformation of the economic conditions of production, which can be determined with the precision of natural science, and the legal, political, religious, artistic or philosophic — in short, ideological forms in which men become conscious of this conflict and fight it out. Just as one does not judge an individual by what he thinks about himself, so one cannot judge such a period of transformation by its consciousness, but, on the contrary, this consciousness must be explained from the contradictions of material life, from the conflict existing between the social forces of production and the relations of production.

Perhaps the most influential recent defense of this passage, and of relevant Marxian and Marxist assertions is G.A. Cohen's Karl Marx's Theory of History: A Defence.

Key implications in the study and understanding of History

Many writers note that historical materialism represented a revolution in human thought, and a break from previous ways of understanding the underlying basis of change within various human societies. The theory shows what Marx called a "coherence" in human history, because of the fact that each generation inherits the productive forces developed previously and in turn further develops them before passing them on to the next generation. Further that this coherence increasingly involves more of humanity the more the productive forces develop and expand to bind people together in production and exchange.

This understanding counters the notion that human history is simply a series of accidents, either without any underlying cause or caused by supernatural beings or forces exerting their will on society. This posits that history is made as a result of struggle between different social classes rooted in the underlying economic base.

Marx's materialism

While the "historical" part of historical materialism does not cause a comprehension problem (i.e., it means the present is explained by analysing the past), the term materialism is more difficult. Historical materialism uses "materialism" to make three separate points, where the truth or falsehood of one point does not affect the others.

First there is metaphysical or philosophical materialism, in which matter-in-motion is primary and thought about matter-in-motion, or thought about abstractions, is secondary.

Second, there is belief that economic processes form the material base of society upon which institutions and ideas derive and rest. While the economy is the base structure of society, it does not follow that everything in history is determined by the economy, just as every feature of a house is not determined by its foundations.

Third, there is the idea that in the capitalist mode of production the behaviour of actors in the market economy (means of production, distribution and exchange, the relations of production) plays the major role in configuring society.

Historical materialism and the future

In his analysis of the movement of history, Marx predicted the breakdown of capitalism (as a result of class struggle and the falling rate of profit), and the establishment in time of a communist society in which class-based human conflict would be overcome. The means of production would be held in the common ownership and used for the common good.

Marxist beliefs about history

According to Marxist theorists, history develops in accordance with the following observations:

  1. Social progress is driven by progress in the material, productive forces a society has at its disposal (technology, labour, capital goods, etc.)
  2. Humans are inevitably involved in production relations (roughly speaking, economic relationships or institutions), which constitute our most decisive social relations.
  3. Production relations progress, with a degree of inevitability, following and corresponding to the development of the productive forces.
  4. Relations of production help determine the degree and types of the development of the forces of production. For example, capitalism tends to increase the rate at which the forces develop and stresses the accumulation of capital.
  5. Both productive forces and production relations progress independently of mankind's strategic intentions or will.
  6. The superstructure -- the cultural and institutional features of a society, its ideological materials -- is ultimately an expression of the mode of production (which combines both the forces and relations of production) on which the society is founded.
  7. Every type of state is a powerful institution of the ruling class; the state is an instrument which one class uses to secure its rule and enforce its preferred production relations (and its exploitation) onto society.
  8. State power is usually only transferred from one class to another by social and political upheaval.
  9. When a given style of production relations no longer supports further progress in the productive forces, either further progress is strangled, or 'revolution' must occur.
  10. The actual historical process is not predetermined but depends on the class struggle, especially the organization and consciousness of the working class.

This sketch is abstract - real historical understanding needed for developing political strategy and tactics must involve "concrete analysis of concrete conditions" (V.I. Lenin).

Alienation and freedom

Hunter-gatherer societies were structured so that the economic forces and the political forces were one and the same. The elements of force and relation operated together, harmoniously. In the feudal society, the political forces of the kings and nobility had their relations with the economic forces of the villages through serfdom. The serfs, although not free, were tied to both forces and, thus, not completely alienated. Capitalism, Marx argued, completely separates the economic and political forces, leaving them to have relations through a limiting government. He takes the state to be a sign of this separation - it exists to manage the massive conflicts of interest which arise between classes in all those societies based on property relations.

The history of historical materialism

Marx’s attachment to materialism arose from his doctoral research on the philosophy of Epicurus , as well as his reading of Adam Smith and other writers in classical political economy. Historical materialism builds upon the idea that became current in philosophy from the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries that the development of human society has moved through a series of stages, from hunting and gathering, through pastoralism and cultivation, to commercial society. .

Frederick Engels wrote: "I use 'historical materialism' to designate the view of the course of history, which seeks the ultimate causes and the great moving power of all important historic events in the economic development of society, in the changes in the modes of production and exchange, with the consequent division of society into distinct classes and the struggles of these classes."

Warnings against misuse

Marx himself took care to indicate that he was only proposing a guideline to historical research (Leitfaden or Auffassung), and was not providing any substantive "theory of history" or "grand philosophy of history", let alone a "master-key to history". Numerous times, he and Engels expressed irritation with dilettante academics who sought to knock up their skimpy historical knowledge as quickly as possible into some grand theoretical system that would explain "everything" about history. To their great annoyance, the materialist outlook was used as an excuse for not studying history.

In the 1872 Preface to the French edition of Das Kapital Vol. 1, Marx also emphasised that "There is no royal road to science, and only those who do not dread the fatiguing climb of its steep paths have a chance of gaining its luminous summits". Reaching a scientific understanding was hard work. Conscientious, painstaking research was required, instead of philosophical speculation and unwarranted, sweeping generalisations.

But having abandoned abstract philosophical speculation in his youth, Marx himself showed great reluctance during the rest of his life about offering any generalities or universal truths about human existence or human history. The first explicit and systematic summary of the materialist interpretation of history published, Anti-Dühring, was written by Frederick Engels.

One of the aims of Engels's polemic Herr Eugen Dühring's Revolution in Science (written with Marx's approval) was to ridicule the easy "world schematism" of philosophers, who invented the latest wisdom from behind their writing desks. Towards the end of his life, in 1877, Marx wrote a letter to editor of the Russian paper Otetchestvennye Zapisky, which significantly contained the following disclaimer:

"(...) If Russia is tending to become a capitalist nation after the example of the Western European countries, and during the last years she has been taking a lot of trouble in this direction - she will not succeed without having first transformed a good part of her peasants into proletarians; and after that, once taken to the bosom of the capitalist regime, she will experience its pitiless laws like other profane peoples. That is all. But that is not enough for my critic. He feels himself obliged to metamorphose my historical sketch of the genesis of capitalism in Western Europe into an historico-philosophic theory of the marche generale imposed by fate upon every people, whatever the historic circumstances in which it finds itself, in order that it may ultimately arrive at the form of economy which will ensure, together with the greatest expansion of the productive powers of social labour, the most complete development of man. But I beg his pardon. (He is both honouring and shaming me too much.)"

Marx goes on to illustrate how the same factors can in different historical contexts produce very different results, so that quick and easy generalisations are not really possible. To indicate how seriously Marx took research, it is interesting to note that when he died, his estate contained several cubic metres of Russian statistical publications (it was, as the old Marx observed, in Russia that his ideas gained most influence).

But what is true is that insofar Marx and Engels regarded historical processes as law-governed processes, the possible future directions of historical development were to a great extent limited and conditioned by what happened before. Retrospectively, historical processes could be understood to have happened by necessity in certain ways and not others, and to some extent at least, the most likely variants of the future could be specified on the basis of careful study of the known facts.

Towards the end of his life, Engels commented several times about the abuse of historical materialism. In a letter to Conrad Schmidt dated August 5 1890, he stated that "And if this man (i.e., Paul Barth) has not yet discovered that while the material mode of existence is the primum agens this does not preclude the ideological spheres from reacting upon it in their turn, though with a secondary effect, he cannot possibly have understood the subject he is writing about. (...) The materialist conception of history has a lot of [dangerous friends] nowadays, to whom it serves as an excuse for not studying history. Just as Marx used to say, commenting on the French "Marxists" of the late 70s: "All I know is that I am not a Marxist." (...) In general, the word "materialistic" serves many of the younger writers in Germany as a mere phrase with which anything and everything is labeled without further study, that is, they stick on this label and then consider the question disposed of. But our conception of history is above all a guide to study, not a lever for construction after the manner of the Hegelian. All history must be studied afresh, the conditions of existence of the different formations of society must be examined individually before the attempt is made to deduce them from the political, civil law, aesthetic, philosophic, religious, etc., views corresponding to them. Up to now but little has been done here because only a few people have got down to it seriously. In this field we can utilize heaps of help, it is immensely big, anyone who will work seriously can achieve much and distinguish himself. But instead of this too many of the younger Germans simply make use of the phrase historical materialism (and everything can be turned into a phrase) only in order to get their own relatively scanty historical knowledge — for economic history is still in its swaddling clothes! — constructed into a neat system as quickly as possible, and they then deem themselves something very tremendous. And after that a Barth can come along and attack the thing itself, which in his circle has indeed been degraded to a mere phrase."

Finally, in a letter to Franz Mehring, Frederick Engels dated 14 July 1893, Engels stated:

"...there is only one other point lacking, which, however, Marx and I always failed to stress enough in our writings and in regard to which we are all equally guilty. That is to say, we all laid, and were bound to lay, the main emphasis, in the first place, on the derivation of political, juridical and other ideological notions, and of actions arising through the medium of these notions, from basic economic facts. But in so doing we neglected the formal side — the ways and means by which these notions, etc., come about — for the sake of the content. This has given our adversaries a welcome opportunity for misunderstandings, of which Paul Barth is a striking example."

Historical materialism in Marxist thought

In 1880, about three years before Marx died, Friedrich Engels indicated that he accepted the usage of the term "historical materialism". Recalling the early days of the new interpretation of history, he stated:

In a foreword to his essay Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classical German Philosophy (1886), three years after Marx's death, Engels claimed confidently that "In the meantime, the Marxist world outlook has found representatives far beyond the boundaries of Germany and Europe and in all the literary languages of the world."

In his old age, Engels speculated about a new cosmology or ontology which would show the principles of dialectics to be universal features of reality. He also drafted an article on The part played by labour in the transition from Ape to Man, apparently a theory of anthropogenesis which would integrate the insights of Marx and Charles Darwin (This is discussed by Charles Woolfson in ''The Labour Theory of Culture: a Re-examination of Engels Theory of Human Origins).

At the very least, Marxism had now been born, and "historical materialism" had become a distinct philosophical doctrine, subsequently elaborated and systematised by intellectuals like Eduard Bernstein, Karl Kautsky, Georgi Plekhanov and Nikolai Bukharin. Even so, up to the 1930s many of Marx's earlier works were still unknown, and in reality most self-styled Marxists had not read beyond Capital Vol. 1. Isaac Deutscher provides an anecdote about the knowledge of Marx in that era:

"Capital is a tough nut to crack, opined Ignacy Daszyński, one of the best known socialist "people's tribunes" around the turn of the 20th century, but anyhow he had not read it. But, he said, Karl Kautsky had read it, and written a popular summary of the first volume. He hadn't read this either, but Kazimierz Kelles-Krauz, the party theoretician, had read Kautsky's pamphlet and summarised it. He also had not read Kelles-Krauz's text, but the financial expert of the party, Hermann Diamand, had read it and had told him, i.e. Daszynski, everything about it".

After Lenin's death in 1924, Marxism was transformed into Marxism-Leninism and from there to Maoism or Marxism-Leninism-Mao Zedong Thought in China which some regard as the "true doctrine" and others as a "state religion".

In the early years of the 20th century, historical materialism was often treated by socialist writers as interchangeable with dialectical materialism, a formulation never used by Friedrich Engels however. According to many Marxists influenced by Soviet Marxism, historical materialism is a specifically sociological method, while dialectical materialism refers to a more general, abstract, philosophy. The Soviet orthodox Marxist tradition, influential for half a century, based itself on Joseph Stalin's pamphlet Dialectical and Historical materialism and on textbooks issued by the "Institute of Marxism-Leninism of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union".

Recent versions of historical materialism

Several scholars have argued that historical materialism ought to be revised in the light of modern scientific knowledge. Jürgen Habermas believes historical materialism "needs revision in many respects", especially because it has ignored the significance of communicative action. Leszek Nowak argues explicitly for a post-Marxist historical materialism.

Göran Therborn has argued that the method of historical materialism should be applied to historical materialism as intellectual tradition, and to the history of Marxism itself.

In the early 1980s Paul Hirst and Barry Hindess elaborated a structural Marxism interpretation of historical materialism.

Regulation theory, especially in the work of Michel Aglietta draws extensively on historical materialism.

Brill publishers of Leyden publish a journal called Historical Materialism which explores different strands of theory in the tradition of Marx, Engels and the Western Marxists.


Philosopher of science Karl Popper, in his Conjectures and Refutations, critiqued such claims of the explanatory power or valid application of historical materialism by arguing that it could explain or explain away any fact brought before it, making it unfalsifiable.

Underlying the dispute among historians are the different assumptions made about the definition or concept of "history" and "historiography". Different historians take a different view of what it is all about, and what the possibilities of historical and social scientific knowledge are.

Historians also differ greatly about questions such as (1) the kinds of generalisations which can be validly made about history, (2) about the kinds of causal connections which can validly be postulated in history, and (3) about the validity of different kinds of explanation of historical development.

It has been argued that the theoretical framework of Sociobiology explains certain facts better than does Historical Materialism.


Further reading

  • Ronald L. Meek, Social Science and the Ignoble Savage, Cambridge U.P. Cambridge studies in the history and theory of politics, 1976
  • John Bellamy Foster, Marx's Ecology: Materialism and Nature, London, New York: Monthly Review, 1999
  • Franz Mehring, On Historical Materialism (classic statement by a contemporary and friend of Marx & Engels)
  • Z.A. Jordan, The Origins of Dialectical Materialism (good survey)
  • Gustav A. Wetter, Dialectical Materialism: a Historical and Systematic Survey of Philosophy in the Soviet Union. (alternative survey)
  • Loren R. Graham, Science Philosophy and Human Behavior in the Soviet Union. (sympathetically-critical of dialectical materialism)
  • George Novack, Understanding History: Marxist Essays (Trotskyist interpretations of problems of history)
  • H. B. Acton, The Illusion of the Epoch. (critical account which focusses on incoherencies in the thought of Marx, Engels and Lenin)
  • Gerald Cohen, Karl Marx's Theory of History: A Defence. (influential analytical Marxist interpretation)
  • Helmut Fleischer, Marxism and History. (good reply to false interpretations of Marx's view of history)
  • E.P. Thompson, The Poverty of Theory. (polemic which ridicules theorists of history who do not actually study history)
  • Karl Marx (Arguments of the Philiosophers series), Routledge 2004 by Allen W Wood - delves into misinterpretations of Marx including the substitution of "Historical materialism" by Lenin/Engels's concept of Dialectical Materialism
  • William H. Shaw, Marx's theory of history (short survey)
  • Johan Witt-Hansen, Historical Materialism: The Method, The Theories. (sees historical materialism as a methodology, and Das Kapital as an application of the method)
  • Gordon V. Childe, Man Makes Himself (free interpretation of Marx's idea)
  • Leszek Nowak, Property and Power. Towards a non-Marxian Historical Materialism. (attempt to develop a post-Stalinist interpretation of Marx's project)
  • Joseph Stalin, Historical and Dialectical Materialism. (classic statement of Stalinist doctrine)
  • Mao Zedong, Four Essays on Philosophy. (standard Maoist reading of Marx's materialism)
  • Goran Therborn, Science, Class and Society (critical survey of the relationship between sociology and historical materialism)
  • Ernest Mandel, Introduction to Marxism. (emphasizes understanding the roots of class society and the state)
  • Ernest Mandel, The Place of Marxism in History (modelled on Lenin's "Three components of Marxism" but with an interesting section on the reception and diffusion of Marxism in the world)
  • Hal Draper, Karl Marx's Theory of Revolution (4 volumes). (captures the full subtlety of Marx's thought, but at length)
  • Franz Jakubowski, Ideology and superstructure. (attempts to provide an alternative to schematic interpretations of historical materialism)
  • Wal Suchting, Marx: An Introduction. (good short introduction)
  • Chris Harman, A People's History of the World (Marxist view of history according to a leader of the International Socialist Tendency)
  • Jürgen Habermas, Communication and the Evolution of Society. (argues historical materialism must be revised to include communicative action)
  • Anton Pannekoek, Materialism And Historical Materialism

See also

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