Historical and Dialectical Materialism

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Historical and dialectical materialism are doctrines in the philosophy of history and in metaphysics, respectively. They were developed within the Marxist tradition and refer to ideas found in the works of Karl Marx (18181883). However, neither term was used or endorsed by him explicitly, and the relationship between those doctrines and his writings has always been problematic. In recent years scholarship has clarified these questions considerably. While in the later twentieth century dialectical materialism all but faded away, historical materialism has had a remarkable revival in an "analytical" form.

Engels and Marxism

Marx's friend and sometime collaborator Friedrich Engels (18201895) coined the term materialist conception of history (later shortened to historical materialism). In a review (1859) of the first published version of Marx's critique of contemporary economic science, Engels strove to introduce Marx to the public as a powerful intellect and polymathic systematizer. In his short narrative, Engels simplified a selection of Marx's ideas and presented them in a doctrinal form. In Engels's account Marx was said to have a method coincident with both Hegelian philosophy and contemporary physical science. On the latter point Engels identified Marx with a mechanistic materialism of matter-in-motion, and on the former with "dialectical" thought that was said to mirror this ontological universal. Engels repeated those views much more famously in his Anti-Dühring (1878; excerpted as Socialism: Utopian and Scientific, 1880) and Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classical German Philosophy (1886).

Marxism as a comprehensive worldview, allegedly based on these twin pillars of materialism, was developed only after Engels's death. This doctrine was said to be applicable to human history and to unify philosophical with scientific thinking. It attracted numerous adherents in the intellectual world and drew millions into political movements. This process was abetted by even simpler versions, such as those by Georgi Plekhanov, V. I. Lenin, Nikolai Bukharin, Joseph Stalin, and Mao Zedong. Further millions learned this kind of Marxism from anti-Marxists pursuing an opposing politics. However, Marx and Engels were by no means completely known quantities because further works from both appeared posthumously during the twentieth century, and the complete works are not yet published in full. Engels's notebooks on "dialectics" were published in 1927 as Dialectics of Nature, and were said to account for nature in a way consistent with the work that he had left on history (summarized as historical materialism) and on thought itself (a vastly simplified reworking of Hegelian logic). Dialectical materialism (or "dialectics" or diamat ) was thus said by the 1930s to be the master doctrine of Marxism, summarized into three laws: transformation of quantity into quality, interpenetration of opposites, and negation of the negation. Overall it was a doctrine of "becoming" rather than "being" in a fixed and static sense, and one that emphasized development and progress through contradictions, whether in logical relations or in political struggles. Historical materialism was a specially interesting instance of this overall view, given its directly political character.

Economics, History, and Materialism

The political character of historical materialism derives from its narrative history of civilization, and the special role assigned to "relations of production" and technological change within it. Matter-in-motion does not figure in this account, except as an unacknowledged ontological presumption. Rather the materialism operative in the doctrine is transformed metaphorically into a selective focus on the human activities ordinarily termed "economic," that is, the production, consumption, distribution, and exchange of the "material" means of life. Linking those activities with materialism played on the material qualities of economic goods, associating them in turn with what is basic and indispensable for human life. This doctrine further suggests that the economic activities associated with goods of this kind are more real and therefore have more explanatory power than anything else, particularly "mere" ideas or thoughts. Religion, utopianism, "good intentions," morality, and moralizing were commonly cited by Marxists as "superstructural," as opposed to the material "foundation" or "basis" in economic activities regarded as "determining." The base/superstructure distinction is itself a metaphor derived from Marx's own preface to his A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (1859), the occasion for Engels's original systematizing review.

In the Preface Marx offers a periodization of history in successive "modes of production." These were evidently based on composites of technology together with legal and property systems: Asiatic, ancient, feudal, and modern. Since some of these were coincident with others in the world at large, the schema does not represent a strict diachronic account of history, nor is it the case that all transitions were necessarily progressive. What is clear is that Marx regarded modern commercial and capital-accumulating societies as distinctly different from previous economic and political systems because they were so much more productive of goods and services and so continuously innovative. Moreover they seemed to him to be a prelude to a comprehensive economic collapse and a political struggle between contending socioeconomic classes. From that would come a vastly different society, which he variously termed communism or socialism. Alternatively, he wrote (with Engels) in the Communist Manifesto (1848), the result would be a "common ruin."

Marx's Preface also contained certain passages that were commonly interpreted as causal claims relevant to the social and political changes marking a transition, for example, from feudalism to capitalism: "At a certain stage of their development the material productive forces of society come into contradiction with the already existing relations of production. From forms of development of the productive forces these relations turn into their fetters. Then an epoch of social revolution commences."

Technological innovations, and the introduction of "free" wage-labor and individualized "private" property, were the important elements through which this massive change was effected. Marx's conception was thus an ambitious attempt to recast history in terms of economic systems and economic changes (rather than reigns, religions, empires, etc.). It also aimed to identify the most crucial changes in modern life and politics with the economic changes around and through which revolutionary political forces gathered, ushering in constitutional, liberal democratic, and "bourgeois" forms of government. Whether these phrases fit the "dialectics" espoused by Engels, who late in life supplemented this with a notion of "determinism in the last instance," or whether they fit instead some non-dialectical explanatory model favored by other writers, has been a recurrent issue within and about the Marxist tradition.

Analytical Marxism and the Future

In the 1970s a group of self-styled "analytical Marxists" revitalized historical materialism by redefining it as a doctrine of historical explanation, but excising all aspects of "dialectics." The main historical theorist of the group was G. A. Cohen, who developed a reworded version of Marx's own views. He attempted to edit them stringently to fit what could be empirically demonstrated in history as true, and to relocate his views on forces and relations of production, base, and superstructure, within a functional understanding of explanation. Ultimately Cohen concluded that his attempt to rework Marx's conceptions and phrases in what he termed the most favorable light proved the theory a failure. In terms of contemporary historiography and philosophy, however, this had the effect of liberating Marx's ideas about history and progress from any indissoluble connection with an overarching "dialectical" doctrine.

Contemporary Hegelians are unlikely to be much interested in Engels's attempt to marry dialectical thought with matter-in-motion materialism, since the latter has little purchase in philosophy, history, or social science, and the former is very naive and banal, particularly compared with later idealist, phenomenological, and poststructural appropriations of Hegel. Historical materialism, however, has a brighter future, in so far as Marx's own enigmatic and ambiguous writings on history and politics will prove a source of continuing inspiration.

See also History, Idea of ; Marxism ; Socialism .



Engels, Friedrich. Anti-Dühring. In Karl Marx and Frederick Engels: Collected Works. Vol. 25. London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1987.

. Dialectics of Nature. In Karl Marx and Frederick Engels: Collected Works. Vol. 25. London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1987.

. Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classical German Philosophy. In Karl Marx and Frederick Engels: Collected Works. Vol. 26. London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1990.

. Review of Marx: A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy. In Karl Marx and Frederick Engels: Collected Works. Vol. 16. London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1980.

. Socialism: Utopian and Scientific. In Karl Marx and Frederick Engels: Collected Works. Vol. 24. London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1989.

Marx, Karl. Manifesto of the Communist Party (with Friedrich Engels). In Marx: Later Political Writings, edited and translated by Terrell Carver. Cambridge, U.K., and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996. Reprint, 2002.

. "Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy. " In Marx: Later Political Writings, edited and translated by Terrell Carver. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1996. Reprint, 2002.


Carver, Terrell. Marx's Social Theory. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1982.

Cohen, G. A. Karl Marx's Theory of History: A Defence. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Giddens, Anthony. A Contemporary Critique of Historical Materialism. 2 vols. Cambridge, U.K.: Polity, 1985.

Jordan, Z. A. The Evolution of Dialectical Materialism: A Philosophical and Sociological Analysis. New York: St. Martin's, 1967.

Kolakowski, Leszek. Main Currents of Marxism: Its Rise, Growth, and Dissolution. Translated by P. S. Falla. 3 vols. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1978.

Ruben, David-Hillel. Marxism and Materialism: A Study in Marxist Theory of Knowledge. Rev. ed. Brighton, U.K.: Harvester, 1979.

Wetter, Gustav A. Dialectical Materialism: A Historical and Systematic Survey of Philosophy in the Soviet Union. Translated by Peter Heath. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1958.

Wilde, Lawrence. Marx and Contradiction. Aldershot, U.K., and Brookfield, Vt.: Avebury, 1989.

Terrell Carver

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Historical and Dialectical Materialism