Historical Materialism

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The materialist conception of history was put forward by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels and subsequently adopted by their followers and incorporated in the doctrine of Marxism-Leninism. According to "historical materialism," the structure of society and its historical development are determined by "the material conditions of life" or "the mode of production of the material means of existence." These last two phrases are quoted from Marx's preface to his Critique of Political Economy (1859), in which he gave a brief presentation of the view. Marx and Engels had formulated it, however, in their The German Ideology, written in 18451846 but not published until 1932. Marx himself gave a brief account in his Poverty of Philosophy (1847) and more concisely perhaps in a letter to Paul Annenkov, written in December 1846, while Marx was working on the Poverty of Philosophy. A vigorous sketch is given in the Communist Manifesto of 1848. Marx's chief work, Capital (the first volume of which was published by Marx in 1867 and the other two by Engels after Marx's death) is an application of the historical-materialist view to the capitalist form of society.

Origin of the Theory

Marx wrote in the preface to the first edition of Capital that he conceived "the development of the economic structure of society to be a natural process." This is the main force of the adjective materialist in the phrase "materialist conception of history." Marx used the word materialist to make a contrast with what is obviously or implicitly supernatural, metaphysical, or speculative. He believed that a general science of human society could be worked out only by describing and explaining society in empirical terms. He admired those English and French writers who, by writing "histories of civil society, of commerce and industry," gave the writing of history "a materialist basis" (The German Ideology, p. 16). He and Engels regarded industry and commerce as "material" by contrast with religion and morals, and even by contrast with politics and law. Thus the materialist conception of history is intended to be a naturalistic, empirical, scientific account and explanation of historical events, which takes industrial and economic factors as basic. It would seem that nothing could be more consonant with scientific common sense, nothing less metaphysical or speculative.

In some of Marx's writings of an earlier date than The German Ideology, however, it becomes evident that the later, would-be scientific view arose out of a metaphysical prototype, a sort of "Ur-Marxismus," which continued to exert an influence on all of Marx's systematic work. Prior to his collaboration with Engels, which began in 1844, Marx had justified his radical views by philosophical and moral, rather than economic, considerations. In 1844, however, Engels encouraged Marx to make an intensive study of economics, which resulted in an uncompleted and unpublished critique of political economy combined with a critique of the Hegelian philosophy. These so-called Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844, or "Paris manuscripts," are the first draft of the comprehensive treatise that Marx was engaged in writing all his life, and of which The German Ideology, the not published until 1953 Grundrisse der Kritik der politischen Ökonomie (Outline of a Critique of Political Economy; 18571858), the Critique of Political Economy itself (1859), and Capital are successive, but incomplete stages.

While writing the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts, then, Marx was bringing his newly acquired economic knowledge to bear upon views he had reached in criticizing certain of G. W. F. Hegel's writings. Marx had noticed how Hegel described the development of the human mind as a process of externalizing its ideas in order to transform the material world and to "humanize" it. According to Hegel, the labor of men's hands was not, in general, an obstacle to human development but, rather, the very process by which it took place. Hegel recognized, of course, that when labor was greatly subdivided, some jobs became trivial and even degrading. But this, he thought, made possible, through the differentiation of society into orders or classes, the production of works of mind that would have been beyond the power of less differentiated societies. The word that Hegel had used for the process of externalizing ideas into the natural world was alienation (Entäusserung ). Now Marx thought that in the capitalist social order the labor of individual men did not serve to develop the human mind and to humanize the natural world. Labor had become the production of commodities for sale and was itself a commodity bought and sold in the market, so that it served not to unfold the capacities of the laborer but to subject him to impersonal market forces over which he had no control. A worker's labor, and hence he himself, were alienated in the sense of being sold to someone else. His work resulted in the creation of a social system whose operations were hidden from him. The wage system perverted his labor so that the natural world was not transformed by that labor into a manifestation of human power but was rendered strange and even hostile to the workers.

Estrangement (Entfremdung ) was another word used by Hegel that Marx took over in this context. A truly human existence would be possible only when money and private property, and hence wages too, had been abolished through the establishment of a communist social order. A communist society, Marx wrote, is "the solution to the riddle of history."

It is important to notice that in these early writings Marx was criticizing capitalism in metaphysical and moral terms. But for the perverting influence of capitalism, human labor would be what it ought to be, the self-development of the individual worker. It should be noted, too, that Marx, like Hegel, thought that the human mind could develop its powers only by working on, and transforming, the natural world. This conception is a metaphysical predecessor of the view that the "mode of production of the material means of existence" is what determines the development of society. Again, the view that capitalism distorts the efforts of the worker and is hence unnatural and impermanent is the metaphysical predecessor of the view that capitalism contains the seeds of its own destruction. Finally, the idea that communism would solve the riddle of history by releasing men from their own unwilled, unwanted productions is the metaphysical predecessor of the planned but noncoercive communism that Marx afterward believed must result from the dissolution of capitalism.

Outline of the Theory

Historical materialism consists, in the first place, of a sociological analysis thought to be applicable to all but the most primitive human societies. On the basis of this analysis an account is given of the rise and fall of various social systems. Marx's main work, of course, was his analysis of capitalismindeed, the very use of the word capitalism for a form of society suggests that its characteristics depend upon its economy. Finally, on the basis of the sociological analysis, the prediction is made that capitalism will collapse and ultimately be succeeded by a communist society, in which there will be no wages, no money, no class distinctions, and no state.

Marx, who was greatly interested in the social structure of primitive societies, would doubtless have agreed with Engels's description, in his Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State (1884), of the most primitive societies as being without private property or political institutions. Within the more developed societies, with which he was principally concerned, Marx distinguished several elements: (1) "the productive forces," which consist of the tools, skills, and techniques by which men obtain the wherewithal for life; (2) "the relations of production," which are the ways in which the producers are related to one another in production and which form "the economic structure of society"; (3) the political and legal institutions of the society; and (4) the ideas, habits of thought, ideals, and systems of justification, in terms of which the members of the society think of themselves and of their relations to one another. Marx thought that these ideas were distorted pictures of, and relatively ineffective agents in, the social reality, and he therefore referred to them as "ideologies." Marx gave various lists of ideologies that, when combined, yield the following: religion, theology, speculative philosophy or metaphysics, philosophy, morality, ethics, art, and "political ideology," such as contrasting views on democracy, aristocracy, and the struggle for the franchise.

analysis of social structure

Marx called the productive forces and the relations of production together "the material conditions of life." In the preface to the Critique of Political Economy he wrote that they are "the real basis on which a juridical and political superstructure arises and to which definite forms of social consciousness correspond." The primary social activity is production, which always involves relations with other men, both in the work itself and in the distribution of the product. It is upon these relationships that the political and legal superstructure and the ideological superstructure are formed. To understand the religion, morality, art, or philosophy of a society, and to understand its politics and law, it is necessary to ascertain the nature of its productive forces and economic structure. Whereas in the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts Marx had deplored the way in which men's labor enslaves them to the production of commodities, in the Critique of Political Economy he explained or sought to explain, how the productive forces determine certain social structures into which men are forced to fit their activities. Thus Marx laid great stress upon the fact that the structure of society is something that individuals find waiting for them and are powerless to alter.

Division of labor

According to Marx, a vitally important connection between the productive forces and the productive relationships is the nature of the division of labor that has been achieved and the degree to which it has been developed. In The German Ideology, Marx and Engels wrote that "division of labor and private property are, moreover, identical expressions." This probably means that when products are made by specialists who do not themselves use them, then they must be exchanged by, or sold to, those who do and so must be owned by the original maker. An associated idea is that the division of labor fosters the production of goods for sale, thus encouraging the production of commodities and enhancing the power of money. Marx and Engels did not think, however, that property was all of one type, and in The German Ideology they distinguished four main types that play an important role in their theory of history and society: tribal property, which is characteristic of a low level of the division of labor; state property, such as the roads, public buildings, and stores of grain under the ancient forms of despotism; feudal property, consisting of lands and services controlled by military landowners whose needs are supplied by serfs; and capital, which rests on the separation between production and commerce and results in the employment of men who work for wages and produce goods that are sold in wider and wider markets to make profits for the capitalist.

Property and power

The next step in the Marxian analysis is the claim that the main power or influence in a society belongs to those who own and control the main type of property in it. In tribal society the property is jointly owned; hence power is diffused throughout the society and there is no dominant class. The other types of property involve a distinction between those who control property and those who do not. Those who control a predominant type of property are the predominant power in society and are able to make arrangements benefiting themselves at the expense of the rest of the population. In feudal society, for example, the feudal lords are the ruling class. They are able to get what they want from the serfs who work for them, and even from rich merchants, whose type of wealth is subordinated to the landed interests. The interests of serf, merchant, and lord are not the same; indeed, they necessarily conflict at certain points. But while the productive forces and type of property are predominantly feudal, the feudal lords are able to settle these conflicts in their own favor. While the feudal system operates, any frictions and tensions are dealt with within its terms. The political movements in a feudal society express, or "reflect," these conflicts of interest between classes.

Economics, politics, and culture

If the political activities of men are regarded as merely phenomenal in comparison to their productive and economic activities, then their moral beliefs, religious and artistic achievements, and philosophical theories must be regarded as even less real, as epiphenomenal. The writers of books on political philosophy, for example, are taking part, but in a rarefied or ghostly form, in the phenomenal political activities and the real industrial ones. The predominant mode of the material conditions of life will have the cultural forms appropriate to it, in which the religion, art, and philosophy are what they are because of the nature of the technology and economy. The controversies between "schools" of philosophy, the movements for the reform and renovation of religious belief, the revolutions of morality, and even changes in artistic style, are merely the shadows cast by the "real" business of human living, which is production and exchange.

historical epochs

Thus far an outline has been given of what, in Auguste Comte's language, might be called "the social statics" of historical materialism. It is now necessary to describe "the social dynamics" of the view: its account of historical change and development. In outline, this is the assertion that, just as "the material conditions of life" are fundamental in the structure of a society, important changes in the material conditions of life sooner or later bring with them important changes in the legal and political superstructure and in the ideological superstructure. It is also held that important changes in the superstructures can be brought about only by changes in the basis, that politics, law, and ideology are incapable in themselves of any fundamental influence on social development. All important social changes, it is held, must originate in productive activities and the organizations in which they take place. This is the central element of the theory of historical materialism.

This theory is also a theory of historical epochs. The original state of primitive communism was succeeded, according to the Marxist view, by the ancient forms of slave-owning society; these were succeeded by feudalism, and feudalism by capitalism. According to The Origin of the Family, the transition from primitive communism to the next phase was due to the introduction of private property. It is clear, of course, that the introduction of private property would bring with it very important social changes, but how is private property itself introduced? We have already seen that one idea is that it is brought about by the division of labor. In The Origin of the Family Engels also suggested that it was furthered by changes in the structure of the family and by the discovery of iron and bronze. The former would hardly be a technological invention, although the latter was. Engels's doubts on the matter may be seen from the fact that when he discussed the question of how the common ownership of herds was succeeded by private ownership he vaguely said that "the herds drifted into the hands of private individuals." However private property is held to have arisen, the division of labor brought with it the transformation of goods into commodities and their sale for money.

The next epoch after the period of primitive communism was that of ancient slave society. Marx and Engels held that it was the labor of slaves that made possible the art and science of ancient Greece and the cities, commerce, and bureaucracy of ancient Rome. The slave system broke down largely because of its wastefulness and was replaced by the feudal system, in which features borrowed from the social system of the barbarian invaders were utilized. The basis of the feudal system was the ownership of land by feudal lords, whose dependents had to render them services of various kinds.

The feudal system was fundamentally an agricultural society, but in the towns some men managed to become wealthy by means of trade and by organizing the production of goods in large workshops where they employed considerable numbers of men for wages. These bourgeois, as they were called, were the forerunners of the capitalist system. They attracted men from the countryside to work for them in producing goods sold in widely expanding markets. In this and other ways they acted in opposition to the predominant feudal arrangements that confined serfs to the areas of their birth. Finding themselves hampered by the feudal laws, the bourgeois endeavored to change them and thus entered upon a political struggle with the aristocracy. They justified their actions by appealing to a new ideology according to which aristocratic distinctions based on family connections, and control over the movements of men and over trade, were in opposition to the "natural" order of individual freedom and equality.

As the new methods of production and the new modes of life that went with them were extended, a new order of society was gradually formed within the old. New types of production and trade had been adopted that could come to fruition only if the laws and customs that hampered them were abolished. When, therefore, the bourgeoisie were strong enough, they took political action to achieve this and gained political power by a series of revolutions, of which the French Revolution of 1789 was the culmination. From being a progressive class they became the ruling class, and their landowning opponents declined from being the ruling class into being a reactionary class, which, however, could not return society to its earlier state, because the new productive forces were superior to the old ones.

This interpretation of the change from feudalism to capitalism illustrates the Marxist analysis of political revolutions. Marx and Engels regarded such revolutions as the means by which a progressive class, that is, the class that controls some newly emerging productive force, brings about those changes in the productive relationships that enable the new productive forces to become effective. Feudal institutions and, in particular, feudal laws of property would have stifled the development of the capitalist modes of production. By their seizure of political power, the bourgeoisie made laws that enabled capitalism to become a going and growing concern.

social prediction

Historical materialism makes two main predictions. The first is that the capitalist system will break down as a result of its internal contradictions. The second is that, after a period of proletarian dictatorship, it will be succeeded by a communist society.

Breakdown of capitalism

In Capital, Marx was largely concerned with an analysis of the capitalist order, but he also briefly considered the future of capitalism. He held that the capitalist economy was so far out of human control that economic crises were inevitable features of it. He held, too, that in competing with one another to sell their goods at a profit the capitalists would find it necessary to push down the wages of their employees to the lowest level consistent with their being able to produce at all. Furthermore, the advantages of large-scale production would be such that the larger capitalists would drive their weaker rivals out of business and into the ranks of the proletariat. As a few capitalists became richer, the mass of workers would become poorer. At the same time the growth of scientific knowledge would enable the larger capitalist concerns to improve their technology, so that nature would be brought under human control as never before. Thus, the subdivision of labor is increased, and great numbers of men, organized in manifold ways, cooperate, often in ways unknown to one another, in the manufacture of a single article.

Although production is thus highly socialized, ownership of the means of production and of the commodities produced is still an individual matter. Engels expressed this by saying that there is a contradiction between capitalist appropriation and social production that must result in the elimination of the former. The conditions of life imposed on workers in capitalist production teach them how to cooperate against their employers. The capitalist mode of ownership stands in the way of the fullest development of planned production. "The centralization of the means of production and the socialization of labor reach a point where they prove incompatible with their capitalist husk. This bursts asunder. The knell of capitalist property sounds. The expropriators are expropriated" (Capital, Vol. I, Ch. 24).

Arrival of communism

Just as the bourgeoisie found it necessary to achieve control of the state in order to bring the feudal system to an end, so the proletariat will find it necessary to wrest the state from capitalist control in order to bring capitalism to an end. Thus while the proletariat, or their spokesmen, are criticizing the bourgeoisie, they constitute the rising, progressive class, and when they have overcome the bourgeoisie, they will become the ruling class. But once the bourgeoisie are ousted, there will be no other class for the proletariat to oppose. The proletariat will be the only class, or rather, the class that will bring class divisions to an end. In the absence of class conflicts, politics and the state will become redundant, and a social order will arise in which production will be carried out in accordance with plans devised without coercion for the good of all. According to The German Ideology, the outcome will be "the control and conscious mastery of those powers which have till now overawed and governed men as powers completely alien to them." Twenty years later Marx wrote of "a process carried on by a free association of producers, under their conscious and purposive control," adding: "For this, however, an indispensable requisite is that there should exist a specific material groundwork (or a series of material conditions of existence) which can only come into being as the spontaneous outcome of a long and painful process of evolution" (Capital, Vol. I, Ch. 1).

Problems of Interpretation

In the course of the many discussions of historical materialism since Marx's day, among Marxists as well as between Marxists and their critics, various problems of interpretation have come to light. Questions arise about the nature and status of the theory itself. There is the question whether the theory is to be interpreted as asserting the primacy of technology both in the structure of society and in the promotion of social change or whether the prime element is wider in scope and is intended to embrace economic as well as technological relationships. A third problem concerns the connection or lack of connection between historical materialism as a value-free sociological theory and as an element in the socialist outlook and an ethical justification of socialist expectations.

nature and status of the theory

Is historical materialism the statement of an established sociological or historical law? Is it an extremely wide-ranging and complex hypothesis liable to refutation as research advances? Or is it, as some have suggested, not so much a hypothesis as a method, or recipe, or set of hints for framing one? The Marxist-Leninist tradition of the Russian and Chinese Communist parties undoubtedly adopted the view that it is an established law, as reference to Marxist-Leninist textbooks shows. It is sometimes said that Marx himself held the methodological view about his own theory. This is supported by a phrase in the preamble to his famous account of historical materialism in the preface to the Critique of Political Economy : "The general conclusion I arrived atand once reached it served as the guiding thread in my studies." But in this passage Marx is describing how he came to adopt the view, so that the expression "guiding thread" relates to the use he made of the idea in its early stages rather than to the theory once it was established. It seems fair to say that historical materialism was a view that Marx was constantly trying to support but never to refute. Furthermore, as will be shown, the theory contains features suggesting that Marx held it to be a necessary truth. V. I. Lenin, in an early pamphlet titled What the "Friends of the People" Are (1894), said that historical materialism was "no longer an hypothesis, but a scientifically proven proposition," but he admitted at least the possibility of its being upset. In Materialism and Empirio-Criticism (1909), however, he considered that historical materialism was a consequence of dialectical materialism and thus to be proved in quite a different way.

the prime social determinant

Was the prime social determinant, in Marx's view, the productive forces, or was it the whole composed by the productive forces and the productive relationships? Was it, that is, technology alone, or technology plus economy? The Marxist-Leninist tradition favors the first interpretation, and there are many passages in Marx's writings to support it. For example, Marx wrote in The Poverty of Philosophy : "In acquiring new productive forces men change their mode of production, and in changing their mode of production, their manner of gaining a living, they change all their social relations. The windmill gives you society with the feudal lord; the steam mill, society with the industrial capitalist."

A similar point of view is indicated in the Communist Manifesto, in which Marx wrote: "The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionizing the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society." In a footnote to Chapter 13 of Volume I of Capital he said that "the only materialist method" is to show how technology "uncovers man's active dealings with nature, the direct productive process of his life, and, at the same time, of his social relationships (seiner gesellschaftlichen Lebensverhältnisse ) and the mental conceptions that arise from them." In the same passage he talked about those who uncritically abstract from "this material basis," and he advocated tracing the development of "the celestial forms" of these real relationships (wirklichen Lebensverhältnisse ) from the real relationships themselves. It is clear that Marx was here arguing that religious ideology should be explained in terms of real social relationships and that these, in their turn, should be explained by reference to technology. But the language he used does not suggest that he was making sharp distinctions. Indeed, what he criticized is the attempt to consider other forms of life in abstraction from technology, so that he could be regarded as upholding what Benedetto Croce in 1896 called the "realistic view of history."

Certainly Marx said a number of things that contradict a merely technological theory of history. Perhaps the most compelling evidence for the view that Marx regarded the basic social determinant as comprising more than technology is his account in Capital of the rise of modern capitalism. According to Marx, modern capitalism began with the setting up of large workshops in which men worked for wages in producing goods that the capitalist employer sold for profit. These workshops or factories were new forms of organization, not new methods of production. If they are to be regarded as productive forces, then organization is a productive force. How far is this to be taken? These early capitalists were trying to supply a wider market than had hitherto been possible, and thus considerations of demand and of economic efficiency enter into the notion of a productive force. This notion, indeed, can be extended to include commerce, piracy, and war, and Marx and Engels did so in the early pages of The German Ideology. But if commerce is a productive force, then the distinction between productive forces and productive relations is blurred, if not abolished altogether. And if war is a productive force, then it would seem that politics is also a productive force, and in this way the distinction between basis and superstructure disappears.

That Marx and Engels were not clear about all this may be seen in two letters from Marx to Engels on the subject of armies and armaments. In a letter to Engels dated September 25, 1857, Marx wrote: "The history of the army brings out more clearly than anything else the correctness of our view about the connection of the productive forces and social relations. The army is particularly important for economic development, e.g. wage payments first fully developed in the army among the ancients. Thus the peculium castrense was among the Romans the first legal form in which the chattels of those who were not fathers of families were recognized." In a letter dated July 7, 1866, Marx referred to the new types of weapons that the manufacturers were trying to sell to Louis Napoleon and commented: "Where does our theory about the determination of the organization of labor by the means of production get more brilliant support than from the human slaughter industry?"

In the first of these letters the idea is that the waging and winning of war depend upon the refinements of armament manufacture, which, in their turn, depend upon the level of technology achieved in the society. Here the armaments industry seems to be regarded as a means of production, and the waging of war as the organization of labor. It should be noted, too, that in the first letter the distinction is between productive forces and social relations, where the social relations referred to are working for wages and owning chattels. In the second letter, however, the distinction is between the means of production and the organization of labor. It is possible that by "productive forces" and "means of production" Marx meant much the same thing, but "social relations" is clearly a much wider notion than "organization of labor." In the light of such examples, it can hardly be denied that Marx had no precise view of the theory that he was putting forward.

the place of values in the theory

The third problem of interpretation concerns the connection between historical materialism as an alleged scientific theory and the advocacy of an eventual classless society apparently involved in it. On the one hand, there is the claim that historical materialism is scientifically established and explains how things are and predicts what they will be. On the other hand, there is the promise that out of the contradictions of capitalism a superior form of society will arise in which there will be no more coercion or exploitation. By a happy conjunction a moral millennium is held to be predictable on scientific grounds. As was said at the beginning of this entry, the doctrine of historical materialism arose out of an earlier metaphysicomoral view in which scientific objectivity played no part. Some critics therefore take the view that Marx was at the same time a moralist and a sociologist and that he never succeeded in reconciling these roles. Others go still further and suggest that the scientific works are nothing but a vehicle for his moral aims.

Defenders of Marx argue that he rightly refused to make the distinction between fact and value that is implicit in the claim that social science should be "value-free." They argue that Marx considered that theory and practice are inextricably mingled, so that it is impossible to understand the working of social processes without at the same time obtaining control over them. Marx very probably believed that capitalist society develops in ways that are not intended by anyone and that it would be succeeded by a form of society in which men's aims and intentions would find scope for fulfillment. Thus, in his view, the processes of capitalist society can be observed and explained as if they were the workings of some alien, nonhuman entity in which individuals are caught up as in some monstrous mechanism. Nevertheless, he also held that the machine would break down and be destroyed and that the activities of men, thus released, would be explicable not in impersonal terms but in terms of their collective aims.

The Validity of Historical Materialism

It has already been pointed out that historical materialism has been supported on grounds of very different sorts. It has been regarded as a method of investigating the facts of history, as an established historical hypothesis of great generality, and as a deduction from materialism, or, more specifically, from dialectical materialism. It has also been said that Marx regarded his view as more than a method and that if he regarded it as a hypothesis, he hardly considered the possibility of its being upset. We shall consider the various reasons put forward in its support, so that we can get a clearer understanding of the theory.

deduction from dialectical materialism

The view that historical materialism is a deduction from dialectical materialism was apparently not put forward by Marx himself. Dialectical materialism may be implicit in Marx's writings but it is not explicit there, and when Marx wrote of materialism, he frequently meant nothing but a scientific, this-worldly view of things. In the Marxist-Leninist tradition, however, the argument has been used that if dialectical materialism is true, then historical materialism is true also. Thus in his History of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (1938) Joseph Stalin wrote: "Further, if nature, being, the material world, is primary, and mind, thought, is secondary, derivative: if the material world represents objective reality, existing independently of the mind of men, while the mind is a reflection of this objective reality, it follows that the material life of society, its being, is also primary, and its spiritual life is secondary, derivative, and that the material life of society is an objective reality existing independently of the will of man, while the spiritual life of society is a reflection of this objective reality, a reflection of being."

A somewhat similar argument is to be found in section 2 of Chapter 6 of Lenin's Materialism and Empirio-Criticism (English translation, Moscow, 1939, p. 115). Both Lenin and Stalin supported this view by reference to Marx's statement in the Critique of Political Economy that "it is not the consciousness of men that determines their being but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness." But Marx, in this passage, was not referring to materialism as a philosophy of nature, but to the ideologies that are formed in specific social circumstances. Furthermore, it does not follow from the fact (if fact it be) that there is nothing but matter and its forms of being, that the productive and economic activities of man provide the key to his politics, law, religion, philosophy, art, and morals. The adjective material does not have the same meaning in Marx's usage as it has when used in the phrase "material world" or "material object." The general acceptance of materialism does not entail any particular view about which features of human life can be used to provide an explanation for the rest.

It might be argued, of course, that if materialism is true, all social facts are reducible to physical facts or that all social laws are reducible to laws of physics. Marx and Engels, however, did not believe this. In an interesting letter, one of the last to pass between them, Engels maintained that "labor" is a social term that cannot be reduced to "work" in its physical or mechanical sense.

historical materialism as obviously true

It is an exaggeration to say, as some have, that Marx gave no reasons at all for the doctrine of historical materialism. It is clear, however, that both he and Engels regarded it as obviously true. Thus, in the Communist Manifesto occurs the following question: "Does it require deep intuition to comprehend that man's ideas, views and conceptions, in one word, man's consciousness, changes with every change in the conditions of his material existence, in his social relations and in his social life?" Engels, in his speech at the graveside of Marx, referred to Marx's "discovery" as the discovery of "a simple fact." This "simple fact" is clearly neither a deduction from dialectical materialism nor a complex hypothesis based on a mass of historical information. It would seem to be the fact that men could not engage in politics, religion, philosophy, and art unless they were alive, with the wherewithal to do so. No one could reasonably deny this, but is every reasonable man therefore an implicit upholder of historical materialism? For this to be so, it would be necessary to show that the theory that the material conditions of life must provide the explanation for all other human activities is deducible from the fact that men must get the wherewithal to live in order to be in a position to engage in political, religious, philosophical, and artistic pursuits. But from the fact that obtaining the wherewithal to live is a sine qua non of politics, religion, and philosophy, it does not follow that these latter activities can be explained only in terms of the former. It seems that a mistake has been made not unlike the failure to distinguish between necessary and sufficient conditions. From the fact that men could not engage in these activities unless they kept themselves alive, it does not follow that how they keep themselves alive explains or "determines" these activities. Engels's statement could be denied only by someone who held that politics, religion, and philosophy were the pursuits of disembodied spirits. His simple fact is too simple to be of any theoretical value.

argument from the essence of man

Marx himself had another argument suggesting that there is something obvious in the view that the productive forces are the determining factors in human society and human history. He wrote in Capital, Volume I, that toolmaking is what distinguishes man from other animals. He and Engels had argued in a similar way in The German Ideology that men "begin to distinguish themselves from animals as soon as they begin to produce their means of subsistence." Of course, beavers and bees do this too, but their hives and dams (Marx and Engels would probably have argued) are never improved upon and never serve as the starting points for other devices. Whatever the difference, Marx and Engels held that what is peculiar to human beings is that they make (and presumably improve) their means of life and that, therefore, this fact must be the key fact in sustaining human society and in explaining the course of human history as distinct from natural history.

This is to adopt an Aristotelian method of explanation in terms of essences. What men do, it is supposed, depends upon what men essentially are. It is assumed that there is some central feature common to all human beings and to them alone upon which all their other specifically human activities depend and in terms of which they must be explained. To this it may be objected, in the first place, that human beings are not the sort of beings to which essences may be attributed. Beings with essences are those that can be classified in some definite way in a well-defined system of classification. The Aristotelian scheme presupposed a world of things that can be so classified, and it was found necessary to abandon the scheme when it was realized that the world was too complex. Essences may be defined for artifacts with definite functions, such as chairs and knives. A knife is an instrument for cutting, a chair an article of furniture for seating one person. But human beings cannot be fitted into any single system of aims or functions.

The Aristotelian definition of man as a rational animal sums up a view of man's place and purpose in the cosmos. It is absurd to suppose that there is any single thing that constitutes the humanity of man, as cutting constitutes the nature of knives. The choice of a single word such as reason or political or toolmaking gives the appearance of such an essence, but it is an appearance only, since each of these words expresses a highly complex notion that cannot be caught up as a definition with a single classificatory scheme. It has already been noted that man is not the only animal that makes its means of life, but that bees and beaversto mention only twodo so as well. What differentiates human productions is that they are constantly improved on and form the basis for new ones that become progressively less and less like those from which they originated. To say that toolmaking is the essence of man is to refer to his inventiveness in one of its most concrete forms. If man has an essence, it is that he has none.

Why did Marx and Engels pick on toolmaking as the feature that differentiates man from the other animals? There does not seem to be any single answer. Marx, at any rate, was influenced by the archeological classifications of the periods of prehistory into the Stone Age, Bronze Age, and Iron Age. But of course he was wrong if he supposed that because prehistory has to be reconstructed from the material things left behind, these material things are the basic explanatory factors in all human society. (In any case, some of the archaeological remains are not tools at all.) Insofar as archeologists adopt the hypothesis or method of historical materialism, they do so faute de mieux, for by the very nature of their business there is nothing else they can do.

A more fundamental reason for the view of Marx and Engels that toolmaking is the human essence is their acceptance, not perhaps altogether conscious in their later years, of the Hegelian view that men create their lives through labor. Technology is thus regarded as the concrete embodiment of the process by which nature is controlled and humanized.

Again, Marx and Engels lived at a time when people were becoming aware of the social effects of important industrial inventions. They saw that a new form of society was coming into being as a result of the invention of steam power and that a society with cotton mills and railroads required very different institutions from those of a society with cottage looms and stage coaches. In our own day the social influence of technological invention has become obvious, at any rate in a general way, even though the specific effects of particular inventions may sometimes be difficult to ascertain. But Marx and Engels noted this at a time when not everyone was aware of what was occurring. But it should be noted that this does not establish historical materialism. From the fact that important technological changes often make it necessary to change laws and to adopt new modes of life and thought, it does not follow that law and modes of life and thought can be decisively altered only as a result of technological change. Furthermore, from the great social importance of technological invention nothing follows as to the causes and conditions of technological invention itself.

linkage of productive forces and relations

In saying that Marx regarded historical materialism as obviously true we are saying that he regarded it as obvious that the productive forces "determine" the productive relationships. There is a sense in which productive relationships are necessarily linked with productive forces. For in inventing a new tool or machine it may well happen that the inventor is requiring so many men to work together such and such ways. A man might, for example, invent or design a sailing ship that required five men to sail it and each member of the crew to occupy a certain position in the vessel. Again, when it was discovered how to equip ships with steam or gasoline engines, the work demanded of seamen was altered and new relationships created among them. Controlling boilers and engines is quite different from handling lines and sails. The jobs are different, and the relationships of those who do the jobs are different too. The point therefore may be expressed by saying that sometimes the introduction of a new type of tool or machine necessarily involves the introduction of new job relationships. It would be natural enough to call these job relationships productive relationships in contrast with the tools or machines themselves, which might be called productive forces or means of production. With the terms understood in this way, then, it can happen that a change in productive forces necessarily brings with it a change in productive relationships, since the productive forces and the productive relationships may be different aspects of the same thing.

How far does this sort of productive relationship extend? We may take the example of the invention of the airplane to elucidate this question. An airplane at first was flown by one man; later models require several operators. Hence there are certain job relationships for the actual operation of the machine. In addition, however, an airport is required and, if journeys are to be undertaken, other places for landing and refueling. If an airplane is regarded as a machine for flying considerable distances from its base, then the provision of airfields with men to supervise takeoffs and landings and to help in refueling is necessarily involved in the invention too. Thus there are rather extensive job relationships implicit in the invention of a machine for flying from one place to another.

Now there is a principle of Roman law according to which the owner of land owns the whole volume of earth and air below and above it, de caelo usque ad inferas (from heaven above to hell beneath). If this principle were insisted on, those who fly airplanes would find it necessary to obtain permission from, or even make payments to, the intervening landowners before they could fly from their own territory. Actually, a system of permissions and exclusions has arisen according to which landowners within a country generally cannot prevent airplanes from flying over their land, whereas governments have certain powers of control over flights crossing their boundaries. Someone might argue that in inventing a machine for flying considerable distances from its base, the inventor was providing not only for the piloting of the aircraft and for its landing and refueling but also for the rules by which it would be controlled as it went from place to place. But this would be to extend the notion of job relationships much too far. Whereas piloting and landing and refueling may be regarded as aspects of flying the machine, and hence as necessary features of the invention, the rules under which the flights may be allowed are a different matter. An injunction to prevent the flight might have been issued after arrangements had been made for it to take place. Thus the third set of relationships is connected with the invention in a contingent way. It might be convenient to call these last relationships productive relationships as distinct from job relationships, even though use of the adjective productive exaggerates the connection with the actual operation of the machine. Thus it is clear that whereas a given invention may necessitate certain job relationships, it will be inconsistent with certain wider relationships and consistent with a variety of others. Use of the word determine both for the job relationships and the wider ones obscures this difference and encourages the idea that technology sets bonds of necessity upon the social system.

argument from the history of capitalism

By far the greater part of Marx's historical work was concerned with the origins and development of capitalism, and it is therefore reasonable to regard this part of his work as an example and as a vindication of the doctrine of historical materialism. However, Capital deals mainly with the economic and industrial aspects of capitalism and all too briefly with political and ideological matters. It is not surprising that economic and industrial matters should play a large part in an analysis and history of economic and industrial developments. But Capital gives only minute and incidental support to the main thesis of historical materialism: the thesis of the dependence of other social institutions upon the technical and economic ones and the thesis of the primary historical influence of technology and economics. After Marx's death Max Weber put forward the view that the growth of capitalism in Europe was fostered by certain aspects of Protestant religious belief. Marx, of course, thought that religious belief is ideological and epiphenomenal, an ineffectual shadow of social reality. He would have found it necessary to reject Weber's view on grounds of principle, in spite of the concomitances and assimilations to which Weber called attention. This shows that Marx's view is not a hypothesis but part of a system of interpretation of very wide scope; part, indeed, of a philosophical outlook.

Dialectical Aspects of the Theory

The fundamental thesis of Marxist dialectics is that everything is in movement, and Marx and his followers have proclaimed the mutability of all existing social forms. This in itself, of course, would not distinguish historical materialism from, for example, Hegelianism or some types of liberalism. Another feature of Marxist dialectics, however, is the belief that although gradual changes are occurring all the time, there are also on occasion sudden changes of great scope in which existing types of being are succeeded by utterly new ones. This means that Marxists consider the emergence of new social forms to be as natural as evolutionary adaptation. One might say that their view of change is such as to make them expect the unexpected. A further tenet of Marxist dialectics is that development takes place through the clash of opposites. Thus the doctrine of the class struggle is regarded by Marxists as a vital feature of historical materialism. Changes in the means of production provide the clue to class struggles and social revolutions out of which new forms of life and thought are born. Philosophers of the Marxist-Leninist tradition hold that in communist society contradictions and oppositions would continue but that, in the absence of class differences, they would be "nonantagonistic."

The foregoing might be called the metaphysics of Marxist dialectics. Marx himself, however, was much more concerned with dialectics as a method. Perhaps the most fundamental feature of the dialectical method as understood by Marx is its distrust of abstraction. This, too, is a Hegelian legacy, but whereas Hegel regarded the Absolute Spirit as the concrete reality, for Marx reality was the material world, along with embodied human beings organized together in various social orders. Philosophers who talk of spirit, or economists who talk of land, labor, and capital, according to Marx, obscure the physical basis of human life and action and substitute abstract categories for the concrete realities of human work and association. Abstraction, in this view of the matter, is a form of mystification. The only way to avoid mystification is to relate the things that people say and do to the material circumstances in which they live. But the abstract is contrasted not only with the concrete but also with what is whole or complete. Marx, like Hegel, thought that the parts of any whole were not indifferent to one another but were, on the contrary, linked closely together. This linkage was particularly close between the individuals and groups of human society. According to Marx, the institutions of work and production were the primary ones, but through their connection with these institutions, men's laws and politics, their philosophy, morals, art, and religion are interrelated and interdependent and cannot be understood in isolation from one another or from their material basis.

A further form of abstraction that Marx objected to was the claim that there are economic laws that apply to all human societies equally. Marx held (preface to Capital, Vol. I, 2nd ed.) that each main type of social order develops and functions in its own special ways, so that we cannot conclude from what happens in one type of society that anything similar will happen in another. Indeed, he said that to trace the laws of development of different types of society in this way, keeping the particular and peculiar in view, is the dialectical method. It should be noted, too, that Marx sometimes thought that the various social categories, such as productive forces and productive relations, could not be abstracted from one another, but collapsed one into the other, as Hegelian theories do. We have already seen that Marx treated forms of organization as means of production, thus blurring the distinction between productive forces and productive relationships. In the recently published Outlines of a Critique of Political Economy (1857) appears the following note: "Dialectic of the concepts productive force (means of production) and productive relationship, a dialectic to determine their limits, and which does not cancel their real distinction" (p. 29). It seems that Marx hoped to settle the problem by means of a dialectical coup de main.

Relation to Other Endeavors

Marx was not the first to inquire into the history of technology and of industry and commerce, but undoubtedly his work greatly influenced the direction taken by historical research. Marxist historians have been particularly anxious to show how knowledge has been hindered or promoted by the prevailing productive forces and productive relationships. Thus, Benjamin Farrington, in his Greek Science (2 vols., London, 19441949), argued that the predominantly speculative and unpractical character of Greek science was due to the institution of slavery and the aristocratic contempt for manual work that went with it. George Thomson, in his Studies in Ancient Greek Society, 1: The Prehistoric Aegean (London, 1949), presented evidence in favor of Engels's views on primitive communism. In Volume II of the same work, subtitled The First Philosophers (London, 1955), Thomson linked the categories employed by the pre-Socratic philosophers with economic and class factors and with Marx's notion of a commodity as "the uniform socially recognized" incarnation of human labor, concluding that "the Parmenidean One, together with the later idea of 'substance,' may therefore be described as a reflex or projection of the substance of exchange value" (p. 103). B. Hessen, in an essay titled "The Social and Economic Roots of Newton's Principia " (Science at the Crossroads, 1931), argued that Isaac Newton was the typical representative of the rising bourgeoisie, and in his philosophy he embodies the characteristic features of his class" (p. 33). This type of view illustrates the more general inquiry into the connections between class and knowledge known as the sociology of knowledge. Karl Mannheim's Ideology and Utopia (Ideologie und Utopie, Bonn, 1929; translated by Louis Wirth and Edward Shils, London, 1936) shows how Marxism influenced this subject, but Max Scheler, who was not a Marxist, also helped develop it (Die Wissenformen und die Gesellschaft, Leipzig, 1926).

It should be emphasized that a materialist view of history is not necessarily linked with Marxist socialism, for it is possible to recognize the historical importance of the means of production and of economic and class interests without concluding that a classless, communist society must emerge. (This was done, for instance, by E. R. A. Seligman in The Economic Interpretation of History, New York, 1902). Furthermore, some historians and economists have adopted an economic interpretation of history without committing themselves to the Marxist views about the dominating influence of technology, of the means of production. Thus, Thorold Rogers, an undogmatic free trader, called attention to such influences as the shortage of labor created by the Black Death or the interference with trade routes by the Mongol invaders, but said: "You cannot, of course, separate, except in thought, and then only with no little risk of confusion, economical from social and political facts" (The Economic Interpretation of History, London, 1888, p. 281). Marxists have often gone to considerable lengths to distinguish the economic from the materialist conception of history. Thus, the Russian Marxist historian M. N. Pokrovsky has been criticized by orthodox Marxists for placing too much emphasis on market considerations and too little on the influence of the means of production.

See also Aristotelianism; Communism; Croce, Benedetto; Dialectical Materialism; Engels, Friedrich; Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich; Ideology; Lenin, Vladimir Il'ich; Mannheim, Karl; Marx, Karl; Plekhanov, Georgii Valentinovich; Scheler, Max; Socialism.


historical materialist works


Misère de la philosophie. Brussels and Paris, 1847. Translated by H. Quelch as The Poverty of Philosophy. Chicago: C. H. Kerr, 1910.

Zur Kritik der politischen Ökonomie. Berlin, 1859. Translated by N. I. Stone as A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy. Chicago: C. H. Kerr, 1904.

Das Kapital, 3 vols. Hamburg, 18671894. Vols. II and III edited by Friedrich Engels; Vol. III in two parts. English translation, Chicago, 1915: C. H. Kerr. Vol. I translated by Samuel Moore and Edward Aveling, revised and amplified according to the fourth German edition by Ernest Untermann; Vol. II translated from the second German edition by Ernest Untermann; Vol. III translated from the first German edition by Ernest Untermann.

"Oekonomische-philosophische Manuskripte." In Marx-Engels Gesamtausgabe, edited by D. Riazanov and V. Adoratski. Berlin, 1932. Division 1, Vol. III. Translated by Martin Milligan as Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844. Moscow: Foreign Languages Publishing House; and London, 1959.

Grundrisse der Kritik der politischen Ökonomie (Rohentwurf). Berlin, 1953. One section has been translated by J. Cohen as Pre-Capitalist Economic Formations, edited by E. J. Hobsbawn. London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1964.

Karl Marx. Selected Writings in Sociology and Social Philosophy. Edited by T. B. Bottomore and Maximilien Rubel. London: Watts, 1956.

Marx and Engels

Manifest der kommunistischen Partei. London, 1848. Many English editions as The Communist Manifesto. See especially edition with an introduction by Harold Laski. London: Allen and Unwin, 1948.

Die deutsche Ideologie. Edited by V. Adoratski. Vienna, 1932. Translated as The German Ideology, edited by R. Pascal. London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1938.

Selected Correspondence (18461895). Edited by Dona Torr. New York: International, 1942. Contains Marx's 1846 letter to Paul Annenkov and important letters written by Engels after Marx's death.

Karl Marx, Frederick Engels: Collected Works, 49+ vols. Translated by Richard Dixon et al. New York: International, 1975.


Umrisse zu Kritik der Nationalökonomie (1844). Translated by Martin Milligan as "Outlines of a Critique of Political Economy." In Karl Marx, Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844 (op. cit.).

Herr Eugen Dührings Umwälzung der Wissenschaft. Leipzig, 1878. Translated by E. Burns as Herr Eugen Dühring's Revolution in Science. London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1934.

Die Entwicklung des Sozialismus von der Utopie zur Wissenschaft. Zürich, 1883. Translated by E. Aveling as Socialism: Utopian and Scientific. London: Sonnenschein, 1892.

Der Ursprung der Familie, des Privateigentums und des Staats. Zürich, 1884. Translated by E. Untermann as The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State. Chicago: C.H. Kerr, 1902.


What the "Friends of the People" Are (1894). In his Collected Works, Moscow and London, 1960. Vol. I, 1960.

"Karl Marx." In his Collected Works. Moscow and London, 1960. Vol. 21, 1964.


K Voprosu o Razvitii Monisticheskago Vzglyada na Istoriyu. St. Petersburg, 1895. Translated by Andrew Rothstein as In Defence of Materialism: The Development of the Monist View of History. London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1947.

Osnovnye Problemy Marksizma. 1908. Translated by E. Paul and C. Paul as Fundamental Problems of Marxism. London: Lawrence, 1929.

works on historical materialism

Acton, H. B. The Illusion of the Epoch: Marxism-Leninism as a Philosophical Creed. London: Cohen and West, 1955.

Adler, Max. Lehrbuch der materialistischen Geschichtsauffassung, 2 vols. Vienna, 1930.

Barth, P. Die Philosophie der Geschichte als Soziologie, 3rd and 4th eds. Leipzig: Reisland, 1922.

Berlin, Isaiah. Karl Marx. New York: Oxford University Press, 1948.

Bober, M. M. Marx's Interpretation of History, 2nd ed. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1950.

Clark, G. N. Science and Social Welfare in the Age of Newton. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1937.

Croce, Benedetto. Materialismo storico ed economica marxista. Palermo, 1900. Translated by C. M. Meredith as Historical Materialism and the Economics of Karl Marx. London: Latimer, 1914.

Federn, Karl. The Materialist Conception of History. A Critical Analysis. London: Macmillan, 1939.

Goldmann, Lucien. Recherches dialectiques. Paris: Gallimard, 1959.

Hexter, J. H. Reappraisals in History. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1961.

Hook, Sidney. From Hegel to Marx. New York: Reynal and Hitchcock, 1935.

Hook, Sidney. Towards the Understanding of Karl Marx. New York: John Day, 1933.

Masaryk, T. G. Die philosophische und soziologische Grundlagen des Marxismus. Vienna: Konegen, 1899.

Plamenatz, John. German Marxism and Russian Communism. London: Longman, 1954.

Pokrovsky, M. N. A Brief History of Russia, 2 vols. London, 1933.

Pokrovsky, M. N. History of Russia from the Earliest Times to the Rise of Commercial Capitalism. London: Lawrence, 1932.

Popper, K. R. The Open Society and Its Enemies, Vol. 2: The High Tide of Prophecy. London: Routledge, 1945.

Rubel, Maximilien. Karl Marx. Essai de biographie intellectuelle. Paris, 1957.

Tucker, Robert. Philosophy and Myth in Karl Marx. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1961.

Venable, Vernon. Human Nature. The Marxian View. London: Dobson, 1946.

additional sources

Acton, H. B. What Marx Really Said. New York: Schocken Books, 1967.

Althusser, Louis. Lenin and Philosophy. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1972.

Armin, Samir. The Law of Value and Historical Materialism. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1978.

Ball, Terence, and James Farr, eds. After Marx. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1984.

Cohen, G. Karl Marx's Theory of History, expanded ed. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2001.

Dupré, Louis K. Marx's Social Critique of Culture. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1983.

Elster, Jon. Making Sense of Marx. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1985.

Giddens, Anthony. A Contemporary Critique of Historical Materialism, 2nd edition. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1995.

Habermas, Jürgen. Communication and the Evolution of Society. Translated by Thomas McCarthy. Boston: Beacon Press, 1979.

Little, Daniel. The Scientific Marx. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986.

Rader, Melvin Miller. Marx's Interpretation of History. New York: Oxford University Press, 1979.

Rigby, S. H. Marxism and History: A Critical Introduction, 2nd ed. Manchester, U.K.: Manchester University Press, 1998.

Shaw, William H. Marx's Theory of History. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1978.

Thompson, E. P. The Making of the English Working Class. New York: Vintage Books, 1966.

Wood, Allen. Karl Marx. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1981.

H. B. Acton (1967)

Bibliography updated by Philip Reed (2005)

historical materialism

views updated May 09 2018

historical materialism A term applied by Karl Marx himself to his theory of society and history. ‘Historical’ entailed the analysis of how particular forms of society had come into existence, and the specific historical contexts within which apparently universal or eternal social forms—state, religion, market, and so forth—were located. Materialism denoted the rejection of Hegelian idealism and the primacy of socio-economic processes and relations. A sustained attempt to defend Marx's account of the determining role in history played by the productive forces is made by William H. Shaw (Marx's Theory of History, 1978).See also BASE; ECONOMIC DETERMINISM; FORCES OF PRODUCTION; HISTORICISM; LABOUR THEORY OF VALUE; MARXISM; MODE OF PRODUCTION; RELATIONS OF PRODUCTION; SUPERSTRUCTURE.

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