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Marx on Historical Materialism

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Abstract

Marx's theory of historical materialism seeks to explain human history and development on the basis of the material conditions underlying all human existence. For Marx, the most important of all human activities is the activity of production by means of labor. With his focus on production through labor, Marx argues that it is possible to provide a materialistic explanation of how human beings not only transform the world (by applying the "forces of production" to it) but also transform themselves in transforming the world (by entering into "relations of production" with one another). For Marx, the productive labor of human beings-and the resulting interplay between the forces and relations of production-function together as the engine which drives all historical change and development. By understanding how the productive activities of human beings give rise to the division of labor and class conflict, it becomes possible, according to Marx, to understand how different historical epochs succeed one another, and how the trajectory of human history points towards a communist society within which the division of labor and class conflict will be abolished.
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Marx on Historical Materialism
H.B. Acton
University of Edinburgh
Department of Philosophy
Revised by
Michael Baur
Fordham University
Department of Philosophy
Biography: Michael Baur is Associate Professor of Philosophy and Adjunct Professor of Law at
Fordham University in New York City. He holds a Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of
Toronto and a J.D. from Harvard Law School. His scholarly research focuses on the work of
continental philosophers (including Kant, Fichte, Hegel, Marx, and Heidegger) and on
political/legal philosophy.
A longer and unrevised version of this article, “Historical Materialism,” was originally published
in the Encyclopedia of Philosophy
, volume 4, Paul Edwards, Editor-in-chief (New York:
Macmillan Publishing Company, 1967).
Abstract
Marx’s theory of historical materialism seeks to explain human history and development on the
basis of the material conditions underlying all human existence. For Marx, the most important of
all human activities is the activity of production by means of labor. With his focus on production
through labor, Marx argues that it is possible to provide a materialistic explanation of how
human beings not only transform the world (by applying the “forces of production” to it) but also
transform themselves in transforming the world (by entering into “relations of production” with
one another). For Marx, the productive labor of human beings – and the resulting interplay
between the forces and relations of production – function together as the engine which drives all
historical change and development. By understanding how the productive activities of human
beings give rise to the division of labor and class conflict, it becomes possible, according to
Marx, to understand how different historical epochs succeed one another, and how the trajectory
of human history points towards a communist society within which the division of labor and
class conflict will be abolished.
Introduction
Karl Marx put forward what has been called an “historical materialist” theory of human nature
and development. He articulated this theory as a result of his intellectual engagement with the
work of German philosophers (e.g., G.W.F. Hegel and Ludwig Feuerbach), British economists
(e.g., Adam Smith and David Ricardo), and French socialists (e.g., Charles Fourier, Henri de
Saint-Simon, and Pierre-Joseph Proudhon), and as a result of his decades-long conversations
with his friend and colleague, Friedrich Engels. Marx’s “historical materialism” was
subsequently adopted by his intellectual followers and incorporated into several different
varieties of Marxist political movements, including the Leninist, Stalinist, and Maoist varieties.
2
Marx and Engels first formulated the general outlines of their theory of “historical materialism”
in The German Ideology
, written in 1845 and 1846; however, the intellectual sources of the
theory, and many elaborations and applications of it, can be found in other works by Marx and/or
Engels, including Marx’s Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts
(1844), The Poverty of
Philosophy
(1847), the Communist Manifesto
(1848), the Critique of Political Economy
(1859),
and Capital
(volume 1 published in 1867), as well in their personal and professional
correspondence.
Origin and Foundations of the Theory
Marx’s historical materialist theory seeks to explain human nature and development on the basis
of the empirically-knowable material conditions of human existence. Marx’s interest in
materialist theories of reality can be discerned even in the earliest of his theoretical work, for
example, in his doctoral dissertation (completed in 1841 at the University of Jena) on
Democritus and Epicurus. Marx admired British and French thinkers who, by writing “histories
of civil society, of commerce and industry,” sought to provide “a materialist basis” to historical
understanding (Marx and Engels 1978, 156). Furthermore, he insisted that a materialist theory of
human existence must not be naïve and unhistorical, but must instead recognize the dynamic and
dialectical character of human labor, by means of which human beings produce their own means
of subsistence. Along these lines, Marx criticized Feuerbach, noting that “as far as Feuerbach is
a materialist, he does not deal with history, and as far as he considers history, he is not a
materialist” (Marx and Engels 1978, 171).
The arguments found in the writings of Marx that pre-date the German Ideology
indicate that
Marx’s later views arose out of a metaphysical prototype, a sort of “Ur-Marxismus,” which
continued to exert an influence on Marx's later work. Before he began collaborating with Engels
in 1844, Marx sought to justify his views by relying mainly on philosophical and moral, rather
than on strictly economic, considerations. But in 1844, Engels encouraged Marx to make an
intensive study of economics. As a result of this study, Marx produced what has come to be
known as the “Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts,” or the “Paris Manuscripts,” of 1844.
These manuscripts combined the critique of political economy with a critique of the Hegelian
philosophy that Marx had been studying at the time. Though incomplete and never published
during Marx’s lifetime, these manuscripts constitute what might be regarded as a first draft of the
comprehensive treatise which Marx spent the rest of his life writing, and which found subsequent
articulation in later works such as The German Ideology
, the Grundrisse
or Outline of the
Critique of Political Economy
(1857-1858), the Critique of Political Economy
(1859), and
Capital
(1867).
In writing the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts
, Marx brought his newly-acquired
economic knowledge to bear upon views he had reached in criticizing the abstract, idealistic
philosophy of G.W.F. Hegel. Marx had noticed how Hegel described the process of human
historical development as a process in which the human mind “externalized” its own ideas and,
by means of such externalization, transformed and “humanized” the material world. According
to Marx, Hegel correctly saw that human labor was not necessarily an obstacle to human
development and liberation, but rather the means by which humans are able to become truly free
and self-determining. With his famous “master-slave dialectic” (from the “Self-consciousness”
chapter of his Phenomenology of Spirit
), Hegel argued, counterintuitively, that it is not the
master who is able to be genuinely free, for the master does not produce the conditions of his
3
own existence but merely consumes products which have been provided to him by another (by
the slave). Instead, it is the slave who is able to achieve genuine freedom, since the slave
transforms the world by laboring on it, and in transforming the world also transforms himself
(Hegel 1977, 111-119). The slave transforms himself through labor insofar as the slave
cultivates his own productive capacities as a result of laboring on the world, and in doing so, the
slave gradually develops and produces his own productive capacities – which, for Marx, means
that the slave, over time, becomes self-producing or self-determining by producing his own
means of subsistence.
For Hegel as well as for Marx, the laborer is at first necessarily unable to recognize the genuinely
self-determining and emancipatory character of his own labor. At first, the laborer cultivates his
own productive capacities but without recognizing that he is doing so. For Marx, this happens
because the laborer’s productive activity makes its appearance within the laborer’s world of
experience only insofar as it is embodied in products (commodities) which are consumed and
enjoyed by others, thanks to the division of labor within society. Hegel himself had recognized
that, with a division of labor in society, some jobs became trivial and even degrading. But Hegel
also thought that the division of labor was a necessary accompaniment to all human progress
since it 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. By
contrast, Marx held that the division of labor represented just one stage (albeit a necessary stage)
of progress within human history, and that the division of labor would itself be abolished with
further progress in history. More specifically, Marx held that human labor, by being turned into
wage labor within the capitalist social order, had itself become a commodity that was bought and
sold on the market, thus subjecting the laborer to impersonal market forces that appeared to
operate entirely beyond his own control. The wage system thus perverted the laborer’s own
productive activity so that the natural world was not positively transformed into a transparent
manifestation of human productivity, but was rather turned into a strange and alien force that
appeared quite hostile to workers. A truly human existence would be possible only when the
division of labor, and along with it private property and wage labor, had been abolished through
the establishment of a communist social order. Communism, Marx wrote, is “the riddle of
history solved, and it knows itself to be this solution” (Marx and Engels 1978, 84). The idea that
communism would solve the riddle of history by releasing men from the unwilled, unwanted
servitude to their own, seemingly alien products is the metaphysical precursor to Marx’s later
idea that planned but non-coercive communism would necessarily result from the dissolution of
capitalism.
Outline of the Theory
Historical materialism consists, in the first place, of an analysis thought to be applicable to all but
the most primitive of human societies. On the basis of this analysis, Marx sought to give an
account of the rise and fall of various social systems within history, and he predicted that
capitalism – the penultimate stage of human history – will eventually collapse and be succeeded
by a communist society, in which there will be no division of labor, no private property, no wage
labor, no money, no class distinctions, and no state. As part of his analysis, Marx distinguished
several different elements at work within developed societies. These were: (1) “the forces of
production,” which include the tools, skills, machinery, technology, and techniques by which
human beings labor and thus obtain the wherewithal for life; (2) “the relations of production,”
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which are the social systems or structures or frameworks within which human beings, in the
midst of their laboring on the world and making use of the “forces of production,” also enter into
relations with one another; (3) the political and legal institutions of society which are the
derivative or “superstructural” expressions generated by the more fundamental or “basic” forces
and relations of production; 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 and habits of thought represented
distorted pictures, or ideological representations, of the underlying material or economic reality.
For Marx, such ideologies find expression in various forms of religion, theology, speculative
philosophy or metaphysics, morality, ethics, art, and political theorizing.
Analysis of Social Structure
According to Marx, the “material conditions” of human life include, most importantly, the
“forces of production” and the “relations of production.” The primary social activity of human
beings is production through labor, and such production involves relations with other humans,
both in the labor 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 politics, law, religion, morality, art, or philosophy of any given society, it is
necessary to ascertain the nature of the society’s forces and relations of production. In the
Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts
, Marx expressed moral outrage over the way in which
human labor, in a capitalist economy, wrongly enslaves human beings to the products of their
own making. By the time he wrote his Critique of Political Economy
, he had gone beyond moral
condemnation in order to offer an explanation of how, in a capitalist economy, the forces of
production inescapably compel human beings to operate within a social framework that appears
not to be of their own making. Thus Marx came to emphasize how human individuals always
find themselves existing within structures of society which pre-exist the individuals themselves
and which misleadingly present themselves as “natural” or even immutable frameworks that
humans are powerless to alter through their own activity.
Division of Labor, Property, and Power
According to Marx, a division of labor exists when individual human beings produce products
which they themselves do not consume, and consume products which they themselves do not
produce. Where human beings produce products which they themselves do not consume, and
consume products which they themselves do not produce, there must also be some system for the
exchange and circulation of such products. And where there is a system for the exchange and
circulation of products, there must also be – even if in rudimentary form – some (political and/or
legal) system of property relations. For Marx, however, the real driving forces at work in all
human history and development remain to be found at the level of production, and not in the
resulting systems of exchange or circulation, and not in the legal and political arrangements
which are wrongly thought to govern property relations. Property relations, and the
accompanying legal and political institutions, are themselves based upon the more fundamental
productive activities at work in human society (involving the forces and relations of production).
According to Marx, the division of labor in human productive activity makes it possible for
human beings to transform the natural world in ways that would be quite impossible for humans
if their labor remained undivided and undifferentiated; and the division of labor also makes it
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possible for human beings to transform and develop their own productive capacities in ways that
would be quite off limits to undifferentiated labor. But the division of labor – since it also
involves a division between those who produce certain products and those who consume those
products – also makes it possible for some human beings to accumulate property at the expense
of others, and therefore opens up the possibility of exploitation through the use of accumulated
property and power. Marx did not believe, however, that property was all of one type. In The
German Ideology
, Marx and Engels distinguished four main types of property that play an
important role in their theory of history and society: tribal property, which exists in primitive
societies where there is only a minimal 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 laborers who work for wages and produce goods that are sold in wider and wider
markets to make profits for the capitalist (Marx and Engels 1978, 151-154).
According to Marx, 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 hold 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 forces of production and the
type of property are predominantly feudal, the feudal lords are able to settle these conflicts in
their own favor. As long as the feudal system operates, any frictions and tensions are dealt with
within its terms. The political ideas and movements within a feudal society merely express, or
“reflect,” these more fundamental, underlying conflicts between differing classes and their
differing interests.
Historical Epochs
For Marx, since “the material conditions of life” are fundamental in the structuring of a society,
it follows that 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.
Marx also held that important changes in superstructural institutions (such as political and legal
institutions) are not brought about by human thought or reflection on those institutions, but only
by means of changes at the level of the more fundamental (economic) basis of those institutions.
For Marx, all important social and historical changes originate only through changes at the level
of human productive activity (through changes to the forces and relations of production), and not
through changes at the superstructural or ideological level of human existence.
This theory of historical materialism is also a theory of historical epochs. The original state of
primitive communism was succeeded, according to Marx, by the ancient forms of slave-owning
society; these were succeeded by feudalism, and feudalism by capitalism. In ancient slave
society, it was the labor of slaves that made possible the art and science of ancient Greece, as
well as the cities, the commerce, and the bureaucracy of ancient Rome. The slave system broke
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down largely because of its wastefulness, and it 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 (where there was a
greater division of labor and thus more accumulation of wealth), some individuals were able to
enhance their wealth and power by organizing the production of goods in large workshops where
they employed large numbers of wage laborers. These bourgeois, as they were to be called, were
the forerunners of the capitalist system. They attracted laborers 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 had previously confined serfs to the
areas of their birth. Finding themselves hampered by the feudal laws, the bourgeois endeavored
to change such laws and thus entered upon a political struggle with the aristocracy. They
justified their actions by arguing that aristocratic distinctions (based, for example, on birth and
family connections) were contrary to the “immutable” and “natural” order of universal 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, including the American and
French revolutions. From being a progressive class, the bourgeoisie 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, since the new forces of production
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 forces of production,
brings about changes in the relations of production which allow the new forces of production to
become effective and proliferate. Feudal institutions and, in particular, feudal property laws
would have stifled the development of the capitalist forces of production. In seizing political
power, the bourgeoisie succeeded in establishing relations of production which enabled the
expansion of capitalistic forces of production.
In all historical epochs leading up to and including capitalism, innovations in the forces of
production – much like new wine in old wineskins – lead to social revolutions which burst the
prevailing relations of production and thereby call forth a new set of relations which are capable
of containing and sustaining the new forces of production. The cycle of innovation and
revolution in history will be concluded when humans establish (communistic) relations of
production which will be fully adequate to the forces of production and which will be recognized
by humans as transparent manifestations of their own productive activity, rather than as an alien,
dehumanizing framework imposed upon them beyond their own control.
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Marx's Theory of History: A Defence​ . Expanded Edition
  • G A Cohen
Cohen, G.A. ​ Karl Marx's Theory of History: A Defence​. Expanded Edition. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2001.
s Social Critique of Culture​
  • Louis K Dupré
  • Marx
Dupré, Louis K. ​ Marx's Social Critique of Culture​. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1983.
Marx's Interpretation of History
  • Melvin Rader
  • Miller
Rader, Melvin Miller. Marx's Interpretation of History. New York: Oxford University Press, 1979.
Other Authors Blackledge, Paul. Reflections on the Marxist Theory of History
  • Karl Marx
  • Friedrich Engels
Marx, Karl and Friedrich Engels. The Marx-Engels Reader. Edited by Robert C. Tucker. New York and London: W.W. Norton and Company, 1978. Other Authors Blackledge, Paul. Reflections on the Marxist Theory of History. Manchester, U.K.: Manchester University Press, 2006.