The Online Encyclopedia and Dictionary






Historical materialism

In Marxism and the study of history, historical materialism (or what Marx himself called "the materialist conception of history") is a method which accounts for the developments and changes in human history according to economic, technological, and more broadly, material development. It can be contrasted with other theories of history (which Marxists might call idealisms) which place the causal role for historical and social change on politics, philosophy, art, God, or any number of other, more cultural phenomena. It centers on the notion that the ways in which humans live are forever changing, so that even capitalism is an artificial institution that will someday go away.

Historical materialism as a term is often treated as interchangeable with dialectical materialism, the formulation adopted by Friedrich Engels in his application of Marx's method to natural sciences. This interchangeability is contested: according to many Marxists, historical materialism is a specifically sociological method (i.e., fundamentally suited to the study of relationships involving at least a single subject, not only objects), whereas dialectical materialism refers to a more general, abstract, philosophy. According to others, especially theorists of the Soviet orthodox Marxist tradition, there is no distinction between the two ideas.

As Karl Marx analyzed the logic of capitalism, he developed the concept of historical materialism based on the idea that human beings have entered into the following productive relations in rough historical order: the communal hunting and gathering of food, the relation of lord and serf, and the contract between labor and capital. While some of his early writings saw this as a series of stages, with somewhat automatic progress between them, his later works and those of later Marxists rejected the idea of "stages" of historical development. But Marx saw socialism as the next step after capitalism in the evolution of production, based in the logic of capitalism.

As part of his historical materialism, he developed the concepts of mode of production, exploitation, surplus value, crises, overproduction, and commodity fetishism.

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

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

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

Marx takes from Wakefield's work the example of an emigré to Australia, to illustrate the necessity of the state in supporting capital's production relations:

Mr. Peel, he moans, took him from England to Swan River, West Australia, means of subsistence and of production to the amount of £50,000. Mr. Peel had the foresight to bring with him, besides, 3,000 persons of the working-class, men, women, and children. Once arrived at his destination, "Mr. Peel was left without a servant to make his bed or fetch him water from the river." Unhappy Mr. Peel who provided for everything except the export of English modes of production to Swan River!
Capital, vol. I, ch. 33, courtesy of

The workers desert Mr Peel, despite all his gold, because land is available freely, such that they are free to exploit their own labour and dispose of any surpluses (profits) as they choose. Without a state to back up the class division with force, or to corrall workers off the land, it cannot be sustained.

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Last updated: 08-16-2005 10:54:16