Historical materialism

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The materialist conception of history, also known as historical materialism, is a concept within Marxist theory. The principle behind materialism is that reality, or material conditions result in the creation of ideas, in opposition to idealism, which states that ideas create reality. Historical materialism is materialism as applied to history. Before the advent of historical materialism, historians considered historical events to be the result of a battle of ideas, and took for granted what each epoch said about itself. However, Marx and Engels elaborated the theory that historical events are in fact nothing but the result of material conditions, and that ideas dictate only the specific form. This method of analysis they termed historical materialism.

According to historical materialism, therefore, it is the development of the material productive forces (productive technology and capacity) which produces class formations accompanied by antagonisms and class struggle, as opposed to a debate or a battle of ideas, which only determines how these changes present themselves.

The materialist proposition is that "the final causes of all social changes and political revolutions are to be sought, not in men's brains, not in men's better insights into eternal truth and justice, but in changes in the modes of production and exchange. They are to be sought, not in the philosophy, but in the economics of each particular epoch"

Dialectics and Contradiction

Historical materialism is widely considered teleological by positing that history moves with purpose, cyclically, from primitive communism to communism and ascribe historical roles to agents, such as the proletariat's historical mission of self-emancipation "To accomplish this act of universal emancipation is the historical mission of the modern proletariat."[1]

Historical Development

Primitive communism

Primitive communism was the first stage of human society characterised by an egalitarian distribution of resources and power. Scarcity of resources may have caused for individuals to exclude others from accessing scarce resources, leading to class formation. Agriculture also enabled slavery for two reasons: producing permanent surpluses allowed a structurally unlabouring class; and labour was territorially bound meaning slaves could be overseen.

Primitive communism was classless.

Ancient mode of production

The ancient mode of production was characterised by ownership of individuals. The rise of the ancient mode of production corresponded with the rise of organised religion and patriarchy among other phenomena. Slavery, relying on exhaustive physical labour, made women dependant on men.

The contending classes were the slaves and slave-owning classes. Other class divisions may exist, as in Ancient Rome with the plebeians and patricians.

Feudal mode of production

The feudal mode of production was characterised by bounded labour.

The contending classes for most of its history were the aristocracy (or equivalent) and serfs, as well as the lords, nobility, and knights. The bourgeoisie entered into existence with the emergence of (proto-)industrialisation and overtrew the political rule of the aristocracy in the bourgeois revolutions.


Class Struggle

The history of civilised society has been the history of class struggle.

Base and Superstructure

The base and superstructure are the components of human society. The base consists of the forces of production, the productive forces, the technical capacities, the relations of production, and the methods of production and distribution which arise out of the relations of production based on the material productive conditions. The superstructure arises out of the base, and includes the state and state form, culture, the family structure, the legal structure, and political consciousness. The base determines (conditions) the superstructure, yet their relation is not strictly causal, because the superstructure often influences the base; the influence of the base, however, predominates.

Capitalist mode of production

Historical materialism holds that the key characteristic of economic systems is the mode of production, and that the change between modes of production has been realised through class struggle itself stemming from the level of the material productive forces. According to this analysis, the transformation of the relations of production from bounded labour to wage-labour caused open class conflict between the aristocracy and the bourgeoisie. Before capitalism, certain working classes had ownership of instruments utilized in production. Labour-power was not yet a commodity. This method of production where the working class owned its instruments of labour was out competed by industrial production, and the working class was left dispossessed and could only survive by selling their labour-power, working through making use of machinery owned by the capitalist class. Thus with capitalism, the world was divided between two major classes: the proletariat and the bourgeoisie. and communism is the expression of this within capitalism.[2] These classes are directly antagonistic: the bourgeoisie has private ownership of the means of production and its income through the extraction of surplus value, which is generated by the proletariat, which has no ownership of the means of production and confronts it as alien property, and therefore has no option but to sell its labour-power to the bourgeoisie.

The rising bourgeoisie within feudalism, through the furtherance of its own material class interests, captured power and abolished, of all relations of private property, only the feudal privileges, and with this took out of existence the feudal ruling class, the aristocracy. This overturn was accomplished in the bourgeois revolutions. This was another of the keys behind the consolidation of capitalism as the new mode of production, which is the final expression of class and property relations, and also has led into a massive expansion of production. It is, therefore, only in capitalism that bourgeois property in itself can be abolished.[3] The antagonistic relationship between the proletariat and bourgeoisie will at some point enter into a cataclysmic class war in which the proletariat contests the bourgeoisie for political power. This begins by the proletariat assuming control over production by expropriating the bourgeoisie, necessitating the formation of political power to defend the transformed social relations of production -- the dictatorship of the proletariat. Through this process of revolutionary reconstruction the bourgeoisie is abolished and ultimately the proletariat itself, which ushers the world into a new mode of production: communism. In between capitalism and communism there is the dictatorship of the proletariat, a democratic state where the whole of the public authority is elected and recallable on the basis of universal suffrage.[4]

Marxism does not see communism as a "state of affairs" to be established, but rather as the expression of a real movement that originates from the conditions created within capitalism and is not based on any abstract philosophy, rationality, or morality.[5]


  1. 1.0 1.1 Engels. Socialism: Utopian and Scientific. Part III
  2. Engels, Friedrich. Marx & Engels Selected Works, Volume One, p. 81-97, Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1969. "Principles of Communism". #4 - "How did the proletariat originate?"
  3. Engels, Friedrich. Marx & Engels Selected Works, Volume One, p. 81-97, Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1969. "Principles of Communism". #15 - "Was not the abolition of private property possible at an earlier time?"
  4. Engels. 1891 Introduction by Frederick Engels On the 20th Anniversary of the Paris Commune to "The Civil War in France". "Against this transformation of the state and the organs of the state from servants of society into masters of society – an inevitable transformation in all previous states – the Commune made use of two infallible expedients. In this first place, it filled all posts – administrative, judicial, and educational – by election on the basis of universal suffrage of all concerned, with the right of the same electors to recall their delegate at any time. [...] Of late, the Social-Democratic philistine has once more been filled with wholesome terror at the words: Dictatorship of the Proletariat. Well and good, gentlemen, do you want to know what this dictatorship looks like? Look at the Paris Commune. That was the Dictatorship of the Proletariat."
  5. Marx, Karl. The German Ideology. 1845. Part I: Feuerbach. Opposition of the Materialist and Idealist Outlook. A. Idealism and Materialism. "Communism is for us not a state of affairs which is to be established, an ideal to which reality [will] have to adjust itself. We call communism the real movement which abolishes the present state of things. The conditions of this movement result from the premises now in existence."