Historical theory initiated by Karl Marx (1818-1883).
The material circumstances of society, the manner in which its members get a living and the control of their resources for doing so, are the chief influences upon its history.
Also see: dialectic, dialectical materialism
Jon Elster, An Introduction to Karl Marx (Cambridge, 1986)
History and development
Karl Marx never used the words “historical materialism” to describe his theory of history; the term first appears in Friedrich Engels’ 1880 work Socialism: Utopian and Scientific, to which Marx wrote an introduction for the French edition. By 1892, Engels indicated that he accepted the broader usage of the term “historical materialism,” writing the following in an introduction to an English edition of Socialism: Utopian and Scientific;
This book defends what we call “historical materialism”, and the word materialism grates upon the ears of the immense majority of British readers. […] I hope even British respectability will not be overshocked if I use, in English as well as in so many other languages, the term “historical materialism”, to designate that view of the course of history which seeks the ultimate cause and the great moving power of all important historic events in the economic development of society, in the changes in the modes of production and exchange, in the consequent division of society into distinct classes, and in the struggles of these classes against one another.
Marx’s initial interest in materialism is evident in his doctoral thesis which compared the philosophical atomism of Democritus with the materialist philosophy of Epicurus as well as his close reading of Adam Smith and other writers in classical political economy.
Marx and Engels first state and detail their materialist conception of history within the pages of The German Ideology, written in 1845. The book, which structural Marxists such as Louis Althusser regard as Marx’s first ‘mature’ work, is a lengthy polemic against Marx and Engels’ fellow Young Hegelians and contemporaries Ludwig Feuerbach, Bruno Bauer, and Max Stirner. Stirner’s 1844 work The Unique and its Property had a particularly strong impact on the worldview of Marx and Engels: Stirner’s blistering critique of morality and whole-hearted embrace of egoism prompted the pair to formulate a conception of socialism along lines of self-interest rather than simple humanism alone, grounding that conception in the scientific study of history.
Perhaps Marx’s clearest formulation of historical materialism resides in the preface to his 1859 book A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy:
The mode of production of material life conditions the general process of social, political and intellectual life. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness.
In a foreword to his essay Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classical German Philosophy (1886), three years after Marx’s death, Engels claimed confidently that “the Marxist world outlook has found representatives far beyond the boundaries of Germany and Europe and in all the literary languages of the world.” Indeed, in the years after Marx and Engels’ deaths, “historical materialism” was identified as a distinct philosophical doctrine and was subsequently elaborated upon and systematized by Orthodox Marxist and Marxist–Leninist thinkers such as Eduard Bernstein, Karl Kautsky, Georgi Plekhanov and Nikolai Bukharin. This occurred despite the fact that many of Marx’s earlier works on historical materialism, including The German Ideology, remained unpublished until the 1930s.
In the early years of the 20th century, historical materialism was often treated by socialist writers as interchangeable with dialectical materialism, a formulation never used by Marx or Engels. According to many Marxists influenced by Soviet Marxism, historical materialism is a specifically sociological method, while dialectical materialism refers to the more general, abstract philosophy underlying Marx and Engels’ body of work. This view is based on Joseph Stalin’s pamphlet Dialectical and Historical Materialism, as well as textbooks issued by the Institute of Marxism–Leninism of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.
The substantivist ethnographic approach of economic anthropologist and sociologist Karl Polanyi bears similarities to historical materialism. Polanyi distinguishes between the formal definition of economics as the logic of rational choice between limited resources and a substantive definition of economics as the way humans make their living from their natural and social environment. In The Great Transformation (1944), Polanyi asserts that both the formal and substantive definitions of economics hold true under capitalism, but that the formal definition falls short when analyzing the economic behavior of pre-industrial societies, whose behavior was more often governed by redistribution and reciprocity. While Polanyi was influenced by Marx, he rejected the primacy of economic determinism in shaping the course of history, arguing that rather than being a realm unto itself, an economy is embedded within its contemporary social institutions, such as the state in the case of the market economy.
Perhaps the most notable recent exploration of historical materialism is G. A. Cohen’s Karl Marx’s Theory of History: A Defence, which inaugurated the school of Analytical Marxism. Cohen advances a sophisticated technological-determinist interpretation of Marx “in which history is, fundamentally, the growth of human productive power, and forms of society rise and fall according as they enable or impede that growth.”
Jürgen Habermas believes historical materialism “needs revision in many respects”, especially because it has ignored the significance of communicative action.
Göran Therborn has argued that the method of historical materialism should be applied to historical materialism as intellectual tradition, and to the history of Marxism itself.
In the early 1980s, Paul Hirst and Barry Hindess elaborated a structural Marxist interpretation of historical materialism.
Regulation theory, especially in the work of Michel Aglietta draws extensively on historical materialism.
Spiral dynamics shows similarities to historical materialism.[how?]
Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, much of Marxist thought was seen as anachronistic. A major effort to “renew” historical materialism comes from historian Ellen Meiksins Wood, who wrote in 1995 that, “There is something off about the assumption that the collapse of Communism represents a terminal crisis for Marxism. One might think, among other things, that in a period of capitalist triumphalism there is more scope than ever for the pursuit of Marxism’s principal project, the critique of capitalism.”
[T]he kernel of historical materialism was an insistence on the historicity and specificity of capitalism, and a denial that its laws were the universal laws of history…this focus on the specificity of capitalism, as a moment with historical origins as well as an end, with a systemic logic specific to it, encourages a truly historical sense lacking in classical political economy and conventional ideas of progress, and this had potentially fruitful implications for the historical study of other modes of production too.
Referencing Marx’s Theses on Feuerbach, Wood says we ought to see historical materialism as “a theoretical foundation for interpreting the world in order to change it.”
Society does not consist of individuals, but expresses the sum of interrelations, the relations within which these individuals stand.— Karl Marx, Grundrisse, 1858
— Hubert Kay, Life, 1948
Historical materialism builds upon the idea of historical progress that became popular in philosophy during the Enlightenment, which asserted that the development of human society has progressed through a series of stages, from hunting and gathering, through pastoralism and cultivation, to commercial society. Historical materialism rests on a foundation of dialectical materialism, in which matter is considered primary and ideas, thought, and consciousness are secondary, i.e. consciousness and human ideas about the universe result from material conditions rather than vice versa.
Historical materialism springs from a fundamental underlying reality of human existence: that in order for subsequent generations of human beings to survive, it is necessary for them to produce and reproduce the material requirements of everyday life. Marx then extended this premise by asserting the importance of the fact that, in order to carry out production and exchange, people have to enter into very definite social relations, or more specifically, “relations of production”. However, production does not get carried out in the abstract, or by entering into arbitrary or random relations chosen at will, but instead are determined by the development of the existing forces of production. How production is accomplished depends on the character of society’s productive forces, which refers to the means of production such as the tools, instruments, technology, land, raw materials, and human knowledge and abilities in terms of using these means of production. The relations of production are determined by the level and character of these productive forces present at any given time in history. In all societies, Human beings collectively work on nature but, especially in class societies, do not do the same work. In such societies, there is a division of labour in which people not only carry out different kinds of labour but occupy different social positions on the basis of those differences. The most important such division is that between manual and intellectual labour whereby one class produces a given society’s wealth while another is able to monopolize control of the means of production and so both governs that society and lives off of the wealth generated by the labouring classes.
Marx identified society’s relations of production (arising on the basis of given productive forces) as the economic base of society. He also explained that on the foundation of the economic base there arise certain political institutions, laws, customs, culture, etc., and ideas, ways of thinking, morality, etc. These constitute the political/ideological “superstructure” of society. This superstructure not only has its origin in the economic base, but its features also ultimately correspond to the character and development of that economic base, i.e. the way people organize society, its relations of production, and its mode of production. G.A. Cohen argues in Karl Marx’s Theory of History: A Defence that a society’s superstructure stabilizes or entrenches its economic structure, but that the economic base is primary and the superstructure secondary. That said, it is precisely because the superstructure strongly affects the base that the base selects that superstructure. As Charles Taylor puts it, “These two directions of influence are so far from being rivals that they are actually complementary. The functional explanation requires that the secondary factor tend to have a causal effect on the primary, for this dispositional fact is the key feature of the explanation.” It is because the influences in the two directions are not symmetrical that it makes sense to speak of primary and secondary factors, even where one is giving a non-reductionist, “holistic” account of social interaction.
To summarize, history develops in accordance with the following observations:
- Social progress is driven by progress in the material, productive forces a society has at its disposal (technology, labour, capital goods and so on)
- Humans are inevitably involved in productive relations (roughly speaking, economic relationships or institutions), which constitute our most decisive social relations. These relations progress with the development of the productive forces. They are largely determined by the division of labor, which in turn tends to determine social class.
- Relations of production are both determined by the means and forces of production and set the conditions of their development. For example, capitalism tends to increase the rate at which the forces develop and stresses the accumulation of capital.
- The relations of production define the mode of production, e.g. the capitalist mode of production is characterized by the polarization of society into capitalists and workers.
- The superstructure—the cultural and institutional features of a society, its ideological materials—is ultimately an expression of the mode of production on which the society is founded.
- 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 relations of production and its exploitation onto society.
- State power is usually only transferred from one class to another by social and political upheaval.
- When a given relation of production no longer supports further progress in the productive forces, either further progress is strangled, or ‘revolution’ must occur.
- The actual historical process is not predetermined but depends on class struggle, especially the elevation of class consciousness and organization of the working class