historical materialism

Historical materialism, also known as the materialist conception of history, is a methodology used by scientific socialist and Marxist historiographers that focuses on human societies and their development through history, arguing that history is the result of material conditions rather than ideals. This was first articulated by Karl Marx (1818–1883) as the “materialist conception of history”.[1] It is principally a theory of history which asserts that the material conditions of a society’s mode of production, or in Marxist terms the union of a society’s productive forces and relations of production, fundamentally determine society’s organization and development. Historical materialism is an example of Marx and Engels’ scientific socialism, attempting to show that socialism and communism are scientific necessities rather than philosophical ideals.[2]

Historical materialism is materialist as it does not believe that history has been driven by individuals’ consciousness or ideals, but rather subscribes to the philosophical monism that matter is the fundamental substance of nature and therefore the driving force in all of world history; this drove Marx and other historical materialists to abandon ideas such as rights (e.g. “right to life, liberty, and property” as liberalism professed).[3] In contrast, idealists believe that human consciousness creates reality rather than the materialist conception that material reality creates human consciousness. This put Marx in direct conflict with groups like the liberals who believed that reality was governed by some set of ideals,[4] when he stated in The German Ideology: “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”.[4]

Historical materialism looks for the causes of developments and changes in human society in the means by which humans collectively produce the necessities of life. It posits that social classes and the relationship between them, along with the political structures and ways of thinking in society, are founded on and reflect contemporary economic activity.[5] Since Marx’s time, the theory has been modified and expanded by some writers. It now has many Marxist and non-Marxist variants. Many Marxists contend that historical materialism is a scientific approach to the study of history.

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,[7] to which Marx wrote an introduction for the French edition.[8] 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.[9]

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[10][11] as well as his close reading of Adam Smith and other writers in classical political economy.

A caricature drawn by Engels of Max Stirner, whose 1844 work The Unique and its Property prompted Marx and Engels to theorize a scientific approach to the study of history which they first laid out in The German Ideology (1845) along with a lengthy rebuttal of Stirner’s own critique of socialism

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[12] 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[13] 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.[14]

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.[15]

Continued development

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.”[16] 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.[17] 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.[18]

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.[19] 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.[20] 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.[21]

Perhaps the most notable recent exploration of historical materialism is G. A. Cohen’s Karl Marx’s Theory of History: A Defence,[22] 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.”[23]

Jürgen Habermas believes historical materialism “needs revision in many respects”, especially because it has ignored the significance of communicative action.[24]

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.[25]

In the early 1980s, Paul Hirst and Barry Hindess elaborated a structural Marxist interpretation of historical materialism.[26]

Regulation theory, especially in the work of Michel Aglietta draws extensively on historical materialism.[27]

Spiral dynamics shows similarities to historical materialism.[how?][28]

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.”[29]

[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.[29]

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.”

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