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”. 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.
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). 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, 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”.
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. 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.