Historical materialism

Historical materialism

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Encyclopedia
Historical materialism is a methodological approach to the study of society
Society
A society, or a human society, is a group of people related to each other through persistent relations, or a large social grouping sharing the same geographical or virtual territory, subject to the same political authority and dominant cultural expectations...

, economics, and history, first articulated by Karl Marx
Karl Marx
Karl Heinrich Marx was a German philosopher, economist, sociologist, historian, journalist, and revolutionary socialist. His ideas played a significant role in the development of social science and the socialist political movement...

 (1818-1883) as "the materialist conception of history". 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. The non-economic features of a society (e.g. social classes, political structures, ideologies) are seen as being an outgrowth of its economic activity. The classic brief statement of the theory was made by Marx in the preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy
A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy
A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy is a book by Karl Marx, first published in 1859. The book is mainly an analysis of capitalism, achieved by critiquing the writings of the leading theoretical exponents of capitalism at that time: these were the political economists, nowadays often...

  (1859):
Since Marx's time, the theory has been modified and expanded by thousands of Marxist thinkers. It now has many variants.

Key ideas


Historical materialism started from a fundamental underlying reality of human existence: that in order for human beings to survive and continue existence from generation to generation, it is necessary for them to produce and reproduce the material requirements of life. While this may seem obvious, Marx was the first to explain that this was the foundation for understanding human society and historical development. 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, most fundamentally production relations.

However, production does not get carried out in the abstract, or by entering into arbitrary or random relations chosen at will. Human beings collectively work on nature
Nature
Nature, in the broadest sense, is equivalent to the natural world, physical world, or material world. "Nature" refers to the phenomena of the physical world, and also to life in general...

 but do not do the same work; there is a division of labor in which people not only do different jobs, but according to Marxist theory, some people live from the work of others by owning the means of production
Means of production
Means of production refers to physical, non-human inputs used in production—the factories, machines, and tools used to produce wealth — along with both infrastructural capital and natural capital. This includes the classical factors of production minus financial capital and minus human capital...

. How this is accomplished depends on the type of society. Production is carried out through very definite relations between people. And, in turn, these production relations are determined by the level and character of the productive forces
Productive forces
Productive forces, "productive powers" or "forces of production" [in German, Produktivkräfte] is a central idea in Marxism and historical materialism....

 that are present at any given time in history. For Marx, productive forces refer 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.

Writers who identify with historical materialism usually postulate that society has moved through a number of types or modes of production
Mode of production
In the writings of Karl Marx and the Marxist theory of historical materialism, a mode of production is a specific combination of:...

. That is, the character of the production relations is determined by the character of the productive forces; these could be the simple tools and instruments of early human existence, or the more developed machinery and technology of present age. The main modes of production Marx identified generally include primitive communism
Primitive communism
Primitive communism is a term used by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels to describe what they interpreted as early forms of communism: As a model, primitive communism is usually used to describe early hunter-gatherer societies, that had no hierarchical social class structures or capital accumulation...

 or tribal society
Tribe
A tribe, viewed historically or developmentally, consists of a social group existing before the development of, or outside of, states.Many anthropologists use the term tribal society to refer to societies organized largely on the basis of kinship, especially corporate descent groups .Some theorists...

 (a prehistoric stage), ancient society, feudalism
Feudalism
Feudalism was a set of legal and military customs in medieval Europe that flourished between the 9th and 15th centuries, which, broadly defined, was a system for ordering society around relationships derived from the holding of land in exchange for service or labour.Although derived from the...

 and capitalism
Capitalism
Capitalism is an economic system that became dominant in the Western world following the demise of feudalism. There is no consensus on the precise definition nor on how the term should be used as a historical category...

. In each of these social stages, people interact with nature and produce their living in different ways. Any surplus from that production is allotted in different ways. Ancient society was based on a ruling class of slave owners and a class of slaves; feudalism was based on landowners and serfs; and capitalism based on the capitalist class and the working class
Working class
Working class is a term used in the social sciences and in ordinary conversation to describe those employed in lower tier jobs , often extending to those in unemployment or otherwise possessing below-average incomes...

. The capitalist class privately owns the means of production, distribution and exchange (e.g. factories, mines, shops and banks) while the working class live by exchanging their socialized labour with the capitalist class for wages.

Marx identified the production relations of society (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 constituted the political/ideological superstructure
Base and superstructure
In Marxist theory, human society consists of two parts: the base and superstructure; the base comprehends the forces and relations of production — employer-employee work conditions, the technical division of labour, and property relations — into which people enter to produce the necessities and...

 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 is determined by the economic base and the relations that arise from its mode of production.

Historical materialism can be seen to rest on the following principles:
  • 1. The basis of human society is how humans work on nature to produce the means of subsistence.

  • 2. There is a division of labour into social classes (relations of production) based on property ownership where some people live from the labour of others.

  • 3. The system of class division is dependent on the mode of production.

  • 4. The mode of production is based on the level of the productive forces.

  • 5. Society moves from stage to stage when the dominant class is displaced by a new emerging class, by overthrowing the "political shell" that enforces the old relations of production no longer corresponding to the new productive forces. This takes place in the superstructure
    Superstructure
    A superstructure is an upward extension of an existing structure above a baseline. This term is applied to various kinds of physical structures such as buildings, bridges, or ships...

     of society, the political arena in the form of revolution
    Revolution
    A revolution is a fundamental change in power or organizational structures that takes place in a relatively short period of time.Aristotle described two types of political revolution:...

    , whereby the underclass "liberates" the productive forces with new relations of production, and social relations, corresponding to it.


Marx's clearest formulation of his "Materialist Conception of History" was in the 1859 Preface to his book A contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, whose relevant passage is reproduced here:


"In the social production of their existence, men inevitably enter Into definite relations, which are independent of their will, namely relations of production
Relations of production
Relations of production is a concept frequently used by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels in their theory of historical materialism, and in Das Kapital...

 appropriate to a given stage in the development of their material forces of production. The totality of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society
Society
A society, or a human society, is a group of people related to each other through persistent relations, or a large social grouping sharing the same geographical or virtual territory, subject to the same political authority and dominant cultural expectations...

, the real foundation, on which arises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of consciousness
Political consciousness
Following the work of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Karl Marx outlined the workings of a political consciousness.-The politics of consciousness:...

. The mode of production
Mode of production
In the writings of Karl Marx and the Marxist theory of historical materialism, a mode of production is a specific combination of:...

 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. At a certain stage of development, the material productive forces
Productive forces
Productive forces, "productive powers" or "forces of production" [in German, Produktivkräfte] is a central idea in Marxism and historical materialism....

 of society come into conflict with the existing relations of production or — this merely expresses the same thing in legal terms — with the property relations within the framework of which they have operated hitherto. From forms of development of the productive forces these relations turn into their fetters. Then begins an era of social revolution
Revolution
A revolution is a fundamental change in power or organizational structures that takes place in a relatively short period of time.Aristotle described two types of political revolution:...

. The changes in the economic foundation lead sooner or later to the transformation of the whole immense superstructure. In studying such transformations it is always necessary to distinguish between the material transformation of the economic conditions of production, which can be determined with the precision of natural science, and the legal, political, religious, artistic or philosophic — in short, ideological forms in which men become conscious of this conflict and fight it out. Just as one does not judge an individual
Individual
An individual is a person or any specific object or thing in a collection. Individuality is the state or quality of being an individual; a person separate from other persons and possessing his or her own needs, goals, and desires. Being self expressive...

 by what he thinks about himself, so one cannot judge such a period of transformation by its consciousness, but, on the contrary, this consciousness must be explained from the contradictions of material life, from the conflict existing between the social forces of production and the relations of production."


Perhaps the most influential recent defense of this passage, and of relevant Marxian and Marxist assertions is G.A. Cohen's Karl Marx's Theory of History: A Defence.

Key implications in the study and understanding of history


Many writers note that historical materialism represented a revolution in human thought, and a break from previous ways of understanding the underlying basis of change within various human societies. The theory shows what Marx called a "coherence" in human history, because each generation inherits the productive forces developed previously and in turn further develops them before passing them on to the next generation. Further that this coherence increasingly involves more of humanity the more the productive forces develop and expand to bind people together in production and exchange.

This understanding counters the notion that human history is simply a series of accidents, either without any underlying cause or caused by supernatural beings or forces exerting their will on society. This posits that history is made as a result of struggle between different social classes rooted in the underlying economic base.

Marx's materialism


While the "historical" part of historical materialism does not cause a comprehension problem (i.e., it means the present is explained by analysing the past), the term materialism
Materialism
In philosophy, the theory of materialism holds that the only thing that exists is matter; that all things are composed of material and all phenomena are the result of material interactions. In other words, matter is the only substance...

 is more difficult. Historical materialism uses "materialism" to make two separate points, where the truth or falsehood of one point does not affect the others.

Firstly, there is metaphysical or philosophical materialism, in which matter-in-motion is considered primary and thought about matter-in-motion, or thought about abstractions, secondary.

Secondly, there is the notion that economic processes form the material base of society upon which institutions and ideas rest and from which they derive. While the economy is the base structure of society, it does not follow that everything in history is determined by the economy, just as every feature of a house is not determined by its foundations. Thus, there is the idea that in the capitalist mode of production
Capitalist mode of production
In Marx's critique of political economy, the capitalist mode of production is the production system of capitalist societies, which began in Europe in the 16th century, grew rapidly in Western Europe from the end of the 18th century, and later extended to most of the world...

 the behaviour of actors in the market economy (means of production, distribution and exchange, the relations of production) plays the major role in configuring society.

Historical materialism and the future


In his analysis of the movement of history, Marx predicted the breakdown of capitalism (as a result of class struggle
Class struggle
Class struggle is the active expression of a class conflict looked at from any kind of socialist perspective. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels wrote "The [written] history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggle"....

 and the falling rate of profit), and the establishment in time of a communist society in which class-based human conflict would be overcome. The means of production would be held in the common ownership and used for the common good.

Marxist beliefs about history


According to 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
    Technology
    Technology is the making, usage, and knowledge of tools, machines, techniques, crafts, systems or methods of organization in order to solve a problem or perform a specific function. It can also refer to the collection of such tools, machinery, and procedures. The word technology comes ;...

    , labour, capital goods, etc.)
  2. Humans are inevitably involved in production relations (roughly speaking, economic relationships or institution
    Institution
    An institution is any structure or mechanism of social order and cooperation governing the behavior of a set of individuals within a given human community...

    s), which constitute our most decisive social relations.
  3. Production relations progress, with a degree of inevitability, following and corresponding to the development of the productive forces
    Productive forces
    Productive forces, "productive powers" or "forces of production" [in German, Produktivkräfte] is a central idea in Marxism and historical materialism....

    .
  4. Relations of production
    Relations of production
    Relations of production is a concept frequently used by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels in their theory of historical materialism, and in Das Kapital...

     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
    Capital accumulation
    The accumulation of capital refers to the gathering or amassing of objects of value; the increase in wealth through concentration; or the creation of wealth. Capital is money or a financial asset invested for the purpose of making more money...

    .
  5. Both productive forces
    Productive forces
    Productive forces, "productive powers" or "forces of production" [in German, Produktivkräfte] is a central idea in Marxism and historical materialism....

     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
    Mode of production
    In the writings of Karl Marx and the Marxist theory of historical materialism, a mode of production is a specific combination of:...

     (which combines both the forces and relations of production
    Relations of production
    Relations of production is a concept frequently used by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels in their theory of historical materialism, and in Das Kapital...

    ) on which the society is founded.
  7. Every type of state
    State (polity)
    A state is an organized political community, living under a government. States may be sovereign and may enjoy a monopoly on the legal initiation of force and are not dependent on, or subject to any other power or state. Many states are federated states which participate in a federal union...

     is a powerful institution
    Institution
    An institution is any structure or mechanism of social order and cooperation governing the behavior of a set of individuals within a given human community...

     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
    Exploitation
    This article discusses the term exploitation in the meaning of using something in an unjust or cruel manner.- As unjust benefit :In political economy, economics, and sociology, exploitation involves a persistent social relationship in which certain persons are being mistreated or unfairly used for...

    ) 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
    Working class
    Working class is a term used in the social sciences and in ordinary conversation to describe those employed in lower tier jobs , often extending to those in unemployment or otherwise possessing below-average incomes...

    .


This sketch is abstract - real historical understanding needed for developing political strategy and tactics must involve "concrete analysis of concrete conditions" (V.I. Lenin).

Alienation and freedom


Hunter-gatherer
Hunter-gatherer
A hunter-gatherer or forage society is one in which most or all food is obtained from wild plants and animals, in contrast to agricultural societies which rely mainly on domesticated species. Hunting and gathering was the ancestral subsistence mode of Homo, and all modern humans were...

 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
Serfdom
Serfdom is the status of peasants under feudalism, specifically relating to Manorialism. It was a condition of bondage or modified slavery which developed primarily during the High Middle Ages in Europe and lasted to the mid-19th century...

. The serfs, although not free, were tied to both forces and, thus, not completely alienated. Capitalism
Capitalism
Capitalism is an economic system that became dominant in the Western world following the demise of feudalism. There is no consensus on the precise definition nor on how the term should be used as a historical category...

, Marx argued, completely separates the economic and political forces, leaving them to have relations through a limiting government
Government
Government refers to the legislators, administrators, and arbitrators in the administrative bureaucracy who control a state at a given time, and to the system of government by which they are organized...

. 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.

The history of historical materialism


Marx's attachment to materialism arose from his doctoral research on the philosophy of Epicurus
Epicurus
Epicurus was an ancient Greek philosopher and the founder of the school of philosophy called Epicureanism.Only a few fragments and letters remain of Epicurus's 300 written works...

, as well as his reading of Adam Smith
Adam Smith
Adam Smith was a Scottish social philosopher and a pioneer of political economy. One of the key figures of the Scottish Enlightenment, Smith is the author of The Theory of Moral Sentiments and An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations...

 and other writers in classical political economy
Political economy
Political economy originally was the term for studying production, buying, and selling, and their relations with law, custom, and government, as well as with the distribution of national income and wealth, including through the budget process. Political economy originated in moral philosophy...

. Historical materialism builds upon the idea that became current in philosophy from the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries that the development of human society has moved through a series of stages, from hunting and gathering
Hunting and gathering
Hunting and gathering may refer to:*Hunting and gathering, the subsistence method based on edible plants and animals from the wild*Hunting and Gathering...

, through pastoralism
Pastoralism
Pastoralism or pastoral farming is the branch of agriculture concerned with the raising of livestock. It is animal husbandry: the care, tending and use of animals such as camels, goats, cattle, yaks, llamas, and sheep. It may have a mobile aspect, moving the herds in search of fresh pasture and...

 and cultivation, to commercial society.

Friedrich Engels
Friedrich Engels
Friedrich Engels was a German industrialist, social scientist, author, political theorist, philosopher, and father of Marxist theory, alongside Karl Marx. In 1845 he published The Condition of the Working Class in England, based on personal observations and research...

 wrote: "I use 'historical materialism' to designate the view of the course of history, which seeks the ultimate causes 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, with the consequent division of society into distinct classes and the struggles of these classes."

Warnings against misuse


Marx himself took care to indicate that he was only proposing a guideline to historical research (Leitfaden or Auffassung), and was not providing any substantive "theory of history" or "grand philosophy of history", let alone a "master-key to history". Numerous times, he and Engels expressed irritation with dilettante academics who sought to knock up their skimpy historical knowledge as quickly as possible into some grand theoretical system that would explain "everything" about history. To their great annoyance, the materialist outlook was used as an excuse for not studying history.

In the 1872 Preface to the French edition of Das Kapital
Das Kapital
Das Kapital, Kritik der politischen Ökonomie , by Karl Marx, is a critical analysis of capitalism as political economy, meant to reveal the economic laws of the capitalist mode of production, and how it was the precursor of the socialist mode of production.- Themes :In Capital: Critique of...

 Vol. 1, Marx also emphasised that "There is no royal road to science, and only those who do not dread the fatiguing climb of its steep paths have a chance of gaining its luminous summits". Reaching a scientific understanding was hard work. Conscientious, painstaking research was required, instead of philosophical speculation and unwarranted, sweeping generalisations.

But having abandoned abstract philosophical speculation in his youth, Marx himself showed great reluctance during the rest of his life about offering any generalities or universal truths about human existence or human history. The first explicit and systematic summary of the materialist interpretation of history published, Anti-Dühring
Anti-Dühring
Herrn Eugen Dührings Umwälzung der Wissenschaft, commonly known as Anti-Dühring, is a book written in German by Friedrich Engels, published in 1878. It had previously been serialised in a periodical. There were two further editions in German in the lifetime of Engels...

, was written by Friedrich Engels.

One of the aims of Engels's polemic Herr Eugen Dühring's Revolution in Science (written with Marx's approval) was to ridicule the easy "world schematism" of philosophers, who invented the latest wisdom from behind their writing desks. Towards the end of his life, in 1877, Marx wrote a letter to the editor of the Russian paper Otetchestvennye Zapisky, which significantly contained the following disclaimer:

"(...) If Russia is tending to become a capitalist nation after the example of the Western European countries, and during the last years she has been taking a lot of trouble in this direction - she will not succeed without having first transformed a good part of her peasants into proletarians; and after that, once taken to the bosom of the capitalist regime, she will experience its pitiless laws like other profane peoples. That is all. But that is not enough for my critic. He feels himself obliged to metamorphose my historical sketch of the genesis of capitalism in Western Europe into an historico-philosophic theory of the marche generale imposed by fate upon every people, whatever the historic circumstances in which it finds itself, in order that it may ultimately arrive at the form of economy which will ensure, together with the greatest expansion of the productive powers of
social labour, the most complete development of man. But I beg his pardon. (He is both honouring and shaming me too much.)"


Marx goes on to illustrate how the same factors can in different historical contexts produce very different results, so that quick and easy generalisations are not really possible. To indicate how seriously Marx took research, it is interesting to note that when he died, his estate contained several cubic metres of Russian statistical publications (it was, as the old Marx observed, in Russia that his ideas gained most influence).

But what is true is that insofar as Marx and Engels regarded historical processes as law
Law
Law is a system of rules and guidelines which are enforced through social institutions to govern behavior, wherever possible. It shapes politics, economics and society in numerous ways and serves as a social mediator of relations between people. Contract law regulates everything from buying a bus...

-governed processes, the possible future directions of historical development were to a great extent limited and conditioned by what happened before. Retrospectively, historical processes could be understood to have happened by necessity in certain ways and not others, and to some extent at least, the most likely variants of the future could be specified on the basis of careful study of the known facts.

Towards the end of his life, Engels commented several times about the abuse of historical materialism.

In a letter to Conrad Schmidt dated August 5, 1890, he stated that "And if this man (i.e., Paul Barth) has not yet discovered that while the material mode of existence is the primum agens this does not preclude the ideological spheres from reacting upon it in their turn, though with a secondary effect, he cannot possibly have understood the subject he is writing about. (...) The materialist conception of history has a lot of [dangerous friends] nowadays, to whom it serves as an excuse for not studying history. Just as Marx used to say, commenting on the French "Marxists" of the late 70s: "All I know is that I am not a Marxist." (...) In general, the word "materialistic" serves many of the younger writers in Germany as a mere phrase with which anything and everything is labeled without further study, that is, they stick on this label and then consider the question disposed of. But our conception of history is above all a guide to study, not a lever for construction after the manner of the Hegelian. All history must be studied afresh, the conditions of existence of the different formations of society must be examined individually before the attempt is made to deduce them from the political, civil law, aesthetic, philosophic, religious, etc., views corresponding to them. Up to now but little has been done here because only a few people have got down to it seriously. In this field we can utilize heaps of help, it is immensely big, anyone who will work seriously can achieve much and distinguish himself. But instead of this too many of the younger Germans simply make use of the phrase historical materialism (and everything can be turned into a phrase) only in order to get their own relatively scanty historical knowledge — for economic history is still in its swaddling clothes! — constructed into a neat system as quickly as possible, and they then deem themselves something very tremendous. And after that a Barth can come along and attack the thing itself, which in his circle has indeed been degraded to a mere phrase."

Finally, in a letter to Franz Mehring dated 14 July 1893, Engels stated:

"...there is only one other point lacking, which, however, Marx and I always failed to stress enough in our writings and in regard to which we are all equally guilty. That is to say, we all laid, and were bound to lay, the main emphasis, in the first place, on the derivation of political, juridical and other ideological notions, and of actions arising through the medium of these notions, from basic economic facts. But in so doing we neglected the formal side — the ways and means by which these notions, etc., come about — for the sake of the content. This has given our adversaries a welcome opportunity for misunderstandings, of which Paul Barth is a striking example."

Historical materialism in Marxist thought


In 1880, about three years before Marx died, Friedrich Engels indicated that he accepted the usage of the term "historical materialism". Recalling the early days of the new interpretation of history, he stated:
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 "In the meantime, the Marxist world outlook has found representatives far beyond the boundaries of Germany and Europe and in all the literary languages of the world."

In his old age, Engels speculated about a new cosmology
Cosmology
Cosmology is the discipline that deals with the nature of the Universe as a whole. Cosmologists seek to understand the origin, evolution, structure, and ultimate fate of the Universe at large, as well as the natural laws that keep it in order...

 or ontology
Ontology
Ontology is the philosophical study of the nature of being, existence or reality as such, as well as the basic categories of being and their relations...

 which would show the principles of dialectics to be universal features of reality. He also drafted an article on The part played by labour in the transition from Ape to Man, apparently a theory of anthropogenesis which would integrate the insights of Marx and Charles Darwin
Charles Darwin
Charles Robert Darwin FRS was an English naturalist. He established that all species of life have descended over time from common ancestry, and proposed the scientific theory that this branching pattern of evolution resulted from a process that he called natural selection.He published his theory...

.
(This is discussed by Charles Woolfson in The Labour Theory of Culture: a Re-examination of Engels Theory of Human Origins).

At the very least, Marxism
Marxism
Marxism is an economic and sociopolitical worldview and method of socioeconomic inquiry that centers upon a materialist interpretation of history, a dialectical view of social change, and an analysis and critique of the development of capitalism. Marxism was pioneered in the early to mid 19th...

 had now been born, and "historical materialism" had become a distinct philosophical doctrine, subsequently elaborated and systematised by intellectuals like Eduard Bernstein
Eduard Bernstein
Eduard Bernstein was a German social democratic theoretician and politician, a member of the SPD, and the founder of evolutionary socialism and revisionism.- Life :...

, Karl Kautsky
Karl Kautsky
Karl Johann Kautsky was a Czech-German philosopher, journalist, and Marxist theoretician. Kautsky was recognized as among the most authoritative promulgators of Orthodox Marxism after the death of Friedrich Engels in 1895 until the coming of World War I in 1914 and was called by some the "Pope of...

, Georgi Plekhanov
Georgi Plekhanov
Georgi Valentinovich Plekhanov was a Russian revolutionary and a Marxist theoretician. He was a founder of the Social-Democratic movement in Russia and was one of the first Russians to identify himself as "Marxist." Facing political persecution, Plekhanov emigrated to Switzerland in 1880, where...

 and Nikolai Bukharin
Nikolai Bukharin
Nikolai Ivanovich Bukharin , was a Russian Marxist, Bolshevik revolutionary, and Soviet politician. He was a member of the Politburo and Central Committee , chairman of the Communist International , and the editor in chief of Pravda , the journal Bolshevik , Izvestia , and the Great Soviet...

. Even so, up to the 1930s many of Marx's earlier works were still unknown, and in reality most self-styled Marxists had not read beyond Capital Vol. 1. Isaac Deutscher
Isaac Deutscher
Isaac Deutscher was a Polish-born Jewish Marxist writer, journalist and political activist who moved to the United Kingdom at the outbreak of World War II. He is best known as a biographer of Leon Trotsky and Joseph Stalin and as a commentator on Soviet affairs...

 provides an anecdote about the knowledge of Marx in that era:

"Capital is a tough nut to crack, opined Ignacy Daszyński
Ignacy Daszynski
Ignacy Ewaryst Daszyński was a Polish politician, journalist and Prime Minister of the Polish government created in Lublin in 1918....

, one of the best known socialist "people's tribunes" around the turn of the 20th century, but anyhow he had not read it. But, he said, Karl Kautsky
Karl Kautsky
Karl Johann Kautsky was a Czech-German philosopher, journalist, and Marxist theoretician. Kautsky was recognized as among the most authoritative promulgators of Orthodox Marxism after the death of Friedrich Engels in 1895 until the coming of World War I in 1914 and was called by some the "Pope of...

 had read it, and written a popular summary of the first volume. He hadn't read this either, but Kazimierz Kelles-Krauz
Kazimierz Kelles-Krauz
Kazimierz Kelles-Krauz was a Polish philosopher and sociologist, member of the Polish Socialist Party. He was one of the most significant Marxist thinkers at the end of the 19th century....

, the party theoretician, had read Kautsky's pamphlet and summarised it. He also had not read Kelles-Krauz's text, but the financial expert of the party, Hermann Diamand, had read it and had told him, i.e. Daszynski, everything about it".

After Lenin's death in 1924, Marxism was transformed into Marxism-Leninism
Marxism-Leninism
Marxism–Leninism is a communist ideology, officially based upon the theories of Marxism and Vladimir Lenin, that promotes the development and creation of a international communist society through the leadership of a vanguard party over a revolutionary socialist state that represents a dictatorship...

 and from there to Maoism
Maoism
Maoism, also known as the Mao Zedong Thought , is claimed by Maoists as an anti-Revisionist form of Marxist communist theory, derived from the teachings of the Chinese political leader Mao Zedong . Developed during the 1950s and 1960s, it was widely applied as the political and military guiding...

 or Marxism-Leninism-Mao Zedong Thought in China
China
Chinese civilization may refer to:* China for more general discussion of the country.* Chinese culture* Greater China, the transnational community of ethnic Chinese.* History of China* Sinosphere, the area historically affected by Chinese culture...

 which some regard as the "true doctrine" and others as a "state religion".

In the early years of the 20th century, historical materialism was often treated by socialist writers as interchangeable with dialectical materialism
Dialectical materialism
Dialectical materialism is a strand of Marxism synthesizing Hegel's dialectics. The idea was originally invented by Moses Hess and it was later developed by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels...

, a formulation never used by Friedrich Engels
Friedrich Engels
Friedrich Engels was a German industrialist, social scientist, author, political theorist, philosopher, and father of Marxist theory, alongside Karl Marx. In 1845 he published The Condition of the Working Class in England, based on personal observations and research...

 however. According to many Marxists influenced by Soviet Marxism, historical materialism is a specifically sociological
Sociology
Sociology is the study of society. It is a social science—a term with which it is sometimes synonymous—which uses various methods of empirical investigation and critical analysis to develop a body of knowledge about human social activity...

 method, while dialectical materialism refers to a more general, abstract, philosophy
Philosophy
Philosophy is the study of general and fundamental problems, such as those connected with existence, knowledge, values, reason, mind, and language. Philosophy is distinguished from other ways of addressing such problems by its critical, generally systematic approach and its reliance on rational...

. The Soviet orthodox Marxist tradition, influential for half a century, based itself on Joseph Stalin
Joseph Stalin
Joseph Vissarionovich Stalin was the Premier of the Soviet Union from 6 May 1941 to 5 March 1953. He was among the Bolshevik revolutionaries who brought about the October Revolution and had held the position of first General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union's Central Committee...

's pamphlet Dialectical and Historical Materialism
Dialectical and Historical Materialism
Joseph Stalin's "Dialectical and Historical Materialism" is a central text within Soviet political theory.The work first appeared in 1938, and draws heavily upon both Lenin's philosophical works, and the then-new Short Course in the History of the All-Union Communist Party ; it was to become the...

 and on textbooks issued by the "Institute of Marxism-Leninism of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union".

Recent versions of historical materialism


Several scholars have argued that historical materialism ought to be revised in the light of modern scientific knowledge. Jürgen Habermas
Jürgen Habermas
Jürgen Habermas is a German sociologist and philosopher in the tradition of critical theory and pragmatism. He is perhaps best known for his theory on the concepts of 'communicative rationality' and the 'public sphere'...

 believes historical materialism "needs revision in many respects", especially because it has ignored the significance of communicative action
Communicative action
Communicative action is a concept associated with the German philosopher-sociologist Jürgen Habermas. Habermas uses this concept to describe cooperative action undertaken by individuals based upon mutual deliberation and argumentation...

.

Göran Therborn
Göran Therborn
Göran Therborn is a professor of sociology at Cambridge University and is amongst the most highly cited contemporary Marxian-influenced sociologists. He has published widely in journals such as the New Left Review, and is notable for his writing on topics that fall within the general political and...

 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
Paul Hirst
Paul Hirst was a British sociologist and political theorist. He became Professor of Social Theory at Birkbeck, University of London....

 and Barry Hindess
Barry Hindess
Barry Hindess is an Emeritus Professor in the School of Social Sciences at Australian National University. He was for many years an academic sociologist in the UK and has published widely on social and political theory, and on the history of political thought.- Selected works :* Discourses of...

 elaborated a structural Marxism
Structural Marxism
Structural Marxism was an approach to Marxist philosophy based on structuralism, primarily associated with the work of the French philosopher Louis Althusser and his students. It was influential in France during the 1960s and 1970s, and also came to influence philosophers, political theorists and...

 interpretation of historical materialism.

Regulation theory, especially in the work of Michel Aglietta
Michel Aglietta
Michel Aglietta is a French economist, currently Professor of Economics at the University of Paris X: Nanterre. Michel Aglietta is a scientific counsellor at CEPII, a member of the University Institute of France, and a consultant to Groupama. An alumnus of the École Polytechnique, from 1998 to...

 draws extensively on historical materialism.

Spiral dynamics
Spiral dynamics
Spiral Dynamics is a theory of human development introduced in the 1996 book Spiral Dynamics by Don Beck and Chris Cowan. The book was based on the theory of psychology professor Clare W. Graves...

 shows similarities to historical materialism.

Criticisms


Philosopher of science Karl Popper
Karl Popper
Sir Karl Raimund Popper, CH FRS FBA was an Austro-British philosopher and a professor at the London School of Economics...

, in his Conjectures and Refutations
Conjectures and Refutations
Conjectures and Refutations: The Growth of Scientific Knowledge is a book written by philosopher Karl Popper.Published in 1963 by Routledge, this book is a collection of his lectures and papers that summarised his thoughts on the philosophy of science...

, critiqued such claims of the explanatory power or valid application of historical materialism by arguing that it could explain or explain away any fact brought before it, making it unfalsifiable.

Underlying the dispute among historians are the different assumptions made about the definition or concept of "history
History
History is the discovery, collection, organization, and presentation of information about past events. History can also mean the period of time after writing was invented. Scholars who write about history are called historians...

" and "historiography
Historiography
Historiography refers either to the study of the history and methodology of history as a discipline, or to a body of historical work on a specialized topic...

".
Different historians take a different view of what it is all about, and what the possibilities of historical and social scientific knowledge are.

Broadly, the importance of the study of history lies in the ability of history to explain the present. John Bellamy Foster
John Bellamy Foster
John Bellamy Foster is a professor of sociology at the University of Oregon and also editor of Monthly Review, an independent socialist magazine. His writings have focused on political economy, environmental sociology, and Marxist theory...

 asserts that historical materialism is important in explaining history from a scientific perspective, by following the scientific method, as opposed to belief-system theories like Creationism
Creationism
Creationism is the religious beliefthat humanity, life, the Earth, and the universe are the creation of a supernatural being, most often referring to the Abrahamic god. As science developed from the 18th century onwards, various views developed which aimed to reconcile science with the Genesis...

 and Intelligent Design
Intelligent design
Intelligent design is the proposition that "certain features of the universe and of living things are best explained by an intelligent cause, not an undirected process such as natural selection." It is a form of creationism and a contemporary adaptation of the traditional teleological argument for...

, which do not base their beliefs on verifiable facts and hypotheses.

See also

  • Marx's theory of history
    Marx's theory of history
    The Marxist theory of historical materialism understands society as fundamentally determined by the material conditions at any given time - this means the relationships which people enter into with one another in order to fulfill their basic needs, for instance to feed and clothe themselves and...

  • Marxism
    Marxism
    Marxism is an economic and sociopolitical worldview and method of socioeconomic inquiry that centers upon a materialist interpretation of history, a dialectical view of social change, and an analysis and critique of the development of capitalism. Marxism was pioneered in the early to mid 19th...

  • Karl Marx
    Karl Marx
    Karl Heinrich Marx was a German philosopher, economist, sociologist, historian, journalist, and revolutionary socialist. His ideas played a significant role in the development of social science and the socialist political movement...

  • Fundamentals of Marxism Leninism
    Fundamentals of Marxism Leninism
    The Fundamentals of Marxism–Leninism is considered to be one of the fundamental works on dialectical materialism and Leninist communism. The book remains important in understanding the philosophy and politics of the Soviet Union, by consolidating the work of important contributions to Marxist...

  • Dialectical materialism
    Dialectical materialism
    Dialectical materialism is a strand of Marxism synthesizing Hegel's dialectics. The idea was originally invented by Moses Hess and it was later developed by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels...

  • Marxist historiography
    Marxist historiography
    Marxist or historical materialist historiography is a school of historiography influenced by Marxism. The chief tenets of Marxist historiography are the centrality of social class and economic constraints in determining historical outcomes....

  • Orthodox Marxism
    Orthodox Marxism
    Orthodox Marxism is the term used to describe the version of Marxism which emerged after the death of Karl Marx and acted as the official philosophy of the Second International up to the First World War and of the Third International thereafter...

  • Classical Marxism
    Classical Marxism
    Classical Marxism refers to the social theory expounded by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, as contrasted with later developments in Marxism.-Karl Marx:...

  • Economic determinism
    Economic determinism
    Economic determinism is the theory which attributes primacy to the economic structure over politics in the development of human history. It is usually associated with the theories of Karl Marx, although many Marxist thinkers have dismissed plain and unilateral economic determinism as a form of...

  • Parametric determinism
    Parametric determinism
    Parametric determinism refers to a Marxist interpretation of the course of history formulated by Prof. Ernest Mandel, and it could be viewed as one variant of Karl Marx's historical materialism or as a philosophy of history....


Further reading

  • H. B. Acton
    H. B. Acton
    Harry Burrows Acton was a British academic in the field of political philosophy, known for books defending the morality of capitalism, and attacking Marxism-Leninism. He in particular produced arguments on the incoherence of Marxism, which he described as a 'farrago'...

    , The Illusion of the Epoch. (critical account which focusses on incoherencies in the thought of Marx, Engels and Lenin)
  • Perry Anderson
    Perry Anderson
    Perry Anderson is a British Leftist intellectual, historian, and political essayist. He is often identified with the post-1956 Western Marxism of the New Left in Europe. He is Professor of History and Sociology at the University of California, Los Angeles and an editor of the New Left Review. He...

    , Lineages of the Absolutist State, 1974
  • Ronald L. Meek
    Ronald L. Meek
    Ronald Lindley Meek was a Marxian economist and social scientist known especially for his scholarly studies of classical political economy and the labour theory of value....

    , Social Science and the Ignoble Savage, Cambridge U.P. Cambridge studies in the history and theory of politics, 1976
  • Paul Blackledge, Reflections on the Marxist Theory of History (2006)
  • Louis B. Boudin
    Louis B. Boudin
    Louis B. Boudin was a Russian-born American Marxist theoretician, writer, politician, and lawyer. He is best remembered as the author of a two volume history of the Supreme Court's influence on American government, first published in 1932....

    , The Theoretical System of Karl Marx. Chicago: Charles H. Kerr Publishing Co., 1907, contains an early defense of the materialist conception of history against its critics of the day
  • Gordon V. Childe, Man Makes Himself (free interpretation of Marx's idea)
  • Gerald Cohen
    Gerald Cohen
    Gerald Allan "Jerry" Cohen was a Marxist political philosopher, formerly Visiting Quain Professor of Jurisprudence, University College, London and Chichele Professor of Social and Political Theory, All Souls College, Oxford...

    , Karl Marx's Theory of History: A Defence. (influential analytical Marxist interpretation)

  • Hal Draper
    Hal Draper
    Hal Draper was an American socialist activist and author who played a significant role in the Berkeley, California, Free Speech Movement and is perhaps best known for his extensive scholarship on the history and meaning of the thought of Karl Marx.Draper was a lifelong advocate of what he called...

    , Karl Marx's Theory of Revolution (4 volumes). (captures the full subtlety of Marx's thought, but at length)
  • Helmut Fleischer, Marxism and History. (good reply to false interpretations of Marx's view of history)
  • John Bellamy Foster, Marx's Ecology: Materialism and Nature, London, New York: Monthly Review, 1999
  • Loren R. Graham, Science Philosophy and Human Behavior in the Soviet Union. (sympathetically-critical of dialectical materialism)
  • Anthony Giddens
    Anthony Giddens
    Anthony Giddens, Baron Giddens is a British sociologist who is known for his theory of structuration and his holistic view of modern societies. He is considered to be one of the most prominent modern contributors in the field of sociology, the author of at least 34 books, published in at least 29...

    , A Contemporary Critique of Historical Materialism, 1981
  • Jürgen Habermas
    Jürgen Habermas
    Jürgen Habermas is a German sociologist and philosopher in the tradition of critical theory and pragmatism. He is perhaps best known for his theory on the concepts of 'communicative rationality' and the 'public sphere'...

    , Communication and the Evolution of Society. (argues historical materialism must be revised to include communicative action)
  • Chris Harman
    Chris Harman
    Chris Harman was a British journalist and political activist, and a member of the Central Committee of the Socialist Workers Party...

    , A People's History of the World (Marxist view of history according to a leader of the International Socialist Tendency)
  • Franz Jakubowski
    Franz Jakubowski
    Franz Jakubowski was a Marxist theorist. Born in Poznań, Poland, he grew up in what was then the Free City of Danzig. His father was a doctor. From 1930 to 1933 he studied law in Heidelberg, Berlin, Munich and Breslau, before completing his studies in political science at Basel University...

    , Ideology and Superstructure attempts to provide an alternative to schematic interpretations of historical materialism
  • Z.A. Jordan, The Origins of Dialectical Materialism (good survey)http://marxmyths.org/jordan/article.htm
  • Ernest Mandel
    Ernest Mandel
    Ernest Ezra Mandel, also known by various pseudonyms such as Ernest Germain, Pierre Gousset, Henri Vallin, Walter , was a revolutionary Marxist theorist.-Life:...

    , Introduction to Marxism. (emphasizes understanding the roots of class society and the state)
  • Ernest Mandel, The Place of Marxism in History (modelled on Lenin's "Three components of Marxism" but with an interesting section on the reception and diffusion of Marxism in the world)http://www.isg-fi.org.uk/archives/mandel/pomih/pom00.htm
  • Mao Zedong
    Mao Zedong
    Mao Zedong, also transliterated as Mao Tse-tung , and commonly referred to as Chairman Mao , was a Chinese Communist revolutionary, guerrilla warfare strategist, Marxist political philosopher, and leader of the Chinese Revolution...

    , Four Essays on Philosophy. (standard Maoist reading of Marx's materialism)
  • Franz Mehring
    Franz Mehring
    Franz Erdmann Mehring , was a German publicist, politician and historian.-Early years:Franz Mehring was born 27 February 1846 in Schlawe, Pomerania, the son of a bourgeois family.-Political career:...

    , On Historical Materialism (classic statement by a contemporary and friend of Marx & Engels)http://www.marxists.org/archive/mehring/1893/histmat/index.htm
  • George Novack
    George Novack
    George Novack was an American Communist politician and Marxist theoretician....

    , Understanding History: Marxist Essays (Trotskyist interpretations of problems of history)http://www.marxists.org/archive/novack/index.htm
  • Leszek Nowak, Property and Power: Towards a non-Marxian Historical Materialism attempts to develop a post-Stalinist interpretation of Marx's project
  • Anton Pannekoek, Materialism And Historical Materialism.
  • Karl Popper
    Karl Popper
    Sir Karl Raimund Popper, CH FRS FBA was an Austro-British philosopher and a professor at the London School of Economics...

    , The Poverty of Historicism
    The Poverty of Historicism
    The Poverty of Historicism is a book by twentieth century philosopher Karl Popper which seeks to persuade the reader of both the danger and the bankruptcy of the idea of historicism.-Publication:...

    , attacks the notion that the study of history can be used to predict the future.
  • S.H. Rigby, Marxism and History, 1977
  • John Rees, The Algebra of Revolution. (Classical Marxist account of the philosophy of Marx, Engels, Lenin, Lukacs and Trotsky)
  • William H. Shaw, Marx's Theory of History provides a short survey
  • Joseph Stalin
    Joseph Stalin
    Joseph Vissarionovich Stalin was the Premier of the Soviet Union from 6 May 1941 to 5 March 1953. He was among the Bolshevik revolutionaries who brought about the October Revolution and had held the position of first General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union's Central Committee...

    , Historical and Dialectical Materialism. (classic statement of Stalinist doctrine)
  • Wal Suchting, Marx: An Introduction includes a good short introduction
  • Göran Therborn
    Göran Therborn
    Göran Therborn is a professor of sociology at Cambridge University and is amongst the most highly cited contemporary Marxian-influenced sociologists. He has published widely in journals such as the New Left Review, and is notable for his writing on topics that fall within the general political and...

    , Science, Class and Society (critical survey of the relationship between sociology and historical materialism)
  • E.P. Thompson, The Poverty of Theory. (polemic which ridicules theorists of history who do not actually study history)
  • Gustav A. Wetter, Dialectical Materialism: a Historical and Systematic Survey of Philosophy in the Soviet Union. (alternative survey)
  • Johan Witt-Hansen, Historical Materialism: The Method, The Theories. (sees historical materialism as a methodology, and Das Kapital as an application of the method)
  • Allen W. Wood, Karl Marx (Arguments of the Philiosophers series), Routledge 2004 delves into misinterpretations of Marx including the substitution of "Historical materialism" by Lenin

External links