Historical Materialism (What is?)

In this guide, we will discuss what is Historical Materialism, the central thesis and definitions. Additionally, we will talk about some of the most important concepts related to historical materialism, a bit of historical background on Karl Marx and aspects such as the existence of a free will.

Historical Materialism

Historical Materialism is also considered to be the materialist conception of history. It is also the Methodology used by some politicians, histographers and philosophers that support communism and Marxism, that focuses on the development of human societies through history, indicating that history is the result of material conditions rather than ideals. 

According to Alan Woods from marxist.com, “Marxists do not see history as a mere series of isolated facts but rather, they seek to discover the general processes and laws that govern nature and society. The first condition for science, in general, is that we can look beyond the particular and arrive at the general. The idea that human history is not governed by any laws is contrary to all science”.

Moreover, we know that historical materialism argues that material conditions of the mode of production determine the organization and its development, meaning that how goods are made, have an influence on society and societies change over time. However, human beings need to survive by producing and reproducing, material possessions or goods.  

Historical Materialism and Politics

This theory is believed to be also the central argument for the Marxist conception of the political world. This means that historical relationships between the social classes and the political structures support the relationships, founded on the economic activity within any given society. 

In other words, Marx and Engels historical development can be understood via the notion of class conflict. In Capitalism, the owners of the means of production exploit or alienate those who work the means of production. In Marxism, the aim is to create a society that won’t have class conflict. This is why Marx and Engels truly believe that communist societies would end with the class conflict that characterizes capitalist societies.

A bit of historical background on Karl Marx

Karl Marx (1818-1883) was born in Germany in a Jewish family who later converted to Christianity when they had to face anti-jewish laws at that time. During his childhood, he attended a private school, later on, he went to law school and gained his PhD in Philosophy in 1841. When he was still a student, he was influenced by the philosophy of George Hegel and his successors. 

However, later on, he critiqued what Hegel had argued and went on to develop his own theory of historical materialism. “After receiving his Ph.D., Marx worked as a journalist and became involved in communist thought and politics, as well as numerous political and social issues of the time. In 1843 he married Jenny Von Westphalen and, in 1844, he met Friedrich Engels, who would financially support much of Marx’s later writing and co-author some of his most influential works, such as the Manifesto of the Communist Party and The German Ideology (routledgesoc.com)”.   

In 1849 Marx moved to England, and he spent the rest of his life researching and writing more frequently in politics and economics until he died in 1883. Much of his later writings were more on economics and less around philosophical matters. 

Why is it important to talk about Marx Today?

The central thought to his theory of historical materialism argues that social and cultural institutions such as religion or morality, are the outgrowth of collective economic activities. Additionally, we must say how influential Marx was by Hegel’s dialectical method but Marx only agreed with Hegel’s basic dialectical thesis of social change and disagreed with the notion that abstract ideas were the engine. 

Marx argued that it was material, economic forces or our relationship to the natural, biological and physical world that drove the dialectic of change instead. 

Alienation

This is a very important concept in Marx’s theory since he proposed that commodities and capitalism led to alienation. Moreover, Marx is well-known because of his notion that capitalism systematically alienates us in four distinct but related ways:

  • It alienates us from the products of our labour. 
  • It alienates us from the labour process itself.
  • It alienates us from other human beings. 
  • It alienates us from our own human nature.

The Stages of Historical Development

Humans have always struggled to be on top of the food chain. This struggle began many years ago when our ancestors first started to stand upright and free their hands for manual labour. Since then, the phases of social development have implicated a series of changes in the development of productive force labour. We can’t deny how human societal structures have gone through a series of stages that can be clearly discernible.

Each stage is believed to be based on the definite mode of production, which perpetuates the system of class relations. The superstructure (i.e. ideology, morality, laws) and the relationship between the economic base of society can be quite complex and even contradictory. 

Historical Materialism (What is?)

Slavery

If we go back to the ancient Greek, Egyptians and Mesopotamic civilizations, we can evidence how they were formed or have been shaped under the conditions of those civilizations. However, the ancient Greek socio-economic structure is a bit different from other ancient civilizations in the sense that Greece had freedom for the many, meaning, freedom for the citizens of Athens who did not happen to be slaves.

Moreover, those who were considered slaves (who did most of the work) had no rights, no matter whether they were men or women. Athens had an advanced democracy with an infuse of humanity and individualism. 

In contrast, Romans utilised brute force to subjugate others and they sold entire cities into slavery, killed thousands of prisoners of war for amusement and introduced crucifixion as an execution method. 

Do we have free will?

It is believed that ideas and actions are conditioned by social relations, consequently, the development won’t depend on the subjective will of men and women but it will take place according to definite laws. Social relations reflect the needs of the development of the productive forces where the study of these relations is the central thesis of the Marxist theory of history.

However, as indicated by Alan Woods, “if men and women are not the puppets of “blind historical forces”, neither are they entirely free agents, able to shape their destiny irrespective of the existing conditions imposed by the level of economic development, science and technique, which, in the last analysis, determine whether a socio-economic system is viable or not.”

Historical Materialism (What is?)

Marx and Darwin

It is no secret that we have gone through a long period of evolution for human beings to get where they are. However, for some people there is some kind of predetermined plan related to God or divine intervention or some kind of theological arguments to say our lives are not entirely our own. 

It is believed from an evolutionary perspective that the earliest forms of life already contain within them the embryo of all future developments. This means that we can explain the development of organs without having to say everything is part of a predetermined plan. 

Darwin, just like Marx, explains how species tend to change and evolve and how they possess a past, present and future. In terms of the Marxist theory, a given social system is not fixed, just as the evolutionary theory proposed by Darwin. Evolutionists argue that different life forms that may have initially dominated the planet for long periods made extinct as soon as their conditions changed. 

Why is this blog about Historical Materialism important?

Historical Materialism has been very influential when analyzing and understanding the dynamics of modern cultures and societies. Marxists don’t see isolated facts but propose certain laws govern nature and society. Moreover, we know that historical materialism argues that material conditions of the mode of production determine the organization and its development, meaning that how goods are made, have an influence on society and societies change over time. 

However, human beings need to survive by producing and reproducing, material possessions or goods. This is the type of relationship we see every day in capitalists societies and it is the reason why Marx rejected this type of society and embraced communism. Additionally, as we have mentioned, there are several stages societies have to go through first to change the Capitalist mentality. 

Please feel free to leave any comments or thoughts about the content of this article!

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about Historical Materialism

What does Engels mean by historical materialism?

Engels meant by historical materialism, the theory of history which argued that a society’s economic organization is fundamentally determined by their social institutions. The mode of production for societies changed when the productive workforces came into conflict with other classes or social relations. 

What is materialism by Karl Marx?

Materialism by Karl Marx and Engels argued that the material world which is only perceptible to the senses has an objective reality independent of the mind or spirit. However, they did not deny the reality of mental or spiritual processes but they claimed that ideas could arise only as products and reflections of material conditions.  

What is the Marxist approach to history?

The Marxists historiography or also known as historical materialism is a school of thought influenced by Marxism. The central thesis of Historical Materialism is the centrality that social class and economic constraints have in determining historical outcomes. 

What are the main ideas of Karl Marx’s theory?

According to Karl Marx’s theory of historical materialism, societies go through six stages:

  • Primitive communism
  • Slave society
  • Feudalism
  • Capitalism
  • Socialism
  • Stateless communism

Why is historical materialism important?

Historical materialism is considered important because it sets the fundamental bases of the underlying reality of human existence. This means that for future generations of human beings to survive, they must produce and reproduce the material requirements of everyday life. Understanding the historical background and how our societies change can help us analyze their dynamic and relationships between their actors. 

References 

Routledgesoc.com: “Historical materialism”

Hall, D. (n.d.) Historical Materialism (Socialism). Retrieved from tutor2u.net.

Woods, A. (2016) What is historical materialism? Retrieved from marxist.com.

Juanita Agboola

Juanita Agboola is the editor in chief of HFNE and an expert in mental health online. She has been writing about online behavior, mental health and psychology issues since 2012. All Guides are reviewed by our editorial team which constitutes various clinical psychologists, PhD and PsyD colleagues.