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What is historical materialism?

By J. Sykes

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Now that we have talked about the Marxist theory of knowledge and examined the meaning and function of dialectical materialism, let’s look at how that is applied to studying the historical development of society. Marx called this “the materialist conception of history,” or historical materialism. It is historical materialism that demonstrates the link between dialectical materialism and political economy. Here we have dialectical materialism applied to history.

Before we get into all of the details of historical materialism, let’s take an introductory look at some of the key concepts. This way we can understand how they fit together. After this we can look more closely at them each piece by piece.

In the Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels famously proclaimed that “the history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggle.” This is the main point of historical materialism, but there is a lot to unpack in that statement, and we should spend some time understanding how Marx and Engels arrived at that conclusion and what it means for revolutionaries.

Engels summed it up like this in his speech at the grave of Karl Marx in 1883:

“Just as Darwin discovered the law of development of organic nature, so Marx discovered the law of development of human history: the simple fact, hitherto concealed by an overgrowth of ideology, that mankind must first of all eat, drink, have shelter and clothing, before it can pursue politics, science, art, religion, etc.; that therefore the production of the immediate material means, and consequently the degree of economic development attained by a given people or during a given epoch, form the foundation upon which the state institutions, the legal conceptions, art, and even the ideas on religion, of the people concerned have been evolved, and in the light of which they must, therefore, be explained, instead of vice versa, as had hitherto been the case.”

As we’ve said before, Marxism is monistic rather than dualistic, meaning it doesn’t separate matter and thought, but recognizes thought as arising from and dependent upon matter. Our material being determines our consciousness. Before we can think, we must eat. Basically, Marxism understands that human society has always been organized around its tools in the production of its material needs. Each historical period is characterized materially by its forces of production and relations of production. Together these make up the material and economic base of society, the mode of production.

Forces of production include everything we use to fulfill human needs. This includes everything from tools, to factories, alongside land, raw materials, logistical infrastructure, warehouses, offices, retail facilities, restaurants, and so on. The tools and factories make up the instruments of production. The raw materials and resources make up the objects of production. The means of production consist of the instruments and objects of production together. The forces of production also include the living labor of the workers, the agents of production. In early human society, these productive forces were limited mainly to things like stone arrowheads and spear tips for hunting. Now they include highly complex technologies and methods.

Relations of production are the definite social relations that people enter into in order to organize the production of their needs. Production is a social process, based on some degree of a division of labor, and, following the end of primitive communal societies and the rise of the ancient slave societies, division of ownership, or class division. In class society, the means of production and the agents of production are separated, such that a minority of people own the means of production while a much larger majority of people work as the agents of production.

For now, let’s just emphasize that in the contradiction between the forces and relations of production, the forces of production tend to be the principal, or determining aspect. It is the forces of production, that is, the instruments of production together with living labor, acting upon nature, that plays the leading role. However, at times the relations of production may be the principal aspect, hastening or slowing the development of the productive forces.

Corresponding to this economic and material base of society there is also a superstructure of society, made up of a set of repressive and ideological apparatuses whose function is the reproduction of the mode of production. This includes legal systems, the courts and the police, but it also includes cultural institutions, schools, the media, religion and the broad political and philosophical ideas that characterize society. For now, let’s just emphasize that in the contradiction between the base and superstructure, the base is typically the principal aspect. The superstructure arises from the material base, though the superstructure also acts upon the base and reinforces it.

Each historical mode of production is defined by the level of the development of its productive forces and the corresponding relations of production. As the productive forces develop to higher levels, eventually the relations of production that at first encouraged and accelerated their development begin to hold them back, and those relations of production must be changed in order for the productive forces to be able to develop further.

Marx sums this up most succinctly in his preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy:

“At a certain stage of development, the material productive forces 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. The changes in the economic foundation lead sooner or later to the transformation of the whole immense superstructure.”

As society’s productive forces developed, so too did the relations of production develop from primitive communalism to the ancient slave societies, and on to feudalism, then capitalism, and from capitalism to socialism. These are the relations of production Marx and Engels identified from their analysis of how they had developed in Europe and how they would continue to develop based on their laws of motion that they drew from that analysis. Each change from one mode of production to the next meant the advancement of the productive forces and the revolutionizing of the relations of production. These changes also created great shifts in the legal, political and ideological superstructure to reinforce the base, demanding changes in legal structures, education, family relations and so on.

Historical materialism exposes the great lie of bourgeois ideology, that capitalism is eternal. It shows us that, on the contrary, it wasn’t always like this, that things have come to be this way as a result of a historical process, and that we can and must change things fundamentally and for the better. Historical materialism is a vast subject, and it will take us some time to do it justice. This article can only serve as a brief introduction to the elements of historical materialism. In our forthcoming articles we will go more deeply into each of these.

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