Marx & Historical Materialism Research Paper Starter

Marx & Historical Materialism

Part philosophy, part social theory, historical materialism is a formal construct Karl Marx developed to explain the why and the how of economic and social change. It is based on the premise that we all derive our meaning from the physical world in general and define ourselves by what we produce. But the means and manner of this production never remain static for long, so internal conflict is unavoidable. All well and good says Marx, since it invariably leads to wider political and social change.

Keywords Base; Dialectic; Dialectical Materialism; Division of Labor; Forces of Production; Materialism; Mode of Production; Relations of Production; Superstructure; Surplus Value



Some consider Marx's historical materialism an overly simplistic answer to a very basic question: what causes society to change? Others still consider it a sound, systematic explanation. No one, however, would deny that, conceptually at least, it is the keystone of Marxist theory, the philosophic underpinning of an ideology that views the world as profoundly economic in scope and nature. More to the point for our purposes, historical materialism was one of the first comprehensive theories to emerge during the mid- to late- nineteenth century in the then nascent discipline of sociology. To understand Marx the philosopher and social theorist, one has to appreciate the boldness and originality of his central ideas.


With a certainty bordering on bravado, Marx flatly rejected the basic premise of the preeminent philosopher of his youth, Georg Hegel. An idealist, Hegel believed the real world was actually the embodiment of a higher, abstract order. A man was more than a just man, Hegel thought, he was an incarnation of an absolute spirit. As such, his everyday needs and place in civil society, though immanently appreciable, were actually just manifestations of a universal, abstract life-force (Jeannot, 1988). Marx, on the contrary, believed that the true essence of a person or thing lay entirely in the person of thing itself. For meaning, then, man had only to look to his physical surroundings and, more importantly, to what he made out of them (Kain, 1981). Consciousness, when all's said and done, originated in the material world not outside it, Marx thought.

Interestingly, though Marx may have jettisoned Hegel's abstract forms in favor of concrete reality, he never abandoned Hegel's belief that dialectic conflict lay at the heart of all change. In Hegel's account, the dialectic process pits a thesis against its antithesis until a synthesis of the two emerges as a new idea, viewpoint, or relationship. Hegel thought the dialectic revealed the "rational" unity underlying the world and was the source of the unbroken moral and spiritual progress of history. Marx thought it revealed exploitation, class struggle, and the inevitable demise of the capitalist system.


Marx also drew upon the ideas of another near-contemporary, Feuerbach. Equally disenchanted with Hegel's quasi-religious metaphysics, Feuerbach championed sensuality, emotion, and all things human in their place. What's more, he believed that a person could be defined in a number of ways because he or she assumes a number of distinct roles in society each and every day. Philosophic inquiry, therefore, was fundamentally an anthropological exercise. Man was much more than the material world he lived in, Feuerbach argued, and was thus the philosopher's true subject.

Not so, said Marx: social relations were part and parcel of the material world, for collaboration and the resulting human discourse, as Marx famously said, allow us to produce the goods necessary for our survival. And were it not for what we produce, we would be like any other animal. Our labor and "instruments" of production along with the social relations that compliment them effectively define our being, Marx thought (Sayer, 1975).


Later nineteenth-century social theorists would also come to view man as a "social animal." Émile Durkheim, the first practitioner of empirical sociological inquiry, seconded Marx's belief in the importance of social relations, if for very different reasons. Durkheim's chief concern was to find an explanation for the growing purposelessness and alienation he observed in people, a condition he called anomie. After much research, he attributed it to a decline in values and mores brought on by economic dislocation and rapid urbanization. Durkheim and Marx held diametrically opposed views, though, on the nature of the resulting social conflict. An adherent of economic determinism, Marx saw class struggle as historically inevitable. A strong believer in social cohesion, Durkheim saw class struggle more as a sort of open wound in need of healing (Østerberg, 1979).

Marx's own thinking was influenced in turn by other ground-breaking theorists, most notably the naturalist Charles Darwin whose On The Origins of the Species was published the same year as Marx's seminal A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy. Both works espoused a theory of evolution—one biological, the other socioeconomic—that operated outside humankind's agency or control. Marx initially embraced Darwin's idea of natural selection because it served as a useful counterpoint to his own idea of class struggle. Eventually, though, Marx grew alarmed when Darwin's followers sought to explain and justify contemporary capitalist society via natural selection (Nolan, 2002).

Further Insights

The Base

If, as Marx insisted, the dialectic drives history, what are the fundamental forces that continually clash to create a new socioeconomic synthesis? There is perhaps no more basic question in all of Marxism. The doctrinaire answer is the base (or, the forces and relations of production), and the superstructure (or, the sociopolitical institutions and values that evolve to foster and protect said production). Marx ardently believed and tirelessly argued that economics ultimately determine everything. Indeed, he spent more time thinking and writing about exchange value, surplus value, labor-time, and declining rates of profit than any other topic.

The forces of production include:

• the workforce;

• the technical expertise required to maintain and foster actual production techniques; and,

• the organizational knowledge needed to efficiently muster, train, and deploy needed skilled labor along functional lines.

The means of production are made up of the tools, machines, plants, and related infrastructure needed to produce goods on the one hand, and, on the other, the actual raw materials that are given added value through production. Combined, the means and forces of production form the material basis of life.

The social interaction between workers amongst themselves and with owners, meanwhile, are the relations of production. In capitalism, these relations are defined by the private ownership of the means of production by the bourgeoisie, in socialism by public ownership. Critically, given the dynamism of both the forces and relations of production, the two invariably clash. In Marx's view, though, the forces of production always win out, in the end triggering first economic then broader sociopolitical change.

In the interim before this change, though, the cohesion between the two takes on an identifiable shape or distinctive mode of production. The base-a given economic structure-gives rise to a societal superstructure (Wacquant, 1985). For, as Marx saw it, every mode of production requires a corresponding social order to perpetuate itself materially. This materially based social order is equally evident within the family, among and between different classes, and throughout the civic, religious, and intellectual fabric of all nations. According to Marx, history's primary function is to identify and analyze the root causes of each past dominant mode of...

(The entire section is 3531 words.)