Marx viewed history as a long process in which social classes, defined by their relationship to the means of production in society, clashed. These clashes led to conflict, which in turn led to social change. These changes, he thought, had resulted in the social conditions confronting Europe at mid-nineteenth century. Two classes, created by the emergence of capitalism, stood in opposition to each other. They were called the bourgeoisie (those who controlled the means of production) and the proletariat (those who did not. Eventually, Marx thought, through the process of industrial capitalism, the proletariat would become so alienated from the means of production and control of their own economic lives that they would rise up to destroy the bourgeoisie.
It was Marx's focus on economic factors that has caused scholars to brand his thought historical materialism. Other philosophers, particularly G.W.F. Hegel, had argued that history was a pattern of clashing forces, or a dialectic, but Hegel thought that these clashes took place on the level of ideals. Marx, who as a young man was identified with a group of thinkers known as "young," or "left" Hegelians, argued that ideas were superstructural, or products of a material base. People's ideas were a product of their social conditions. In his view, history could be reduced to material and economic relations.
Marx's philosophy is called historical materialism because it studied how the material situation of a society affected human development throughout history. Marx looked at the ways in which societies throughout history organized themselves to produce the materials necessary for sustaining life. He determined that societies have used different means of production and different forms of a division of labor. For example, primitive societies had a communitarian ethic in which goods were owned in common, but, eventually, societies developed feudalism in which one class of people (lords) owned the land while another class (serfs or peasants) worked the land in exchange for protection. Later, capitalism developed, in which a capitalist class owned the means of production and the working class worked for wages but did not own the means of production. Marx's analysis of history led him to believe that capitalism would eventually collapse and that communism would take its place as the next logical progression in human development.