Why is Marx's philosophy referred to as historical materialism?

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rrteacher | College Teacher | (Level 2) Educator Emeritus

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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. 


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