What is historical materialism?

Prepared by Sam Pawlett

Historical Materialism is a theory that privileges the economic in explanation of non-economic phenomena. It is sometimes known as the materialist conception of history or the economic interpretation of history. It was the research program of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. Marx himself never used the term.

For the sake of clarity in the discussion, I would like to define what I mean by materialism, historical materialism, dialectical materialism, and a few other important terms.

Materialism is the understanding which states that reality is only material: matter and energy. There are no Gods or supernatural phenomenon. Ideas, dreams, etc. are all part of material reality. Engels introduced it--but Marx's work especially the works he intended to publish like Capital Vol. 1, the 18th Brumaire and the Civil War in France show a resemblance to what Engels defined as historical materialism. The starting point of historical materialism is as Marx says "the real individuals, their activity and the material conditions of life, both those which they find already existing and those produced by their activity." People must procure or produce the necessities by which they can survive and reproduce themselves. For example, through practical everyday life wage-laborers reproduce themselves physically, i.e. work to earn money in order to buy food, shelter and clothing they need to survive. Wage-laborers as part of their "jobs" engage in production, production of the things they need to buy in order to survive. The same has been true in other historical periods as well. Tribesmen engaged in the procurement and production of their necessities. Slaves reproduced themselves physically by the production of the things they needed.

Thus humans are producers and their production consists of two distinct aspects, the material and the social. The material is as we have seen the production of the physical necessities of life. In producing physical necessities, people reproduce the *social form* in within which they produce. Tribesmen producing to reproduce themselves reproduce their tribe, slaves reproducing themselves reproduce slavery and wage-laborers reproducing themselves reproduce capitalism. The social form of production is a social process by which people co-operate (through a division of labor in more complex social forms) to produce the things they need. This aspect always involves social relations of those involved. These relations crucially concern the control of the process of production and the distribution of its products.

The material aspect of production implies a certain organization of production, possession of the appropriate tools and knowledge. This material aspect of production is called the *productive forces.* The social form in which people produce is called the *relations of production*. Together, the forces and relations of production are the *mode of production*.

The next stage in the argument is more controversial. The productive forces determine and limit or at least correspond to the relations of production. Lets consider an example to help make this relationship more transparent. The earliest humans reproduced themselves by hunting animals and producing simple crops. Such a society could not produce cars, computers or engage in the mass pr