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 production we have today. They lacked the tools and knowledge to do so. Knowledge and tools are part of the productive forces so the productive limit and constrain the nature of the relations of production. This material limitation on what earlier societies could produce limited and constrained the types of relationships that existed between people. Next and equally controversial is the historical materialist notion that the political/legal structure and ideology of particular societies are determined, limited and constrained by the relations of production. The relations of production block or rule out all phenomena which are inconsistent with it.Here are some examples of how this occurs.[1]

1) a proposed law that guarantees a non-property income to all citizens. 2) a parliamentary party policy of concerting monopolistic profitable holdings to public ownership 3) mass media advocation of the prohibition of unearned income (property income.) 4) educational system and technique that alters public consciousness away from a competitive towards a co-operative outlook. 5) legislation to reduce profits and shareholder power in favor of public ownership.

Conditions 1-5 are made possible by; 1) the supervisory prominence of ruling class members in all legal, political an ideological agencies. 2) the power of the ruling class to provide and withdraw economic support from parliamentary, educational and mass media personnel and agencies which do not promote the interests of the ruling class. 3) the tendency of societies to sustain out of historical habit the relations of production that are already firmly established. 4) power of the ruling class to threaten the jobs of the working class and hence means of subsistence unless conformity to ruling class doctrine and capital accumulation is ensured.

Further, the relations of production determine or limit individual behavior by;

1) forcing people who are deprived of productive forces to stay alive by providing work and surplus labor for others. 2) forcing those who must work for others to pursue only the externally stipulated forms of activity in their work. 3) severely constraining those who must work what they may enjoy by way of dwelling place, food supply, culture goods, travel and so on. 4) exclusion of them form the natural and technological environment. 5) confinement in working life by extended repetitive tasks so as to curtail the possibilities of one's non-working life.

Qualifications. What Historical Materialism in Not.

1) Non-economic phenomena are not uniquely determined by the economic structure. 2) non-economic can and do play a role in shaping the forces of production.[2] 3) Historical materialism is not deterministic to the point where individual agency is left out.

3) leads to a paradox. If history follows a deterministic pattern towards socialism then there is no need to struggle against capitalism in the present. History is made by people within in the economic and social constraints I have outlined above.

Appendix. Marx and Engels on Historical Materialism.

Here are a few examples of how Marx and Engels discussed historical materialism.

"All past history, with the exception of the primitive stages, was the history of class struggle, that these warring classes of society are always the products of the modes of production and exchange in a word of the economic conditions of their time; that the economic structure of a society always furnishes the real basis; starting from which we can alone work out the ultimate explanation of the whole superstructure of juridical and political institutions as well as of the religious, philosophical and other ideas of a given epoch."[3]

" I use historical materialism' to designate the view of the course of history, which seeks the ultimate causes and the great moving power of all important historic events in the economic development of society, in the changes in the modes of production and exchange, with the consequent division of society into distinct classes and the struggles of these classes."[4]

" relations of production correspond to a definite stage of development of their material productive forces. The sum total of these relations of production...forms the real basis on which rises a legal and political superstructure. At a certain stage of their development, the material productive forces of society come into conflict with the existing relations of production. From forms of development of the productive forces these relations turn into fetters. Then begins an epoch of social revolution. With the change of the economic foundation the immense superstructure is rapidly transformed."[5]


1. The following draws on John McMurtry *The Structure of Marx's World View*. Princeton University Press.1978. P159ff

2. For an example of how social relations determine and limit the development of productive forces see David Noble *Profits Without People*. Garamond Press. Toronto. 1989.

3. Frederick Engels. *Socialism Utopian and Scientific* p16 International Publishers. New York.

4. Ibid, p51

5. Karl Marx. Preface to a Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy. International Publishers. New York.

Further Reading.

Frederick Engels
Socialism: Utopian and Scientific.
Origins of Private Property, the Family Fred Engels.
The Peasant War in Germany
Revolution and Counter-Revolution in Germany

Karl Marx
The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte
Civil Wars in France
Contribution to a Critique of Political Economy. [The above are the classic statements and examples of historical materialism and historical materialist analyses.] 
Capital Volume 1

Marx and Engels on Historical Materialism. International Publishers, New York 1976.

Commentaries and Secondary Sources.
There are thousands of books and articles on historical materialism. Here are a few.

Callinicos, Alex.
The Ideas of Karl Marx. Bookmarks.
Theorizing History. Cambridge University Press. 1991

Cohen, G.A. Karl Marx's Theory of History. Oxford University Press. 1978.

McMurtry, John. The Structure of Marx's Worldview. Princeton University Press.1978.

 Leblanc, Paul. Ed. A Reader in Revolutionary Marxist Politics. Humanities Press. 1994. [contains excellent bibliography.]

Wood, Ellen Meiksins. Democracy Against Capitalism. Cambridge University Press.

Perlman, Fredy. The Reproduction of Daily Life. Black and Red.1972.

Plekhanov, George. Development of the Monist View of History. Moscow.1956.

Thompson, E.P. The Making of the English Working Class. Penguin Books.

Historical Materialism or the Postmodern Agenda. ed. E.M. Wood and J.B Foster. Monthly Review Press 1994.

Trotsky, Leon. The History of the Russian Revolution. Pluto Press.1976 [one of the greatest books ever written.]

Gramsci, Antonio. Selections From the Prison Notebooks.

Mariategui, Jose. A Reader. Ed. Michel Pearlman. Humanities Press.1997.