Historical materialism and Marx: A guide to the theory

Historical materialism was an attempt to create a social scientific proposition to justify the class struggle. The hypothesis is based on a powerful belief of oppression in a capitalistic society, class-based exploitation, and superiority. As an emancipatory theory Historical materialism had envisaged the possibility of a world in which all manner of class oppression is eradicated. Here's what it means...


Karl Marx never laid down a theory of History in great detail. The same had to be construed from a plethora of articles wherein he attempted to apply a theoretical analysis to past and future events, or texts of a more theoretical nature. Preface to a critique of the Political economy by Marx has achieved canonical success, concerning the latter. However, the collaborative writing of Marx and Friedrich Engel’s German Ideology in 1845 is the first book that laid down the basics of Marx’s theory of Historical Materialism.

The German ideology

Marx and Engels in The German Ideology compare their views on materialism with idealism then prevalent in Imperial Germany. They set out fundamental yardsticks to justify their premise. Their first theory in the book suggests Human Beings are essentially productive and must produce their means of sustenance to satiate their material needs. The engendering of needs in society corresponds to the augmentation of human productive forces. The authors contend material life influences social life. Therefore, any social occurrence has an underlying materialistic motive shaping forms of consciousness. Amidst the creation and augmentation of production and co-operation between individuals’ economic structures rise and decline. Eventually, the authors contend communism will become a reality and the only possibility when the working class shall become aware of their plights and exploitation and structure an alternative sufficient to motivate them into becoming revolutionaries.

Historical materialism: A critical analysis

Instead of perceiving history as influenced by prominent political leaders, Marx explained history by analyzing how people conducted their lifestyle. Historical Materialism is another way for explaining how society’s economic superstructure determines its social organizations. The mode of production which determines how a particular society organizes itself economically is central to the concept. The organization happens in two parts, first, it encompasses means of economic products such as machines, factories, land coupled with human capital. Secondly, the mode of production encompasses relations between humans for economic production e.g. factory owners and their laborers. Engels and Marx explicated their perception of history by pondering on the past occurrences with the beginning of tribal societies. For these societies, the authors outlined modes of production were limited to hunting and gathering and there was an equal labor division between both genders. Such kinds of production sowed the impetus of social equations and relations such as family. In Marxism socio-political institutions such as family, law, science and religion are superstructures to the socio-economic scenario. Changes in the economic organization result in changes in social institutions.

Marx and Engels pondered at a variety of stages of historical development. However, most of their time and effort was invested in tracing the growth of capitalism, after the decline of feudalism. Feudalism involved peasants working in agricultural plots for a lord. According to Marx and Engels, feudalism is the emerging ground for capitalism in light of globalization and international trade which created the merchant class.

During feudal times the merchant class gained disproportionate power and became increasingly powerful. However, feudal society followed a hierarchical structure characterizing nobility at the top of the social ladder. Feudal society could not contemplate how powerful the merchant class was bent on becoming. Because of the forces of production-power mongering merchants could never ally with the nobility favoring feudal structure and consequently, feudalism was overpowered, as the merchant class always comprised the majority.

Capitalism distinctly reflected the significance of merchants in the social pyramid. Historical materialism expounds a conflict between the productive forces and social relations which results in the revolution which ultimately changes the mode of production. As a result, the Marxist school of thought believes there was a shift from feudalism to capitalism. 

Historical materialism: A critique

Criticisms have been raised against the theory both from within and outside the Marxist school of thought. There are five criticisms primarily, which can be countered, however, there are few other problems of a more serious nature.  

  • The development thesis: unlike the prediction of the Marxists the forces of development do not follow a systematic timeline of persistent development. Economic fluctuations are common. 
  • Fettering: There is no particular reason as to why class relations ultimately fetter of forces of production. While there may be good arguments justifying why a particular class relation owns a particular kind of property there is no general argument explaining why all kinds of class relations ultimately do this.
  • Economic reductionism: Historical Materialism, in other words, is a kind of economic reductionism (theory attributing an economic explanation to all social phenomena). However, applying economic reductionism to explain the economic, social, and political superstructure is incorrect and misleading.
  • Transformation: Even if social relations constrain the forces of production in the hands of the ruling class, there is no reason to presuppose there shall always emerge historical agents capable of fixing the disproportionate relations. It is incorrect to assume there is an inherent tendency in consonance with the fettering for class capacities to challenge the ruling classes. The class equations may be stagnated over time.
  • Functional expositions: In social science functional explanations can never be regarded as legitimate, either concerning the relations of production or the socio-economic and political superstructure. 

In light of the above-mentioned criticisms what can be suggested is another from of Historical materialism offering a less deterministic theoretical goal.  This form of historical materialism retains the general sense of history exemplifying an overall, systematic pattern but refutes the strong deterministic claims as implied by classical Historical Materialism.

Also read : Newton’s Fourth Law by Dr Sudhir Kumar Das: A Book review

The way ahead

It needs to be borne in mind the theory of historical materialism was formulated to solve a particular problem posed by the Marxists: class emancipation via class struggle. The theory was an attempt to create a social scientific proposition to justify the class struggle. The hypothesis is based on a powerful belief of oppression in a capitalistic society, class-based exploitation, and superiority. As an emancipatory theory historical materialism had envisaged the possibility of a world in which all manner of class oppression is eradicated. For many people this theory irrespective of how much they detest class inequality seemed hugely beneficial (a pie in the sky). However, in reality, the theory is only a divine utopia and not a nucleus around which a revolution can be organized.


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