What is historical materialism? | To defend oneself!


Now that we have talked about the Marxist theory of knowledge and examined the meaning and function of dialectical materialism, let’s look at how it applies to the study of the historical development of society. Marx called this “the materialist conception of history,” or historical materialism. It is historical materialism that demonstrates the link between dialectical materialism and political economy. It is dialectical materialism applied to history.

Before we get into all the details of historical materialism, let’s take an introductory look at some of the key concepts. This way we can understand how they fit together. After that, we can take a closer look at them, piece by piece.

In the communist manifesto, Marx and Engels proclaimed that “the history of any hitherto existing society is the history of the class struggle”. This is the main point of historical materialism, but there is a lot to unpack in this statement, and we should spend some time understanding how Marx and Engels came to this conclusion and what it means for revolutionaries.

Engels summed it up like this:

“As Darwin discovered the law of the development of organic nature, so Marx discovered the law of the development of human history: the simple fact, hitherto concealed by ideological overgrowth, that mankind must above all eat , drink, lodge and dress. , before they can pursue politics, science, art, religion, etc. ; that therefore the production of immediate material means, and consequently the degree of economic development attained by a given people or at a given epoch, form the foundation on which rest the institutions of the State, legal conceptions, art and even the ideas about religion of the people concerned have evolved, and in the light of which they must therefore be explained, instead of the other way around, as has been the case hitherto.

As we have already said, Marxism is monistic rather than dualistic, which means that it does not separate matter and thought, but recognizes that thought arises from matter and depends on it. Our material being determines our consciousness. Before thinking, you have to eat. Fundamentally, Marxism understands that human society has always organized itself around its tools in the production of its material needs. Each historical period is materially characterized by its forces of production and its relations of production. Together they constitute the material and economic basis of society, the mode of production.

The forces of production include all that we use to satisfy human needs. This includes everything from tools to factories, land, raw materials, logistics infrastructure, warehouses, offices, retail outlets, restaurants, etc. Tools and factories constitute the instruments of production. Raw materials and resources constitute the objects of production. The means of production are made up of both instruments and objects of production. The forces of production also include the living labor of workers, agents of production. In early human society, these productive forces were limited mostly to items such as stone arrowheads and spearheads for hunting. They now include very complex technologies and methods.

Relations of production are the defined social relations that people enter into to organize the production of their needs. Production is a social process, based on a certain degree of division of labor and, after the end of primitive communal societies and the rise of old slave societies, division of property or class division. In class society, the means of production and the agents of production are separated, so that a minority of people own the means of production while a much larger majority of people work as agents of production.

For the moment let us simply point out that in the contradiction between the forces and the relations of production, the forces of production tend to be the principal or determining aspect. It is the forces of production, that is, the instruments of production with living labor, acting on nature, which play the main role. However, sometimes the relations of production can be the main aspect, hastening or slowing down the development of the productive forces.

To this economic and material basis of society also corresponds a superstructure of society, made up of a set of repressive and ideological apparatuses whose function is the reproduction of the mode of production. This includes legal systems, courts and the police, but also cultural institutions, schools, the media, religion and the major political and philosophical ideas that characterize society. For now, let us simply point out that in the contradiction between base and superstructure, the base is typically the main aspect. The superstructure arises from the material base, although the superstructure also acts on the base and strengthens it.

Each historical mode of production is defined by the level of development of its productive forces and the corresponding relations of production. As the productive forces develop to higher levels, the relations of production which initially encouraged and accelerated their development begin to restrain them, and these relations of production must be modified so that the productive forces can develop further.

Marx summarizes this very succinctly in his preface to A contribution to the critique of political economy:

“At a certain stage of development, the material productive forces of society come into conflict with the existing relations of production or – it simply expresses the same thing in legal terms – with the property relations within the framework of which they have functioned until now. here. From forms of development of the productive forces, these relations become their irons. Thus begins an era of social revolution. Changes in the economic base sooner or later lead to the transformation of the entire huge superstructure.

As the productive forces of society developed, the relations of production developed from primitive communitarianism to old slave societies, then to feudalism, then to capitalism, and from capitalism to socialism. These are the relations of production that Marx and Engels identified from their analysis of how they had developed in Europe and how they would continue to develop based on their laws of motion that they derived from that analysis . Each passage from one mode of production to another signified the progress of the productive forces and the revolution of the relations of production. These changes also created great changes in the legal, political and ideological superstructure to strengthen the base, requiring changes in legal structures, education, family relationships, etc.

Historical materialism exposes the big lie of bourgeois ideology, that capitalism is eternal. It shows us that, on the contrary, it has not always been so, that things have come to be so as a result of a historical process, and that we can and must change things fundamentally and for the better. . Historical materialism is a big subject, and it will take time to do it justice. This article can only serve as a brief introduction to the elements of historical materialism. In our next articles, we will go deeper into each of them.