|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– 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
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
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) 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
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. 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
"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."
" 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."
" 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
1. The following draws on John McMurtry *The Structure of
Marx's World View*. Princeton University Press.1978.
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.
3. Fred 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.
Fred Engels. Socialism: Utopian and Scientific.
Fred Engels. Origins of Private Property, the Family
Fred Engels. The Peasant War in Germany and Revolution
and Counter-Revolution in Germany.
Fred Engels. Anti-Duhring.
Karl Marx. The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte.
Karl Marx. Civil Wars in France.
Karl Marx. Contribution to a Critique of Political
Economy. [The above are the classic statements and
examples of historical materialism and historical
Karl Marx. Capital Volume 1. Vintage. New York.
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.
Callinicos, Alex. 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
Wood, Ellen Meiksins. Democracy Against Capitalism.
Cambridge University Press.
Perlman, Fredy. The Reproduction of Daily Life. Black and
Plekhanov, George. Development of the Monist View of
History. Moscow. 1956.
Thompson, E.P. The Making of the English Working Class.
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
Gramsci, Antonio. Selections From the Prison Notebooks.
Mariategui, Jose. A Reader. Ed. Michel Pearlman.
Humanities Press. 1997.