Historical Materialism


It is the application of the dialectical materialism to human history.  Marx claimed to have discovered the 'laws of motion' for the society.



Historical materialism is based on the economic interpretation of history - the major changes in political, social, legal etc. institutions and ideas are being explained from the changes in the nature of the economic system. The economy is considered to be ‘the basis’ of the society. The political, legal, social etc. institutions and ideas are then considered to be 'the superstructure' above the economic basis. The evolution of the economic basis is the 'driving' force of the history.

The economic basis consists of two opposites that are in the continuous struggle, namely ‘the forces of production’ and ‘the relations of production’. The term 'forces of production' means all what determines productivity and its growth. It is the Marxist way of referring to innovations and technical progress. The term 'relations of production' is the Marxist way of referring to economic institutions such as private or public property, market etc.

Contradictions between forces and relations of production are the essence of the social system and the inherent driving force of the economic and social progress. Forces of production are in continuous process of quantitative evolutionary change, while relations of production tend to be conservative. When the contradiction between the new forces of production and the outdated relations of production becomes unendurable revolution brings qualitative change: it destroys the old relations and creates new ones. The new and more progressive economic basis with different essence is created. In contemporary terminology this says that the incessant technical progress triggers adjustments in economic institutions.

Each revolutionary change in the economic basis is then followed by a transformation of the superstructure. That is political, legal and other social institutions and ideas adjust with a time-lag to the changed economic institutions.


An example of historical materialism is in
"Socialism: Utopian and Scientific"
by Engels  



 Stages of the evolution:

Marxists believe that during its history the human society evolves in predetermined stages. There are three basic steps (a triad); another triad within the middle step an two substages of the final stage of Communism.

















classless society

class societies

classless society


Combined there are five stages of evolution:


Primitive Communism:

these are tribal societies before the advent of civilization. Technology (forces of production) is so primitive that people produce barely enough for their survival. Everybody has to work; no ‘surplus’ product to be appropriated by anybody exists; common property; there are no classes.



as in ancient Greece and Rome. New technology leads to increased productivity. Slaves are able to produce more than they need for own survival; this ‘surplus product’ is appropriated by slave masters; private ownership emerges; society splits into the class of exploiters and exploited; exploiters do not need to work; they may devote their time to arts, science and administration; emergence of state and law; exploiters become ‘ruling class’. This is an enormous progress against the primitive communism. But slaves have no incentive to use improved technology. The ‘relations of production’ are in conflict with new progressive ‘forces of production’. Class war develops, revolution destroys the system.



as in European states in middle ages. New class configuration: feudal lords (exploiters - ruling class) vs. serfs (exploited class). Feudalism leads to technological progress because serfs have better incentives to work. Further development of arts and sciences. Feudalism is a higher stage then slavery but it has its own limits. New scientific and technological discoveries require free workers to be employed in large scale production. Bourgeois revolutions, like the French or American revolutions destroy feudalism. They liberate serfs from dependence on lords and thus prepare the ground for new class structure of the society.



 in Marxist interpretation is just another stage of socio-economic development. It is the last class society. The essence of capitalism is exploitation of workers (proletariat) by capitalists (bourgeoisie) with resulting class struggle. The 'relations of production' are characterized by private ownership and the prevalence of 'commodity production' (market). The 'forces of production' are characterized by the fast growth of productivity due to the 'division of labor' (specialization) and mechanization. The industrial revolution resulted in mass production with intricate inter-industry relations. In the capitalist market economy goods are not produced by an individual producer for a small number of local consumers as in the past, but by the huge collectives of workers - sometimes spread over the whole country or even over many countries - for thousands or millions of consumers. The 'forces of production' acquired the 'social character' but the 'relations of production' are still based on private ownership and 'anarchy' of the market. This is the main contradiction of capitalism which - according to Marxist analysis - must lead to revolution, abolition of private property and capitalist relations of production.



 that emerges from revolutionary destruction of capitalism is again a classless society. It removes exploitation and unequal income distribution. It also unleashes the fetters by which the capitalist relations of production shackled the forces of production. The advanced technology would lead to such a high productivity, that everybody would be able to share equally in the economic output. There will be no need for private appropriation and exploitation. Public ownership and the rational central control (planning) of the economy would allow even faster growth of productivity than under capitalism. Communism would defeat capitalism not only by being more just in distribution of income, but also by being more productive, more technologically advanced. This was the prediction of Marx. Also communism was expected to have two phases: the first one called socialism would be still limited in its productivity and, therefore, the income distribution would have to be based on each persons contribution to the common output of the society. In the second stage the productivity would be so high that all the needs of each person could be fully satiated.


The Preface to 
A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy 
by Karl Marx

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