Historical Materialism FAQ

Sam Pawlett rsp at SPAMuniserve.com
Tue Dec 7 12:58:50 MST 1999

Comments? Criticisms? I'd especially like to add more quotations from
Marx and Engels and maybe add something on ideology and fetishism.
Additions to the bibiography are also needed.

Historical Materialism FAQ [1st draft. 1500 words.]

   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 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
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
2) non-economic can and do play a role in shaping the forces of
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

"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

" 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) 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.

 Further Reading.

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 materialist analyses.]
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.
McMurtry, John. The Structure of Marx's Worldview. Princeton University
Leblanc, Paul. Ed. A Reader in Revolutionary Marxist Politics.
Humanities Press. 1994.
[contains excellent bibliography.]
Wood, Ellen Meiksins. Democracy Against Capitalism. Cambridge University
Perlman, Fredy. The Reproduction of Daily Life. Black and Red.1972.
Plekhanov, George. Development of the Monist View of History.
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.

More information about the Marxism mailing list