An introduction to historical materialism. A basic outline of the materialist conception of history, examining questions such as Marx and determinism and what he saw as the fundamental motor of history. [Interpretation up for debate. meant only as an introduction].
An understanding of Marx’s philosophy of history requires an understanding of Hegel as it was through critical confrontation with Hegel’s philosophy that many of Marx’s ideas were formed. History for Hegel moved along an inevitable path motored by a dialectic. It was the evolution of the geist or spirit, a non-mythical potential to be realised. The highest expression of the spirit for Hegel was freedom; history is the progress of the spirit against obstacles to reach its ultimate goal. The evolution of the spirit is dialectical; perfected through the conflict of opposing ideas. The centrality of the dialectic as progress was best expressed as the thesis from which is formed an antithesis eventually leading to the conflicts resolution in a synthesis. Marx uses Hegel’s dialectic but repositions it away from a tension between ideas to one of material or social conflict. History for Marx has no ultimate purpose it is “nothing but the activity of man pursuing his aims”. History is characterised by two types of struggle; that between man and between man and nature, the former has been paramount to history since man began to master nature. “The history of all hitherto existing society, is the history of class struggles”, as long as society is divided into classes with conflicting interests then tensions will occur over material interests and resources of that society, the resolution of this class struggle progresses history. Hegel’s conception of history was idealist, for him history was the story of the struggle between ideas and the geists self-realisation. Whereas Marx placed material conditions at the root of historical change, however this does not mean he rejects the influence of conflicting ideas but purely that the satisfaction of human needs precedes the construction of ideas. It is man’s ability to satisfy his own needs that separates him from animals, with history being the progressive mastery of nature by man. The materialist conception means purely that the economic arrangements and structure form the base of any society as man must eat and thus produce, before he can have the leisure-time for ideas. And thus the fundamental explanation for social change must emanate from the root, the economic structure of any society.
Marx describes social change from lower to higher modes of production distinguishing the economic base of a society from the relative superstructure arising from it. The base contains the forces of production: tools/techniques/labour power and relations of production: division of labour, forms of cooperation and subordination constructed to maintain production. The relations of production correspond to the appropriate development of the material forces of production, with the totality of these productive relations forming the base of any society. It is upon this base that a superstructure arises containing all social, religious, cultural and political institutions collectively acting as the foundation of social consciousness.
Marx then proceeds to describe how this material relationship acts as the historical engine when the forces of production advance beyond the relative relations of production. The general motor of social change is the dialectic within production, the conflict between the forces and relations of production determines long-term historical change. Tensions are caused when the forces of production outstrip the relations of production causing a social revolution that eventually leads to the transformation of the superstructure to accommodate new forces and then new relations of production – it is through these internal contradictions within production that societies advance to new historical periods. The implementation of the four-field crop rotation in 16th century England exemplifies the advancement of the forces of production causing an evolution in the relations of production through the creation of moveable labour. Landless labour and increases in the standard of living caused as a result of crop rotation eventually led to the breakdown of feudalism as capitalism rose to make use of wage labour and the greater freedom of peasants created by a reduction in famines. Internal contradictions within capital accumulate until their solution cannot be found within its structure leading to the formation of new structures representing new forms of relations, which in time will accumulate their own internal inconsistencies.
Marx’s conception of history and the centrality of materialism conditioning it has regularly been met with criticisms of determinism. That history has an inevitable path with no space for human agency. “It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, by their social existence that determines their consciousness” would most obviously imply the inability for human input. However people are victims of material forces but material forces are also evolved by man. Society is a process, a cyclical relationship where society creates man, man also creates society. “Men make their own history but…they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves” that despite being the result of material conditions humans have the ability to be agents of historical change. Some have thus characterised Marx as a “political possibilist”, that our freedom to act in the present is limited by our predecessors' previous actions and decisions, that we must discover what actions are possible in this historical period. Marx is not a determinist, as Engels pointed out “the ultimate determining element in history is the production and reproduction of real life” however it isn’t the only determinant, “the various elements of the superstructure…also exercise their influence upon the course of the historical struggles”. The base-superstructure metaphor when misunderstood as a causal rather than reciprocal relationship often leads to characterisations of historical materialism as determinist. The superstructure doesn’t just reflect the base but has a reciprocal relation with the superstructure often enabling the base, i.e. the forces of production require property rights which are reliant upon political decisions at the level of the superstructure. The material base of every society is capped by an “ideological superstructure” that serves to legitimise and justify the arrangements and institutions in that society. It is from this superstructure that emanates ruling-class ideas and ultimately social consciousness, and thus we can see that the consciousness determined by the superstructure justifies and maintains the economic structure found in the base. Historical materialism isn’t deterministic because the forces of production are not limited to the instruments of production, also including or even requiring human creativity and ingenuity to improve technology. The advancement of productive forces can be the direct result of human agency. Also Marx didn’t suggest non-economic activity was determined by the base for example questions still remain over where art originates. Political, religious, social institutions have their own dynamism and agency, as Engels noted economic factors can have marginal influence on the short term historical moment. And thus for Braudel Marx was essentially a theorist of la long duree. His scientific explanation of historical progress only explains the general trends and there fundamental causes not short-term actions and influences dependant on context. Class is the final reason why Marx isn’t a determinist, history is motored generally by conflicts between the forces and relations of production, but also by class struggle. The individual actions of a class, its agency, determine the timing of the social revolution. Economic structure sets the trajectory of history whilst allowing several determinants the most important of which is class; every period contains the ruling and ruled class with the latter destined to overthrow and replace the former.
The criticism of Marx as a determinist have been most applied to his characterisation of the various historical modes of production, the periodization of history into specific economic stages symbolised by their own forces and relations of production and relative form of superstructure. The capitalist mode of production grew out of the feudal mode of production creating new relations to adapt to new technology. For Marx the solutions of the internal contradictions within the base must already exist or be in formation before social revolution is possible. These social revolutions caused by the forces of production outstripping the relations of production will eventually culminate in the communist revolution, which will break with hitherto human history by ending the class struggle by eliminating class completely. This dialectic in production that advances humanity through historical stages is most visible in the form of class conflict. Class for Marx was defined, not by wealth or status, but by a specific group’s relation to the means of production. The division of labour, present in every historical period, creates dominated and subjugated classes through which history advances by the overthrow of the former by the latter. The bourgeoisie rose above the feudal aristocracy as industrial modes of production advanced beyond the relations of production. It is through the contradictions in production and the resultant class struggle that the proletariat would one day also raise to the position of rulers, but unlike all previous social revolutions the interests of labour would act as the vessel for all classes, their rule would end the division of labour and thus the class society it creates.
The materialist dialectic and political activity weren’t antagonistic for Marx; his conception of class is fundamental to his understanding of human agency. Class is structurally determined by a group’s relationship to the means of production. The concepts of agency and determinism in Marxist theory relate through class. The long term trajectory of history is motored by the dialectic between the forces and relations of production, but the timing, method and form of progress requires human agency, specifically class consciousness. The classes that inevitably result from the relations of production have also the historic mission to correct the internal contradictions within those relations. The advent of historical change requires the subjugated class to acknowledge their own potential and seek the satisfaction of their own class interests through their own actions. Effective class requires class consciousness from which develops class interest – the continued rule of the capitalist class is partly the result of a sophisticated understanding of class interest projected through ideological domination and cultural hegemony. Gramsci analysed cultural hegemony as ideological domination emanating from the superstructure aiming to maintain the class divisions that characterise this particular historical period. The cultural superiority of ruling ideas must be combatted with a vibrant proletarian culture which expresses its own antithetical cultural norms. The ‘war of position’, as Gramsci put it, is to construct a proletarian culture that enables class consciousness and reveals the artificial basis of cultural hegemony. Marx’s ideas of class consciousness as the historical agent of change were extended by Gramsci who described the specific praxis of consciousness. The duality of the materialist conception of history combines the long-term historical path with class struggle; the latter acts as the specific motor that progresses along the path of the former. Class consciousness, or lack of it, generates social change, and the specific timing and type of this consciousness will determine any historical periods form. It is for this reason that Marx attempted to combat alienation and awaken proletariat consciousness to instigate social revolution.
Technological determinism is one interpretation of historical materialism. It states the forces of production determine the relations of production but places neither above history. Accordingly Marx’s theory states purely that human activity, specifically in the realm of production, determines other human activities, relations and institutions. Cohen expanded and defended the technological construct of historical materialism. For him the forces of production were extra-social technological factors, with the relations of production being purely the various relationships in the production process. Historical materialism is that “the nature of a set of productive relations is explained by the level of development of the productive forces embraced by it”. Productive forces cause the relations of production and these relations constitute the social element which determine the base of society, it is thus under this thesis that society and social relations are explained in reference to extra-social – or material – productive forces. Historical materialism thus explains social phenomenon in reference to material phenomenon. However it should be noted that the term material does no denotes non-human elements but is used by Cohen to separate human activity that is social from that which is not. In the materialist conception of history Cohen claims to discover a disparity between the material forces of production, and the social relations of production with the solution that the former, the material, is placed above the latter, the social. However debate remains over whether this distinction is made by Marx, as he often refers to the “social” forces of production. Laycock has challenged Cohen’s interpretation of the appellation “materialist conception of history” arguing that the explanatory conflict is not between the material and social but the material and the conscious, that materialism for Marx is necessarily social with his interests in understanding social consciousness as a product of material (social) conditions.
For Marx historians at the time acted purely as the voice for the cultural hegemony of the ruling class – despite Ranke and his contemporary’s proclamations of objectivity their history was confined to describing the interests and motives of historical actors at face value, for Marx, neglecting the real reason for their actions. History is understood in reference to the material economic structure of that society not the subjective voices of ‘great men’, but this does not mean individuals played no part, but to be effective history must be holistic, beginning with the foundation of any society, it’s economic structure and the relations and conflicts which emanate. Modern Marxist historiography has generally been divided between culturalism and economism, the former tending more to agency and less to determinism than the latter. Marxist history flourished in the 1950s and 60s with likes of E. P. Thompson’s famous book ‘The Making of the English Working Class’. This book showed Marxist analysis in practice however it remains controversial as it places greater emphasis on collective agency than on conditioning and experience; especially playing down the transitions between modes of production and material conditions as the determinants of class consciousness. However Thompson argued that theory and experience had to be held in balance allowing Marxism to be an evolving and flexible tradition rather than a closed dogmatic theory. Hobsbawm also used a Marxist approach to popular and influential effect. He analysed the ‘dual revolution’ – the political French Revolution and the Industrial British Revolution – as driving the trend towards the liberal capitalism of today. Also his emphasis on movements from below from bandits to unionists proved indicative of Marx’s ideas of class agency as triggering economic revolution. Marxist historiographer’s works prove influential even on those who disagree with their conclusion by sparking fundamental debates within historical periods between academics leading to the general advancement of the field. Despite in decline Marxist analysis proves still useful to explain social change with its applications of theory to the subject of history continuing to appeal to historians who don’t necessarily concur with its interpretations.
The answer to this question is one of emphasis dividing Marxist historians broadly between culturalism and economism, the former stressing human agency over determinism . Some like Thompson emphasise consciousness; others - such as Cohen -highlight economic conditioning as the principal motor of history. This interpretative conflict represents the tension in Marx between the inevitability of revolution and the direct action used to create it. The materialist dialectic is still criticised for being goal orientated, for overemphasising the role of progressive historical agents whilst side-lining reactionaries with arguably more historical influence. The objections of Marx as focusing on ‘history from below’ and marginalising individual agency are misplaced; class conflict is ultimately resolved on a political level as such ‘history from above’ is as important a perspective for Marxists. The motor of history consists in the general advancement of technology – of man’s domination over nature – requiring appropriate productive relations with the conflict between forces and relations of production creating the conditions of social revolution. However it is the destiny of the subjugated class to act as the direct motor of history to replace the ruling class of a given society. Conflict within the relations of production are caused by the advancement of the productive forces, these relations are inherently unstable as they are based on class conflict. The eventual awakening of consciousness of the subjugated class allows them to question their position and ultimately change it. The capacity of the workers to create a revolution is why Marx believed in his own activism, not to change the course of history but to hasten it along the least painful path.
 Marx and Engels, The Holy Family, found at: http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1845/holy-family/index.htm. Accessed on 17/03/2013
 Marx and Engels, Communist Manifesto, London, Penguin, 2002, p.219
Marx, A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, found at: http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1859/critique-pol-economy/preface.htm. Accessed on 17/03/2013
Marx, The eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, found at http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1852/18th-brumaire/. Accessed on 17/03/2013
Terrell Carver (ed.), Cambridge Companion to Marx, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1991, pp.124-143
Engels to J. Bloch, reprinted in Basic Writings on Politics and Philosophy, L. Feuer (ed.), Fontana, 1969, pp.436-7
J. Tosh, The Pursuit of History, UK, Pearson Education, 2010, p.228
F. Braudel, On History, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1982
J. Tosh, op. cit., p. 231
H. Laycock, ‘Critical Notice of G. A. Cohen’s book’, Canadian Journal of Philosophy, 10, 1980, pp. 335-356
G. A. Cohen, Karl Marx's Theory of History: A Defence, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 2001, p.134
H. Laycock, op. cit.
J. Tosh, op. cit.