Date: Tue, 1 Dec 1998 22:08:03 -0600 (CST)
From: "Workers World" <>
Organization: WW Publishers
Subject: What is meant by historical materialism
Article: 48942
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What is Meant by Historical Materialism

By Nancy Mitchell, Workers World, 3 December 1998

[This article is adapted from a talk given at a seminar on "The Communist Manifesto Today" sponsored by the San Francisco branch of Workers World Party.]

I'm going to talk a little bit about Karl Marx and Frederick Engels' concept of historical materialism. First, it would be helpful to take a look at the historical context.

"The Communist Manifesto" was written in the midst of what is called the Industrial Revolution, which started in the 18th century in England and was entering its heyday in Europe in the mid-19th century. Technological advances were happening at many levels of production. The steam engine, the power loom, the printing press—these were all changing the nature of transportation, the distribution of information, and most importantly the production of goods.

More inventions happened in a quarter of a century during the industrial revolution than in all previous history. With these technological changes came political changes as well. Old ideas were being challenged, the ownership of wealth and power was moving from the hands of the aristocratic classes to a new capitalist class.


Materialism was the method Marx and Engels used to analyze society. What the materialist method did was to look first at the productive forces of society—the way the society is organized to produce and distribute goods—and to understand how this shapes both the institutions of that society and the consciousness of people in it. Materialist philosophy said that all ideas have their root in the material conditions out of which they come.

This was a very important and revolutionary way to approach philosophy, because at that time philosophy revolved around idealism, the notion that the outside world is a reflection of concepts thought up beforehand, that society is organized around some pre-existing ideas and therefore history is a history of ideas.

Marx and Engels said that being determines consciousness, not the other way around, which means that people's ideas are generally shaped by the material conditions in which they live. And if you think about it, this really makes sense to us.

From where the capitalist sits, the system looks like a pretty sweet deal; whereas from the position of the workers, it's clearly a system of oppression. These conflicting world views are based in the material conditions out of which they come. The "being determines consciousness" concept has been really revolutionary and provided the foundation for a number of social movements—like the Black Power movement, the feminist movement, the lesbian/gay/bi/trans movement.

Materialism takes the focus away from a discussion of abstract ideals that society is supposed to be emulating, and looks at the actual material organization of society.

The historical materialist approach to society allows us to see the source of class conflict. By looking at the system of production, we can see that the interests of the capitalists—namely, to make increasing profits—and the interests of the workers—to survive and live comfortably— are fundamentally at odds.


This is what is meant by "being determines consciousness." A person's interests, ideas, world view are influenced by their social position. And people enter into these relations of production independently of their own will.

It's not like the child laborer in a sweatshop chooses to be an oppressed worker. People are tied to their material conditions of existence, and it is those conditions that determine the way they think. The material condition is what also determines the society's institutions, such as the legal system and the political superstructure—that is, the state.

The materialist way of looking at society revealed a different kind of history than what had previously been believed. It was really the first time someone looked at the history of the workers; before that they were just left out.

The materialist approach reveals that before the capitalist era, there were other systems of production— feudalism is an example, so is slavery. And in these other systems, like capitalism, there was a struggle between the ruling class and the exploited class.

In fact, the struggle for equality has resurfaced over and over again throughout modern history, through slave revolts and peasant rebellions, for example. And this is what they really mean by the term "dialectic." The dialectic refers to the dynamic and interactive struggle between the classes— that society is not stagnant, but ever changing.

This is important to keep in mind when the ruling class is talking about capitalism as the end of history or a permanent system. It may seem like capitalism keeps dragging on forever, but really this system has occupied about one percent of human history.

Capitalism is simply a system of production like others before it. It—like feudalism and slavery—is wracked by contradictions and eventually will be overthrown by a revolutionary reconstitution of society.

What Marx and Engels really introduced was a scientific method for looking at the history and future of class relations. This is what we call scientific socialism—as distinct from utopian socialism, which is really an idealist concept. Scientific socialism says that there is a material basis for the victory of the oppressed classes over the oppressors. And that the struggle for justice and equality, which is a struggle for socialism, has a scientific grounding.

The capitalists like to tell us that a stratified class society and competition are human nature or the way it's always been. Well, the ruling classes always want to sell their system as eternal. Kings did it before capitalists ever tried to make the claim.

But scientific socialism rejects this notion, and says that the only thing that is eternal is change. Of course this doesn't mean that the working classes are to sit back and wait for that inevitable change to come. Marx and Engels said that while it may have been the task of earlier historians and philosophers to interpret the world, the task of historical materialists is to change it.

I think it's important to add here that Marx wrote that capitalism rose in Europe "with blood dripping from its every pore." Meaning that it was the slave trade, and the genocide of the Native populations of the "New World"—and really just the rape and pillage of the lands beyond Europe—that laid the foundation for the development of capitalism on that continent.