Historical materialism

Marxist Dictionary

Set of premises for the analysis of social reality that explains historical phenomena on the basis of the social, material structure, the social organization of production and the social relations that derive from it, that is, the mode of production in which they develop; these modes of production are defined by certain social relations that in turn reflect and promote a certain development of the productive forces of society. These modes of production are defined by certain social relations which, in turn, reflect and promote a certain development of the productive forces in society. These conflicting relations and development are embodied in struggles among the social classes, as defined by them, in the form of ideologies, parties, and political clashes, which express those contradictory interests and which, in turn, when the productive forces in society develop to a certain degree, transform the whole social structure.


The first work I undertook was a critical review of Hegel’s Rechtsphilosophie [Philosophy of Right], the preliminaries of which appeared in the “Franco-German Annals” published in Paris in 1844. My research produced this result: that juridical relations, as well as the forms of State, cannot be explained by themselves, nor by the so-called general evolution of the human spirit; that they originate rather in the material conditions of existence which Hegel, following the example of the English and French of the eighteenth century, grouped under the name of “civil society”; but that the anatomy of society must be sought in political economy. I had begun to study it in Paris and was continuing it in Brussels, where I had established myself as a result of an expulsion sentence handed down by Mr. Guizot. The general result that I arrived at and which, once obtained, served as a guide for my studies, can be formulated briefly in this way:

In the social production of their existence, men enter into certain, necessary relations, independent of their will; these relations of production correspond to a certain degree of development of their material productive forces.

The whole of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real basis, on which a juridical and political superstructure is built, and to which certain social forms of consciousness correspond. The mode of production of material life conditions the process of social, political, and intellectual life in general. It is not men’s consciousness that determines reality; on the contrary, it is social reality that determines their consciousness.

In the course of their development, the productive forces of society come into contradiction with the existing relations of production, or, which is only their juridical expression, with the relations of property within which they had hitherto moved. From forms of development of the productive forces that they were, these relations become hindrances to these forces. Then an era of social revolution opens up. The change that has taken place in the economic base more or less slowly or rapidly disrupts the whole colossal superstructure. In considering such upheavals it is always important to distinguish between the material upheaval of the economic conditions of production-which must be faithfully tested with the help of the physical and natural sciences-and the legal, political, religious, artistic or philosophical forms; in a word, the ideological forms, under which men become aware of this conflict and resolve it. Just as an individual is not judged by the idea he has of himself, neither can such an epoch be judged by its consciousness of itself; it is necessary, on the contrary, to explain this consciousness by the contradictions of material life, by the conflict that exists between the social productive forces and the relations of production.

A society never disappears before all the productive forces it may contain are developed, and new and higher relations of production are never replaced in it before the material conditions of existence of those relations have been incubated in the very bosom of the old society. This is why humanity never sets out to solve more than the problems it can solve, because, looking more closely, it will always be seen that the problem itself only arises when the material conditions to solve it exist or are in the process of existing.

Broadly speaking, the asian, ancient, feudal, and modern bourgeois modes of production can be designated as many other progressive epochs of social economic formation. The bourgeois relations of production are the ultimate antagonistic form of the process of social production, not in the sense of individual antagonism, but in the sense of an antagonism which is born of the social conditions of existence of individuals; the productive forces developing within bourgeois society create at the same time the material conditions to resolve this antagonism. With this social formation the prehistory of human society ends.

Karl Marx. Preface to “Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy”, January 1859.

Historical Materialism and the Proletariat

Historical materialism enabled the proletariat to understand itself as a class in the historical process and to give its communist outlook a scientific basis. It was a fundamental element in the development of a consciousness that, while still class-based, being a universal class already responds to universal interests and is therefore no longer ideology. The class consciousness of the proletariat, by arming itself and merging with historical materialism, becomes the first universal conception of society and history and therefore the prelude to a truly human consciousness, neither biased nor limited.

Revolutionary theory pursues a social transformation that will suppress the working class as well (…) On the other hand, this transformation will not suppress theory, but on the contrary will give it a generalized human dimension, opening up vast, unsuspected, infinite domains to it. The communist validity of revolutionary theory today, its absorption by the social whole tomorrow, allows it to be amended and extended ceaselessly. It is the clearest expression of the human being in possession of himself. The proletariat and revolutionary theory are, respectively, figures of economic emancipation and intellectual emancipation; together, figures of disalienation.

G. Munis. Acendremos camaradas, 1975

The Communist Manifesto of 1848 marks the moment when the materialist conception of history is incorporated into and merged with the communist programme:

The fundamental idea which permeates the whole “Manifesto”-namely that economic production and the social structure necessarily derived from it in every historical epoch is the basis on which the political and intellectual history of that epoch rests; that, therefore, all of history (since the dissolution of the early common property regime of land) has been a history of class struggle, of struggle between exploiting and exploited classes, dominant and dominated, at different stages of social development; and that this struggle has now reached a stage where the exploited and oppressed class (the proletariat) can no longer emancipate itself from the class that exploits and oppresses it (the bourgeoisie), without emancipating, at the same time and forever, society as a whole from exploitation, oppression, and class struggle.

Frederick Engels. Preface to the German edition of the Communist Manifesto, 1883

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