Historical Materialism: Karl Marx

The history of all hitherto existing societies is the history of class struggles
Historical Materialism: Karl Marx
"These words from the Communist Manifesto resound many where. What did Marx mean by these words? How did Marx understand human history? Let us try to answer."Special arrangement

The history of all hitherto existing societies is the history of class struggles.

These words from the Communist Manifesto resound many where. What did Marx mean by these words? How did Marx understand human history? Let us try to answer.

Science discovered the underlying principles of the physical universe. Nature, it demonstrated, was not arbitrary – it followed a set of predefined rules. Newton displayed, how from a small object to a galaxy, everything followed a definite course.

Their movements and interactions were not random. They were governed by fixed laws. Nature had such an immaculate order – if you knew the numbers, you would be able to foresee the future course of events.

Not unlike the Natural Sciences, thinkers in other Philosophical pursuits tried to come up with a similar understanding of human endeavors – The name of Karl Marx stands as a towering figure among them. He attempted to show how human history is shaped by its material course – Historical Materialism.

(Rightly or wrongly) It was seen in the same light by his followers, as Physicists saw the Law of Gravitation. Che Guevara wrote,

When asked whether or not we are Marxists, our position is the same as that of a physicist or a biologist when asked if he is a “Newtonian,” or if he is a “Pasteurian”.

He, like other Marxists, believed that Marx had discovered the laws which governed history, very much like Newton; who had discovered the laws that governed the heavens. Marxist scholars would try to interpret the world in different ways, but not unlike a Physicist or a Biologist, these attempts would be within the four walls of the laws they considered immutable. Marx had adulated his work in similar phrases –

When Speculation ends…positive science begins…

Marx understood that societies, including their various emanations, were a product of the underlying material conditions of life. The first premise of all human history, he stated in The German Ideology, was

The existence of living human individuals.

He added,

Men must be in a position to live in order to be able to ‘make history’.

Karl Marx postured that human history was neither a free play of multiple forces acting independently, nor were ideas, culture, and power structures created in a vacuum. What lay underneath them, was the material condition of life – the actual mode of production – what was produced, how it was produced, and how it was distributed – what were the existing material productive forces and the relations of production. The essential bedrock of all human history was its Political Economy, the rest sprouted out of it; in one way or another. In the same work, Marx wrote:

History of humanity must always be studied and treated in relation to the history of industry and exchange.

In Socialism: Utopian and Scientific under Historical Materialism, Friedrich Engels well summarised the idea,

the final cause of all social changes and political revolutions are to be sought, not in men’s brains…but in changes in the modes of production and exchange.

Man required sustaining himself, before venturing on any other task – How the production of necessities and wealth was carried out? Who owned these sources of production? Who worked on these sources? What was the relationship between these two groups? - were the primary questions to be asked. As such, Marx divided history into some broad categories, based on the answers to these very questions – Tribal, Ancient, Feudal and Capitalistic - The rest, out flowed:

The hand-mill gives you society with the feudal lord; the steam-mill society with the industrial capitalist

hammered Marx, in his Poverty of Philosophy.

Karl Marx understood history in terms of causation. The decisive and prime cause of which lay in the Economic Soil – This formed the Basis of History, while the rest were Superstructures. Liberation is a historical and not a mental act, said Marx. Or the more famous, The Ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas - What Marx meant was that ideas and consciousness are interwoven with the material activity and the material intercourse of men – He termed it – The language of Real Life.

Not sermons, great ideas, or larger-than-life figures shaped history. It was essentially the Material forces that gave birth to the former. As the existing world came about from the womb of its material conditions, the world changed due to the inner contradictions – Dialectic – of those very conditions. The wheels of historic motion were fuelled by the fluctuations in the economic substratum.

Power Structures, Institutions, Ideas, Ethics, and Culture may seem immutable. But, they were an outgrowth of the way people carry out the most basic act of life-sustaining life. Concepts in popular imagination such as what is natural and what is unnatural, what is normal and what is abnormal, what constitutes morality, and what constitutes immorality, were determined not by ideology, but by biology (essentially the economics that supported it).

In his Preface of A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, Karl Marx lays bare this fact,

It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but, on the contrary their social being that determines their consciousness.

As preachers and social critics lament over the ‘degrading morals’ of society – they might take a cue - the diagnosis lies somewhere else!

This did not imply complete determinism, where other factors did not find any place. The productive/economic forces laid the foundation, while other factors, sprouting from it, played their own (albeit, secondary) role in determining the course of events. Neither man nor society was stripped of free will.

But their will was laid on the foundations set by the material conditions present – A point painted with extreme clarity by Engels, in a letter to J.Bloch, from 1890,

We make our history ourselves, but, in the first place, under very definite assumptions and conditions. Among these the economic ones are ultimately decisive. But the political ones, etc., and indeed even the traditions which haunt human minds also play a part, although not the decisive one.

Marx essentially aimed at determining the laws of historical movement. It was also an attempt at setting Socialism on a ‘Scientific’ basis, rather than a ‘Utopian’ desire - How far he succeeded, is a discussion for another day.

P.S: This was an attempt to present Historical Materialism, as I have understood it. The space does not allow me a critique – so I confine myself to the proposition only. One may contest the idea to be right, wrong, or a broad approximation of history. What remains undoubted though, is the marvel in the theory.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are the personal opinions of the author.

The facts, analysis, assumptions and perspective appearing in the article do not reflect the views of GK.

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