Historical Materialism is possibly the most essential component of Marxist theory. It is, to put it simply, the lens through which Marxists analyze history and the development of human society. Before Marx and Engels, history was seen as a series of random events which were not the guided by any general laws- history was regarded to be “one damn thing after another”. We are expected to believe that all of nature and matter and so on are guided by general laws, and yet history and the development of society are not! Marx and Engels, however, put such a notion to bed. Historical Materialism is then, a scientific theory which observes the general laws which explain the unfolding of history and development of humanity.
History and Idealism
One conception of history which Marx and Engels rejected and critiqued is that conception of history which is based on idealism, rather than materialism. The difference between idealism and materialism can be explained quite simply as the question of “mind over matter or matter over mind”. To idealists, the material world is a product of our ideas and consciousness, whereas to materialists our consciousness and ideas are merely a product of material processes and are determined by material conditions (Of course, to anybody who is paying attention to modern science, the idealist perspective is merely a relic of the past.) Therefore, the idealist approach to history is to consider it as a history of ideas. The materialist approach to history, which Marx and Engels based their theory on, is to consider it as a history of the development of material conditions, which are fundamentally based on the mode of production. As Marx writes in the preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, “It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but on the contrary, their social existence that determines their consciousness.” To Marx and Engels, history is not the story of the development of thought, but the story of the development of the mode of production. To find vindication for the materialist conception of history, we need only to examine how exactly as Engels predicted, modern scientific studies have found that the physical evolution of the structure of the hand and precision grip which allowed for labor led to the development of the human brain and our consciousness as it exists today.
The Mode of Production as the Base of Society
One of the most fundamental premises of historical materialism is that the basis of all society is the mode of production, which the rest of society springs out of. This is very simply because people need to organize production in order to eat and have shelter and so on before they can pursue things like politics and science. Marx referred to the mode of production as the base of society, and referred to all of the things (politics, religion, etc) which spring out of the mode of production as the superstructure. Marx details this relationship in his Contribution to the Critique of Political economy, writing “The mode of production in material life determines the general character of the social, political and spiritual processes of life.” We can find vindication of this analysis of the mode of production as the basis of all society empirically, as well. As Foucault writes in his study regarding the historical development of “criminal justice” titled discipline and punishment, “in a slave economy, punitive mechanisms serve to provide an additional labor force- and to construct a body of ‘civil’ salves in addition to those provided by war or trading; with feudalism, at a time when money and production were still at an early stage of development, we find a sudden increase in corporal punishments- the body being in most cases the only property accessible; the penitentiary, forced labor and the prison factory appear with the development of the mercantile economy. But the industrial system requires a free market in labor and, in the nineteenth century, the role of forced labor in the mechanisms of punishment diminishes accordingly and ‘corrective’ detention takes its place.” Here we see the basic base-superstructure relationship, where the totality of society and the institutions which it’s comprised of arises out of and maintains the base, or the mode of production. We can furthermore see this, as Engels details in origins of the family, how the family structure has evolved throughout history on the basis of the mode of production. In primitive societies, sexes were pretty much equal, and families were largely collectively ran, with the tribe as a whole taking care of children, and children often not even knowing who their fathers were. However, the development of the productive forces (in this case the development of agriculture and the ability to domesticate animals and so on), lead to the creation of surplus, of production above the needs of society. The creation of the surplus thus gave rise to class relations, and to the private concentration of economic and social power. The existing family structure thus arose out of the private concentration of wealth which lead to the need to pass this wealth down to one’s children. Moreover, we can see the relationship between base and superstructure in the emergence of the state. Specifically, we see that historically the “state” emerged out of the irreconcilability of class conflict in order to, well, reconcile class conflict, which is only existent because of the development of the surplus which arose out of the development of the productive forces. Therefore, we can see in numerous ways empirical historical evidence for the core claim of historical materialism: that the mode of production is the base which conditions the general processes of the rest of society and the institutions it consists of- the understanding that the mode of production as the base of society is of utmost importance when attempting to analyze how and why societies develop.
The Development of the Mode of Production
Now that we have established that the mode of production is the basis of all society, it then naturally follows that an analysis of history should be rooted in an analysis of the development of the mode of production. We can see empirically how the mode of production is constantly changing, There have been various modes of production throughout history. We had slave society, which developed into feudal society, which developed into capitalism, which eventually (hopefully) will develop into socialism and then communism. So, the question then is why and how does it change. Essentially, the emergence and decay of modes of production can be explained in terms of their ability to further develop the forces of production and progress humanity. Moreover, because historical materialism is the philosophy of dialectical materialism applied to history, we can explain the development of the mode of production which underlies the course of history based on the laws of dialectical materialism. The first law of dialectical materialism is the unity of opposites, which asserts that the contradictions within everything are the driving force of chance. This, of course, holds true to the development of the mode of production. Within every mode of production hithero existing there are inherent contradictions, which, when these contradictions come to a head, determine the fall of the mode of production and the existing socioeconomic system, and necessitate the emergence of a new one. For example, capitalism is a system in which the capitalists goal is to gain as much profit as possible, which they actualize through minimizing labor costs through all means possible. However, capitalists also in order to make profit depend on the ability of the proletarian masses to consume what they produce, the very people who’s ability to consume they have the incentive to minimize to save on labor costs. When this contradiction comes to a head, as it can no longer be held off through loading the masses up with credit, this leads to a crisis of overproduction, and when crisis gets too bad this leads to the overthrow of the system. Another example could be the fact that capitalism is a system based on infinite expansion, and exists on a planet with finite resources- this contradiction is the contradiction that in large part leads to the spectacle of climate change which the effects of we’re increasingly experiencing today, which also will either lead to the destruction of capitalism or the destruction of the human race. So, we see how it is the inherent contradictions in economic systems that causes their downfall and the creations of new systems- in other words, the unity of opposites within hithero existing modes of production is the source of its constant development. The second law of dialectical materialism is the transfer of quantitative change into qualitative change, which explains how qualitative change comes in the form of quantitative development and how this change takes the form of gradual change interrupted by qualitative leaps. This is mirrored in history in a couple of ways. For one, it is the quantitative addition of contradictions and antagonisms which build up and eventually breed the conditions for revolution, creating a qualitative change in the mode of production. Moreover, as referenced this law states that change takes place based on long gradual development interrupted by periods of massive leaps, punctuated equilibrium. The development of modes of production clearly mirrors this law- every mode of production which has existed, including slave society, feudalism, and hopefully capitalism, have experienced long periods of small changes and slow development, but in the end were overcome periods of violent revolution, bringing about rapid and radical change which brought into existence new modes of production. The third law of dialectical materialism, the negation of the negation, can also be observed in the development of the mode of production throughout history. The law of the negation of the negation states that the development of a given thing follows this path: it starts out in a certain state. Then, this state is negated-Then, the negation itself is negated, and the original state returns, but at a higher level, and is sublated by the process. When the mode of production undergoes transformation, it starts in its initial state (obviously). Then, this mode of production is negated through revolution. Then, revolution (the negation) is negated through the establishment of a new mode of production. For example, when capitalism emerged out of feudalism, feudalism was negated by a series of wars and revolutions and so on. Then, this revolutionary chaos was negated through the establishment of capitalist society. The same process applies to all modes of production, from the emergence of feudalism to capitalism to eventually communism (again, hopefully). Therefore, the negation of the negation, in a very observable way, similar to the law of the transfer of quantitative into qualitative change as well as the law of the unity of opposites, can be seen as a principle by which modes of productions develop throughout history.
To recap, historical materialism asserts that the analysis of history should begin with the analysis of the development of the material conditions, which determines people’s consciousness, and not vice versa. Moreover, according to the historical materialist outlook the base of society which all other elements emerge out of and are generally determined by is the mode of production. Therefore, the analysis of history should be based on the analysis of the development of the mode of production. In analyzing the development of the mode of production, we see that the emergence and decay of modes of production can be explained on the basis of their ability to develop the forces of production and progress humanity. Moreover, this development occurs based on the laws of dialectical materialism: the source of the development of the unity of opposites, the mechanism through which the development takes place is the transfer of quantitative into qualitative change, the rate at which this development takes place can be explained by the principle of punctuated equilibrium, and the direction of this development can be explained on the basis of the negation of the negation.