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Historical Materialism

  The philosophy of history of Marxism is known as historical materialism. It is most sharply stated by Karl Marx in his Preface to a Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (published in 1859). As traditionally understood, historical materialists follow Marx and Engels in believing that there is progress in human history, characterized by humankind\'s progressive mastery of Nature, and the accumulation of technological capacities. They believe that forms of organizing work, and the political and belief systems which accompany them, persist as long as they encourage technological progress. Five progressive ‘modes of production’ have existed according to Marx and Engels. Beginning with primitive communism history has witnessed the succession of the Asiatic, slave, feudal and capitalist modes of production. They predicted there would be two more, socialism, followed by advanced communism.

The Marxist theory of class struggle and revolution arguably is consistent with historical materialism although there are critics who suggest otherwise. Excepting primitive and advanced communism, each mode of production is characterized by fundamental class division and exploitation in which the ruling class owns the means of production (land or capital or people) and extracts ‘surplus labour’ from subordinate classes. These structural conditions are the material foundations of class struggle. Asiatic peasants, slaves and serfs were exploited by being directly forced to work for others, whereas workers in capitalist societies are forced to work on pain of starvation. Marx and Engels believed that the historical evidence suggested that the ruling class within each mode of production would be challenged and replaced by a new ruling class as and when their rule ceased to advance the productive forces (technology and knowledge). Thus the feudal nobility, who had been dominant because they owned the land, were overthrown by the capitalist class (the bourgeoisie), who gained ascendancy because of their control of capital and new industrial technologies. In their turn the bourgeois class was doomed to be replaced by the industrial working class (the ‘proletariat’), which was now capable of advancing the productive forces without the redundant and increasingly parasitic class of capitalists.

Historical materialists therefore insist that revolutionary changes in modes of production, that is, transitions from one mode to another, occur after class struggle and polarization, but are always materially rooted in the changing relations between the level of development of the productive forces (technology) and property systems (‘relations of production’).

Historical materialism is in sum a theory of history which: (1) assumes progress in human history, defined as increasing technical progress and progressive reductions in the labour time required to produce basic necessities; (2) functionally explains property, political and ideological systems by their consequences for the advancement of the productive forces; and (3) connects the definition of social classes and class struggle to the modes of material production and their transformation.

Critics maintain that historical materialism is false or one-sided because it is economistic, that is, it neglects the autonomous role of non-materialist factors (like culture and ideas) in explaining historical change; that it is historicist, because it claims to possess knowledge of laws of historical progress; and that it is teleological, because it assumes that there is going to be an end to history (advanced communism). They also point to multiple inconsistencies and ambiguities in historical materialism. In particular they maintain that it is unclear whether Marx and Engels believed in a unilinear (single) path to historical progress or a multilinear one, and whether they thought that all regions of the world had to go through the same preordained stages of history, or whether ‘stage-skipping’ was possible.

However, for all its multiple faults even the severest critics concede that historical materialism has deepened the scope of historical inquiry, and some maintain that the insights of historical materialism can be detached from the rest of the Marxist system and used as a set of heuristics. BO\'L

See also Asiatic mode of production; capitalism; feudalism; functionalism; idealism; slavery; state.Further reading G.A. Cohen, Karl Marx\'s Theory of History: a Defence; , B. O\'Leary, The Asiatic Mode of Production.



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