I. Historial Materialism (Parts A-C)

by Dr. Jan Garrett

Last revised: November 10, 2012

In those part of our study of Marx we will be focusing on his ideas in their 19th century historical and social context, before the imperialist capitalism of the late 19th century, before the global North-South (or center-periphery) divide became visible, before the Russian and Chinese and Cuban Revolutions, and before the emergence of the global environmental crisis we continue to face.

I. Historical Materialism

A. "Historical" and "materialism"

This method is called historical materialism partly to call attention to the fact that everything has its historical context, later stages resting upon what has happened in earlier stages, that events and social structures make sense only in their context, and that the social structures of the past have come into being and, with the exception of capitalism so far, have in significant part passed away—although possibly not as much as "progressive" thinkers might wish or tell themselves. It suggests that contrary to what the defenders of capitalism say, capitalism itself is not eternal.

This is a way of getting a handle on the "big picture," the "long view" of history. It provides a framework for undertaking the more specific, more economy-focused analysis of the capital system itself.

The term materialism expresses Marx's rejection of idealism, especially the idealism of Hegel, the leading intellectual influence in German philosophy when Marx was a student and young adult. Hegelian idealism taught that historical events are somehow produced chiefly by ideas, perhaps by the "great thinkers" or political leaders like Caesar or Napoleon, or even by the Divine Mind. Marx wants to explain events in human social or economic terms as much as possible.

But he does not want to deny that ideas or systems of ideas have major consequences in the material world. In fact, the capital system, which has produced dramatic changes in the material and social and cultural world since it appeared in the early 16th century, could not exist would without the assumptions regarding justice and private property which have been embedded increasingly in the legal systems of modern Europe (and in human brains), just as it could not exist without the trade activities, the technologies, and scientific achievements of the preceding centuries.

Historical materialism presents a theory of historical stages and provides an explanation of how the parts of a social system fit together and require each other.

B. The Time Dimension: Historical Stages

Based largely on European history, Marx distinguishes between

1) Precapitalism
chiefly slave-owning society and feudal society;
later he mentions Asiatic society, which is supposed to cover ancient China, India, Egypt of the Pharaohs, and Persia;
eventually, primitive communism is placed earlier than the socially stratified stages.

Around the beginning of the 20th century, most Marxists recognize:
     primitive communism
     Asiatic mode of production
     ancient slavery (e.g., Greece and Rome)

2) Capitalism - which rises in Europe in the early 16th century, and goes through a number of stages itself;
a) mercantile capitalism
b) manufacturing capitalism and early capitalist agriculture
c) industrial capitalism (as far as it gets in Marx's time)

d) 20th century Marxists add: late-capitalism, characterized by transnational corporations and the domination of finance capital (just developing when Marx died)

3) Socialism - yet to come
Recent Marxists such as Samir Amin have argued that all the hierarchical or socially stratified pre-capitalist formations, including European feudalism, are best understood as tributary social formations. A tributary formation is dominated by the tributary mode of production, in which a military aristocracy, sometimes headed by an absolute monarch, extracts labor or the products of labor from a peasant farming class by implicit or overt threats of violence backed by religious sanctions. Another recent Marxist, Istvan Meszaros, distinguishes the capital system from capitalism, which is a version of the capital system.

So the refined Marxist picture of history in 2012 today might be something like:

1. Primitive communalism;
2. Tributary society
which can include pockets of feudalism, slave-ownership, and merchant capital); it stretches from ancient China to classical Greece and Rome, to the Muslim Empires of the Middle Ages and the feudal regimes that existed until the rise of the absolute monarchies in Renaissance Europe

3. Capital System, of which industrial capitalism is the classical form
4. Socialism
The Soviet system (ca. 1925-1990) is now classed as a special form of the capital system, where the state is the primary owner of capital, and the state bureaucrats are the personifications of that capital, that is, they work to accumulate capital not for themselves but for the state, just as managers of corporations work to accumulate capital for the corporations, not only themselves insofar as they are also stockholders. Certainly, the Russian revolutionaries who led the Revolution of 1917 did not aim to create a new version of the capital system, but that is what it turned out to be.

C. Historical materialism as an explanatory model.

Here the stress is upon the relationship between the so-called economic basis and the political and intellectual superstructures. A common error is to think that Marx's view is that what happens in the base necessitates or strictly determines what happens in the superstructure, so that idea-people would simply be tools of factors hidden to them and beyond their control, with no conscious freedom of choice or responsibility. While this may sometimes be true, it is not always or necessarily true.

"Necessary" is a tricky word. The same thing can be said about "determine." Sometimes it signifies the absence of freedom. "Having been thrown out of a tenth-story window, the gerbil necessarily plummeted to its death." But sometimes it signifies the only viable solution to a problem, a viable solution can we can easily imagine someone freely choosing. "Feeling utterly miserable, the man necessarily swallowed the medicine his doctor told him could cure him."

Marx is absolutely concerned about human freedom, he favors the abolition of the capital system because it is necessary for the genuine progress of freedom, because it ultimately will be the only alternative to barbarism. He thinks it matters what idea-people write, say, or do. He himself is an idea-person, although his ultimate goal is to overcome the distinction between idea-people and active historical agents. He thinks we all can be idea-people and active historical agents, but society will need changing if this unity of thought and action is to be available to much larger numbers of people.

But Marx does hold that the economic basis of society limits what ideas are possible at any given time. And he does hold that we can partly explain the ideas of a society in terms of what is happening in the economic and technological sphere or what the basic class structure of society is like. He does maintain that as the productive forces grow, which is primarily a matter of the "material base," the idea possibilities can change as well.

In spite of what Marx writes in the Preface to the Critique of Political Economy, today it is better and a more faithful expression of his over-all intention to emphasize interaction rather than base-to-superstructure "determination." Marx never wanted to deny the importance of thought as a part of the processes of change that occur between people, and between people and nature.

Handout on Historical Materialism

Sometimes Marx's historical materialism is diagrammed as a pyramid, divided into two main parts, the base and the superstructure. A more careful diagram such as the following might distinguish levels within the base (B1-B4) and within the superstructure (S1 and S2).

The Marxist claim that the (economic) basis generally determines the political-cultural superstructure needs to be understood as trying to counteract the idealist view, prominent in Marx's younger years, that ideas (or the divine spirit in history) have causal primacy.

A picture of the Base-Superstructure relationship in chart form:

S2 (Superstructure level 2): Religious Ideas, Philosophy, Social Theory
S1 (Superstructure level 1): Legal and political institutions
B4 (Base level 4): Relationships of production: including class-based modes of production
B3 (Base level 3): Productive forces: skill of workers and scientific knowledge applicable to production
B2 (Base level 2): Productive forces : simple tools, complex tools, tool-produced resources, machines, machine produced resources
B1 (Base level 1): Natural conditions, including human anatomy, and the natural environment

The so-called material or economic basis consists of: natural conditions including human anatomy (B1); the productive forces associated with material culture (simple tools, found resources, resources acquired through using tools, complex tools and machines, resources acquired through using machines, etc.) (B2); the productive forces include the acquired skills of workers and scientific knowledge when that knowledge can be applied to the manipulation of natural or artificially created materials (B3).

The economic basis also includes relations of production, which have to do with how human beings relate to each other in the productive process: the division of labor, power structure in production; class divisions as they affect production (owners and non-owner laborers). (B4)

In fact, Marx rarely underestimates the importance of the so-called superstructure. The capitalist form of S1 is absolutely necessary for the capital system. Marx himself devoted most of his active life to a critique of the capitalist form of S2, believing such activity essential to promoting the transition to a socialist society.

In practice Marx's analysis traces interactions without restricting himself to one-way (bottom-up) causation. Moreover, he appreciates the way in which the diverse elements of the capital system reinforce each other and resist a systemic change, say, to socialism. Earlier, the diverse elements of the pre-capitalist tributary (more traditionally, "feudal") system reinforced each other and resisted the change to capitalism.

It is nonetheless true that the pre-capitalist system contained internal contradictions that enabled capitalism to grow and eventually overturn the pre-capitalist system. The capitalist system itself contains internal contradictions that enable the ingredients necessary for socialism— the productive forces as well as essential ideas—to develop and for socialism itself to possibly emerge victorious.

Marx's mature view is that socialism is not necessary in the sense of inevitable, or fated, but only in the sense of "needed": capitalism poses increasingly agonizing problems for humanity that only socialism can solve. His friend Engels put it this way: the alternative is socialism or barbarism.

The class struggle, which the Communist Manifesto understands as central to history, operates not only at level B4, for example, through struggles at the workplace, strikes, and temporary truces between workers and capitalists, but also at level S1, through struggles to change the laws and win reforms that benefit workers without changing the social system or allow them to organize their own unions or parties to struggle for their rights. It also operates at level S2, where (pro-capitalist) economists try to teach us that the capitalist system corresponds to human nature, which is always everywhere the same, and is essentially harmonious, while socialist theorists challenge their theories. It also operates at level B3, for example, when capitalists promote redesign of technology to produce de-skilling: the workers on whom the capitalists rely come to require fewer skills for most tasks, so that capitalists find it easier to fire and replace them than to give in to their demands for better working conditions and wages.