After reading this article you will learn about Historical Materialism:- 1. Definition of Historical Materialism 2. Marx’s Formulation of Historical Materialism 3. Principles.
Definition of Historical Materialism:
“Historical materialism is the extension of principles of dialectical materialism to the study of social life, an application of the principles of dialectical materialism to the phenomenon of the life of society, to the study of society and of its history” (Stalin).
To put it in other words the historical materialism is nothing but the application of the principles of dialectics to the study of social life. R.N.C. Hunt has defined the historical materialism almost in the same language. He says, “Historical materialism or the materialistic interpretation of history is simply dialectical materialism applied to the particular field of human relations within society.”
In Socialism, Utopian and Scientific, Engels defines historical materialism in the following words: historical materialism is “that view of the course of history which seeks the ultimate cause and the great moving power of all important historic events in the economic development of society in the changes, in the modes of production and exchange, in the consequent division of society into distinct classes and in the struggle of these classes against one another.”
Explaining Engels’s view, Kolakowski says, “Historical materialism is thus an answer to the question – What circumstances have had the greatest effect in changing human civilization? This word being understood in a broad sense covering all social forms of communication from categories of thought to social organisation of labour and political institutions”.
It is called historical materialism because the starting point of human history from the materialist point of view is the struggle with nature, the sum total of means employed by man to compel nature to serve his needs, which grow as they are satisfied. Man is distinguished from other animals by the fact that he makes tools.
Historical materialism studies the laws of interrelationship between matter and consciousness and the general laws of being in their specific manifestations in the social life and discovers the general laws governing the functioning and development of society as a specific form of the motion of matter. We can generally say that the subject matter of historical materialism is the study of the general laws governing the functioning and development of society.
The historical materialism constitutes the nucleus of Marxist philosophy. Marx and Engels have rejected root and branch Hegelian concept of Spirit or Idea and have meticulously analysed the society exclusively from the materialistic point of view.
Their interpretation of history is based on materialism in which there is no place of imagination, conjecture or subjective element. They have viewed history not through the spectacles of idealism but of materialism.
Historical materialism envisages that all the parts of social life are interconnected and any analysis of social life must seriously consider that. Historical materialism discusses the general laws and driving forces of functioning and development of society treating it as an integrated whole. There are contradictions and opposites in social life which are connected with each other and dependent upon each other.
If we fail to recognize this a clear realization of the development of society will remain a far cry. It is also to be noted that historical materialism combines both theory and method in one. The society or social development viewed dialectically and dialectical materialism furnishes all the solution to problems.
Marx and Engels did not use the term “historical materialism.” They have used the term materialist conception of history. The coinage of the term or its discovery according to Engels is really a revolution and it stands parallel to Darwin’s theory of evolution.
In his speech at the graveside of Marx, Engels said “Just as Darwin discovered the law of development of organic nature, so Marx developed the law of development of human history the simple fact, hitherto concealed by an overgrowth of ideology, that mankind must first of all eat, drink and have shelter and clothing, before it can pursue politics, science, art, religion etc., that therefore production of the immediate material means of subsistence and consequently the degree of economic development attained by a given people or during a given epoch form the foundation upon which the state, institutions, the legal conceptions, art and even the ideas of religion, of the people concerned have been evolved and in the light of which they must therefore be explained, instead of vice-versa as had hitherto been the case.”
Marx may be called the social Darwin of modern age, Darwin put an end to the view that animal and plant species are unconnected and fortuitous creations of God. So Marx put an end to the view that human society is an aggregation of individuals.
Marx’s Formulation of Historical Materialism:
In 1859 Marx published his A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy and in the Preface to the book what he said has been regarded as the classic formulation and basic proposition of materialist interpretation of history or historical materialism.
He wrote, “In the social production of their life, men enter into definite relations that are indispensable and independent of their will, relations of production which correspond to definite stage of development of their material productive forces. The sum total of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which rises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness. The mode of production of material life conditions the social, political and intellectual life process in general. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but on the contrary their social being that determines their consciousness. At a certain stage of their development, the material productive forces of society come in conflict with the existing relations of production. From the forms of development of the productive forces these relations turn into their fetters.”
In the above famous passage Marx has categorically said that in society there are two stages one is base or what may also be called the foundation and the other is called the superstructure.
If there is a change in the base or foundation of society there will take place a corresponding change in the superstructure. Marx discovered this relationship between base and the superstructure from the analytical study of society with an outlook of materialism.
In considering such transformations a distinction should be made between the material transformation of economic conditions of production and the legal, political and religious, in short, ideological forms.
Our opinion of a man is not based on what he thinks of himself. Similarly we cannot judge a period of transformation by its own consciousness. On the contrary, this consciousness must be explained rather from the contradictions of material life, from the existing conflict between the social productive forces and the relations of production.
In his letter to Bloch, Engels writes about materialist conception of history. According to materialist conception of history the ultimate determining element in history is the production and reproduction of real life.
More than this neither Marx nor I have ever asserted. Hence if somebody lists this into saying that the economic element is the only determining one, he transforms that proposition into a meaningless, abstract, senseless phrase. There is an interaction of all these elements in which amid all the endless host of accidents the economic movement finally asserts.
Higher relations of production never appear before the material conditions of their existence have matured in the womb of the old society itself. Mankind always sets itself only such tasks as it can solve.
When the material conditions for solution exist then and then only the tasks arise. The bourgeois relations of production are the last antagonistic form of the social process of production.
It is not individual antagonism, but antagonism between the social conditions of the life of individuals and the productive forces developing in the womb of bourgeois society.
Principles of Historical Materialism:
From the materialist interpretation of history certain principles are obtained and these may be stated in the following way:
The first principle is that social development is regulated by objective laws discoverable by science.
The second principle is that views and institutions such as political, economic and cultural emerge from the development of material life of society.
That is, there is a close relationship between ideological institutional progress on the one hand and economic progress on the other hand. Marx and Engels have also said that the ideas, institutions and ideology considerably guide or mould the material life of human beings.
The first guiding principle of historical materialism is that change and development of society take place according to objective laws. Objective laws are those laws which are discoverable and which relate to the material world. Any divine law or concept is out of the jurisdiction of historical materialism. Materialism never recognizes that inexplicable law is the cause of social change and development.
The development of society includes the development of views and various institutions political, economic, social and cultural. Historical materialism asserts that the progress of views and institutions is determined by the material conditions of social life.
According to Marx and Engels, matter can never act as a factor of social progress. Matter or material life is the primary thing. Materialism further states that views and institutions originate from the material conditions.
We have already quoted a lengthy passage from Marx’s Preface to the Critique of Political Economy where he has stated that it is not the consciousness of man that determines his being, but the social being determines the consciousness.
The idealists make us believe that the idea to overthrow the feudalism arose in the minds of our forefathers. Materialists legitimately ask why did the idea arise?
The idealists have no answer. Materialists say that the change in material conditions led them to think of overthrowing the feudalism. Simply stated, the problem is one group that is idealists says that idea is supreme and it determines the course of action of man.
Another group is of opinion that it is not idea; rather the material condition of situation is one only which determines everything in human society. This is the basis of controversy between idealism and materialism or materialist interpretation of history.
Marx and his followers have stressed the point that the ideas of material life play a very important part in the development of society. A carpenter has ideas about wood and a tool-maker forms ideas about metal. Without the ideas they cannot work. If they are not well-acquainted with the properties they will not be able to work.
“People do not work without ideas. Indeed when primitive men made his first stone implements, he was already demonstrating the role played by ideas.”
For the maintenance of day-to-day life men require different types of articles or commodities and they produce them with their own brain or mental power and physical power. But without controlling nature people cannot do this job.
It means that behind the production of every article there is the brain and along with it the labour of man. Behind all these there is the labour of man. Production is impossible without labour.
The animals also work or they apply labour. But there is a fundamental difference between the labour of man and that of animal. Human labour is associated with his consciousness. Consciousness again originates from his social existence.
Man applies his labour consciously. He starts his work with a definite purpose. In the case of failure, he ponders over it and tries to know the cause of failure. If necessary he modifies his method of work or he radically changes his method. Again, in case of success, he continuously makes his efforts to improve his method.
From the above we can draw another inference. The labour of man is always creative. Man applies his labour to produce something. That is why historical materialism stresses that man’s labour is always creative. This creative labour transforms the society and makes possible the development.
He is not guided by any invisible force. His only motive is to change his and society’s material conditions. In human labour social consciousness and social existence are combined.