Fundamentals of Marxism 2: Materialism in History

Categories: Articles Features

David Jamieson introduces the materialist concept of history in the second of a three part series on the Fundamentals of Marxism.

Humans have a history. This makes them unique amongst animals. This isn’t just a statement of fact, it’s the definitive argument against all those who want to reduce human behaviour and society to ‘human nature’. Over thousands of years human beings have behaved in very different ways and have produced very different societies. By contrast, the social organisation of animals is unconscious and corresponds only to immediate environment and to a purely genealogical lineage. Modern day ‘Social Darwinists’ might want to reflect on the breadth of human historical experience despite the fact that human genealogical evolution is staggeringly slow given the precarious nature and low level of human reproduction. Indeed, human social evolution has essentially usurped biological evolution as the most significant factor in humanity’s historical development.

Materialism and Human nature

Human beings in fact do have a nature – which is structured by their natural biological abilities and limitations. Above all else, Marx stressed, the basis of human society is the need of human beings to act in a social effort of production – even for the most basic necessities; shelter, food and so on. In arriving at this underlying logic to the formation of societies, Marx is applying his method of beginning with the concrete, as outlined in the first of this series.

He is doing so in order to overcome a basic limitation of historical thought of his day and ours. ‘Idealists’ form the mainstream of the enlightenment tradition posited ideas as the moving force in social affairs, as though they were autonomous of the material world and acted upon it ‘from the outside’.

Marx appealed that:

“The premises from which we begin are not arbitrary ones, not dogmas…They are the real individuals, their activity and the material conditions under which they live, both those which they find already existing and those produced by their activity.”

Through their social relations then, and crucially by them combing together into relations of production people begin to structure their social world. But, under conditions of relative scarcity, when there is not enough to go around, these relations are not voluntary and cannot be equal.


Human society has transited through several eras which represent a qualitative break with one another, and are characterised in chief by the way they produce, by a given ‘mode’ of production. Such modes are amalgams of both the forces of production (labour, materials, technology) and relations of production (ownership, employment etc).

Early Neolithic societies characterised by small land holdings and semi-communal cultivation gave way to great empires, which often based their economic strength on slavery. The middle ages were dominated by feudalism with workers (serfs) tied to the land owned by local nobility, these societies were in turn replaced through revolutions which laid the way for the establishment of capitalism – where labour exists as a commodity to be purchased by capitalists.

This process was not characterised, as many liberals imagine, by a steady accumulation of technique and technology, or by the linear spread of increasingly enlightened ideals. It was a chaotic process involving periods of apparent stasis, great leaps backward and sudden advance.

All these class based societies are first promoted by, and then destroyed by their founding contradiction – relative scarcity. As long as there is not enough produce to go around it is entirely necessary for there to be elite classes of administration and governance. Inevitably, such powerful grades become the holders of property and the beneficiaries of society’s productive activities. In their effort to maintain these fundamentally flawed productive modes – this ruling class destroys its own society.

Base and Superstructure

Upon this internally contradictory economic ‘base’, develops a complex of institutions and practices, forming a grand ideological narrative – a ‘superstructure’ – this was the famous conception of Karl Marx:

“In the social production of their existence, men inevitably enter into definite relations, which are independent of their will, namely [the] relations of production appropriate to a given stage in the development of their material forces of production. The totality of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which arises a legal and political superstructure, and to which correspond definite forms of consciousness. The mode of production of material life conditions the general process of social, political, and intellectual life. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness. At a certain stage of development, the material productive forces of society come into conflict with the existing relations of production or — this merely expresses the same thing in legal terms — with the property relations within the framework of which they have operated hitherto. From forms of development of the productive forces, these relations turn into their fetters. Then begins an era of social revolution .”

There is no room in this introduction for a serious discussion of some of the controversies surrounding this concept – but to demonstrate that this is by no means the ‘economically deterministic’ creed decried by mainstream academics it is only necessary to reproduce what immediately follows the above in the Preface to A Contribution to the critique of Political Economy:

“The changes in the economic foundation lead, sooner or later, to the transformation of the whole, immense, superstructure. In studying such transformations, it is always necessary to distinguish between the material transformation of the economic conditions of production, which can be determined with the precision of natural science, and the legal, political, religious, artistic, or philosophic — in short, ideological forms in which men become conscious of this conflict and fight it out .”

The contradictions in the base increasingly express themselves in the superstructure, which the ruling class manipulates to deal with said contradictions. The logic of the superstructure, its determination to freeze existing productive relations increasingly inhibits the development of productive forces. This is evident everywhere in the world today.

The Capitalist Epoch in Crisis

Like all class systems, capitalism’s initial phase was one of enormous advance for humanity. Capitalism expanded, in a few decades, technique and industrial capacity to a greater extent than had been achieved in the preceding five thousand years of civilization.

Throughout history class has created the possibility for enormous concentrations of wealth in few hands – a necessity for the logical and effective mobilisation of limited wealth. But as concentration increases it ages and undermines capitalism. The tendency of capital to concentrate into fewer and fewer units expresses itself in a growing disjuncture between what society needs and what is actually being produced and this in turn leads to deeper and more frequent economic crises.

The capitalist system, especially when taken on a world scale (which is how we must always consider it) is increasingly inflexible in the face of the colossal challenges to be met by humanity in coming decades. This is, in large part, due to the fact that capitals are situated into a world geopolitical landscape of competing nation states.

In every crisis afflicting the world today the hand of terminal decline is apparent. The predatory wars spread by the west across North-Africa and the Middle east represent growing geo-political competition. The ‘Bank Bailout’ – the greatest nationalisation in world history and a desperate attempt by the ruling class to bring some order to the chaotic and decrepit world economy is failing. Succeeding international conferences to deal with environmental destruction and global warming have failed – since in a world of competition; no state or capital wants to lose advantage.

These failings are not mere ‘economic’ failings, these crises are not just the crises of an ‘economic’ system. Capitalism is a class system, and all class societies fail in the end.

Capitalism will only fail when it can be replaced by a post-class society. In this brief and rather sweeping introduction we have looked at the material development of human society over time – in the final instalment we will look at how the process of history unfolds.

Leave a Reply

Current day month ye@r *

Go to top