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Historic materialism in relation to marx theories

In his burial speech at the funeral of his close friend and collaborator, Friedrich Engels suggested that “Marx discovered 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, have shelter and clothing before it can pursue politics, science, art, religion, etc”.

Discuss the concept of historical materialism in light of this quotation.

The following text aims to discuss the notion of historical materialism in relation to the above quotation. Primarily, the progression of Karl Marx’s theory will be explored; looking briefly at the work of Georg Hegel and how Marx used his ideas on social structure to form his argument he called historical materialism. This will then lead to the work of both Marx and Friedrich Engels as written in The Communist Manifesto (Marx, 1884), exploring how they developed their theory by looking at the first principles of historical materialism. The remainder of the following text will explore these ideas in depth, before finally concluding and evaluating Marx’s theory, as well as exploring ultimate flaws within the argument.

Marx developed his human centred theory, historical materialism, with the intention of explaining the dynamics of society and discussing how and why it has evolved the way it has throughout history. His theory, from a structural theoretical perspective, “emphasises the structure of society and explains an individual’s actions in terms of social structure in which they are located.” (Marsh, 2000: 61). Marx suggests that, “It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness.” (Hughes, Sharrock, Marsh, 2003: 46).

Hegel, a German philosopher, argued that the development of capitalism was due to an unfolding spirit or Geist. Although his theory is moderately abstract, Marx constructed his theory on it by turning on its head. He proposed that the idea that social history is created by Geist is due to a misunderstanding of the relationship between the dialectics of society which is effectively a two way struggle between the two social classes. For Marx, it was not the struggle between ideas but the struggle between classes. For society to exist, in reference to the original quote, it needs to provide basic needs like shelter and clothing. This is what Marx called historical materialism.

At the beginning of The Communist Manifesto, both Marx and Friedrich Engels convey the notion that class conflict is the fundamental key to historical materialism: “the history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.” (Marx, 1884). Historical materialism is an important paradigm in the analysis of society. This theory from the late 19th Century, takes into account that economic forces are directly associated with the development of social ideas and social change (Collins, 2010: 154). Marx argues that capitalism only exists as it is the only way society itself can exist. This relatively unfair system exploits the proletariat, whilst the bourgeoisie benefit from the proletariats labour.

Marx’s concept argued that there is an infrastructure of society which aims to provide material needs for society to exist, as referred to by Engels in his burial speech. This infrastructure constructed of the relations of production, as well as the means of production, e.g. technology, factories and raw materials; influences the superstructure of society. This is essentially the remainder of society including the political system, norms and values and the legal system amongst others. The way in which Marx rather simplistically divided society into two groups differentiates between the material and the non-material world. The infrastructure represents the material world, which influences and determines the superstructure or non-material world. His theory is based on the idea of commodification and the production of ‘things’ that can be bought and sold. He suggested that more and more aspects of life became commodified, even our collective relationships, and everything became relative to the value of these ‘things’ rather that human worth. The value of money is the driving motivation of society (Haralambos & Holborn, 1995:10). Therefore, political, legal and educational institutions are determined by economic factors. A notable change in the infrastructure can therefore cause a parallel change in the superstructure.

He argues that society is fuelled by surplus value, which is essentially labour power. The owners of production, the bourgeoisie, exploit the proletariat by means of production. This inequality which begins at the infrastructure then infiltrates in the superstructure in the form of capitalist ideology. This projects capitalist beliefs and ideas onto the exploited class and justifies the capitalist mode of production. The proletariats fail to question their exploitation as they rely on the bourgeoisie for wages, as the bourgeoisie rely on them. This eventually causes class conflicts.

His theory argues that conflicts between the social classes are a necessary factor of modern society. Without such conflicts capitalism would not exist. He argues that in the same way feudalism was a necessary prerequisite for the emergence of capitalism, capitalism is a necessary epoch in the development of communism in modern society. The struggle between the classes eventually leads to a modification of one economic system to another. Therefore, such class struggles are a fundamental part of Marx’s analysis of society.

However, there are a number of criticisms of Marx’s theory of historical materialism. Firstly, the theory is reductionist and places a great deal of emphasis on the economy alone. Weber argued that he oversimplified the complexities of society (Kilcullen, 1996). Marx’s theory is also over one hundred years old and so it could be argued that it is somewhat out dated, however, some would argue that it is can still be applied to today’s capitalist society. Nonetheless, there is one fundamental flaw in this argument as it greatly contradicts itself. Capitalism is highly productive and produces surplus value, yet this substantial production system still allows for major inequalities with some people living below the poverty line. It also presumes a two class model, were some critics argue there is also a middle class which is not accounted for. Finally, the fact that some superstructures are based on anti-capitalist idea like religion causes the definitions of the superstructure and the infrastructure to merge producing a far more complex society not accommodated for in his theory. Therefore, although this theory is of great significance, it is not entirely applicable to today’s complex society.

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