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Historical Materialism in Marx’s Work

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Published: 23rd Sep 2019 in History

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What is the significance of “Historical Materialism” in Marx’s work?

Historical Materialism is a model to understand social structures; types of society’s; how and why they may have changed historically, and to ultimately predict the emergence of an ideal type (Engels, F. 1908). In addition to this, it is suggested that the ‘historical’ in the theory, “allows us to explore the conditions and implications of historically specific separation” (Rupert, M. Smith, H. 2016 p18) and additionally focuses attention on “not only some transhistorical economic sphere, but on historically specific material conditions of social reproduction” (Rupert, M. Smith, H. 2016 p18). The theory itself has two sections: on one hand, it is the “general theory of the structure and dynamics of any mode of production” and on the other, “it is a theory of the historical sequence of modes of production” (Elster, J. 1986, p104) In relation to Marx’s work, the theory of historical materialism is an extremely significant in relation to “ social formation” ( Giddens, A. 1995 p42) and “social structure” (Giddens, A. 1995 p42), however, there are an abundance of sociologists which explain and theorise how society works, changes and develops through different ideals: Durkheim may suggest that “In such societies the division of labour is highly developed and produces solidarity” (Durkheim, E. Thompson, K. 2004 p20) Thus, in this essay I will be analysing the significance of Historical Materialism, and how overall this contributes to the successfulness of Marx’s work.

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Contextually, the work of the German idealist philosopher, Hegel, had a significant impact on Marx’s work: his dialectical view of human consciousness as a process of evolution, was viewed as “science of logic” (Rockwell, Rockwell, R. Chen 2018, p47-72) Hegel believed that human thought has evolved from basic attempts to obtain nature of objects, to abstract thinking and self-awareness “the particularity of the will is a moment in the consciousness of the will as a whole” ( Hegel, G. W. F. Knox, T. M. 1820 p38) Thus, Marx developed a view extremely similar to Hegel, with the main dichotomy being Hegel is a idealist, whereas Marx is a materialist ; Hegel believed ideas are the mode in which humans relate to the world, in contrast to Marx believing that the fundamental truth about society is structured to organise material needs and production : “his capital passes through the process of production” (Marx, K. 1997, p4)

Moreover, the theory suggests that the actual basis of society is its economic structure (Marx, K. 1970) For Marx, the economic structure is made of its relation of production which then leads to the legal and political superstructure of society: “the picture of society outlined here is not one in which the superstructure- politics and ideology- merely passively reflects what happens in society” (Callinicos, A. 1996 p96-97) It additionally states that all objects, living or inanimate, are in a cycle of continuous change, where the rate is determined by the laws of dialectics “ the «power of abstraction», which allows separating «economic matter» from the «naturally tangible» material basis: use value, concrete labour, etc” (Evgeny Petrovitch Dyatel 2018) Thus, for Marx, humans are an embodiment of development of new forces of material production. Moreover, Marx suggested a collection of Epochs; primitive communist, ancient slaves, feudalism and capitalism, which is the last epoch: “the modern bourgeois society that has sprouted from the ruins of feudal society has not done anyway with class antagonisms” (Marx, K., Engels, F. 1998, cited by Appelrouth, S. Edles, L, D 2012 p53). However, Marx’s theory fails to explain the transitions from feudalism to capitalism: it is argued that the theory has “failure to account for fundamental changes in the nature of class relations” (Katz, C. J. 1993 p3) Hence, it is difficult to explain why perhaps feudal societies existed in many periods and places in the world, yet only capitalism arose in Europe at the time, only spreading to different countries, via adaptation, (Katz, C. J. 1993). Thus, although Historical Materialism, is significant as it gives sociologists a way to understand Marx’s view that the basis of society is its “economic structure” (Marx, K 1970), his theory does not give credit to how capitalism came about, failing to explain the transitions from one epoch to another (Katz, C. J. 1993).

Moreover, within his theory, Marx discusses the idea of surplus values within his theory: surplus value created by the market system and exchange value, “capitalist production is not merely the production of commodities, it is, by its very essence, the production of surplus value” (Marx, K. Engels, F. 1867, p644) The surplus value is not only in goods, but additionally in services such as education, “ that the latter has laid out their capital in a teaching factory rather than a sausage factory makes no difference to the relation” (Marx, K. Engels, F 1867, p644). Due to this, Marx believed that capitalism meant that the labourers were alienated from three areas: Other human beings, as workers had to compete for jobs, meaning it estranges people from each other, as under a capitalist society, they cannot be allies as they are opposing competition to each other; secondly, workers are alienated from the products of their labour, as when a labourer buys commodities from the capitalists, it strengthens the position of capitalism and hence stands against the workers, and thirdly, they are alienated from the act of labour, suggesting that because the bourgeois own the firms that employ workers, decide what commodities are made, how they are made and additionally the conditions they are made in, hence alienates the workers from the actual act of labour itself (Wolff, J. 2015) However, is it appropriate to say that workers were alienated from material things like this? For Example, the lack of private property, “it was not sufficient to say labourers did not own private property and were therefore alienated without considering that ownership of private property, in the form of land, was denied to them in the first place” (Erickson, T. 1999)

However, there is another section within Marx’s work, which is viewed as more significant to his work, in comparison to Historical Materialism. ­According to Marx, Ideology and Consciousness is an extremely significant section of his theoretical position, suggesting that “the production of ideas, of conceptions, of consciousness, is at first directly inter-woven with the material activity and the material intercourse of people” (Marx, K. 1846, In Craib, I. 1997, p106-107) He additionally believed that this was how inequalities in society were maintained, via his model of Superstructure and Base, “Marx’s conception of the way in which the forces and relations of production shape the whole of society was in fact a highly subtle and complex one” additionally indicating that “his most important statement of the relationship between what has come to be known at the economic ‘base’ and the ideological and political superstructure is careful and qualified” (Callinicos, A. 2011 p96-97). In simple terms, Marx believed that both the base and superstructure worked in conjunction with each other to maintain a balance in society (Callinicos, A 2011, p96-97) It is indicated within other research that Marx favours, that ideology stems from 5 different blocks; 1. “relates to/emerges from and reflects and justifies material basis”; 2. Influences perceptions; 3. Reflects the interests of the “dominant classes” ; 4. Has social functions; 5. Makes “all relations about material value rather than innate human value and thereby strips some people of worth” (Morrison, K. 2006). Hence, overall, for Marx it is appropriate to suggest that he believed that “ideologies in this way keep the existing mode of production going by persuading people to form mistaken views about the nature of society” and additionally  “self-deception was necessary in the great bourgeois revolutions because the leaders of these revolutions had to persuade themselves and their own supporters that the victory of their class was in the interests of humanity as a whole” (Callinicos, A. 2011, p97-98) Thus, despite Historical Materialism being a significant element within Marx’s work, it could be argued that perhaps Ideology and Consciousness are more successful in discussing the ways in which society works, and how the balance is maintained.

Nevertheless, it is appropriate to critique Marx’s work based on gender. It is suggested within research that for “To many feminists, Marxism, with its theory of class exploitation as central to an understanding of society, has been found wanting as too ‘reductionist’ and not taking sufficient account of oppression” (Brown, HA, 2012) Moreover, it is suggested within Heather Browns book, (2012) that “Most feminist discussions of Marxism have focused on the work of Engels  ‘The origin of Family, Private Property and the State”, a book length treatment on gender” (Brown, HA, 2012, p136-140) calling his work a “systematic study of gender” (Brown, HA, 2012, p136-140). However, a feminist Jennifer Ring (2012), “rightly criticises both Marx and Hegel for their lack of understanding of and attention to feminist issues” (Brown, HA, 2012, p136-140) and additionally suggests that “neither Marx or Hegel provide an adequate theory of gender oppression” (Brown, HA, 2012, p136-140) Moreover, it is contrastingly suggested that “ If we apply Marx’s method of analysis to gender issues, we appear to be able to determine them as part of class struggle” (Matwijkiw, A, Matwijkiw, B. 2018, p83-104) Within the article, it states that “it is tempting to suggest that women should be considered a part of the proletariat because their oppression cuts across all strata of society” (Matwijkiw, A, Matwijkiw, B. 2018, p83-104) However, it could be argued that it is not possible to justify the idea that “women constitute a class according to Marxist criteria” (Matwijkiw, A, Matwijkiw, B. 2018, p83-104). Thus, it could be appropriate to imply that Marx’s work, disregards the gender divide in society, hence, his work could lack some validity due to this.

Moreover, within the sociological canon, there are many theories which believe that Marx’s work is “it is not quite clear whether he understands the representations of the ruling class as an unconscious error of representation or whether he thinks that the false representation is a conscious deceit in order to mislead the oppressed” (Herzog, B. 2018, p402-413) Within Marx’s work, he suggested that the division of labour was exploitative and damaging to the proletariat, and unstainable for the bourgeoise, “the development of division of labour leads to changes in the instruments of production” (Ricoy, C. 2003 p47-81) . Contrastingly, Durkheim theorised that the division of labour was essential to social interdependence and was only a problem in severe cases, “for Durkheim, the necessity of the division of labour is not a law limited to economics alone: It applies as well to living organisms, as an evolutive law towards specialisation of vital functions, and – this is most relevant here – to societies as well” (Cunha de Souza, L. G. 2018) Hence, we can use Durkheim’s work to imply that perhaps Marx’s theory disregards certain aspects of society, and more significantly, that other sociologists provide a more rounded explanation of how society works.

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In addition to this, Max Weber’s work, can additionally be compared to Marx’s work, as a way of suggesting his significance to modern sociology. It can be argued that Weber was “concerned with the interpretive understanding of social action” with his specific focus on the “acting individual attaches meaning to his ‘behaviour’” (Sadri, A. 1992) In comparison to Marx, who believed that the actual basis of society is its economic structure (Marx, K. 1970), it is appropriate to imply that Weber offers a more significant explanation of societal structures, relying on the theory of social action, and ideal types. However, Marx does provide a legitimate explanation in relation to freewill. He believed that humans do express freewill, but within a material context, “the true resolution of the strife between existence and essence between objectification and self-confirmation between freedom and necessity” (Craib, I. 1997 p224). Thus, it is suitable to show that Marx’s work is significant to modern sociology, as it does not ignore the idea that humans have a role in the way in which society functions, as well as making his audience aware that the economic basis of society functions from the “labour of the proletariat” (Marx, K. 1970).

To conclude, overall Marx’s work on Historical Materialism is significant in relation to his work, as it gives sociologists a tool in which society can be studied, and ultimately predicts “the emergence of an ideal type” (Engels, F. 1908). It is important to acknowledge that during Marx’s period within the sociological canon, he has become extremely influential to other sociologists, and society. It can, however, be questioned as to whether his ‘Historical Materialism’ principle is as significant as other elements of his work, such as his theory of Superstructure and the economic base (Callinicos, A. 1996 p96-97) This principle gives a wider understanding about society, and hence therefore may be used more by other sociologists, to compare how a more modern society would work. In addition to this, despite his theory being successful in relation to how people understand society during his era, many believe his theory lacks sufficient knowledge around topics on gender (Brown, HA, 2012, p136-140); and thus, when compared to other influential sociologists, Marx is heavily critiqued as being a materialist writer, despite his awareness of freewill (Craib, I. 1997 p224). Thus, overall, I believe that Marx’s work on Historical Materialism is significant within sociology, and is still being used within a modern society, as a way of measuring and predicting the economic basis and structure that societies have formed (Callinicos, A. 1996 p96-97). Contrastingly, I believe that the work of Weber, are possibly more influential to a modern society, as he discusses ‘social action’ and ‘ideal types’ (Sadri, A. 1992). Hence, I believe that despite Marx’s contribution to sociology, other sociologists within the canon apply a more appropriate method of studying society.

Word count: 2313.

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