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What is Historical Materialism?

Posted by Taimur Rahman on August 6, 2008

[Comrades, while our struggle against military rule continues, we must combine our practicle efforts with theoretical study. I strongly believe that there can be no revolutionary struggle without revolutionary theory. In this short essay I have presented the central views about historical dialectical materialism. The essay also replies to the charges of economic reductionism and linearity of history. I hope that it proves useful for our theoretical study to inform out practicle politics. Dated: Nov 30, 2007]

What is Historical Materialism?

In the words of Lenin, Marxism continued and consummated the three most advanced ideological currents of the nineteenth century: German philosophy, English Political Economy, and French Socialism. The epistemological premises of Marxism developed through criticism of post-Hegelian German philosophy. The The Poverty of Philosophy and the German Ideology were among the first works that developed historical materialism as a new method of the study of history.

Marx and Engels divided hitherto existing philosophy along the epistemological lines of materialism and idealism. In his work Ludwig Feuerbach and the end of Classical German Philosophy Engels explains that the central premise of materialism is the philosophical concept of matter as an independent entity in relation to thought. In simple words, materialism is premised upon the objective existence of the world.

This assertion about the independent and objective existence of the world may strike the reader as positivism. There is no doubt that these premises have been challenged by religious and philosophical idealists, by certain natural-scientists, and more recently in social-studies by post-modernists. These challenges to materialism, whether traditional or modern, bear one line of reasoning in common; they deny the objective existence of the world.

With respect to these objections, Lenin’s philosophical work Materialism and Empirio-Criticism is a trenchant defense of materialism. He points out not only that objections against materialism inevitably lead to solipsism–the view that the self is all that can be known to exist. He also argues persuasively that copious natural scientific evidence demonstrating the existence of the Earth before the existence of humans is conclusive proof that matter exists independent of thought. Obviously, if the world existed before the existence of humans, matter cannot be a product of our thought. Further, natural scientific arguments, derived often from relativity or quantum mechanics, rest on confusing the philosophic concept of matter with the scientific concept of matter. The philosophic concept of matter makes no other claim except that matter exists independent of thought. The question about the nature of matter falls exclusively in the realm of the scientific concept of matter. Since, relativity or quantum mechanics do not disprove that the universe existed before the existence of humans, they do not disprove that matter exists independent of thought. Lenin concludes that materialism is entirely consistent with developments in modern natural science.

However, unlike the mechanical and rigid categories of nineteenth century natural science, Marx and Engels extracted the “rational kernel” from Hegel’s philosophy — namely dialectics — and combined it with materialism. At its most basic, dialectics is the simple concept that there is no finality in human thought or action. On the contrary, life is always in a process of birth and death, development and destruction, coming into being and passing away. In a word, the world should be understood as a complex of processes. These processes of life are not characterized by a rigid separation of binary opposites. On the contrary, these opposites interact and interpenetrate each other. At a certain stages in the development of these processes small quantitative changes result in qualitative changes. The entire movement of these complex of processes takes place in a continuous spiral that ascends from lower to higher forms (Engels, Dialectics of Nature). For instance, the search for the truth is itself a long historical never-ending process developing higher levels of knowledge without ever being able to reach the absolute truth. Similarly, human society is in a process of continuos evolution without a final or complete conclusion in an ideal or perfect state or society (Engels, Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classical German Philosophy). The synthesis of materialism and Hegelian dialectics is the method of Marxism known as dialectical materialism.

It follows from these simple but forceful premises that the methodology of historical dialectical materialism is not based on any pre-conceived notions of human nature but on the concrete conditions of human existence. The first premise of human history, as Marx wrote in the German Ideology, is the existence of living human individuals. And since “mankind must first of all eat, drink, have shelter and clothing, before it can pursue politics, science, art, religion, etc.” the social organization for the production of these necessary means of life forms the foundations upon which are based social, political, cultural and ideological conceptions. The great discovery of historical materialism is, therefore, that the social, political, cultural and ideological conceptions of man can only be understood in connection with the economic foundations of a given society (Marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1883/death/burial.htm). Marx expressed these findings succinctly in the often-quoted Preface to a Critique of Political Economy.

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 a 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 foundations, 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 (Marx, Preface).

In other words, all societies must produce the basics of life in order to live. In order to produce, humans enter into social relations of production that correspond to the level of development of productive forces. Productive forces and relations of production together constitute the mode of production. The mode of production is the economic base to which corresponds the ideological and political superstructure of a society. This process of a historically evolving social division of labour is, thus, the central notion of historical materialism. Thus, investigation of the social division of labour is the starting point of a materialist study of society.

Anthropological evidence suggests that early man lived in a primitive state, an animal state. The processes of social labour and their consequent impact on the development of the brain over hundreds of thousands of years led to the evolution of what we call today modern man. Till such time as the productivity of labour was not developed enough to produce a surplus over and above the basic needs of survival, humanity lived in a form of primitive communism characterized by an extremely low social division of labour. With the further development of the productive forces mankind was able to produce a surplus over and above the basic needs of survival. This gave rise to a phenomenon whereby certain sections of society began to live off the labour of other sections of society. This was the dawn of class-society.

Classes are large groups of people differing from each other by the place they occupy in a historically determined system of social production, by their relation (in most cases fixed and formulated in law) to the means of production, by their role in the social organisation of labour, and, consequently, by the dimensions of the share of social wealth of which they dispose and the mode of acquiring it. Classes are groups of people one of which can appropriate the labour of another owing to the different places they occupy in a definite system of social economy (Lenin, http://marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1919/jun/28.htm).

This definition makes it very clear that the defining properties of a class are not subjective but are objective relations to the means of production. This definition of classes as an objective economic relation implies that classes may or may not be conscious of their interests. However, the degree of self-consciousness about their objective economic relationship to the means of production has no bearing upon their classification as a certain class. Along these lines, this study is not concerned at the outset with the subjective properties of classes but with establishing the various classes that objectively exist in Pakistan.

In sum, development of the social division of labour at a certain stage in history gave birth to distinctions in society based on the relationship to the means of production. This relationship of control over the means of production was eventually codified or expressed in cultural and juridical terms as ownership and property. In other words, property is the juridical expression of a class-based division of labour. The social division of labour is in the a process of constant evolution and the various forms of society can be discerned by the different forms of ownership. On this basis Marx broadly identified four forms of society.

…In broad outlines Asiatic, ancient, feudal, and modern bourgeois modes of production can be designated as progressive epochs in the economic formation of society.

Since the social, political, and cultural ideas of any society correspond to the economic mode of production, Marx argued that the dominating ideas were the ideas of the domination of that class. Ideology, therefore, is the conceptual expression of the real relationship of class-domination in society. Marx says:

The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas, i.e. the class which is the ruling material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force. The class which has the means of material production at its disposal, has control at the same time over the mental means of production, so that thereby, generally speaking, the ideas of those who lack the means of mental production are subject to it. The ruling ideas are nothing more than the idea expression of the dominant material relationships, the dominant material relationships grasped as ideas; hence of the relationships which make the one class the ruling one, therefore, the ideas of its dominance.

Marx observed that at certain stages of history, productive forces and relations of production may come into conflict with each other. In other words, relations of production become a barrier for the further development of society. This may bring about an era of social revolution in which new classes take power and transform the relations of production and the corresponding superstructure. During such periods of social revolution, the forms of ownership and the entire ideology of society undergoes a complete transformation. In sum, the dialectical contradiction between productive forces and relations of production, that is expressed in the class-struggle, is the central dialectic that governs history. That is why Marx asserts that “the history of all hitherto existing societies is the history of class-struggle” (Marx, Communist Manifesto).

Marx carefully studied the workings of capitalist society and argued that the immanent contradictions in capitalist society were leading to a society that would end all class antagonisms. He argued that modern industry had laid the economic foundation for the final destruction of class-society. Modern industry had destroyed the economic necessity that compelled a certain portion of the population to a life of manuel drudgery. An economic situation that compelled the development of the few to be at the expense of the development of the many. Industry had made possible a society in which the development of one could be the basis for the development of all. That society was called communism. Marx argued that the creation of communist society would inaugurate the beginning of a new period in human history where man would no longer exploit man.

On the Charge of Economic Reductionism

Critics of Marx have argued that the model of economic base and superstructure is tantamount to economic reductionism. It is alleged that Marxism casts the superstructure in a purely passive role. However, there is plenty of evidence in the writings of Marx and Engels to demonstrate that this would be an incorrect interpretation of their argument. In particular the relationship between the base and superstructure is directly addressed by Engels

According to the materialist conception of history, the ultimately determining element in history is the production and reproduction of real life. Other than this neither Marx nor I have ever asserted. Hence if somebody twists this into saying that the economic element is the only determining one, he transforms that proposition into a meaningless, abstract, senseless phrase. The economic situation is the basis, but the various elements of the superstructure — political forms of the class struggle and its results, to wit: constitutions established by the victorious class after a successful battle, etc., juridical forms, and even the reflexes of all these actual struggles in the brains of the participants, political, juristic, philosophical theories, religious views and their further development into systems of dogmas — also exercise their influence upon the course of the historical struggles and in many cases preponderate in determining their form. There is an interaction of all these elements in which, amid all the endless host of accidents (that is, of things and events whose inner interconnection is so remote or so impossible of proof that we can regard it as non-existent, as negligible), the economic movement finally asserts itself as necessary. Otherwise the application of the theory to any period of history would be easier than the solution of a simple equation of the first degree (Engels, Marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1890/letters/90_09_21.htm).

Similarly, emphasizing the dialectical nature of the relationship between the base and the superstructure Engels writes,

What these gentlemen all lack is dialectic. They never see anything but here cause and there effect. That this is a hollow abstraction, that such metaphysical polar opposites only exist in the real world during crises, while the whole vast process proceeds in the form of interaction (though of very unequal forces, the economic movement being by far the strongest, most elemental and most decisive) and that here everything is relative and nothing is absolute–this they never begin to see. Hegel has never existed for them.
Marxists.org /archive/marx/works/1890/letters/90_10_27.htm

In another letter Engels continues,

Hanging together with this too is the fatuous notion of the ideologists that because we deny an independent historical development to the various ideological spheres which play a part in history we also deny them any effect upon history. The basis of this is the common undialectical conception of cause and effect as rigidly opposite poles, the total disregarding of interaction; these gentlemen often almost deliberately forget that once an historic element has been brought into the world by other elements, ultimately by economic facts, it also reacts in its turn and may react on its environment and even on its own causes (Engels, Marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1893/letters/93_07_14.htm)

From these direct refutations it is clear that Marxism does not pose a one-sided or determinist relationship but a dialectical relationship between the base and the superstructure. The assertion that socio-political ideas are connected and correspond to the social division of labour does not in anyway imply that ideas play no role or merely a passive role in history.

By identifying social labour as the prerequisite of every society, the one practice that is common to all societies, historical materialism underscores that social labour alone can serve an objective bench mark for any kind of comparative analysis of society. An analysis of social labour can reveal what is common between different societies as well as what differentiates one society from the other. This objective bench mark makes it possible to pass from a mere description of ideas and events to a scientific explanation of these facts. That is why the analysis of social labour is the starting point of any materialist investigation of society.

Recurrence and regularity in social and economic relations in a given society is generalized as a social formation. In specific moment in the history of the social formation of a society there may be other modes of production besides the dominant mode of production. These subsidiary modes of production may either be remnants of the past or precursors to the future. In other words, whereas the analysis of a mode of production is the study of one complete economic system, the analysis of a social formation is the study of a specific society that may encompass more than one economic system/mode of production.

Historical Materialism: Critique of Unilinear Evolution

A pervasive view among a certain category of ‘Marxists’ is that historical materialism posits a universal historical scheme. They argue that all societies are destined to travel along the historical trajectory of ancient, feudal, capitalist and socialist modes of production. According to this view the main theoretical task, in relation to the study of non-European societies, is to delineate the historical periods in which each of these modes of production existed in the history of the specific society. In other words, the main task for such ‘unilinear evolutionists’ is to map non-European societies onto a universal historical schematic.

However, it is abundantly clear from the writings of Marx and Engels that they never upheld any such notion of a universal historical scheme. In fact, Marx explicitly rejected any attempt to, in his own words,

…metamorphose my historical sketch of the genesis of capitalism in Western Europe into an historico-philosophic theory of the marche generale [general path] imposed by fate upon every people, whatever the historic circumstances in which it finds itself, in order that it may ultimately arrive at the form of economy which will ensure, together with the greatest expansion of the productive powers of social labour, the most complete development of man (marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1877/11/russia.htm).

Thus, rather than proceeding from a “general-historical philosophical theory” or a universal historical scheme to specific forms of society, the method of historical materialism, on the contrary, proceeds from the study of specific forms of society to understand the march of history. In fact, this study will also demonstrate that the manner in which the various forms of non-European societies have been subsumed into a European historical schematic is the reflex of colonial domination. In the words of Krader, “the superordination of the European categories corresponded to the superiority of the European artillery” (Krader ??, pg 113).

Let us for now turn to the phrase ‘uni-linear’ evolution. This phrase immediately suggests two qualities about history. First, that history only moves in one direction. Second, that it moves in that one direction direction in a straight line.

First, the notion that history only evolves in one direction is also not upheld by the writings of Marx and Engels. Engels wrote that just as natural science predicts a fairly certain end not only for the habitability of the Earth but even for its existence, similarly dialectical philosophy “recognizes that for the history of mankind, too, there is not only an ascending but also a descending branch” (Engels, Ludwig Feuerbach). Marx and Engels believed that humanity was still “a considerable distance from the turning-point at which the historical course of society becomes one of descent”. The reason why this line of possible historical descent does not feature prominently in their writings is quite simply because dialectical philosophy cannot be expected to write about something that has not yet come about. Nonetheless, it is clear that Marx and Engels were completely open, not only to an ascending evolution, but also to the inevitability of a descending evolution of history.

Second, the notion that historical evolution is linear is completely alien to Marx and Engels. Historical materialism upholds that history proceeds not in a straight line but in a dialectic. Engels observes “History moves often in leaps and bounds and in a zigzag line” (marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1859/critique-pol-economy/appx2.htm). Clearly leaps and bounds and zigzags cannot be categorized as linear.

Some Marxist critics of ‘unilinear evolutionism’ propose that Marxism proposes a ‘multi-linear’ evolution of history. While this restatement certainly takes into account the reality that all societies do not follow a universal historical scheme, it still falls short of an understanding of history as a process of dialectical contradiction. In other words, multi-linearity continues to suggest that each societies evolve along a linear line of development. This notion, however, is quite clearly refuted by Marx and Engels themselves. They always upheld the possibility for each individual society, not only of historical ascend, but equally of historical descent and even destruction. For instance in the opening lines of the Communist Manifesto, they wrote that the class struggle may also lead to “the common ruin of the contending classes” (Marx and Engels, Communist Manifesto).

In sum, both phrases, unilinear or multi-linear evolutionism, are totally misleading for the simple reason that historical materialism does not posit either a universal historical scheme nor a one-directional or purely linear development of society. To put it more succinctly, “The universal evolutionary development of mankind exists only as an abstraction; the particular evolutions are various and concrete.”


There has been a long debate in the social sciences between the relative merits of quantitative or a qualitative approach. Unlike natural science, social science deals with phenomenon that cannot be isolated in experimental conditions and studied quantitatively. Nonetheless, social sciences also attempted to increasingly adopt methodologies or ask questions that were quantitative in orientation. Naturally, this greatly limits the scope of social science since some of the most interesting questions concerning society elude a purely quantitative approach. A counter thrust towards qualitative methods in the last two decades pushed the pendulum back. In more recent times, most social scientists have accepted a combination of the quantitative and qualitative approach.

Historical materialism, however, has never regarded quantitative methods exclusively as scientific. Thus, one could say that Marxism has always argued for a combination of the quantitative and the qualitative. Capital, for instance, contains a host of material that is both quantitative and qualitative. In fact, the sole criterion of science, for historical materialism, is practice.

In his thesis on Feuerbach, considered to be the first breakthrough towards historical materialism, Marx wrote “The dispute over the reality or non-reality of thinking which is isolated from practice is a purely scholastic question” (Marx, Thesis on Feuerbach). Similarly Engels says “The result of our action proves the conformity of our perceptions with the objective nature of the things perceived” (Engels, K. Marx and F. Engels, Selected Works, Vol. II, Moscow, 1958, pp. 403, 101). In other words, life is the first and fundamental basis of knoweldge. In sum, the sole criterion of truth, according to Marxism, is whether or not a theory accords with reality. Marx and Engels never attempted to fit the facts of history to any historical schema, dialectical schema, or any other dogmatic apriori principle. The sole criterion of whether a theory was scientific, in their eyes, was whether or not it accorded with the facts of life.

Marx and Engels were also completely open to the imperfection and incompleteness of their notions. They were argued that no idea about the social life of humans could be completely confirmed or rejected. Therefore, it was correct to say that Marxism has an element of relativism in it. But Marx and Engels equally upheld the view that there were absolutes within the relatives. That in relation to other ideas, certain ideas could be refuted absolutely. For instance, in relation to the notion that thought exists independent of matter, materialism upholds that it is absolutely true that matter exists independent of thought. Thus, Marxism recognizes the relative nature of our knowledge, that knowledge is historically conditioned. Lenin writes “[Marxism] recognises the relativity of all our knowledge, not in the sense of denying objective truth, but in the sense that the limits of approximation of our knowledge to this truth are historically conditional.”

At the same time, Marxism cannot be reduced to relativism in knowledge because it upholds that humanity is in a never ending and infinite search towards the objective truth.

In conclusion, historical materialism is not a set of axiomatic conclusions about history but fundamentally a method. A method that accepts the objective existence of the world and regards conformity of ideas with life as the sole criterion of truth. A method that regards the pursuit of knowledge as a never ending journey. Historical materialism is not itself the objective truth. It is, rather, the only method through which one can search for the objective truth, coming closer and closer to it in an endless spiral without ever being able to achieve the absolute truth.

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