- “Historical materialism” is not a term that Karl Marx himself used, but it has become the commonly used label for what Marx called his “materialist conception of history.” The key idea of historical materialism is that the basis of society and of social change is production or productive activity. According to historical materialism the way in which we produce our food, clothing, shelter and goods for exchange is the basis of society, or to put this another way, the basis of society and social change is economics and technology. Consequently, if we want to understand history and society we must look first at production, because human beings are fundamentally producers, and human society is fundamentally a productive system and process. In order to understand the politics, the philosophy, the religion, morality, laws, institutions, culture and so on of a society, we must examine the way in which that society produces.Marx, in the 1859 Preface to a Contribution to Political Economy, used a building metaphor to explain his materialist conception of history. He divided society into its economic base, consisting of forces and relations of production, and the superstructure consisting of the legal and political institutions, laws, ideas and culture of society. The economic base conditions or shapes the superstructure, hence making production, economics and technology (or the mode of production) all important in determining the ideas, and the political, legal and social arrangements of society.Marx states that the forces of production develop, essentially as technology develops, and when this happens they come into conflict with the existing relations of production which now become a hindrance to the progress of the former. This conflict takes the form of a struggle between classes that are tied to either the new forces of production or the old relations of production. Revolutionary change will be the ultimate outcome with new relations of production and a new superstructure matching the new forces of production. Presented in these stark terms Marx appears to be putting forward a rigid form of determinism, where the forces of production determine the relations and these in turn produce a corresponding superstructure. It is clear, though, from Marx’s historical analyses and various comments he makes that the process is far more complex, that the forces of production are not always the dominant determining factor, and that aspects of the superstructure may act back upon the economic base and even initiate change.The schematic nature of Marx’s outline of historical materialism, the ambiguity of key terms and the difficulty of reconciling the theory of actual historical development have led to divergent interpretations of historical materialism by later Marxists, with particular argument over the nature of Marx’s determinism. Different Marxists and schools of Marxism can be characterized in terms of their interpretations of historical materialism, for example as determinist (Karl Kautsky, Georgii Plekhanov), voluntarist (Mao Zedong), structuralist (Louis Althusser), analytical/rational choice (Gerry Cohen, Jon Elster), and dialectical/non-determinist (Frankfurt School, Antonio Gramsci).
Historical dictionary of Marxism. David Walker and Daniel Gray . 2014.
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historical materialism — (in Marxist theory) the doctrine that all forms of social thought, as art or philosophy, and institutions, as the family or the state, develop as a superstructure founded on an economic base; that they reflect the character of economic relations… … Universalium
historical materialism — histor′ical mate′rialism n. gov+pho the part of dialectical materialism dealing with historical process and social causation; the doctrine that social thought and institutions develop as a superstructure on an economic base • Etymology: 1920–25 … From formal English to slang
historical materialism — noun Date: 1925 the Marxist theory of history and society that holds that ideas and social institutions develop only as the superstructure of a material economic base compare dialectical materialism … New Collegiate Dictionary
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