Essay on the Theory of Historical Materialism


Dialectical Materialism is one of the basic principles of Marx. “Dialectic” literally means discussion. Dialectic is the study of contradicts, which lie at the very heart of existence. Marx and Engels learnt from Hegel, the famous German thinker, the general nature of the dialectic. They however, objected to and rejected Hegel’s idealistic interpretation.

They did not approve of the “Hegellian idealism”. They did not agree with the Hegeliian principles that external reality was a mere reflection of something within the human mind. Unlike, the idealists [Hegel and his followers] who believed in the existence of mind, materialists [Marx and his followers] thought that nature or matter existed independent of and outside the mind. According to them, matter is primary and the mind [which is the mirror of matter] is secondary.

“Marx evolved the theory of philosophical materialism according to which the world is by nature material, and the different phenomena in the world are different forms of matter in movement. From this it follows that material life of society is primary and spiritual life is secondary. The material life of society depends upon the method of securing the means of livelihood and the way of producing material values.”


According to the argument of dialectical materialism, the opposite forces which are always present constitute the moving force of history. As it is already made clear Marx had borrowed this “dialectical materialism” from Hegel.

Hegel “conceived of history as a dialectical process, or struggle of opposites, in which the dominant idea of each age assumed the role of a thesis. The thesis was soon confronted and eventually defeated by an anti-thesis or opposite.

This contest finally resulted in the production of a synthesis, which incorporated the more value elements of both thesis and anti-thesis” The opposite forces in society never balance each other; on the other hand one of them is stronger than the other. History presents the process of action and reaction between the forces. Capital, which represents one force is the thesis, and labour is the anti-thesis. This leads to class struggle.


Materialistic interpretation of history is another basic principle of Marxism. Marx applied the principle of dialectical materialism to the interpretation of history. As Marx has stated economic conditions determine historical phenomena. “Human beings must eat and drink and obtain shelter and clothing before they can pursue politics, science, religion and art.

Thus the stage of advance­ment of the production, distribution and exchange of goods and organisation of society resulting there from, determine in the final analysis, the political, social and cultural developments.

Historical materialism is the economic interpretation of history: that is, all evolution is the result of the economic forces alone. Marx regarded the economic forces as the predominant dynamic agency of human society and its history. This kind of economic interpretation found in Marx’s histori­cal materialism consists of the following aspects:


1. According to Marx, the material or economic conditions are more important than the ideo­logical or the spiritual things. He did not accept spiritualism and idealism, but based his concept of dialectics on materialism.

With this pre-occupation of the materialistic ideas in his mind he declared that “It is not the consciousness of the man that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness.”

2. The form and structure of every society is determined by its economic structure. This eco­nomic structure is referred to as the “infrastructure” of society. This infrastructure consists of two things:

(a) “material forces of production “, and

(b) the indispensable “relations of production.”

3. The economic infrastructure constitutes the basis on which the social, political, religious, moral, educational, legal and other institutional network referred to as “super-structure” is built. The “social consciousness” which includes the thoughts, ideologies and philosophies of the people, is rooted in this institutional network.

4. The forces of conflict which are associated with the historical development within the society have brought about conflict within the economic infrastructure, that is, between the “forces of produc­tion” and “relations of production.” It is through the ideological forms men become conscious of the conflict within the economic structure.

5. The productive forces of the society determine its total conditions. The modes of production determine the character of the social, political and intellectual life, in general. Change in the system of production brings about transformation in the social, political, legal and cultural institutions.

Thus, according to Marx, the form of production is the cause of difference between the legal, political, intellectual and religious institutions of the pastoral, feudal and capitalist societies.


According to Marx, the nature of society and its structure depends very much on the-mode of production. Marx spoke in terms of five stages in the development of society which correspond to five consecutive modes of production. They are:

(i) Primitive Society and Primitive [Asiatic] Mode of Production,

(ii) Ancient Society and Ancient Mode of Production,

(iii) Feudal Society and Feudal Mode of Production,

(iv) Capitalist Society and Capitalist Mode of Production,

(v) Communist Society and Socialist Mode of Production.

1. In the Primitive Communist stage, there is no private property and hence the productions are owned by the community.

2. In the Ancient stage, there is slavery in which one class owns and exploits the members of another. Owners of the slaves and of the means of production get everything substantial and the poor and the slaves receive very little.

3. In the feudal stage, the class of aristocratic landowners or barons exploits the mass of peasants or serfs.

4. In the Capitalist stage, the capitalists own all the important means of production and make the workers wage-slaves or tools. Here the owners of wealth exploit the mass of industrial workers.

In the Ancient, Feudal and Capitalist stages, the structure of society is the result of conditions of production. Material conditions of life are so important that they determine the political and social conditions. Society develops a particular outlook owing to economic conditions. The mental attitude of the people is the product of material conditions.

Religion and law are also determined by the same conditions. Society goes through these different stages to ultimately reach a stage of classless soci­ety. Each stage is better than the earlier one. Each of these modes or systems is more economically productive than its predecessor, but the tensions of class conflict lead to a revolution that results in the fifth stage, that is, socialism.

5. In the Communist society or the fifth stage, the mode of production is socialist. The socialist mode of production is based on social ownership. This stage is found when the industrial workers have finally revolted. This is the society aimed at the revolutionary overthrow of the capitalist society.


The theory of “Historical materialism” advocated by Marx has been widely criticised. Some such comments could be mentioned here.

1. Marx unnecessarily limited the range of the theoretical scheme of Historical materialism. Marx intended the theoretical scheme of historical materialism to have a universal character. But his own researches were limited almost entirely to the 19th century capitalist societies. He gave only fragmentary accounts of the other types of societies. His scheme is not, for example, helpful when applied to the phenomenon of a caste system.

2. Is the truth of historical materialism itself historically determined? Or, is it valid for all history, past and present? These are pertinent questions here. But the explanations that we could find for these questions in the works of Marx and Engels are far from satisfactory.

“Both Marx and Engels declared that its truth was relevant only for class societies. Does this mean that the leap from the kingdom of necessity to that of a freedom….” implies a condition in which man escapes the limitations of his earthly fate? There is no warrant for the belief that historical materialism justifies any such historical apocalypse.

3. The materialistic interpretation of history is incorrect for it exaggerates the role of economic factors. It fails to recognise the non-economic factors like political conditions, religion, language, art and science as something important. As Seligman has stated it is wrong to suppose that all the wars and conflicts recorded so far took place only because of economic factors.

4. Further, there is the problem of measuring the determining effects of economic factors. We do not have any precise measuring rods to prove or assess that interests, habits and motives of the social classes are determined by the economic factors. The statement of Marx that in “the last instance” economic conditions determine social life, implies a theory of measurement. “So far, however, no theory of measurement for the social discipline has been evolved.”

5. The constant association between economic ownership and political power which is a basic postulate of Marx’s theory has been rejected as inconsistent by the thinkers like Raymond Aron, C. Wright Mills, Ralf Dahrendorf and others.


In spite of various comments made against Marxian theory of historical materialism Bottom ore points out at the two important contributions of Marx to sociological thinking.

“In the first place, Marx adopted and maintained very consistently in his work a view of human societies as wholes or systems in which social groups, institutions, beliefs and doctrines are interrelated, so that these have to be studied in their inter-relations rather than in isolation. Secondly, he viewed societies as inherently mutable systems in which changes are produced largely by internal contradictions and conflicts?