Economic Determinism and Karl Marx: Definition & History

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  • 0:00 Economic Determinism &…
  • 2:12 Modes of Production
  • 3:49 Communist Manifesto
  • 4:31 Marxism
  • 5:42 Marx the Man & His Legacy
  • 7:02 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Mark Bowles

Mark has taught, designed, and written textbooks for university history courses. He has a Ph.D. in history.

Understand the economic theory of Karl Marx, known as economic determinism, and how it related to historical materialism, the mode of production, the means of production, and Marxism.


Economic determinism is a theory suggesting that economic forces determine, shape, and define all political, social, cultural, intellectual, and technological aspects of a civilization.

Karl Marx

Economic determinism is a theory typically attributed to Karl Marx, who lived from 1818-1883, a German philosopher, sociologist, and economist. Though his father was a Lutheran, Marx became an atheist and famously said later in life that religion was the 'opium of the people.' Keep in mind that he was not one of the Marx Brothers (Chico, Harpo, and Groucho), the family comedy troupe famous in the first half of the 20th century.

Instead of comedy, Karl Marx focused on the most serious problem of his era - the poverty of the working class. Working as a journalist, including ten years as the British correspondent for the New York Daily Tribune, he observed poverty and began developing his own economic theories. Many business leaders and intellectuals of his era considered the masses of poor people as a natural component of society, even suggesting that poverty was divinely ordained as natural. Marx rejected this view and claimed that poverty in the 19th century directly resulted from capitalism, the right to private property, and the control of the means of production by a bourgeois, elite minority.

Marx had a unique view of history known as historical materialism. This means that you cannot understand the past by focusing on its people, politics, wars, legal traditions, philosophy, religion, etc. Instead, according to Marx, history was shaped by the material conditions, how they changed over time, and the struggles between those in power and the subjects of their oppression.

Central to understanding historical materialism was Marx's economic theory of history, or economic determinism. Marx elevated economics as the main force that shaped a civilization. Therefore, economic determinism meant that society took its shape, or was determined, by the specific economic structures and relationships in place. Economics defined not just the workplace, but also religion, family, law, and every other component of life at a particular time.

Modes of Production

Throughout history, different economic systems have been in place. Marx called these modes of production. What united these different systems was that all of them featured a minority of people who were in control. They solidified their position of power by owning the means of production. This included all of the technology and infrastructure necessary to produce the materials in which a people needed to survive. This ruling class owned the land, machines, and raw materials and used them to control the working class. This ensured the accumulation of vast amounts of wealth for the privileged few. Marx believed that is why poverty existed within a society.

Capitalism, the prevailing mode of production in Marx's era, and today is the basis of the United States economy, is an economic system in which private owners control industry and operate business to turn a profit in a free market economy. Marx thought this capitalistic system benefited the owners - he called them capitalists - at the expense of the workers, who he referred to as the proletarian.

Capitalism was not always the dominant economic force, only the most recent. Other modes of production throughout history included slavery and feudalism, according to Marx. Because of the overwhelming presence of poverty in society, he believed it was time for capitalism to come to an end, just as the eras of slavery and feudalism ended before it. The upper class (bourgeois, capitalistic owners of the means of production) and the lower class (proletariat) would engage in a class struggle. Marx predicted that the proletariat would win this battle through revolution and establish a socialistic, classless society.

Communist Manifesto

Marx described this transition in his famous book, The Communist Manifesto, in 1848. In it, he proclaimed, ''Let the ruling classes tremble at a Communistic revolution. The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win. Working Men of All Countries, Unite!''

Marx called on the workers to revolt, overthrow the capitalists, take over ownership of the means of production, and initiate a new mode of production called socialism, or communism, which is a common ownership, controlled by the government, of the means of production.

Economic determinism was the foundation of his prediction for the future. A new economic mode of production would, in Marx's view, fundamentally change society.


Most scholars today suggest that in his theory of economic determinism, Marx was not saying that politics and people played no role in shaping their civilizations. This was 'reductionist' and took economic determinism too far, even though Marx sometimes implied this. Instead, Marx allowed that people did have some 'agency,' 'human autonomy,' or capability to shape their own destiny. Mankind still possessed a free will, and they could demonstrate it by overthrowing the capitalistic system through revolution.

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