Theory of Historical Materialism: Definition & Example

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  • 0:04 Marx & Engels
  • 0:35 The Mode of Production
  • 2:06 An Example
  • 3:06 Predictions
  • 3:42 Criticism
  • 4:26 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Michelle Penn

Michelle has a J.D. and her PhD in History.

Historical materialism is how many traditional Marxists understand history. In this lesson, we'll define historical materialism and look at an example of how historical materialists view historical change.

Marx & Engels

Karl Marx was a German philosopher, sociologist, and socialist. His friend and fellow German, Frederich Engels, helped support him and his family. They wrote many important works together, including The Communist Manifesto. Marx and Engels' work influenced many thinkers, including Vladimir Lenin and other Russian revolutionaries who created the Soviet Union. Instead of looking at history as being determined by famous political leaders, Marxists studied history by looking at the way people lived and worked.

The Mode of Production

Historical materialism sounds complicated and abstract, but it's really a rather fancy way of saying that a society's economic organization fundamentally determines its social institutions. The mode of production is especially important in historical materialism. The mode of production is how a particular society organizes itself economically.

The organization is two-part. First, it includes the means of economic production - like tools, machines, factories, and resources like land, and so on, along with human labor power. In other words, the mode of production includes human beings who work and the tools and resources they use to produce things. Second, the mode of production also includes relations between people in terms of economic production, like who owns the factories and who works at them.

Marx and Engels outlined their theory of history by looking at the past. They started with tribal societies. For these societies, the mode of production was hunting, fishing, and gathering, with labor divided mainly between men and women. So the type of production - hunting, fishing, and gathering - influenced societal relations like the family.

In Marxist terminology, social and political institutions like family, culture, politics, law, science, and religion are superstructure to the socioeconomic forces. So, changes in economic organization result in changes to social institutions. If this is all a bit fuzzy and abstract, don't worry. It gets clearer when you look at a concrete example.

An Example

Marx and Engels looked at a variety of different stages of historical development, but they spent most of their time looking at the development of capitalism, which replaced feudalism. Feudalism involved peasants working agricultural land for a lord. According to Marx and Engels, capitalism was able to emerge from feudalism in large part because of increasing trade, which led to the development of the merchant class.

The merchant class became an increasingly powerful group in feudal times. However, feudal society was a hierarchical society with royalty and nobility at the top. Feudal society did not reflect how important the merchants were becoming. Because the forces of production - the increasingly powerful merchants - didn't match the nobility-favoring social relationships of feudalism, feudalism was overthrown.

Capitalism better reflected the importance of merchants. In historical materialism, conflict between the productive forces and social relations results in revolution and a change in the mode of production. As a result, there was the shift from feudalism to capitalism.

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