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Historical Materialism

Nathan Murphy, Michelle Penn
  • Author
    Nathan Murphy

    Nathan Murphy received his B.A. in History at the California State University in Long Beach.

  • Instructor
    Michelle Penn

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

Learn about Karl Marx and his theory of historical materialism. Discover how history, according to Marx, goes through certain progressions based on economic conditions. Updated: 01/30/2022

Table of Contents


Karl Marx

Karl Marx was a German philosopher of the 19th century. During this century, industrialization had come to the countries in Western Europe, and this process was altering traditional social structures. Before the Industrial Revolution, most people worked on farms producing food for themselves and selling whatever extra they had. Many of these people had to pay fees to landowners and were never going to be able to gain much wealth in their life.

Karl Marx created a new political and economic theory; however, his influence and goals have been repeatedly reinterpreted in the years since he died.

Once countries began to industrialize, millions of people moved to cities where they gained jobs in factories. They had to work for a daily wage, were forced to stay at the factory for upwards of twelve hours, and had to live in dirty cramped apartments. Meanwhile, technological advancements in agriculture, as well as the outsourcing of food production to overseas colonies, meant family farms became far less practical.

In the midst of these changes, in 1836, at the age of nineteen, Karl Marx began to study philosophy. He studied under accomplished philosophers. However, Georg Hegel, the philosopher that influenced Marx the most, died a few years earlier. Hegel died in 1831 but left behind a large body of work. Marx was interested in Hegel's idea that the material world is incredibly influential on the course of someone's life. While Hegel believed in God, he thought that there was a certain amount of impact the material world had on the life of the individual.

Eventually, Karl Marx began to develop a complete theory based on Hegelian ideas that he thought could be used to fix the problems in society. Marx, unlike Hegel, thought the material world was the only determining factor in life. He did not think any higher power had influence over the life of individuals. Instead, he asserted that because life is determined by the material world and always has been, social class is the enemy of equality. He believed social class was what kept people separate and prevented goods and resources from spreading to all people. Since Marx thought the material world was the only factor in life, he thought that meant the only barrier to equality and equal access to resources was socially constructed class systems.

Marx took this theory further by calling for a revolution in industrialized countries. During the French Revolution, the middle class rose up to depose the French King. Marx hoped that in a country like England the working class would do the same and depose the middle and upper classes. Once this happened in a country, Marx outlined how a Communist economy should function. Socialism is an economic theory that calls for the central government to decide what goods are produced in factories and how much of each good is made. This is a centrally planned economy in which the government decides how much supply there will be. This is in contrast to the Capitalist system in which companies make goods and hope citizens will buy them. This economic theory was important to Marx because if the government did not own the factories and decide what was produced, a social class system would steadily return.

The Communist Manifesto and Das Kapital

"The Communist Manifesto" is an explanation by Karl Marx and his colleague, Frederick Engels, of what was wrong with society in the 19th century. In this document, they elaborate on the idea that class struggle is at the center of human history. They also stated that before there was a capitalist system, there were societies based on feudalism, slavery, and other ancient social structures which all had extreme disparities between the workers and the rich who own the means of production (factories, farm equipment, land).

The document also highlights the issues of capitalism such as child labor and poor working conditions. Marx advocated for revolutions, but also said simply that there were problems with capitalism and, if left unaddressed, would be taken over by socialism.

Das Kapital focuses more on Marx's economic ideas. In this book, Marx traces the origins of the separation of the worker from the means of production. This book states that at some point in the past, people lived in an ancient communal society that may have had some sort of leader but where all the people had access to the same resources and goods. Marx asserts in this text that the steady accumulation of capital through exploitation and conquest has enabled the disparity seen in the 19th century. Marx thought the historical exploitation of slaves and the conquest of empires such as those in the New World created an excess of wealth that some were able to profit from considerably.

Marx connected this to capitalism and said that the modern economic system was founded on the exploitation of the wage earner. If they were not exploited, they would need to work less and be paid more. However, if this happened the owners of the factory would not gain very much wealth.

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  • 0:04 Marx & Engels
  • 0:35 The Mode of Production
  • 2:06 An Example
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Historical Materialism

Historical materialism is the combination of many of the ideas Marx already had into a cohesive theory of social development. This theory asserts that human life is based on the material factors of existence. Because the material factors of life have created such economic disparity, class struggle is at the center of all human history. Moreover, history can be divided into several modes of production. A mode of production is a specific set of resources and human labor required to drive an economic system.

Marx identifies four modes of production across human history.

  • Tribal: This mode of production was referred to as primitive Communism because, at this stage of human societies, they all functioned in a communal society.
  • Ancient: The best examples of this mode are the Greek and Roman civilizations which heavily utilized slavery in order to make farming profitable. Countries all around the Mediterranean practiced this kind of slavery, especially after a war was won and an empire had prisoners of war.
  • Feudal: This mode was common in Europe and Japan for many centuries. A wealthy landowner purchased knights to build an army, and peasants agreed to work the land and give the landowner some of their food if he agreed to protect them. Knights and merchants steadily were able to accrue wealth which led to some conflicts such as the English Civil War and the French Revolution.
  • Capitalist: Capitalism arose during the Industrial Revolution as labor transitioned from agriculture to manufacturing. The changing of conditions meant that workers could be exploited in a completely new way. The revolutions at the end of the feudal period occurred because that mode of production allowed the small middle class to grow, and they asserted power as soon as they could. Marx saw similar dissatisfaction among factory workers and hoped this would lead to revolution as well.

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Frequently Asked Questions

What does Historical Materialism teach us?

Historical Materialism teaches us that the material conditions people find themselves in can heavily influence their decisions. The cyclical nature of modes of production shows that humans always push back against exploitation, but not as predictably as Marx hoped.

What are the principles of Historical Materialism?

A major principle of Historical Materialism is that the material world drives social progress, not the other way around. Additionally, the only way for the social system to be changed and for the upper class to be deposed is through a violent revolution. This led Marx to predict revolutions in places like England where factory workers were unhappy with their working conditions.

What does Marx mean by Historical Materialism?

Marx believed that human actions are dependent solely on the material conditions of the world they find themselves in. Rulers are going to rule, and the working class will be willing to work until tension rises so much that the people revolt. Marx thought this remained true throughout history and thought that material conditions had driven the differing modes of production that have existed.

What is the first stage of historical materialism described by Marx?

The first stage of historical materialism is the tribal stage. Marx described this as primitive Communism in which societies were small communities that worked together and shared their resources.

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