Historical materialism is a method of studying society. It is based on the premise that social phenomena, including historical events, are "determined", "conditioned", or "limited" by material factors. It postulates that the most important material factor is the manner in which the people of a society collectively produce their neccessities of life: it pays close attention to their technology and their work relations with each other. In emphasising material causes in this way, it is the opposite of approaches that try to explain the course of history by looking at the ideas that the historical actors had.

The theory was first articulated by Karl Marx. He called it the materialist conception of history. The term "historical materialism" came into use later.

"This conception of history depends on our ability to expound the real process of production, starting out from the material production of life itself, and to comprehend the form of intercourse connected with this and created by this mode of production (i.e. civil society in its various stages), as the basis of all history; describing it in its action as the state, and to explain all the different theoretical products and forms of consciousness, religion, philosophy, ethics, etc. etc. arise from it, and trace their origins and growth from that basis. Thus the whole thing can, of course, be depicted in its totality (and therefore, too, the reciprocal action of these various sides on one another)." -- Marx, The German Ideology, Chap. 2: "Civil Society and the Conception of History"

Marx held that human society had been driven through a succession of stages: primitive communism, slave societies, feudalism, and capitalism, because technological changes had neccessitated changes in the forms of social organization. He held that technological changes occurring during capitalism would in turn propel society into a new stage: communism.

Feudal scene.

Capitalist scene.

Historical materialism says the material conditions in the picture at left must produce a different culture than the material conditions in the picture at right.

As explained by Engels in the 1892 introduction to Socialism: Utopian and Scientific, historical materialism

designate[s] that view of the course of history which seeks the ultimate cause and the great moving power of all important historic events in the economic development of society, in the changes in the modes of production and exchange, in the consequent division of society into distinct classes, and in the struggle of these classes against one another.[1]


The following terms are common in historical materialist writing:

  • Forces of production. The physical things used in production. They consist of:
    • Means of production. The raw materials and equipment (tools, buildings, etc.) used to produce things. (But according to some schemes forces of production do not include materials. See this.)
    • Labor. The work activity of people.
  • Relations of production. The relations people enter into in order to produce things. For example, the relation of worker to boss is a relation of production.
  • Together, the forces and relations of production comprise a mode of production. It is the overall way that a society produces things and sustains itself. The stages mentioned above (primitive communism, etc.) are modes of production.

The role of conscious intention

There has been debate within Marxism as to whether movement in history from one form of social organization to another requires that some people desire the new form of social organization and exert themselves to bring it into being. At one pole of the debate, economic determinism holds that once enough technological change has occurred, a corresponding change in social relations is bound to come about whether anybody struggles to bring it about or not. A contrary view is that the new social form is not inevitable and that conscious struggle is necessary in order to bring it into being. Farther in this direction lie extremely voluntaristic views not embraced by any Marxists but often cited by them as an error. Pure voluntarism would assert that a revolutionary or reforming group with sufficient desire and skill can turn society in any direction it wants, regardless of the objective conditions. Excessive voluntarism has been accused of leading to adventurism: the pursuit of impossible schemes. On the other hand, economic determinism has been accused of leading to quietism: a lack of vigor in trying to bring about positive social change.

History of "historical materialism"

According to William Shaw's entry in A Dictionary of Marxist Thought:

Engels credited Marx with being the originator of historical materialism, which he saw as one of Marx's two great scientific discoveries (the other being the theory of surplus value), while Marx wrote that Engels had arrived at the materialist conception of history independently. In accord with the theory itself they stressed the historical and material preconditions of its formulation.

Although scholars disagree about the continuity of various themes between Marx's early and later writings, few would deny that the materialist view of history which Marx and Engels began to hammer out at the time of German Ideology (1845/46) – though not without its intellectual antecedents – constitutes that which is, and was believed by them to be, distinctive of their world view. Earlier adumbrations of this conception in their writings may or may not demonstrate that one or the other of them had reached a recognizably Marxist perspective prior to 1844-5. At this time, however, they began quite self-consciously to utilize historical materialism as, in Marx's words, the 'guiding thread' of all their subsequent studies.[2]

Recent versions of historical materialism

This section contains material from Wikipedia.

In the early 1980s, Paul Hirst and Barry Hindess elaborated a structural Marxism interpretation of historical materialism.

Regulation theory, especially in the work of Michel AgliettaThis is a link to a Wikipedia article. draws extensively on historical materialism.

Spiral dynamicsThis is a link to a Wikipedia article. shows similarities to historical materialism.

Jürgen Habermas believes historical materialism needs revision because it has ignored the significance of communicative action.

Warning against dogmatism

This section contains material from Wikipedia.

Towards the end of his life, in 1877, Marx wrote a letter to the editor of the Russian paper Otetchestvennye Zapisky, which cautioned against rigid or formulaic application of the theory:

"[...] If Russia is tending to become a capitalist nation after the example of the Western European countries, and during the last years she has been taking a lot of trouble in this direction - she will not succeed without having first transformed a good part of her peasants into proletarians; and after that, once taken to the bosom of the capitalist regime, she will experience its pitiless laws like other profane peoples. That is all. But that is not enough for my critic. He feels himself obliged to metamorphose my historical sketch of the genesis of capitalism in Western Europe into an historico-philosophic theory of the marche generale imposed by fate upon every people, whatever the historic circumstances in which it finds itself, in order that it may ultimately arrive at the form of economy which will ensure, together with the greatest expansion of the productive powers of social labour, the most complete development of man. But I beg his pardon. (He is both honouring and shaming me too much.)"

Marx goes on to illustrate how the same factors can in different historical contexts produce very different results, so that quick and easy generalisations are not really possible.


  1. Freidrich Engels quoted in Susan Himmelweit, "historical materialism,' in Tom Bottomore, ed., A Dictinary of Marxist Thought, 1991.
  2. William Shaw, "historical materialism." In Tom Bottomore, ed., A Dictionary of Marxist Thought", 1991.


Asterisk (*) denotes work used immediately as a source of information in writing this article.

Nikolai I. Bukharin, Historical Materialism (New York City, USA, 1925; London, England, 1926). Bukharin was a leading theorist of the Bolshevik Party in the early Soviet Union.

G.A. Cohen, Karl Marx's Theory of History: A Defence, (1978: 2000) is an influential recent defence of historical materialism.

* Leopold Labedz, "Historical Materialism", in The Fontana Dictionary of Modern Thought (London, England, 1977: 1983).

G. P. Plekhanov, The Materialist Conception of History (London, England, 1940). Plekhanov was a founding figure of Russian Marxism.

* William H Shaw, "historical materialism", in Tom Bottomore, ed., A Dictionary of Marxist Thought; Oxford, England; 1991.

External links

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