Marx's Historical Materialism

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Karl Marx is considered to be one of the most influential thinkers of our age. Born in Germany in 1818, he was greatly influenced by philosophers such as Hegel, Feuerbach & St. Simon. He made an immense contribution to the different areas of sociology- definition of the field of study, analysis of the economic structure and its relations with other parts of the social structure, theory of social classes, study of religion, theory of ideology, analysis of the capitalist system etc. In this essay, we will deal with his contribution to the study of social development or the materialist conception of history.

Marx put forward his conception of historical materialism for the first time in German Ideology in 1845-6. He believed that it was the material world or the mode of production which determines the consciousness of men & the ‘social, political, and spiritual processes of life'. According to him, the mode of production, which refers to the productive forces of society as well as the relations of production; is not simply the reproduction of physical existence, but a definite mode of life. What individuals are, ‘coincides with their production, with what they produce and with how they produce it.' The economic structure is the real foundation on which the ideological superstructures of law, politics, religion & philosophy arise. Marx argued that changes in the mode of production correspond to the different stages of history. According to him, "History is nothing but the activity of men in pursuit of their ends", and labour forms the basis of human society. Thus, he held that the foundations of reality lay in the material base of economics rather than in the abstract thought of idealistic philosophy. While Durkheim praised the ‘idea that social life should be explained, not by the notions of those who participate in it, but by more profound causes...', he noted the inadequacy of this conception was evident in the study of the family. This materialistic interpretation of history is an application of dialectical materialism. Dialectics comes from the Greek dialego which means to discourse or to debate. Marx took from the Hegelian dialectics only its "rational kernel," casting aside its idealistic shell, and developed dialectics further so as to lend it a modern scientific form. The dialectical method regards the phenomena of nature as being in constant movement, and the development of nature as the result of the contradictions in it & the interaction of opposite forces. Marx has given a general scheme of the stages of social development in his materialist conception of history. This scheme is a progressive one and each mode of production emerges from a previous type. The old order is negated by the new one but there is continuity between the two. Every stage is a pure type. Marx provided a general scheme but believed each society has to be studied empirically. Each stage represents unity and conflict of opposites. Wherever there is private property, there exist 2 decisive classes and there is conflict and contradiction between them. According to Marx, "The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles." He recognizes man's conscious role in bringing about social transformation and asserts that ‘circumstances make men just as much as men make circumstances.' Marx outlines the following epochs in the development of human society- primitive, Asiatic, ancient, feudal, capitalist and socialist society. Marx states that primitive society is characterised by the minimal division of labour based only on age and sex. It is a pre-class system in that property is communally owned. The simplest form of tribal society consisted of hunter-gatherers and pastoralists. The division of labour developed through an increase in population, conflict and subjugation of one tribe by another- producing an ethnically-based slavery system. As exchange relations between different communities developed, they expanded and...
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