Historical Materialism

Historical Materialism

Karl Marx’s general ideas about society are known as theory of historical materialism or “materialist conception of history” is based on Hegel’s claim that history occurs through a dialectic, or clash, of opposing forces .  Marx’s theory of historical materialism is historical, because Marx has traced the evolution of human societies from one stage to another. It is called Materialistic because Marx has interpreted the evolution of societies in terms of their material or economic bases. According to Karl Marx, Materialism is the basis of his sociological thought because material conditions or economic factors affect the structure and development of society. 


Materialism means the materialist structure of society. It is how the super structure of society is based on economic infrastructure. Marx’s theory of historical materialism is the materialistic interpretation of the history of societies. All the societies have experienced similar pattern of history and every history is built upon its materialist foundations.

Marx has tried to suggest that all society passes through unilinear evolution, every society progresses stage by stage and every society has marched ahead. He has suggested about the history of society, i.e.

Primitive Communism → Slavery → Feudalism→ Capitalism →Socialism →Communism

Historians recorded history in the manner it is found. But Marx had a vision for future, how is history taking man through time. Each stage sows the seeds of its own destruction. One will go and other will come. Such precision and succession will continue till the ultimate i.e. communism is reached.

Marx’s theory sought to explain all social phenomena in terms of their place and function in the complex systems of society and nature. This was without recourse to what may be considered as metaphysical explanations clearly outlined in those early writings of Hegel and his followers. This eventually became a mature sociological conception of the making and development of human societies.

Basic Assumptions:

Historical materialism is based upon a philosophy of human history. But it is not strictly speaking, a philosophy of history. It is best understood as sociological theory of human progress. As a theory it provides a scientific and systematic research program for empirical investigations. At the same time it also claims to contain within it a revolutionary program of intervention into society. It is this unique combination of scientific and revolutionary characters which is the hall mark of Marx’s original formulation.

Marx’s views on human society and human nature:

1. Society as an interrelated whole.

2. Changeable nature of society.

3. Human nature and social relationships

He says that new developments of productive forces of society come in conflict with existing relations of production. When people become conscious of the state of conflict, they wish to bring an end to it. This period of history is called by Marx the period of social revolution. The revolution brings about resolution of conflict. It means that new forces of production take roots and give rise to new relations of production. Thus, you can see that for Marx, it is the growth of new productive forces which outlines the course of human history. The productive forces are the powers society uses to produce material conditions of life. For Marx, human history is an account of development and consequences of new forces of material production. This is the reason why his view of history is given the name of historical materialism.



Marx recognized that without culture there can be no production possible. For him, mode of production includes social relations of production which are relations of domination and subordination into which men and women are born or involuntarily enter. The reproduction both of life and of the material means of life cannot be understood without turning to the culture, norms and the rituals of the working people over whom the rulers rule. An understanding of working class culture contributes to an understanding of the mode of production. Class is a category that describes people in relationships over time, and the ways in which they become conscious of these relationships. It also describes the ways in which they separate, unite, enter into struggle, form institutions and transmit values in class ways. Class is an ‘economic’ and also a ‘cultural’ formation. It is impossible to reduce class into a pure economic category.


Marx’s introduced an entirely new element to understand the structure of each society. It was derived from the relations between social classes. These relations were determined by the mode of production. It was this feature of historical materialism which was widely accepted by later sociologists as offering a more promising starting point for exact and realistic investigations of the causes of social change.

Secondly, historical materialism introduced into sociology a new method of inquiry, new concepts, and a number of bold hypotheses to explain the rise, development, and decline of particular forms of society.

Thirdly, originality of historical materialism was in its immense effort to synthesis in a critical way, the entire legacy of social knowledge since Aristotle. Marx’s purpose was to achieve a better understanding of the conditions of human development. With this understanding he tried to accelerate the actual process by which mankind was moving toward an association, in which the free development of each was the condition for the free development of all.

Lastly, historical materialism not only provides a method to understand the existing social reality; it is a method to understand the existence of other methods. It is a persistent critique of the aims and methods of social sciences.


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