Sociology /Marx- Historical Materialism.


For Marx history is a process of the continuous creation, satisfaction and recreation of human needs. This is why labour, the creative interchange between men and their natural environment is the foundation of human society. Historical materialism is Marx’s general theory of society. More accurately perhaps, it is a materialistic conception of history. This means that Marx is opposed to idealism, a philosophical doctrine which says that the historical development of societies is driven by abstract ideas or ideals, like freedom and democracy. Instead Marx argues that the dominant ideas and ideals of an age are reflections of the dominant way of life, specifically of a society’s mode of production.


Marxian interest in history traces back its origin to Hegelian understanding of history and young Hegelian’s interpretation of history.

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Hegel develops interest in history to explain how human mind establishes connectivity between past, present, and future. He believes that social processes, technology, institutions are all product of human consciousness.

Opposing Kant who believes that there is a logical gap between statements of value, Hegel strongly believes that mind resolves the gulf between ‘what it is and what ought to be’. To Hegel history means a given condition of existence where people apply their mind and are engaged in production and reproduction of social institutions, values etc.

According to Hegel man is capable of defining his own history. Since history is the creation of human mind, that what is ideal, is real and rational as well. Hegel believes that it is the consciousness (idea) that determines ones being (Marx says that it is the material experience that determines identity).

One experiences the self in the context of society. Keeping the self in mind people manifest different kinds of behaviour. This understanding of self is driven by;

  • UNIVERSAL REFLEXIVITY (primitive society)
  • UNIVERSAL EGOISM (civil society)

Furthermore Hegel advocates that ultimate consciousness of man should be the transformation of civil society into state. He is glorifying the idea of state as the ‘march of god’ on earth. A powerful and centralized state can guarantee human happiness, compassion, harmony and equality.


Hegelian understanding of state and history is first criticized by Young Hegelians- Bauer and Feuerbach. The romantic idea about state spelled out by Hegel is practically impossible because the state and society we are living in are dominated by a particular class. The institutions that develop out of the relationship between people are for the glorification of self-interest of the dominant class. They say that confirming to laws is conforming to ideas of dominant class. Therefore the history of human society is the history of inequality and exploitation.


Dialectics is an important component of Hegel’s work. Hegelian theory on dialectics is used as a mechanism to explain the advancement of human consciousness. Dialectic means there is a contradiction and there is an interaction between the opposites.

According to Hegel the whole universe can be understood as dialectic. In each successive phase of evolution there is sharp structural break from on category leading to the other. And this idea/transition is not a smooth one and thus, it goes through these 3 processes;

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For him the most important thing in this dialectics is ideas. Thus his philosophy is known as ‘German Idealism’. The idea/spirit is the embodiment of everything known as GIEST. And the 3 laws of dialectics are;


There is a dichotomy between the ideal factors and the real factors. For Hegel ideal factors are more important as ideas have their own power, and are self-actualizing and self-propelling. Man is god revealed. In other words whatever is real is rational. Ideas become important and not the reality, reality is the perception of ideas.


Dialectical materialism is but an aspect of the subject of materialism and has sometimes been viewed as synonym with it. Marxian conception of history is very different from Hegel and young Hegelians. However he borrows ideas from both to finally arrive at his theory of historical materialism.


  • The idea that history is driven by the progressive engine of rationality and it is through the process of dialectics from which new ideas develop.
  • But Marx disagrees with the idea that history is a product of human consciousness.
  • Therefore inverting Hegel’s theory and putting him upside down, he advocates that it is the material conditions that determine history. This is to say that human experience determines thought and action.

THE IDEA OF YOUNG HEGELIAN’S that inspired Marx was that

  • History is real and not ideal.
  • History is a product of hierarchical exploitation between men
  • It can be changed through collective mobilization and revolution

As a synthesis of both Hegel’s and young Hegelian ideas, we can say that worlds exits independently of our senses and is composed of matter. According to Marx it is the matter that brings about the change throughout history men enter into relationships that are independent of our will. And it is when men started producing, history began.

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Marx’s theory of historical materialism is driven by the following conditionalities;

  1. Marx advocates that history is the study of creation, satisfaction and recreation of human needs. Human beings mediate with nature to gratify their subsistence needs therefore production system which is material in character is foundation to human history.
  2. Materialistic needs of being are dynamic and expandable. Hence, there is a necessity for transformation for mean of production leading to new form of production relationship. Thus economic change leads to change in human history.
  3. Labour is ultimately, universally productive in character. Tools, technology, capital are all fruits of productive labour. Therefore, it is labour that produces everything.
  4. Human history is passing through the stage of classlessness to class character and consolidated class character. But on occasions the colonization of modes of production by one class gives rise to inequality and exploitation. Thus, history of human society is a necessary shift from the state of classlessness to class character to reach the state of classlessness again. Marx divides history into 5 stages;
  • Primitive communism
  • Ancient society
  • Feudalism
  • Capitalism
  • Socialism/communism
  1. Every stage of human history is founded on economic base characterised by;
  • Means of production
  • Forces of production

His base and superstructure theory explained how production is central to human history. The superstructure continuously reflects upon the economic base. Thus, when there is a change in the mode of production, there is bound to be a change in the superstructure.

  1. Historical materialism indicates how expansion of human needs leads to technological progress in history.
  2. In every stage of human history new technology is created, new forms of private property is developed, new class evolve to control it and new forms of exploitation is legitimized by super structural institutions.

Therefore the essence of human history is contradictory class relationships, class conflict and social change.