On the Materialist Interpretation of History – 1

Before the reader proceeds further, the following needs to be stated. The materialist interpretation of history (often misleadingly shortened to ‘Historical Materialism’) was never meant to be a mechanistic or crude determinist interpretation of history. That was a false conclusion that many critics of Marx, and even some of his so-called followers, arrived at. The materialist interpretation was formulated and asserted in order to correct those views of history which ignored or subordinated the way humans obtained the basic elements of life such as food, water, clothing, shelter and safety.

Therefore, this materialist interpretation keeps in mind that before doing anything else all life-forms need to engage in a metabolic relationship with the natural world in order to take on the solid, liquid and gaseous materials required to support and sustain the bodily structure. Whatever other activities are desired or required can only be developed on that foundation. In researching human history, therefore, it needs to constantly born in mind that the way communities organise themselves to produce these essentials of life, effects to a greater or lesser extent, how people act and think in general, as well as how, as individuals, they act and think in particular.

The materialist interpretation of history, therefore, does not to claim that the means and modes of production are the only determining element of human thought and behaviour, but it reminds us to keep in mind the fact that it is certainly one of the most important ones. When Marx and others recommended this materialist interpretation of history it was common for historical and contemporary developments to be viewed primarily through the ideologies of religion and/or the thoughts and actions of ‘great men’. Ideas were frequently seen as the great motivators of historical events, with the material basis for these ideas, largely ignored or drastically downplayed.

Marx’s condensed description of the materialist interpretation of history, reproduced below (in italics), is from his preface to ‘A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy’, written in 1857 as translated by N. I Stone and published by Charles H. Kerr and Company of Chicago in 1904. The language used a century and a half ago is, therefore, somewhat dated, as is the then typical use of the male pronoun to cover the whole of humanity.

Despite that slight anachronism, its meaning is clear and, in just 516 words, it remains an important contribution to the revolutionary-humanist perspective on how societies change. For this reason it is also relevant in considering the current stage of capitalist socio-economic development. It’s relevance to the 21st century will therefore be the subject of ‘On the Materialist Interpretation of History – 2’, to follow.

Roy Ratcliffe (December 2020)

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“In the social production which men carry on they enter into definite relations that are indispensable and independent of their will; these relations of production correspond to a definite stage of development of their material powers of production. The sum total of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society – the real foundation, on which rise legal and political superstructures and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness.”

“The mode of production in material life determines the general character of the social, political and spiritual processes of life. It is not consciousness of men that determines their existence, but, on the contrary, their social existence determines their consciousness.”

“At a certain stage of their development, the material forces of production in society come in conflict with the existing relations of production, or – what is but a legal expression for the same thing – with the property relations at which they had been at work before. From forms of development of the forces of production these relationships turn into their fetters. Then comes the period of social revolution. With the change of the economic foundation the entire immense superstructure is more or less rapidly transformed.”

“In considering such transformations the distinction should always be made between the material transformation of the economic conditions of production which can be determined with the precision of natural science, and the legal, political, religious, aesthetic or philosophic – in short ideological forms in which men become conscious of this conflict and fight it out.”

“Just as our opinion of an individual is not based on what he thinks of himself, so can we not judge of such a period of transformation by its own consciousness; on the contrary this consciousness must rather be explained from the contradictions of material life, from the existing conflict between the social forces of production and the relations of production.”

“No social form ever disappears before all the productive forces, for which there is room in it, have been developed; and new higher relations of production never appear before the material conditions of their existence have matured in the womb of the old society. Therefore, mankind always takes up only such problems as it can solve; since looking at the matter more closely, we always find that the problem itself arises only when the material conditions necessary for its solution already exist or are at least in the process of formation.”

“In broad outlines we can designate the Asiatic, the ancient, the feudal and the modern bourgeois methods of production as so many epochs in the progress of the economic formation of society.”

“The bourgeois relations of production are the last antagonistic form of the social process of production – antagonistic not in the sense of individual antagonism, but of one arising from conditions surrounding the life of individuals in society; at the same time the productive forces developing in the womb of bourgeois society create the material conditions for the solution of that antagonism.”

“This (the capitalist RR) social formation constitutes, therefore, the closing chapter of the prehistoric stage of human society.”

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