Marxism 101: Historical Materialism

The Marxist theory of Historical Materialism is concerned on what fundamentally causes changes in society. Our political structures. Our cultures and religions. Our social roles and obligations. Historical Materialism is the view that it is fundamentally the economic structure that causes these social changes throughout history. Economics is ultimately the relationship we have with the physical, material, things that provide what we want and need. Thus why it is called Historical Materialism. As our relations between material things change, so does our other social relations.

The major economic structure at a point in time is referred to by Marxists as a mode of production. For example, the four major modes of production observed by Marxists throughout history are: primitive communism; slavery; feudalism and capitalism. Primitive communism refers to pre-agricultural societies that were egalitarian and were argued to have no class divisions (economically). Slavery refers to the dependance on slaves to produce the goods with class divisions between slaves and their owners. Feudalism refers to the dependance on serfs to produce goods for both themselves and their Feudal Lords that owned the land. And finally to capitalism where capitalists depend on workers to produce the goods.

There is some debate on how much Marx believed the economic mode of production influences social relations Marx. Some will claim he meant it in the fully deterministic sense, whereas other take a weaker ‘heavily influencing’ sense. For instance, the most cited quote by Marx on this question is:

“Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.”

After Marx’s death, Frederick Engels investigated how modes of production influence gender roles and family relations in his Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State. It is in his work he argues that in pre-agricultural primitive communism, it was more common to see women in power and matrilineal. However, after the development of agriculture, where a surplus of goods and cultivated land could be passed on to generations, the gender roles became more patriarchal and patrilineal.

The explanation for this transition made by Engels was whilst there was no need to concern themselves about inheritance during pre-agriculture, there was no need to worry about paternity. During such a time there was much more polyamory than monogamy. And from this, paternity could not be certain but maternity was clear. So, this resulted in children recognised through the line of the mother and everyone sharing responsibility for the well being of the children. However, once issues of inheritance and property ownership became a concern in agricultural states, monogamy became a social norm to establish paternity. The responsibility of the children became increasingly constrained to the household. And since doing extra labour for someone became a necessary way to survive, the roles of men as the ‘breadwinner’ doing the economic labour and women doing the uneconomic labour became a social norm. This of course led to patriarchal instead of matriarchal societies.

This is one example of many theories on the historical materialist view on social changes. From laws to religion. However, whether one takes a hard or soft position on historical materialism, many Marxists will appeal to this view to analyse contemporary social issues. Especially issues such as race and gender. There is an entire school of thought called ‘Marxist Feminism’ and there is a journal dedicated to the relations between economics and race issues called ‘Race and Class’.

This is historical materialism in a nutshell. The next tutorial will discuss alienation.