Marx’s general ideas about society are known as his theory of historical materialism. Materialism is the basis of his sociological thought because, for Marx, material conditions or economic factors affect the structure and development of society. His theory is that material conditions essentially comprise technological means of production and human society is formed by the forces and relations of production. Later in this unit, and in the next unit you will learn about the meaning of the forces and relations of production. Here, let us tell you why Marx’s theory of society, i.e., historical materialism is historical. It 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. Materialism simply means that it is matter or material reality, which is the basis for any change. The earlier view, that of Hegel, was that ideas were the cause of change.
Marx opposed this view and instead argued that ideas were a result of objective reality, i.e., matter and not vice versa. In his efforts to understand society in its entirety, he has not confined himself to examining the structure of human societies at a given point of time. He has explained the societies in terms of the future of humankind. For him it is not enough to describe the world. He has a plan for changing it. Thus, his sociological thinking largely concerns the mechanism of change. To understand social change, he has derived its phases from the philosophical ideas of Hegel, the German philosopher. About these phases also, we will learn later in the last unit of this block. At this point, let us clarify that we are here concerned with Marx’s sociological ideas only.
We are not dealing with various brands of Marxsism and the interpretations of Marx’s ideas which became the official ideology of Communist regimes. To turn back to Marx’s theory of historical materialism, you need to look at it as Marx’s general theory of society, which deals extensively with the contradictions found in the capitalist societies of his times. According to Friedrich Engels the theory of historical materialism was discovered by Karl Marx, but Marx thought it was Friedrich Engels who had conceived Historical Materialism the materialist formulation of history independently. We shall say that both of them used this theory, to quote Marx, as the ‘guiding thread’ of all their works. In Engels’ view the theory of historical materialism takes a special view of history. In this view Engels seeks the final cause and the spirit behind historical events.
Both Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels stress the scientific nature of their views of history. In the German Ideology (1845-6) Marx and Engels assert that their views of history are based on observation and an exact description of actual conditions. For discussing all parts of this theory you will need to follow the background which has provided a framework to his ideas about society.
Marx’s childhood and youth fell in that period of European history when the reactionary powers (favouring monarchical political order) were attempting to eradicate from post Napoleonic Europe all traces of the French Revolution. There was, at the same time, a liberal movement (favouring autonomy of the individual and standing for the protection of political and civil liberties) in Germany that was making itself felt. The movement was given impetus by the Revolution in France. In the late 1830s a further step toward radical criticism for extreme changes in existing socio-political conditions was made by the young Hegelians (a group of people following the philosophy of Hegel). To learn about Hegel and his philosophy see Box 6.1 and 6.2. This was the group with which Marx became formally associated when he was studying law and philosophy at the University of Berlin. Although he was the youngest member of the young Hegelians, Karl Marx inspired their confidence, respect and even admiration. They saw in him a ‘new Hegel’ or rather a powerful anti-Hegelian.
Among other influences the intensive study of B. de Spinoza (1632-1677) and A. Hume (1711-1776) helped Marx to develop a positive conception of democracy. It went far beyond the notions held at the time by radicals in Germany. The radicals consisted of a political group associated with views, practices and policies of extreme change.
Marx’s Faith in Democracy
The intellectual heritage from which Marx drew his insights, attitudes and concepts was a synthesis of many ideological currents in Europe of the early and middle nineteenth century. These included the basic assumptions of democratic faith and slogans of the French Revolution.
Democracy and Communism
Marx’s adherence to a radical view of democracy was also based on the study of such historical events as the revolutions in England, France and America. From these historical studies he concluded that a transitory stage of Proletarian democracy must normally and inevitably culminate in communism. According to Marx, communism is a system in which goods are owned in common and are accessible to all. After his conversion to communism Marx began his prolonged studies of economics. While he was still developing from a liberal into a communist, he learned a great deal from European thinkers, such as B. de Spinoza, L. Feuerbach and Alexis de Tocqueville.
Conception of History
The epoch to which Marx belonged had its beginnings in the French Revolution. But its historical dimensions coincided with those of the whole era of industrial and social revolutions and extended into modern era. This is the reason for the lasting appeal of a body of thought that is by no means free from history. Before the age of thirty, Marx produced a number of works which together provide a relatively adequate outline of his “materialist conception of history”. Though Marx never wrote explicitly on historical materialism, his writings during the years 1843-8 refer to it in a fragmentary fashion. For him, it was not a new philosophical system. Rather it was a practical method of socio-historical studies. It was also a basis for political action. The framework for this theory was obviously derived from Hegel. Like Hegel, Marx recognised that the history of mankind was simply a single and non-repetitive process. Likewise he also believed that the laws of the historical process could be discovered. You will soon see in Box 6.2 how Marx deviated from Hegelian philosophy.
Many others among the Young Hegelians found defects in Hegel’s ideas and they proceeded to build a new system of thought. But only Marx could consistently develop a new set of ideas which in fact superseded Hegelian theories about society.
You may ask what is materialism? Materialism seeks the scientific explanations of things, including even religion. The idea of materialism may be opposed to the concept of idealism. Idealism refers to a theory that ultimate reality lies in a realm of transcending phenomena. Materialism, on the other hand, contends that everything, that exists, depends upon matter. We can speak of three kinds of materialism, namely, philosophical materialism, scientific materialism and historical materialism. Without going into terminological details of the first two kinds, we clarify that historical materialism emphasises the fundamental and causal role of production of material conditions in the development of human history. Marx traced historical events in the light of materialistic understanding of reality. You may also be interested in learning about Marx’s approach to history.
Sociological Approach to History
In sketching out his theory of society and history, Marx repudiated Hegelian and Post-Hegelian speculative philosophy. He built on Feuerbach’s anthropological naturalism and developed instead a humanist ethics based on a strictly sociological approach to historical phenomena. Drawing also on French materialism and on British empiricism and classical economics, 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 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. Before turning to basic assumption of the theory of historical materialism,