From today forward, I will post regular, weekly updates three times a week (and, in light of important future news, occasional analyses of important current events.  Mondays I will blog about something important in the news.  Wednesdays I will post about a book or article I am reading or have read–it could be a straightforward review, an analysis of some part, or even an application to something happening in the world.  Fridays I will blog about something philosophical–it could be about a specific philosopher or work of philosophy, an analysis of a concept or argument, or an argument of my own.  There is certainly going to be some conceptual overlap; expect my analyses of current events to pull from literature or to contain arguments, my ‘book reviews’ to contain references to news or philosophical argument, and my philosophy to pull from others’ philosophies.  My point here is to mention that I will be posting regularly, and expect for certain something about current events on Monday, something about a book or article on Wednesday, and something about philosophy on Friday.  Additionally, I check every comment and reply whenever possible, so if anyone has a suggestion of something in the news that deserves mention, a book that should be looked at, or a philosopher or philosophical argument that should be analyzed, as well as any other comments (or criticisms/rebuttals, for that matter), feel free to post.

Today, I want to take some time to explain Marx’s theory of history, referred to as either historical or dialectical materialism.  Some make a distinction between historical and dialectical materialism, but for the purposes of this blog post, I will only be referring to the theory as ‘historical materialism’. 

In Marx’ s Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, he summarizes historical materialism as follows:

“In the social production of their existence, men inevitably enter into definite relations, which are independent of their will, namely relations of production appropriate to a given stage in the development of their material forces of production.  The totality of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which arises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness.  The mode of production of material life conditions the general process of social, political and intellectual life.”

I’ll stop quoting here, and explain.  In short, Marx is saying that economic structure of society is the driving force behind society (including other institutions, such as religion and the state).  But Marx’s conception of the economy is much more complex than our own.  Nowadays, when we reference ‘the economy’ in public discourse, we’re contrasting the realm of private exchange with the forms of the public sphere, because in capitalism the state and other public institutions ought to be removed from the exchange process (so they argue). It should be mentioned, however, that capitalism is the first economic system in human history where the realm of exchange is notembedded in the public sphere (for this point, see Karl Polyani, the Great Transformation).  But to Marx, the ‘economic structure of society’ consists of ‘the relations of production’ that men fall into ‘independent of their will’.  What does he mean by that?

A society is successful for its members and as itself if it survives, i.e. if at least as many people enter society (from birth or from outside it) as exit it.  Society is thus successful if it can, at the very least, secure its members sustenance and promote their reproduction.  Engels confirms this in his book The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State  in his First Preface.  He writes that “the determining factor in history is, in the final instance, the production and reproduction of immediate life.” This basic condition, that society is successful when it helps its members, overall, to live and reproduce, is contingent upon two factors, the forces of production (also referred to as the means of production) and the relations of production. 

The forces of production, generally, consist of the tools and technology at man’s disposal to produce what he needs, as well as the raw materials and natural resources needed to produce or meet needs.  For example, in early hunting-based societies, people needed spears, eventually bows and arrows, in order to meet their needs.  These were forces of production.  But in the process of society’s organizing to meet needs, different individuals begin to serve different functions in the productive process.  These relations are what Marx refers to as the relations of production, and they are the origin of class society.  Different classes are groups of people with different relationships to the forces of production, and these are expressed in the form of property rights (and not necessarily pure private property rights, as exists in capitalism today). The dominant class is the group of people who have ‘rights’ to the things people need in order to produce their sustenance.  They use the power their ownership confers to get nonowners to produce in their stead; i.e. the actual producers or laborers produce are given the tools and resources to produce by the ‘owner’ of those tools and resources, and are then required to produce more than their own sustenance.  This excess production, which serves no needs for the producers is surplus value given to the owner of the forces of production.  This condition, where individual laborers are forced to work for another class because of the monopoly over the forces of production that another class has, is referred to as exploitation.  Marx notes that, historically, the only time in our human past without these exploitative class relationships was primitive communism, and ever since all economic systems have been class systems.  These relations of production are what arrange production that meets man’s needs.  This is what Marx means when he refers to the economy as “the totality of the relations of production”, and people fall into these roles independent of their will because people are born into society, where class structures are already formed, and given the advantages the dominant class has in keeping their position safe, it is far easier to be funneled into the exploited class than the dominant class.  Furthermore, when Marx claims that the superstructure (i.e. the state, religion, etc) is, essentially, subservient to the economic structure of society, he is merely saying that these ideological forms must, overall, support the economic structure, i.e. must allow more people being able to survive and reproduce than not.  For example, if the state in a society kills all the workers, then society collapses, or if the dominant religion in a society believes that it is impious to have children, then society stops reproducing.  These superstructural features cause society to fail because they work against the two things it needs to do to be successful.  The superstructure, then, is dependent upon the economy in the sense that it must promote, overall, the survival of society.  Engels clarifies this in a letter written September 21, 1890, where he says:

According to the materialist conception of history, the ultimately determining element in history is the production and reproduction of real life. Other than this neither Marx nor I have ever asserted. Hence if somebody twists this into saying that the economic element is the only determining one, he transforms that proposition into a meaningless, abstract, senseless phrase.

In other words, elements of the superstructure are constrained by the economic system, and the dominant ideologies are ideologies of the ruling class, who both have the means of promoting ideologies and, in legitimating their class domination, have the need for it.  Additionally, elements of the superstructure (like, again, the state, religion, or moral and philosophical theories) exhibit some independence from the economic base, because they are not wholly determined, and can quite often remain after changes in the base, regardless of their essential obsolescence.

If the ruling class holds the means of production, and therefore people’s ability to survive, backed by the coercive power of the state, and supported by superstructural ideologies that hinder social change and support the status quo, how is change possible?

Marx states that society changes–marked most determinately by a massive change in the economy, i.e. the class structure–when “the material forces of society come into conflict with the existing relations of production or . . . with the property relations within the framework of which they have operated hitherto.”  This is because “no social order is ever destroyed before all the all the productive forces for which it is sufficient have been developed, and new superior relations of production never replace older ones before the material conditions for their existence have matured within the framework of the old society.”  What this means, in essence, is that social revolutions occur when the productive potentialities of the existing forces of production is limited by the existing class structure and relations of production.  The organization of society, in other words, stands in the way of its potentiality for meeting society’s needs; its organization is standing in the way of its success, as we mentioned earlier.  When this occurs, a revolution must occur if society is going to continue on, rather than die out.  In the Communist Manifesto, after the famous quote that “,” Marx proceeds to argue that “Freeman and slave, patrician and plebeian, lord and serf, guild-master and journeyman, in a word, oppressor and oppressed, stood in constant opposition to one another, carried on an uninterrupted, now hidden, now open fight, a fight that each time ended, either in a revolutionary reconstitution of society at large, or in the common ruin of the contending classes.”  In other words, class struggle ends in either a change in the economic system such that solves the contradictions of the old, or everybody loses and society dies out.  In short, Marx’s point here, I argue, is to show that societies reach a point in their development where they must either have a social revolution in their class structures or they will dwindle and die, and not the common misconception that Marx thought that successful changes from one economic system to another are inevitable.