Marx and Historical Materialism

Russell Haggar

Site Owner

Marx and Historical Materialism

"The development of modern industry, therefore cuts from under its feet the very foundations on which the bourgeoisie produces and expropriates products. What the bourgeoisie produces above all are its own gravediggers. Its fall and the victory of the proletariat are equally inevitable."

Whereas Hegel’s theory of dialectical idealism saw the historical process as driven by ongoing conflict between competing ideas (thesis; antithesis; synthesis.), Marx’s theory of dialectical materialism or historical materialism suggested that gradual historical change could take place within a given mode of production but that eventually conflict between the forces of production and the social relations of production would give rise to a new mode of production.

Thus as a result of this conflict between the forces of production and the social relations of production the following transitions occur:

From primitive communism to ancient society.

From ancient society to feudalism.

From feudalism to capitalism.

From capitalism to socialism.

Marx did analyse all of these transitions but for our purposes it is most important to concentrate on the possibility of a transition from capitalism to socialism. (There is, however, a neat summary in Haralambos of the transition from feudalism to capitalism which you should look at.)

In relation to the transition from the Capitalist mode of production to the Socialist mode of production we have to analyse the possible conflict between the forces of production and the social relations of production in some detail.

According to Marx this conflict contains the following elements:

Under capitalism economic power is monopolised by the Bourgeoisie whose main aim is production for profit rather than production for need. This means that the social relations of production (ownership and control) prevent the full utilisation of the highly developed forces of production.

Exploitation of the Proletariat means that they do not receive a fair share of the goods and services produced via the forces of production.

Periodic unemployment means that the factories and workers are often idle despite the obvious need for increased production so that, again the full potential of the forces of production is not being realised.(This is connected to Marx’s theory of the falling rate of profit, a questionable theory.)

Capitalism results in alienation which means that the full potential of the workers cannot be realised under capitalism.

Thus, in summary, according to Marx, the social relations of production under capitalism prevent the full development of the forces of production under capitalism.




Other aspects of the revolutionary process are;

Capitalism leads to increasing unemployment and poverty--- the Immiserisation process.

Production is increasingly concentrated among large companies and smaller companies and individual traders are forced out of business. The class structure is more and more simplified into 2 great classes--- the Bourgeoisie and the Proletariat--- the so-called Polarisation thesis.

However, later on Marx noted that the growth of joint stock companies would lead to the growth of managerial positions, implying the growth of a middle class, a problem for orthodox Marxist class theory.

Nevertheless, now some people at least would notice that the bourgeoisie were actually receiving profit for contributing little or nothing to the production process.

The concentration of production in large factories in urban areas would make political organisation easier.

The Proletariat loses its false consciousness and turns from a class for itself into a class in itself. Revolution leads to the classless socialist utopia.

These then are the main aspects of Marx's theory of revolution. However Marx argued also that "there are countries such as America and England .... where the workers mayattain their goal by peaceful means. Engels also who outlived Marx by many years came in later life to believe quite strongly in the possibility of the parliamentary road to socialism. .Also while Lenin endorsed the revolutionary road to socialism and the concentration of power in the Bolshevik Party, [ a strategy carried to its worst extremes by Stalin] the German Marxist Rosa Luxemburg argued that socialism could be achieved only via the continuation of crucial political liberties such as free speech and free elections involving competing political parties.

Later Marxists have often argued that the parliamentary road to socialism might be preferable because violence would be avoided and any newly emerging socialist state would be based on the consent of the majority of the citizensThese arguments combined with the apparent lack of working class interest in revolutionary politics led the British Communist party in 1951 to endorse the parliamentary road to socialism, a strategy followed by other Euro-Communist parties.