Historical Materialism

Custom Student Mr. Teacher ENG 1001-04 21 September 2016

Historical Materialism

Social structures fall and crumble, and new ones take their place. This is a fact of civilization that has been with humanity since before the beginning of recorded history. Marxist theory takes this concept of change and asks an important question of it. Why do societies revolutionize themselves? Marxist theory, in this particular vein of thought, concerns itself with society’s motivations for change. In answer to this question Marxists use two distinct yet related forms of Materialism, Dialectical Materialism and Historical Materialism.

They seek to use these concepts to apply logic to a seemingly random event, and there are indicators in history that this interpretation works. The important question to ask afterwards is do these interpretations still apply in a modern context. First, though, it is important to understand the Marxist concept of how revolution occurs. The Marxist interpretation of Materialism can be roughly broken up into two groupings, Dialectical Materialism and Historical Materialism. The aims of both of these concepts are the same though.

Based on Marxist ideals these two concepts aim to explain the development of human history and give concrete motivation as to significant changes in human history. By considering both concepts in tandem one gains a full understanding of the Marxist interpretation of Materialism. Dialectical Materialism is based in two separate concepts, Dialectics and Materialism. Dialectics is one of the three original liberal arts, first developed in the classical world by the Ancient Greeks. (Saksena p543) Together with Rhetoric and Grammar, these liberal arts were developed as a means to fully understand the art of persuasion.

Dialectic itself refers to the logic behind the argument, having a sound backing for your points. As such it is heavily grounded in logic. By combining this with materialism, the monist concept that everything in existence is made up of matter, you get a unique understanding of the basic makeup of Marxism. (Saksena p544) This is the lens through which the Marxist views the world, analytical and logical, with all things made up of a base product. When considering this with history, Historical Materialism is formed and Marxist understanding is applied to historical developments.

Historical Materialism concerns itself with asking why and how Social progress is driven. The basic idea of this theory is that Human Society is based around how humans work to produce the means to live, and that all actions present in history are intrinsically tied to this. (Sober p310) There is also, in tandem with this, the concept that labour is divided into social classes, and that class division is dependant on the means of production.

Finally, in terms of social movements, this theory states that these actions only occur when the dominant class is displaced by a newly emerging one. Eckstein p912) There are a series of ideas that go along with this concept of Historical Materialism. First and foremost is the concept that social progress is directly related to material progress, without some advancement in the process of production, social change will not occur. (Crimmins p523) Innate to this, it should be mentioned, is the concept that humans are involved with production. By tying societal progress intrinsically into manufacturing process, it ties the development of humanity, at its base level, to the worker.

The worker then, becomes the means through which social progression is achieved, and also has some power over how humanity develops as a society. This power is not to be ignored, as this power is the central means to change in the Marxist view of history. By giving the workers this power it puts the means to change directly into their hands and makes them responsible for the future, and also for the past. But there is still the question of how this sect of society is motivated to action. Two distinct and yet related forces act in the concept of Historical Materialism, Production Relations and Productive Forces.

Production Relations, here, can be understood to refer to the interaction between those producing the product and those paying the labourers to produce the product. (Manicas p241) Productive Forces refer to the actual labour pool that powers the productions. (Manicas p241) Understanding those two distinct terms, there is another sequence of required concepts in Historical Materialism that go along with those two concepts. Production Relations, it should be noted, develop relative to the development of productive forces. Manicas p244) An emphasis on production determines the speed of production force development. In other words, social progression is inversely relative to the way workers are treated. The change, for Marxist theorists, comes from dissatisfaction with the current state of affairs. If the workers are happy they will have no desire to change the situation. If the current state is not in their favor, however, they will be motivated to action. This of course will result, optimally, in a change in society. That is what is central about this concept, the impact it has on society.

The theory believes that the structure of a society is intrinsically tied to the mode of production, or in other words the structure of a society is an expression of the mode of production. (Manicas p245) For example, a society built around a production structure heavily dependant on mechanical production will find an increase in the repair and maintenance industry, whereas a society based around manual labour will require a large number of individuals working to achieve its product. Stating that the product developed by a society has an impact on its structure can essentially sum up this whole concept.

Moving beyond simply the types of jobs that would be desired, this speaks towards what the educational system of that society would be like, what the pay scale would be, what the living conditions would be at. This is all relative to the skill of the labour and the amount of education necessary to do the job. If the market is based around specialized jobs that require immense amounts of schooling, then the pay scale and standard of living for that society will be higher than a manual labour society which requires little to no education for the job.

To put it simply, the more difficult the standard job for the society, the better off that society will be. But what of the problems that would arise form this formation. Critical Marxist theory believes that these concepts are tied in to some of the problems present in societies. Every state, they believe, is an institution of the ruling class. (Mayer p143) As such the laws and values of that state would seek to reinforce the means to profit. They would be utilizing everything down to the structure of the state to optimize the goal of the collective.

In a capitalist structure, for example, the value structure is built around profit. As such, according to the Marxist theory, the values and systems inherent to this state would reinforce this ideal. Taking into account modern corporate practices of exporting service and manual labour to other countries where it is cheaper to attain, one sees the profit-based value structure of the capitalist system affecting their policy. The second important factor in this consideration is that State power is usually only transferred through upheaval. Sober p323) This is an extremely destructive means to achieve change, and this should be noted.

It does not make it untrue, however. This violent upheaval, combined with the obliteration of the previous system, combine to show the means to change. As upsetting as it may be to think that our system is based on a wholly violent means to achieving its end, every indication through history shows this factor working time and again. Finally, this particular mode of production has to give out at some point as new technologies discover more efficient means of production.

Thus the final belief of the Marxist Historical Materialist perspective is that when current production relations no longer function, progress is either stalled, or there is revolution. (Stiermotte p112) So the final catalyst, the straw that will break societies back, will be the death of production. This idea makes perfect sense when taken in terms of the whole of the argument. If motivation for change were present in the means to production and the relations between producer and employer, then the death of production would mean the end of that society producing.

That is a perfect catalyst for setting off change. If there is no profit then the system, inherently built on it, fails and must be replaced. This is the full circle of Marxists Historical Materialism, the concept that when production fails, revolution will occur to re-imagine production systems to increase profit and thus advance that society. The hard question, however, is to what extent does this view of Historical Materialism apply today? Is it still a prescient means to understand societal development?

If it is then perhaps it can be applied to see the future of society, maybe as a means to ensure we are not heading down a path we would not agree with. The system that comes afterwards is based in the values of those who are generally in opposition to the ruling class they have just ousted. As such they, logically, would seek to be as contrary to the original as possible. Before revolution occurs, one must contemplate what the most likely scenario would be and whether it is favorable. But before that can even occur, the question of whether this theory does indeed apply or not must be answered.

As such there are four basic questions that must be answered in the affirmative for this to be the case. Is the motivation still present? Is there still a need for change? To this the answer would be affirmative. Present still in this world are primary causes for change; poverty, social inequality. These motivators are still present as a means to have the “poor” class desire change. The best example would be the rising unemployment rate in the UK. As is stated in the article, the rate of employment in the UK has descended from a “low unemployment economy to the high unemployment reality of the present era. (Leslie p371) So not only is there the sort of motivator to initiate change, the situation is actually getting progressively worse.

Are there current social classes? Is there immense inequality between the classes? Yes, there are rich and poor classes in our current time and there is a distinct difference between them. Moreover the capability to move between classes is but a faint hope and it is not often that this occurs. Are these classes developed based on the mode of production? If one observes the poorer classes and their particular jobs, then one must see that their poverty is indeed tied in to the mode of production.

Most often the only means of employment is to work for the rich class in a company owned by them. (Mayer p144) The ruling class here is utilizing the labour forces as a means to production. Is the state an institution of the ruling class? Does it enforce their values? In a capitalist society the values are based around profit. The values inherent to the state thus reinforce the values of the ruling class, the desire for profit before any other considerations. This is seen through the mutually declining state of employment and also health care in the UK.

Through putting profit before the welfare of the employee, considerations that should normally be considered mandatory are lost by the wayside. Healthcare, in particular neonatal health care, declines as suicide and para-suicide rates increase. (Cook p73) All together this forms the impression of the powers in charge of production being unmoved by the plight of the labour force they are using. The factors for change, as outlined through Historical Materialism, are still present in current culture. Action, however, is not present.

But this action, according to Historical Materialism, will only be sparked when production fails. This failure will either stall production or bring about revolution. Production, at this time, has not stopped so the final motivation for revolution is not present. But Marx never did suppose that any progress would be instantaneous, rather he stated quite the opposite. His logic was grounded in the development of the world from a proto-communist/tribal society, through ancient civilization, to feudalism, to capitalism, and finally to the ideal communist state.

Marx’s worldview is that humanity is slowly progressing towards a communist state of peace, yet by his own admission; the world actually began in a proto-communist state, and then progressed away from this. Is the end state of Communism actually a step back, or is it a cyclical view of the world wherein, upon reaching the communist state at the end, the cycle begins anew and humanity goes back to ancient civilization. Progression does not necessarily entail constant forward movement in the Marxist view, only that a new class will replace the ruling elite, and society will be accordingly supplanted with a new structure.

Nowhere does it emphasize this progress as a positive development. What we must really ask ourselves is, is this the future we want for our society? Do we want to go back to where we began? Do we want to develop the same way we have for years or have the myriad of problems that have arisen accordingly shown us that perhaps searching for a better means to development is the best option? Do we want history to repeat itself, or do we want to shape it?


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  • University/College: University of Arkansas System

  • Type of paper: Thesis/Dissertation Chapter

  • Date: 21 September 2016

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