Historical Materialism – Concept and modes of production

We explain what historical materialism is, its creators, how they understand history and the modes of production they find in it.

historical materialism marx engels
Historical materialism is the conceptual proposal made by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels.

What is historical materialism?

Historical materialism or materialist conception of history is known as the conceptual proposal made by Karl Marx (1818-1883) and Friedrich Engels (1820-1895) to understand human history from the point of view of the struggle of social classes for control of the means of production.

In other words, It is about the way of conceiving human history that Marxist thought proposes, and that is opposed to the traditional bourgeois interpretation that understands history as the history of ideas and of “great men”.

From the Marxist point of view, history is the history of a struggle: political revolutions are explained by the conflict between two or more social classes who try to take over the means of production and thus establish an economic system according to their wishes and needs.

Thus, the contradiction between the productive forces and the relations of production (or, more simply, between those who do the work and those who administer the economy) has driven change in our societies since ancient times, so that every socio-productive system can be explained if we review its historical conditions of emergence.

Thus, human history can be organized according to production models, each one typical of a certain time and of the productive procedures, tools and mechanisms that characterize it:

  • Primitive communism, a typical system of small communities of hunter-gatherers that share everything obtained and that does not allow the accumulation of goods, although it is very ineffective and highly dependent on the environment.
  • The slave mode of production, born with the discovery of agriculture, is typical of ancient societies and the first empires, which supported their food production with slave labor, in order to enjoy the free time required by military training, the development of the arts and culture.
  • The feudal mode of production, typical of medieval Europe, which made land tenure the most important economic factor, and therefore distinguished between aristocratic landowners and serfs who cultivated their lands in exchange for protection, justice and social stability.
  • The industrial production mode, emerged with capitalism and the Industrial Revolution, which transformed the peasantry into a working class and overthrew the aristocracy of power, putting in their place the bourgeoisie, that is, the owners of large capitals that allow them to manage the means of production and exploit the work of the working class.

In short, historical materialism proposes to approach history from the empirical relationships established between individuals, and not from an ideological presupposition.

For this reason, it was part of the Marxist aspiration for a “scientific” communism: a political doctrine that was sustained in a rational, explicable and verifiable conceptual apparatus, that is, in a theoretical conception of history. Many compared this view of human history (or human production) with the history of species formulated by Charles Darwin (1809-1882), in the sense that was based on verifiable formal evidence.

Even so, at the time this materialistic conception of history was accused of incurring in economic determinism, that is, in reducing history to the merely economic, thus avoiding the influence of the world of culture and ideas, among other extra-economic aspects. For many this is just an economistic interpretation of what Marx and Engels proposed.

The term historical materialism was not used even by Marx, however, but was later coined by the Russian Marxist theorist Georgy Plekhanov (1856-1918) and used by Engels after the death of Marx himself. Although this concept is strongly linked to Marxist thought, it has been extremely useful in the theoretical elaboration of the study of history, by academics and thinkers not affiliated with Marxist thought.