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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas

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1. Marx's Historical Materialism. A consideration
of this topic can usefully start out from an early work,
The Holy Family (1845), in which Marx draws a dis-
tinction between two divergent currents stemming
from the rationalist philosophy of the French eight-
eenth-century Enlightenment. On the one hand, the
philosophes had opposed what Marx called “mechani-
cal materialism” to the metaphysics of Descartes,
Spinoza, and Leibniz, thereby preparing the way for
the emancipation of natural science from Cartesian
metaphysics. Having successfully divorced Descartes'
physics from his metaphysics, this “Cartesian materi-
alism” eventually merged with “French natural sci-
ence.” The heritage of Descartes—who in his lifetime
had already encountered opponents in Gassendi (“the
restorer of Epicurean materialism”) and in Hobbes—
was, however, gradually dislodged by doctrines rooted
in Locke and was eventually given a new form by
Condillac and Helvétius. According to Marx, “As
Cartesian materialism merges into natural science
proper, the other branch of French materialism leads
direct to socialism and communism” (Marx, Holy Fam-
[1845], p. 175). Its ultimate source was an anthro
pological doctrine which emphasized the goodness of

There is no need of any great penetration to realize that
the teaching of materialism on the original goodness and
equal intellectual endowment of men, the omnipotence of
experience, habit and education, and the influence of envi-
ronment... is necessarily connected with communism and
socialism. If man draws all his knowledge, sensation, etc.,
from the world of the senses and the experience gained in
it, the empirical world must be arranged so that in it man
experiences... what is really human and... becomes
aware of himself as man

(ibid., p. 175, slightly revised).

This Marxian humanism, as formulated in the Holy
the Theses on Feuerbach (1845), and the
German Ideology (1845-46), was a development of
eighteenth-century French materialism, minus its
Cartesian physics and the related epistemological
problem, in which he took no interest. The basic orien-
tation of this materialism was practical, and its appli-
cation to social life was seen by Marx to follow in-
evitably from insight into the human condition. “If man
is shaped by his surroundings, his surroundings must
be made human” (Holy Family, p. 176). This conclusion
followed without question for anyone who had incor-
porated the ethics of the French Enlightenment in his
own assumptions about the world. Marx was never
conscious of a moral problem in this respect, because
his values formed part of a commitment to the belief
that the humanization of nature (including that part
of “human” nature which was in fact pre-human, i.e.,
a heritage of man's animal past) was both possible and
desirable. In this sense, historical materialism from the
start incorporated a particular value-system: that of
the Enlightenment. At the same time the doctrine had
a specific theoretical content which differentiated it
from contemporary liberalism: it rejected the then
fashionable disjunction between society and the indi-
vidual. When he wrote in his sixth Thesis on Feuerbach
that “The essence of man is no abstraction inherent
in each separate individual. In its reality it is the en-
of social relations,” Marx reemphasized a notion
already stressed in the passage from The Holy Family
cited earlier: “If man is social by nature, he will de-
velop his true nature only in society, and the power
of his nature must be measured not by the power of
separate individuals, but by the power of society”
(Holy Family, p. 176).

The difference between the liberal and the socialist
position then, as Marx perceived it in the 1840's, re-
duced itself to this: the socialists (or communists),
having taken seriously the proposition that man is the
sum total of his social relations, were concerned to
remake society, whereas liberal rationalism postulated


a fixed and stable individual human essence which
could be relied upon to find adequate expression in
appropriate social institutions—always supposing that
no artificial barriers were placed in the way. In prac-
tice, liberalism identified human rationality with en-
lightened self-interest, and the desirable social order
with one in which private initiative was permitted free
play. In this respect the liberals went back to the
philosophers of the eighteenth century, but then so did
Marx, with the difference that he rejected the individ-
ualism of the Scottish moralists and of Adam Smith,
in favor of the collectivism inherent in the French
materialists. It is important to realize that in its origins
“historical materialism” was an anthropological doc-
trine before it became a sociological one. Its signifi-
cance for Marx lay in the fact that it enabled him to
treat socialism (or communism) as the consistent appli-
cation to society of general principles extracted from
the philosophical study of human nature. Once this
nature was perceived as “social,” in the sense that it
always and everywhere refracted the character of the
cultural environment which men had constructed, the
“socialist” conclusion followed from the “materialist”
assumption. Or rather, it followed for Marx because
he took for granted the value-system of writers like
Holbach and Helvétius, for whom true self-love was
inconceivable in abstraction from human solidarity.

The notion that this anthropological naturalism is
anchored in a general theory of the universe, which
represents the world as a process of “dialectical”
movement from one stage to another, finds no support
in Marx's writings. For him, the only “nature” that
enters into practical consideration is man's own nature.
The external world, as it exists in and for itself, is
irrelevant to a thinker who approaches history with
a view to establishing what men have made of them-
selves and are still capable of becoming. It is the more
irrelevant because on Marx's assumptions about the
active role of consciousness in constituting our picture
of reality, the world is never simply “given,” any more
than that man is the passive receptacle of sense-
impressions. An external environment, true knowledge
of which is possible in abstraction from man's role in
shaping the world, is a fantasy, at any rate so far as
society is concerned. The only world we know is the
one we have constituted: that which appears in our
individual and collective experience. Man is indeed
part of nature, so that the distinction between natural
and historical science can only be relative, not absolute.
But “historical materialism” has to do with “anthro-
pological nature,” not with nature in the abstract. At
the same time, the emphasis upon the “historical”
aspect of the new viewpoint served to distinguish it
from the naturalistic approach of the eighteenth-
century French philosophes (and of Feuerbach), which
virtually ignored the historical process. A materialist
critique of the prevailing social and political conditions
presupposed an understanding of the manner in which
they had come into being, the forces which upheld
them, and the tendencies pointing beyond them. The
Theses on Feuerbach in particular represent a break
with “contemplative” materialism, and the adoption
of a “practical” standpoint which is revolutionary by
its very nature.

Historical materialism in this sense had a “dialec-
tical” element built into its conceptual structure from
the very first. It was at one and the same time an
analysis of the historical process, and the theoretical
underpinning of a particular viewpoint (the socialist
one) which implied a critique of liberal individualism
and its objective correlative: civil (or bourgeois) soci-
ety. This introduction of an activist element into a
doctrine of society proved baffling to most of Marx's
critics who accepted the positivist interpretation of
history as an ongoing process analyzable in strictly
factual terms. Historical events, on this view, were
analogous to the facts of natural science. They were
simply there to be studied in as dispassionate a manner
as possible, and the task of the historian (in Ranke's
words) was to explain “what really happened” (wie es
eigentlich gewesen

Marx by the later 1840's was sufficiently close to
positivism to reject Hegel's philosophy of history, and
by implication the entire notion of a philosophy (as
distinct from a theory) of history: an enterprise whose
theological purpose had become evident to him, once
he had emancipated himself from Hegel and absorbed
the impact of Anglo-French materialism. At the same
time he differed from Comte (whose principal work
he first read in 1866, and then dismissed as rubbish)
in refusing to treat history as an accretion of data
which could be studied on the model of the natural
sciences. History to Marx was a self-activating totality
ultimately rooted in the “production and reproduction
of material life.” Its objectivity was not of the kind
that could be discerned by the study of “facts,” and
for the same reason it did not lend itself to the fram-
ing of general laws analogous to Newtonian physics:
the model of Comte's “social physics.” The materialist
approach was outlined by Marx in the German Ide-
of 1845-46, and subsequently confirmed in the
well-known Preface to the Critique of Political Econ-

The mode of production of material life conditions the
social, political and intellectual life-process in general. It
is not the consciousness of men that determines their being,
but on the contrary their social being that determines their


It has for its counterpart the activist note struck in
the Communist Manifesto (1848):

The history of all hitherto existing society is a history of
class struggles.

These two modes of perception are held in balance
by the notion that the “materialist conception of his-
tory” is both a theory of the historical process and a
means towards its mastery. Men become masters of
their fate in the measure in which they become con-
scious of the mechanism whereby history is set in
motion and kept going. In turning their insight to
practical account, they do not for this reason abandon
the scientific standpoint. Rather, they employ their
insight into the antagonistic character of the historical
process—specifically of its ultimate stage: contem-
porary bourgeois society—for the purpose of over-
coming the antagonism. Marx's historical materialism
differs from Comte's positivism in that it incorporates
practical (political or ethical) postulates within its very
conceptual structure. He does not formulate general
laws on the basis of a dispassionate study of “objective”
data; he conceptualizes the historical process, and in
this very act unifies (critical) theory and (revolutionary)

Although Marx never employed the term “sociol-
ogy” (possibly because he held Comte's work in low
esteem), it has become customary to treat the approach
briefly sketched out in the 1859 Preface, and exten-
sively developed in Capital (1867), as a sociological
doctrine analogous to that of Comte. Within the
Marxist school itself this fashion was inaugurated by
Engels, who in his Anti-Dühring (1878) attributed to
Marx “two great discoveries,” one of them being “the
materialist conception of history.” This was described
by Engels as the doctrine “that the production (of the
means to support human life) and, next to production,
the exchange of things produced, is the basis of all
social structure; that in every society that has appeared
in history, the manner in which wealth is distributed
and society divided into classes or orders is dependent
upon what is produced, how it is produced, and how
the products are exchanged.” Marx, who had read the
Anti-Dühring in manuscript, did not bother to correct
this simplified exposition of his very complex approach,
presumably because he regarded the book as a popular
tract destined for a semi-literate public. In consequence
it came to be widely believed that “scientific socialism”
(another term coined by Engels) had for its theoretical
foundation a species of economic determinism valid
for all stages of recorded history. In the light of this
quite unfounded assumption, the relationship of the
so-called “economic base” to the “political” or
“ideological” superstructure assumed the status of a
major theoretical difficulty whose solution kept a small
army of exegetes ceaselessly employed. The “materi-
alist” standpoint was understood in terms of Engels'
statement (in the passage already cited) as signifying
that “the final causes of all social changes and political
revolutions are to be sought... not in the philosophy,
but in the economics of each particular epoch” (Engels,

In point of fact, the problem of relating the “politi-
cal superstructure” to its “material foundation” had
originally (in 1842-44) presented itself to Marx as an
aspect of his critique of Hegel's political philosophy,
notably as formulated in the latter's Philosophy of Right
(1821). While already conscious of the distinction be-
tween “state” and “society,” Hegel had assigned a
subordinate role to the latter. Marx's “materialism,”
by contrast, took for its starting point the autonomy
of a society which had manifestly developed a dynamic
of its own: Western European bourgeois society, itself
propelled forward by the mechanism of what he
termed the “capitalist mode of production.” To this
extent his approach was in tune with the procedure
common among the classical economists, notably the
founders of that discipline of “Political Economy”
which had grown up in Western Europe between 1770
and 1830. The novelty he introduced lay in the fusion
of what was later termed “economics” with “sociol-
ogy” and “history.” An introduction to some bulky
1857-58 manuscripts (first published in 1939-41) de-
fines the subject of his investigations as the sphere of
“material production.” He goes on to suggest that,
within the totality of production-distribution-consump-
tion, one element—namely production—predominates.
“From it, the process continually recommences....
There is interaction between the various elements. This
is the case in every organic whole.” Nowhere does
Marx assert that production is “in the last analysis”
the causal factor “determining” the shape of society,
still less that “economics”—in the vulgar sense of eco-
nomic interest—“determines” the political process.
These notions were introduced by his interpreters,
beginning with Engels (1878), in an attempt to gen-
eralize a principle of investigation into an all-embrac-
ing causal explanation.

It is equally worth noting that Marx does not speak
of a “materialist conception of history,” contenting
himself with the more modest term “materialistic and
thus scientific method.” The conversion of his critical
method into a determinist social philosophy was pri-
marily the work of Engels, who after the death of
Marx in 1883 assumed the role of exegete. The next
step consisted in transforming the Marxian critique of
society into a comprehensive doctrine embracing both
nature and history. This process too was set in motion


by Engels, and continued (after his death in 1895) by
the orthodox school, primarily represented by Karl
Kautsky, G. V., Plekhanov, and Antonio Labriola. It
will be considered in the following section. Here it
remains to be noted that in its original Marxian form
the “materialist conception of history” had a twofold
character: (1) As a general principle of historical inves-
tigation, or conceptualization, it remained a mere
sketch, although of great potential fertility for the
social sciences, a circumstance clearly recognized by
Max Weber, whose own work bore the imprint of his
lifelong preoccupation with the problems raised by
Marx. (2) As a finished theory of the actual historical
process, the new method had originally been employed
for the critical analysis of one particular social forma-
tion only: bourgeois society. Capital (1867-94) con-
tained an historical sketch of the rise of capitalism in
Western Europe, but did not attempt to answer the
question why no corresponding development had oc-
curred elsewhere. As for the pre-capitalist formations
briefly considered in the Grundrisse of 1857-58, the
analysis, while “materialist” enough, did not point to
“internal contradictions” similar to those which (in
Marx's view) were at work in contemporary bourgeois

In fairness to all concerned, it may be said that
Marx's theoretical approach in the crucially important
Preface of the 1859 Critique, as well as in his earlier
and later writings, lent itself to an equivocation. On
the one hand, he had inherited from his prede-
cessors—notably Adam Smith and David Ricardo—the
notion of an autonomous economic sphere interacting
with the remainder of society (including the political
and cultural “superstructure”). On the other hand, he
had taken over from Hegel the conception of history
as a self-activating totality within which all the seem-
ingly independent elements were “organically” linked.
By fusing these two modes of thought, he arrived at
a vision of modern society as a uniquely determined
totality of social relations, dynamically propelled by
an equally unique and unprecedented mode of produc-
tion. The “historical” element in this “historical mate-
rialism” lay in the fact that he described as “bourgeois”
the social relations (or production relations) which
Smith and Ricardo had treated as “natural.” The “ma-
terialism” lay in his ascription to the “relations of
production” of a higher degree of reality than had been
accorded to them by Hegel and the other “idealist”
German philosophers. But if the “relations of produc-
tion” were virtually synonymous with “society,” there
was no specificity of the economic sphere, and the
distinction between base and superstructure broke
down. It cannot be said that Marx ever quite managed
to solve the problem, or even to state it in an entirely
unambiguous manner. Had he done so, both his follow-
ers and his critics would doubtless have been saved
a great deal of trouble.