The credit for the elaboration of contemporary materialism undoubtedly belongs to Karl Marx and Frederick Engels. The economic aspects of historical materialism, together with the system of views concerning the problem, the method, and the categories of political economy for these we are indebted to Marx and Engels. What had previously been achieved in this field can be regarded as preparatory. Before Marx finalised his views, materials, often abundant and valuable had been collected, but these had not been systematised, and consequently had not been valued or used as they should have been.
The basic question of philosophy is the relation between ideas and things. The treatment of this question divides philosophers into two main contending schools—the Idealist and the Materialist. The Idealist school states that ideas are primary, and that matter is secondary; that the material world as known to the senses is illusory; that mind alone is real. The point of view of the materialist is directly opposite. The materialist contends that matter is primary and ideas are secondary; that mind is a function of matter (the brain) and that ideas are a reflection of material things.
Marx arrived at the materialist viewpoint quite early in his career, but he lifted it to a higher plane by combining it with the dialectical method of Hegel. The dialectic was not new—in fact it was known to the ancient Greeks— but Hegel, by his universal application of it, had given it a new significance.
The dialectic method used by Marx is the system by which he enquired into, and traced the connection and the series of joints and links that make up the process of historical evolution; by which he investigated one stage succeeds another in the development of society.
Marx in these investigations used the dialectical method in a different way to Hegel. Hegel was an idealist, and to him the process of evolution was the outward manifestation of the growth of the absolute Idea, which developed according to its own laws. To Marx, on the other hand, the ideal is nothing other than the material when it has been transposed and translated in the brain. The dialectical method of thought is a reflection of the dialectical process in material life. By combining the dialectical method with materialism and applying it to the problem of social change, Marx produced an entirely new concept of the historical process: the Materialist Conception of History. Previously historians had in nearly every case explained changes in social life and institutions in terms of growth of ideas. These ideas frequently became personified in great men and history was usually regarded as being the story of the activities of these great men. Where and how ideas originated was a question in the main ignored by historians. To Marx, ideas were a mental reflection of material things. To him, therefore, changes in social life were not to be explained by changes in ideas, but conversely changed in ideas were to be explained by changes in social life.
In the introduction to his Critique of Political Economy, Marx wrote:
“I was led by my studies to the conclusion that legal relations as well as forms of the state could neither be understood by themselves, nor explained by the so-called general process of the human mind, but that they are rooted in the material conditions of life.”
The material conditions of life include man’s environment and his physical nature. Changes in the physical environment and in man’s own physical nature are hardly perceptible so they cannot explain historical changes. From the physical point of view both the world and man are much the same as they were two hundred years ago. Yet during the last two centuries changes have taken place which have changed man’s social life. The most important condition of life is the social production of the means of satisfying man’s needs. The method of producing the means of life (food, clothes, housing etc.) does change often very rapidly, and this, Marx considered to be the cause of changes in the structure of society generally.
In order to carry on production man has to enter into social relations, that is, to co-operate with his fellows.
The social relations—the relations between men and economic classes of men—existing at a given time correspond to a definite stage in the development of the means of production.
The means of production consist of the tools, machines, all kinds of transport. methods of organisation, discoveries of science used in production. The primitive technique of ancient times had corresponding to it the social relations of slave and slave owner, patrician and pleb; feudal technique, the relations of serf and feudal lord, handicraftsman and merchant; while present day capitalist technique has corresponding to it the social relations of wage worker and capitalist.
Marx called the social relations and the productive technique to which they correspond the economic foundations of society. Upon this rests the legal political, moral, religious, ethical, artistic, in a word, the ideological superstructure. There is a different ideology, for slavery, feudalism, and capitalism.
As technique develops, social relations change and the ideas and institutions resting upon this economic foundation are correspondingly transformed. Though changes in society are brought about by the evolution of the technical basis, social development is not a mechanical process. It works through human beings organised in classes.
At a certain stage in their development the technical forces of production come into conflict with the existing social relations. The interest of the ruling class determine that they should endeavour to keep in existence the prevailing state of things, and that they should attempt to prevent the full development of the productive forces. The interest of the subject class, on the other hand, lies in the direction of changing the existing state of things, of revolutionising society, and of allowing development of the productive forces.
Then comes the period of social revolution, when men consciously identify themselves with the interest of the class to which they belong, and when they consciously struggle to further those interests. If the struggle results in a victory for the lower class, as in the French Revolution, the reactionary ruling class is stripped of power; the state machine and all other institutions are transformed to serve the needs of the new ruling class; and the productive forces are freed from the obstacles placed in the way of their development. For a time economic development proceeds rapidly producing new classes, new social relations, and new ideas. Ultimately the time again comes when the technical forces for production come into conflict with the social relations. The new ruling class, once revolutionary, now becomes reactionary. Again a social revolution is at hand.
Since the days of Marx it has become the normal procedure for the historians to direct attention to the economic factors in history. Many and various ‘economic interpretations of history’ have been offered for popular consumption and very frequently the materialist conception of history is confused with these economic interpretations. Marx, as an historian, not only drew attention to the economic basis upon which society rests, but also recognised the struggle of classes as the vehicle by which society moved from stage to stage. “The history of hitherto existing society has been the history of class struggles,” wrote Marx and Engels on the first page of the Communist Manifesto and in the following pages is given the description of the struggles of the capitalist class against its opponents, and its subsequent rise to power.
The modern capitalist class had its origins in the town burghers of the Middle Ages. Mediaeval society was in the main a society of self-sufficient districts, the manorial villages, but with the rise of towns trade and industry developed. This undermined the position of the peasants and their overlords, the feudal aristocracy. The feudal lords struggled to retain their privileges, which enabled them to tax and in numerous ways to place burdens on the urban population. The town burghers, sometimes in alliance with the King, as in England, were able to break the power of the feudal lords and to remove the regulations, taxes and other barriers that hampered the extension of economic activity.
The discovery of new sea-routes and of the ‘new world’ enormously increased the wealth, size and political importance of the new and growing capitalist class and by the end of the 17th century in England, in France 100 years later, and in Russia during this century, they were able to defeat the last remnants of feudalism. The English revolution in its two phases of the Puritan revolution 1641-1660 and the Whig (or ‘Glorious’) revolution of 1688-1690. and following it the French Revolution of 1789 resulted in a victory for the capitalist class of that period. The Russian Revolution of 1905-1917 has resulted in the rise of capitalism in a form suited to the history and economic development of that country.
The opening of new markets in the period following the English revolution created a demand for an increasing production of goods. Methods of production were continuously improved until finally, with the introduction of steam-driven machinery at the beginning of the 19th century, they were completely revolutionised. This revolution in productive methods caused a revolution in productive relations. From the old bourgeoisie there grew a new class of industrial capitalists and from the domestic workers and peasants there grew a new class of factory workers, the industrial working class. This class chained to the new machinery, exploited and oppressed by the capitalist class, began to struggle for emancipation. The class struggle had reached a new stage and a new phase of history had commenced.
The origin of the workers’ struggle is economic. The workers strive to maintain and improve their standard of life, but this struggle itself assumes a political form. With the aid of political enactments and of the police or, when necessary the armed forces, the state enters the struggle as the protector of the property interests of the capitalists and the workers find themselves not only fighting employers but also the capitalist state. When, with the development of large-scale modern industry, the small labour dispute is displaced by disputes of much larger dimensions, the state more and more openly shows itself to be the executive committee of the ruling class. Among workers there must grow the realisation that economic problems can be solved only by their conquest of political power and the overthrowing of capitalist property relations.
Previous revolutions have placed a minority of society in a position to exploit the majority. The next revolution, the Socialist revolution, is a revolution of a majority as the working class constitutes the bulk of the population in modern society, and can achieve its purpose only by the ending of class- divided society and the ending of all exploitation of man by man. With the ending of all property rights in the means of production, that is the establishment of a new form of society, class conflicts will cease.
The way is prepared for the new progress in which man will replace the blind way of economic forces, by the conscious direction of economically free men—Socialism.