The Materialist Conception Of History

For an easy to understand explanation of the Materialist Conception of History, read on.

The socialist is politically opposed to the system in which he finds himself; this opposition arises from an analysis of capitalism, and the realization that socialism will solve the majority of the economic and social problems that exist today. We further claim that a policy of reformation will do nothing to alter the basis of capitalism, and therefore no major social evil can ever be removed by any reform or group of reforms.

Socialists attempt to survey the historic development of society, to ascertain how society has evolved, and to discover the prime causes that have been responsible for the changes that have taken place. It is indisputable that society has passed from one system to another, but the underlying dynamics for this is not initially obvious, and has been a matter for conjecture and controversy. The answer to this question is of paramount importance, because armed with the correct scientific approach to the historic development of mankind it is reasonable to suppose that this same method will enable us to properly examine the system under which we now live, and by so doing create first, the theoretical sound solution to current social problems, and second, the practical application of the theory.

The interpretation of history put forward by Karl Marx and supported by The World Socialist Party and its companion parties is referred to as The Materialist Conception Of History. The name itself implies that it is distinct from other approaches, and that there are contrary concepts.

The Materialist Conception Of History asserts as its fundamental proposition that it is the economic basis of any society, and the way in which production and distribution of wealth is organized, that is the main determining factor of the social structure of society, and the foundation on which the outlooks, ideas, conduct, social relationships, legal and political structures rest. Further, that these conditions are never static, but are continuously in the process of change and development; that they constitute the main element of historic change, and are the predominate dynamic influence responsible for social evolution. This social evolution has been reflected in different systems of society with different economic basis that have evolved one from the other.

Since the advent of private property history has been a record of class struggles, and the control of the state machine has always been of prime importance to the ruling class of any era. Man acts within his environment and is conditioned accordingly. He affects and makes history but only within the scope of the material conditions in which he lives. There is, therefore, an interplay between man and his surrounding material conditions that react one upon the other and out of which change and development occur. The Materialist Conception Of History does not preclude other influences upon historical development, such as geographical and climatic conditions, or, for example, traditional social hangovers from the past, but the economic factor constitutes the main determining and dominating condition – the way people associate together in order to produce a livelihood.

We can now compare this materialist approach to history with other concepts and recognize the fundamental differences.

The socialist discards the “Great Man Theory”, although we have already acknowledged that man plays an active part in reacting to his existing circumstances. But to view history as the record of the deeds of so-called great men, leaders, kings, and emperors is to ignore the fact that these historic figures were the result of the prevailing material conditions and not vice versa. Such an approach perverts historic truth, but nevertheless is taught openly, or implied covertly within the educational system, affording the ruling class with a technique for preserving their power position, by encouraging nationalistic and patriotic ideas, and propagandizing youth to accept misconceptions of leadership, and the glorification of war with its legalized violence.

To the extent that one considers Divine Providence and God’s will as the determining factor of historic development we find ourselves in the realm of mental fantasy, becoming divorced from reality. A true working class materialist approach to the world is sabotaged and never given an opportunity to mature.

While the Materialist Conception accepts the influence of ideas upon history we at the same time relate the ideas to the material conditions from which they have developed. Ideas themselves are the result of the action of the brain, which is the phenomena of thinking matter. These ideas originate from their material surroundings and are the mental products resulting from an evolving society. The universe exists apart from man’s consciousness, and ideas as we understand them have only existed since the advent of man, through the function of his brain. The materialist approach recognizes that man’s awareness of the universe is registered through his thinking faculties, but that the totality of things existed before man, and that man is a comparative recent arrival upon the scene.

The socialist rejects all metaphysical and supernatural approaches, and regards astrology, associated outlooks, and predictions as having no scientific value or supportable proof.

Members of the working class should discard in their entirety these false approaches to history, because not only do they do an injustice to intelligence, but they create yet another intellectual barrier to the comprehension of the socialist case.

It is unreasonable to presume that capitalism represents the final cycle in social development. We contend that socialism is the next logical progression and that capitalism has long age fulfilled its historic purpose and has outlived its usefulness. Man has journeyed through changing and different systems of society. To contend that he has reached the pinnacle of economic development with a system that has produced poverty amidst plenty, and economic insecurity along with production techniques that have virtually unlimited potential capacities, is to close one’s mind to the future and to ignore the historic facts of the past. Society has never been static, it is always on the move, forever changing; every past system has evolved into another. The advent of socialism, for the first time in history, will mark the conscious social and political effort of a majority establishing a new system of society, and being at the same time fully aware of the meaning, implications, and social justifications for this revolutionary act. The social consciousness of man will have arrived, somewhat belatedly, at a new, inspiring plateau.

Regressing to trace man’s progress through organized society, we find a period wherein he lived in tribal groups, referred to as primitive communism. Everyone within the tribe had the right of access to whatever was owned by the tribe. In good times their simple needs were satisfied, and in periods of shortages there was hardship. Man lived by picking his food from the trees and vegetation, and by the killing of wild animals. Initially his tools were simple in construction. Fire was discovered, stone clubs and spears fashioned, the bow and arrow invented, and polished stone instruments were made. The art of pottery was developed, the taming and herding of animals, together with the use of bronze, and primitive agriculture and the cultivation of crops. Then, with the discovery of the process of smelting iron and the making of iron tools, together with the advances made in agriculture, man began producing in excess of the needs of the tribe. Private property made its appearance; with this there came a need for protection, and the authority of government.

A new society was developing which took the form of warrior chiefdoms that covered vast areas of the world, and which comprised the patriarchal warrior chief and the clansmen who owed allegiance to him. The main mode of production was agricultural. Chattel slave empires developed in Egypt, Babylon, Greece, and Rome. The economy was mainly agricultural, with some trading; the slaves formed an economic basis in society and were owned outright by their masters. The city-state came into being and was an instrument of power used by the ruling class, and these states later grew into empires.

From this society feudalism evolved. Manorial estates were established; instead of the warrior chief there was the lord of the manor, with serfs who were tied to the land, but unlike the chattel slaves were not physically owned by their master. The serfs tilled a small portion of the land for themselves for a part of the week, and the balance of the week worked for the lord on his estates. All their rights were subordinate to the feudal lord. Within this feudal system merchant capitalism began to grow and small home manufacturing was started. Steam was utilized, harnessed to tools, and production was revolutionized.

With colonial expansion, commerce and trade prospered and feudalism, with its aristocracy, came into conflict with the new emerging capitalist class. The Industrial Revolution of 1760 in England, in France in 1789, brought with it large scale manufacturing based upon wage labor, and the production of commodities for sale and profit in the market place. The handicraft, and the mode of individual production under feudalism, had undergone a transformation to social production based upon wage labor, with the private ownership of the means of production and distribution by a minority of the population – the new ruling class. Capitalism had arrived – and with it new forms of misery, inequality, and deprivation for the majority. To complete the picture, the 1917 Revolution in Russia marked the commencement of capitalism in the U.S.S.R. operated on a national basis through the state machine, with the so-called Communist Party in dictatorial control.

Socialists maintain that to properly understand the ideas of any period of social development it is essential to examine the economics of that era, and to realize that the prevailing ideas are co-related to the economic base.

With this approach as a political yardstick, and if it is understood that the capitalist system can only operate in the interests of the capitalist class, all overtures made by reformist and capitalist parties for continued support should be rejected. Social problems must be analyzed from a materialist standpoint and all promises made by so-called leaders regarded with profound skepticism. They function as agents representing the interests of the capitalist class – it can never be otherwise.

We have often been accused of possessing a cold approach towards humanity because of the connotation inaccurately applied to the term “materialism”. But on the contrary, we state that in order to eliminate all the inhumanities of capitalism a materialist approach is mandatory. The application of materialism in the social sense means an investigation that leads unerringly to socialism as the logical next stage of man’s organizational development.

Together with Karl Marx we say: “Our task is not only to understand the world but to change it!”

(This essay first appeared in ‘World Without Wages, a series of Tuscon Radio Broadcasts presented for the World Socialist Party of the United States by Samuel Leight)



The World Socialist Party has long held the view that Socialism is a class issue, not a moral issue. The essay below explores the topic in some detail.

Down through the centuries philosophers have striven to answer a host of perplexing questions, have sought to solve a number of major problems – problems such as The Nature of the Universe, Man’s Place in the Universe, The Nature of God, and other related problems the answers of which afford one a world-view: a consistent, all encompassing philosophy of life.

These problems and the answers given by philosophers are not, as might first appear to the practical man, purely academic and they have, in more or less degree, influenced our theories and behavior and have advanced or retarded human progress. For example, the old philosophic conception that the heavens beyond the circle of the moon were of a superior nature and belong to a superior grade of being to those on the earth beneath, hindered natural science in advancing astronomy and mechanics .. ‘

With the rise of the systematic application of the scientific method and materialistically determined changes in social institutions many problems dealt with by philosophers have disappeared, have been superseded by positive scientific knowledge. For example, who today hears the problem formulated and the answer given, that air, fire or water is the basic stuff of which all things are made? With the scientific resolvement of many of these problems there has come about, as someone has quipped, a certain amount of technological unemployment for philosophers.

But one persistent problem which has kept philosophers occupied down through the ages, from the ancient Greeks to the present day thinkers has been “What Is Good and What Is Evil?” Answers have been given in abundance, answers which appear to a particular philosopher to solve the question for all times. But the problem keeps arising in the thinking of others.


The problem of good and bad is spoken of in terms of “morals” or “ethics,” and they in turn are interrelated with freedom, necessity, action, etc., which space precludes going into but only contingently. Morality or ethics consist of a code of “do’s” and “don’ts,” of certain principles and standards of behavior which are formalized and which direct what one may do or not do, irrespective of whether one wants to do them or not, or actually does them or not. Professional philosophers pose a distinction between morals and ethics. They hold that the former are the latter in practice. One is ethical only insofar as he assents to and conducts himself in accordance with morals. This philosophical distinction will have no bearing on the present discourse.

History records two major schools of thought on the question of good and bad. First, there are those – idealist moralists, they may be labeled – who hold that there is an absolute, ultimate, and unquestioned measure of good and bad, sacrosanct and unchangeable; one that was established at the beginning of time and that will stand until time is no more. The Ten Commandments of the ancient Hebrews is an example of this school. Then there is the school of thought the classic materialists, loosely labeled -which believes that good and bad are relative to the conditions of time and place, and that an act which is good in one place and time will be evil in another.

The first mentioned group, contrary to all scientific evidence, credits morals to some higher, non-material, spiritual principle; to some, divine Providence Members of the second group, though originally representing a rising and progressive class, the capitalist class, are contemporarily unable to scale the class fence which mentally imprisons them and hence are limited to giving somewhat abstract and static answers to dynamic, ever-changing social problems. They appear to recognize the movement operating in all social relations; recognize, that is, that all ethical laws and systems are relative to the particular culture of which they are a part, and that what may be true in one age or society, may no longer be true at another age, in another society. But for reason of their class orientation, for reason of what Frederick Engels called their “false consciousness” (Letter to Mehring, July 14 1893,) for reason of self-deception, they probe no further – excepting, it is to be noted, those more daring souls who venture to go as far as to ascribe a formative role to the instrument of production in the shaping of morals. This conveys an aura of scientific objectivity. They assiduously avoid the relations of production. which socialists hold to be the nucleus, to constitute the very base upon which all morals arise, upon which the whole institutional and ideological superstructure rests. We are speaking here, of course, of capitalism’s intellectual representatives, not of capitalists. For capitalists themselves, for the most part, confine their speculations to Wall Street machinations and not to such personally unrelated and abstract matters as morals or ethics.

Between these two major groups there are many theories of good and bad – Existentialism, for example, with its extreme stress on the individual and its deep-well of pessimism and lonely despair – all of which socialists find to be inadequate and unrealistic. It is readily apparent. however that capitalists find such theorizing pleasing, for though they do not always comprehend the philosophic import, they are quick to note that in no way are their class privileges lessened.


But standing upright and alone is historical materialism which radically differs from all previous ethical schools in approach, method, and goals. In the words of the co-founder of scientific socialism, Frederick Engels:

“Men consciously or unconsciously derive their moral ideas in the last resort from their practical relations on which their class position is based – from the economic relations in which they carry on production and exchange . . . All former moral theories are the product, in the last analysis, of the economic stage which society had reached at the particular epoch.” (Anti-Duhring.)

Socialists, then, in contradistinction to all other theorists of morality, hold that all morals are the expression of definite, historically constituted economic and class interests, that they are determined by the material processes of production and by the human relationships arising out of these economic occupations of mankind.· And consequently, that the whole history of class struggles ;establishes the fact that the dominant, established ideas and institutions of society fulfill the role of protecting and upholding the economic structure of that society and, therefore, the interests of the prevailing ruling class.

It might be well at this point to clear up a vexatious and all too prevalent and tenacious misunderstanding shrouding the term “materialism”:

“It is often said that whatever the consistency of materialism, it is unsuitable as a guide for human conduct, rejecting spiritual values and morality. Such objections stem only from ignorance; were it not for the fact that they are often heard from otherwise responsible persons, they need not be discussed in a serious exposition. What is involved is a double meaning of the world materialism: as used…in philosophical works, materialism refers to…the assumed primary and independent existence of the material universe. The vulgar meaning of the word is love of material pleasures and riches, to the exclusion of spiritual values. These two meanings are as different as if they were attached to different words. Most materialists…have stressed that the end of all human activity should be providing human beings with a full and rich life, rich in culture as well as in conveniences and comforts.” (Hans Freistadt, “Dialectical Materialism: A Friendly Interpretation,” The Promethean Review, May-June, 1959)


Most all who object to the materialist explanation of the origin of morals, as succinctly set forth by Engels in Anti-Duhring, never weary of putting forth the claim that morality must be of a fixed nature since what held true in previous societies, feudalism, shall we say, also holds true in capitalist society. Theft, among other things, they point out, was held to be wrong in feudal society and is likewise held to be wrong in capitalist, society; hence they reason that the moral concept prohibiting theft is of a fixed nature, is an eternal truth.

There is of course a great deal of continuity and common ground between feudalism and capitalism since they are both “different stages of the same historical development and for that reason therefore a common historical background, and for that reason have much in common.” (F. Engels, Anti-Duhring.)

The “common historical background” spoken of here has been concisely enunciated in The Communist, Manifesto, making crystal clear why there follows from one society into another certain common forms and general ideas and the required conditions for their complete vanquishment. There it is written:

“The history [wrltten hlstory] of all past society has consisted in the development of class antagonisms that assumed different forms at different forms at different epochs.

“But whatever the form they have taken, one fact is common to all past ages, viz., the exploitation of society by the other. No wonder then that the social consciousness of past ages, despite all the multiplicity and variety it displays, moves with certain common forms, or general ideas, which cannot completely vanish except with the total disappearance of class antagonisms.”

Theft, by the way, is a relatively new concept in relation to man’s time span. It has not always been forbidden for the simple fact that there was a time in the history of mankind., his communal classless history, when the very concept of theft was not possible. Even the primitives of our own times, such as the more remote Eskimos, know nothing of such concepts as “mine and thine.” And so it will be again in the higher stages of mankind. Wrote Engels:

“From the moment when private property in movable objects developed, in all societies in which this ‘private property existed there must be this moral law in common: Thou shalt not steal, Does this law thereby become an eternal moral law? By no means. In a society in which the motive for stealing has been done away … in which therefore at the very most only lunatics … would ever steal, how the teacher of morals would be laughed at … who tried solemnly to ‘proclaim the eternal truth: Thou shalt not steal!” (Anti-Duhring.)


Another favorite argument directed against materialism is that a materialistic philosophy cannot account for moral judgments, that it precludes all personal responsibility. It is questionable here that these critics of materialism really know that of which they speak, for they have a proclivity to confuse “historical materialism” with “fatalism” and this, mind you they ascribe to a system whose founder declared, “Men make their own history.” The proponents of this argument quote Marx in hopeful support of it:

“My standpoint, from which the evolution of the economic formation of society is viewed as a process of natural history, can no less than any other make the individual responsible for relations whose creature he socially remains, however much he may subjectively raise himself above them!’ (K. Marx, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy), Author’s preface to the first edition.)

These critics hold that without some vacuous thing called “free will,” no value judgments can be made; that all wrong-doers are innately innocent, that innocence cannot be punished, and that, as a result, amorality reigns. These critics interpret Marx all too narrowly, It escapes them that on materialistic grounds responsibility is not rejected but is transferred in great degree from the individual to where it rightfully belongs, to collective society. The Marxian method of thought does not stop free choice, does not stop ability to make moral judgments, does not prevent the setting up of a criterion and aim for man’s actions.

A non-Marxist has dealt with these “free will” enthusiasts in these words:

“Different ‘ethics’ and ‘morals’ have fought determinism* throughout all our past on the ground that in a deterministic world all ‘morals’ and ‘ethics’ would be impossible. If a man is compelled to do something, then, we are told, he is not responsible. They state that the result would be undesirable licence, forgetting that determinism implies quite the opposite of licence. (Emphasis added.)

“…If we were to accept an indeterministic attitude a great deal of harm would be done by … society … harm which could be prevented. This is, to a large extent, unrealized, and in the old way no one was supposed to be responsible except the poor victim of ‘free will.’ Under such . . . conditions, we sponsor bitterness, cruelty, etc., under the labels of ‘sin,’ ‘justice,’ ‘revenge,’ ‘punishment,’ or whatever it may be!’ (A Korzybski, Science and Sanity, pp. 550, 552.)


Materialism holds that the more correctly the map in man’s head depicts the actual, external world it represents the freer he is to choose, and choose socially and correctly, one course of action out of many. Materialism, instead of talking meaninglessly about “free will,” makes man’s choice of action contingent up on his degree of knowledge of natural laws, external and internal. Enlarging on Hegel’s perception of the relation between freedom and necessity, Engels wrote:

“Freedom does not consist in the dream of independence of natural laws, but in knowledge of these laws, and in the possibility this gives of systematically making them work towards definite ends. This holds good in relation both to the laws of external nature and to those which govern the bodily and mental life of men themselves – two classes of laws which we can separate from each other at most only in thought but not in reality. Freedom of the will therefore means nothing but the capacity to make decisions with real knowledge of the subject. Therefore the freer a man’s judgment is in relation to a definite question, with so much the greater necessity is the content of this judgment determined; while the uncertainty, founded on ignorance, which seems to make an arbitrary choke among many different and conflicting possible decisions, shows by: this precisely that it is not free, that it is controlled by the very object it should itself control, Freedom therefore consists in the control over ourselves and over external nature which is founded on knowledge of natural necessity; it is therefore necessarily a product of historical development.” (Anti-Duhring.)

Socialists hold that there are no universal moral standards and that time and place are operative in determining morals, not for reason of changes in men’s ideas, but because of changes in the means of production, changes in the material life of society, which in the last resort make for such changed ideas in men’s minds and which in turn become an active force reacting back upon material conditions – thus leaving the realm of effect and be corning in turn and in degree cause.

Socialists hold that all morals are established by classes, with different morals for different classes according to their economic and social interests. Socialists chorus a resounding NO to Marx’s question: “Does it require deep Intuition to comprehend that man’s ideas, views, and conceptions, in one word, man’s consciousness change with every change in the conditions of his material existence, in his social relations, and in his social life?” (K. Marx and F. Engels, The Communist Manifesto.)

Engels has written:

“Morality has always been a class morality; either it has justified the domination and the interests of the ruling class or, as soon as the oppressed class has become powerful enough, it has represented the revolt against this domination and the future interests of the oppressed, That in this process there has, on the whole, been progress in morality, as in all other branches of human knowledge, cannot be doubted. But we have not yet passed beyond class morality. A really human morality which transcends class antagonisms and their legacies in thought, become possible only at a stage of society which has not only overcome class contradictions but has even forgotten them in practical life.” (Anti-Duhring.)


With Marx and Engels, socialists hold that in a class society, in a society wherein there is exploitation and the division of society into antagonistic classes, into the exploiters and the exploited, where one class can only gain at the expense of another, there can be no such thing as an above class morality. One either subscribes to capitalist morality, or what this more often comes to today, lack of morality, or to class conscious working class morality – a far higher morality. Higher not in abstract, absolutistic terms, but in terms of the whole movement of mankind toward greater mastery of the conditions of its life and hence a movement to a higher material and cultural plateau.

There can be, as Engels and Marx have written, no truly human morality until such time as classes and their legacies of thought have been completely forgotten in practice, living only in dusty history books to be chuckled over by future, more enlightened generations. So it we of the working class are to play our historic role in bringing to fruition a truly human morality we must break the shackles which bind us to capitalist morality or its decayed facsimile and embrace that higher morality which is the expression of the class struggle of the working class.


The Western Socialist, No. 1 – 1969

*”The term “determinism” is widely used by critics and professed friends of socialism, alike. It is doubtful, however, that Marx or Engels employed the word. To them, the terms “historical materialism” and “the materialist conception of history” were best suited to their theories.

For Further reading

Historical Materialism (