Sociology (English Medium)

(Thinkers-1.1) Karl Marx – Historical Materialism (UPSC-2017,13,1986)

Karl MarxHistorical Materialism / Economic Deterministic Theory / Evolutionary Theory of Society / Economic Interpretation of Human History

Karl Marx derives his conception of Social change and Society basically from three traditions – German philosophy and Hegel in particular, French Socialism, and British political economy.

Historical Materialism is a conception of society in terms of evolutions from one stage to another, which Marx refers as Mode of Production (MoP), and Material or Economic factors have a pivotal role in historical change.

-> It is an inquiry into nature of relations between Man and Man, and Man and Things as history proceeds.


Historical Materialism is both a perspective as well as the methodology.
-> As a perspective, it looks for the causes of development and change in human society in the material conditions or the economic structure of society.
-> As a methodology, it seeks to examine the social structure and explain social change in terms of the dialectical movement of forces of production and relations of production in the mode of production of a given society.

-> Factors of Production (FoP) + Relations of Production (RoP) = Mode of Production (MoP) or Economic Base.

-> Cause of change = Process of “dialectical materialism”


Marx in his book “A Contribution to the critique of political economy” writes that it is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but on the contrary, their Social existence that determines their consciousness.

Marx’s theory of Historical Materialism has two aspects

-> His materialistic conception of society, in terms of Economic Infrastructure and Social Superstructure.

-> His understanding of historical evolution process in terms of a “dialectic process”.


Marx’s theory of Historical Materialism states that all objects, whether living or inanimate are subject to continuous change. The rate of this change is determined by the Laws of dialectics.

-> Marx says that new development of productive forces of society came in conflict with existing relations of production (RoP).

-> When people became conscious of the state of conflict, they wish to bring end to it. This period is called by Marx the Period of Social Revolution.

-> The revolution brings about temporary resolution to conflict, new forces of production arise and give rise to new relations of production.

-> Thus, for Marx it is the growth of new productive forces which outlines the course of human history. The productive forces are powers society uses to produce material conditions of life.


Marx applies historical materialism, and traces the evolution of human history. He identified following stages of development Socialism. Communism.Marx_s stages



Marx argues that each stage sows the seed of its own destruction until communism is reached.

-> The relationship between the major social classes in each stage is one of mutual dependence and conflict.


Salient Features of ‘Historical Materialism’:

1. Based on the idea of Dialectics:
-> It means the process of change is result of tension or class conflict brought by the relationship between two compatible forces.
-> Here dialectic means dual existence – Rich & Poor.

2. Structure and Super-structure:
-> The basis of social existence is production for fulfilling own needs by human beings.
-> The production process is further based on Matter or Economy (Structure) which ultimately determines the superstructure (Institutions, relations, family pattern etc.).
-> For example, Primitive society had different set of structure like collective ownership of resources and because of this structure, nature of their social system was determined.

3. Society is Connected and Determined:
-> It means things, phenomena are inseparable and integrated on the whole. They are not isolated from each other rather dependent to one another (Similar to Positivist approach)

4. State of Continuous motion and Social Change:
-> The state of nature is subject to regular change as its nature is not static but more dynamic.

Thesis and Antithesis
-> As thesis has its own antithesis which bring change in ideas (Hegelian Concept).
-> Historical materialism also argues that the construction of new social order after social change is too subject to contradiction and change.
-> Marx says this is a continuous process and goes until Communism arrives.

5. Contradiction:
-> The base of Historical materialism is contradiction.
-> It means in every structure and superstructure contradiction remains present as a major force and due to this nature of society, nature of new social system is determined.
-> But this new system is not free from inherent contradiction.
-> For example, Feudal landlord vs Peasantry, Bourgeoisie vs Proletariat.

6. Theory of Human Progress:
-> Historical materialism discusses that how human society has made progress from primitive history to modern era with a huge change in social relations.

7. Based on the philosophy of Human history rather based on the philosophy of history.


-> Robertson said Marx theory of historical materialism is more like a story than the history. As history follows facts, dates and other objective method.

-> Max Weber says Marx ignored the presence of middle class in industrial society, which is a lacuna in the theory of historical materialism.

-> Marx over-emphasised conflict and ignored social order aspect.

-> Marx is criticised as being reductionist for over-emphasising on material factors. Karl Popper termed his approach as ‘economic reductionism’ for ignoring ideas.



Thus we can see that for Marx it is the growth of new productive forces which outlines the course of human history. The productive forces are the powers society uses to produce material conditions of life.

So for Marx, human history is an account of development and consequences of new forces of material production. This is the reason why his view of history is given the name of Historical Materialism.


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