What is historical materialism?

The Russian Revolution

For Marxists, the Bolshevik Revolution was the greatest single event in human history. Under the leadership of the Bolshevik Party of Lenin and Trotsky, the working class succeeded in overthrowing its oppressors and at least begin the task of the socialist transformation of society.

However, the Revolution took place, not in an advanced capitalist country as Marx had expected, but on the basis of the most frightful backwardness. To give an approximate idea of the conditions that confronted the Bolsheviks, in just one year, 1920, six million people starved to death in Soviet Russia.

Marx and Engels explained long ago that socialism – a classless society – requires the right material conditions in order to exist. The starting point of socialism must be a higher point of development of the productive forces than the most advanced capitalist society (the USA for instance). Only on the basis of a highly developed industry, agriculture, science and technology, is it possible to guarantee the conditions for the free development of human beings, starting with a drastic reduction in the working day. The prior condition for this is the participation of the working class in the democratic control and administration of society.Lenin addressing crowd 1918

Engels long ago explained that in any society in which art, science and government is the monopoly of a minority, that minority will use and abuse its position in its own interests. Lenin was quick to see the danger of the bureaucratic degeneration of the Revolution in conditions of general backwardness. In State and Revolution, written in 1917, he worked out a programme on the basis of the experience of the Paris Commune. Here he explains the basic conditions – not for socialism or communism – but for the first period after the Revolution, the transitional period between capitalism and socialism. These were:

1) Free and democratic elections and the right of recall for all officials.
2) No official to receive a wage higher than a skilled worker.
3) No standing army but the armed people.
4) Gradually, all the tasks of running the state to be carried out in turn by the workers: when everybody is a "bureaucrat" in turn, nobody is a bureaucrat.

This is a finished programme for workers' democracy. It is directly aimed against the danger of bureaucracy. This in turn formed the basis of the 1919 Bolshevik Party Programme. In other words, contrary to the calumnies of the enemies of socialism, Soviet Russia in the time of Lenin and Trotsky was the most democratic regime in history.

However, the regime of soviet workers' democracy established by the October Revolution did not survive. By the early 1930s, all the above points had been abolished. Under Stalin, the workers' state suffered a process of bureaucratic degeneration which ended in the establishment of a monstrous totalitarian regime and the physical annihilation of the Leninist Party. The decisive factor in the Stalinist political counter-revolution in Russia was the isolation of the Revolution in a backward country. The way in which this political counter-revolution took place was explained by Trotsky in The Revolution Betrayed.

It is not feasible for society to jump straight from capitalism to a classless society. The material and cultural inheritance of capitalist society is far too inadequate for that. There is too much scarcity and inequality that cannot be immediately overcome. After the socialist revolution, there must be a transitional period that will prepare the necessary ground for superabundance and a classless society.Meeting in Putilov 1917

Marx called this first stage of the new society "the lowest stage of communism" as opposed to "the highest stage of communism", where the last residue of material inequality would disappear. In that sense, socialism and communism have been contrasted to the "lower" and "higher" stages of the new society.

In describing the lower stage of communism Marx writes: "What we are dealing with here is a communist society, not as it has developed on its own foundations, but, on the contrary, just as it emerges from capitalist society; which is thus in every respect, economically, morally and intellectually, still stamped with the birth marks of the old society from whose womb it emerges." (Marx and Engels, Selected Works, Critique of the Gotha Programme, by Marx, Vol. 3, p. 17. From here on referred to as MESW.)

"Between capitalist and communist society," states Marx, "lies the period of the revolutionary transformation of the one into the other. Corresponding to this is also a political transition period in which the state can be nothing but the revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat."

As all the greatest Marxist theoreticians explained, the task of the socialist revolution is to bring the working class to power by smashing the old capitalist state machine. The latter was the repressive organ designed to keep the working class in subjection. Marx explained that this capitalist state, together with its state bureaucracy, cannot serve the interests of the new power. It has to be done away with. However, the new state created by the working class would be different from all previous states in history. Engels described it as a semi-state, a state designed in such a way that it was destined to disappear.third international

However, for Marx – and this is a crucial point – this lower stage of communism from its very beginning would be on a higher level in terms of its economic development than the most developed and advanced capitalism. And why was this so important? Because without a massive development of the productive forces, scarcity would prevail and with it the struggle for existence.

As Marx explained, such a state of affairs would pose the danger of degeneration: "This development of the productive forces is an absolutely necessary practical premise [of communism], because without it want is generalised, and with want the struggle for necessities begins again, and that means that all the old crap must revive." (MESW, The German Ideology, Vol. 1, p. 37, my emphasis)moscowtrialsandpurges3

These prophetic words of Marx explain why the Russian Revolution, so full of promise, ended in bureaucratic degeneration and the monstrous totalitarian caricature of Stalinism, which in turn prepared the way for capitalist restoration and a further regression. “All the old crap” revived because the Russian Revolution was isolated in conditions of frightful material and cultural backwardness. But today with the tremendous advance in science and technique, the conditions have been prepared whereby this would no longer be the case.

Unprecedented advance

Every phase of human development has its roots in all previous development. This is true both of human evolution and social development. We have evolved from lower species and are genetically related to even the most primitive life forms, as the human genome has conclusively proved. We are separated from our nearest living relatives the chimpanzees by a genetic difference of less than two percent. But that very small percentage represents a tremendous qualitative leap.

We have emerged from savagery, barbarism, slavery and feudalism, and each of these stages represented a definite stage in the development of the productive forces and culture. Hegel expressed this idea in a beautiful passage in the Phenomenology of Mind:

“The bud disappears when the blossom breaks through, and we might say that the former is refuted by the latter; in the same way when the fruit comes, the blossom may be explained to be a false form of the plant’s existence, for the fruit appears as its true nature in place of the blossom. The ceaseless activity of their own inherent nature makes these stages moments of an organic unity, where they not merely do not contradict one another, but where one is as necessary as the other; and constitutes thereby the life of the whole.”

Every stage in the development of society is rooted in necessity and emerges out of the preceding stages. History can only be understood if these stages are taken in their unity. Each had its raison d'être in the development of the productive forces, and each entered into contradiction with their further development at a certain stage, when a revolution was necessary to cast off the old forms and allow new forms to emerge.

As we have seen, the victory of the bourgeoisie was achieved by revolutionary means, although nowadays the defenders of capitalism do not like to be reminded of the fact. And as Marx explained, the bourgeoisie, historically, has played a most revolutionary role:

“The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionising the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society. Conservation of the old modes of production in unaltered form, was, on the contrary, the first condition of existence for all earlier industrial classes. Constant revolutionising of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones.” (Communist Manifesto)

Under capitalism the productive forces have experienced spectacular development, unprecedented in the history of mankind: despite the fact that capitalism is the most exploitative and oppressive system that has ever existed; despite the fact that, in Marx's words, "Capital came onto the stage of history dripping blood from every pore," it nevertheless represented a colossal leap forward in the development of the productive forces – and therefore of our power over nature.

During the last two centuries the development of technology and science has proceeded at a far faster rate than in all previous history. The curve of human development, which was virtually flat for most of our history, suddenly experienced a steep ascent. The dizzying progress of technology is the precondition for the final emancipation of humankind, the abolition of poverty and illiteracy, ignorance, disease and the domination of nature by man through conscious planning of the economy. The road is open to conquest, not only on Earth, but in space.

Capitalism in decline

It is the illusion of every epoch that it will last forever. Every social system believes that it represents the only possible form of existence for human beings; that its institutions, its religion, its morality are the last word that can be spoken. That is what the cannibals, the Egyptian priests, Marie Antoinette and Tsar Nicholas all fervently believed. And that is what the bourgeoisie and its apologists today wish to demonstrate when they assure us, without the slightest basis, that the so-called system of “free enterprise” is the only possible system – just when it is beginning to show all the signs of senile decay.

The capitalist system today resembles the Sorcerer’s Apprentice who conjured up powerful forces which he could not control. The fundamental contradiction of capitalist society is the antagonism between the social nature of production and the private form of appropriation. From this central contradiction many others arise. This contradiction is expressed by periodic crises, as Marx explains:

“In these crises, a great part not only of the existing products, but also of the previously created productive forces, are periodically destroyed. In these crises, there breaks out an epidemic that, in all earlier epochs, would have seemed an absurdity — the epidemic of over-production. Society suddenly finds itself put back into a state of momentary barbarism; it appears as if a famine, a universal war of devastation, had cut off the supply of every means of subsistence; industry and commerce seem to be destroyed; and why? Because there is too much civilisation, too much means of subsistence, too much industry, too much commerce. The productive forces at the disposal of society no longer tend to further the development of the conditions of bourgeois property; on the contrary, they have become too powerful for these conditions, by which they are fettered, and so soon as they overcome these fetters, they bring disorder into the whole of bourgeois society, endanger the existence of bourgeois property. The conditions of bourgeois society are too narrow to comprise the wealth created by them. And how does the bourgeoisie get over these crises? On the one hand by enforced destruction of a mass of productive forces; on the other, by the conquest of new markets, and by the more thorough exploitation of the old ones. That is to say, by paving the way for more extensive and more destructive crises, and by diminishing the means whereby crises are prevented.” (The Communist Manifesto)

This is an exact description of the present situation. It is a terrible paradox that the more humanity develops its productive capacity, the more spectacular the advances of science and technology, the greater the suffering, starvation, oppression and misery of the majority of the world's population. The sickness of capitalism on a world scale manifested itself in the collapse of 2008. This was the beginning of the biggest crisis in the entire 200 year existence of capitalism, and it is far from being resolved. This is an expression of the impasse of capitalism, which in the last analysis is a result of the revolt of the productive forces against the straitjacket of private property and the nation state.

Socialism or barbarism

For thousands of years culture has been the monopoly of a privileged minority, while the great majority of humanity was excluded from knowledge, science, art and government. Even now, this remains the case. Despite all our pretensions, we are not really civilized. The world we live in now certainly does not merit the name. It is a barbaric world, inhabited by people who have yet to overcome a barbarous past. Life remains a harsh and unrelenting struggle to exist for the great majority of the planet, not only in the underdeveloped world but in the developed capitalist countries as well.

Marx pointed out that there were two possibilities before the human race: socialism or barbarism. The question is therefore posed in the starkest terms: in the coming period, either the working class will take into its hands the running of society, replacing the decrepit capitalist system with a new social order based on the harmonious and rational planning of the productive forces and the conscious control of men and women over their own lives and destinies, or else we will be faced with a most frightful spectacle of social, economic and cultural collapse.

The crisis of capitalism represents not just an economic crisis that threatens the jobs and living standards of millions of people throughout the world. It also threatens the very basis of a civilised existence – insofar as this exists. It threatens to throw humankind back on all fronts. If the proletariat – the only genuinely revolutionary class – does not succeed in overthrowing the rule of the banks and monopolies, the stage will be set for a collapse of culture and even a return to barbarism.


Dialectics teaches us that sooner or later, things change into their opposite. It is possible to draw parallels between geology and society. Just as the tectonic plates, having moved too slowly, compensate the delay by a violent earthquake, so the lagging of consciousness behind events is compensated by sudden changes in the psychology of the masses. The most striking manifestation of dialectics is the crisis of capitalism itself. Dialectics are taking their revenge on the bourgeoisie who have understood nothing, predicted nothing and are capable of solving nothing.

The collapse of the Soviet Union created a mood of pessimism and despair amongst the working class. The defenders of capitalism launched a ferocious ideological counteroffensive against the ideas of socialism and Marxism. They promised us a future of peace, prosperity and democracy thanks to the wonders of the free market economy. Two decades have passed since then and a decade is not such a long time in the grand scheme of history. Not one stone upon another now remains of these comforting illusions.

Everywhere there are wars, unemployment, poverty and hunger. And everywhere a new spirit of revolt is arising and people are looking for ideas that can explain what is happening in the world. The old, stable, peaceful, prosperous capitalism is dead, and with it the old peaceful, harmonious relations between the classes. The future will be one of years and decades of austerity, unemployment and falling living standards. That is a finished recipe for a revival of the class struggle everywhere.

The embryo of a new society is already maturing within the womb of the old. The elements of a workers' democracy already exist in the form of the workers' organisations, the shop stewards committees, the trade unions, the cooperatives etc. In the period that opens up, there will be a life and death struggle – a struggle of those elements of the new society to be born, and an equally fierce resistance on the part of the old order to prevent this from happening.

It is true that the consciousness of the masses has been lagging far behind events. But that also will change into its opposite. Great events are forcing men and women to question their old beliefs and assumptions. They are being jolted out of the old supine, apathetic indifference and forced to come to terms with reality. We can already see this in outline with the events in Greece. In such periods consciousness can change very rapidly. And that is just what a revolution is.

The rise of modern capitalism and of its gravedigger, the working class, has made much clearer what is at the heart of the materialist conception of history. Our task is not merely to understand but bring to a successful conclusion the historic struggle of the classes by means of the victory of the proletariat and the socialist transformation of society. Capitalism has failed after all to “end” history. The task of Marxists is to work actively to hasten the overthrow of the old, decrepit system and help to bring about the birth of a new and better world.

From necessity to freedom

The scientific approach to history that historical materialism gives us does not incline us to draw pessimistic conclusions from the horrific symptoms of decline that confront us on all sides. On the contrary, the general tendency of human history has been in the direction of ever greater development of our productive and cultural potential.

The relation between the development of human culture and the productive forces was already clear to that great genius of antiquity, Aristotle, who explained in his book The Metaphysics that "man begins to philosophise when the means of life are provided," and added that the reason why astronomy and mathematics were discovered in Egypt is that the priest caste did not have to work. This is a purely materialist understanding of history.

The great achievements of the last hundred years have for the first time created a situation where all the problems facing humankind can easily be solved. The potential for a classless society already exists on a world scale. What is necessary is to bring about a rational and harmonious planning of the productive forces in order that this immense, practically infinite, potential can be realised.

Once the productive forces are freed from the straitjacket of capitalism, the potential exists to produce a great number of geniuses: artists, writers, composers, philosophers, scientists and architects. Art, science and culture would flower as never before. This rich, beautiful and wonderfully diverse world would at last become a place fit for human beings to live in.

In a certain sense socialist society is a return to primitive tribal communism but on a vastly higher productive level. Before one can envisage a classless society, all the hallmarks of class society, especially inequality and scarcity, would have to be abolished. It would be absurd to talk of the abolition of classes where inequality, scarcity and the struggle for existence prevailed. It would be a contradiction in terms. Socialism can only appear at a certain stage in the evolution of human society, at a certain level of development of the productive forces.

On the basis of a real revolution in production, it would be possible to achieve such a level of abundance that men and women would no longer have to worry about their everyday necessities. The humiliating concerns and fears that fill every thinking hour of men and women now will disappear. For the first time, free human beings will be masters of their destinies. For the first time they will be really human. Only then will the real history of the human race begin.

On the basis of a harmonious planned economy in which the tremendous productive power of science and technology will be harnessed for the satisfaction of human needs, not the profits of a few, culture will reach new and undreamed-of levels of development. The Romans described slaves as “tools with voices”. Nowadays we do not need to enslave people to do the work. We already have the technology to create robots that can not only play chess and perform elementary tasks on production lines but drive vehicles more safely than humans and even carry out quite complex tasks.

On the basis of capitalism, this technology threatens to displace millions of workers: not only lorry drivers and unskilled workers but people like accountants and computer programmers are threatened with losing their livelihoods. Millions will be thrown on the scrapheap while those who retain their jobs will be working longer hours than before.

In a socialist planned economy, the same technology would be used to reduce the working day. We could immediately introduce a thirty hour week, followed by a twenty hour week, a ten hour week or even less, while increasing production and expanding the wealth of society far more than what is conceivable under capitalism.

This would represent a fundamental change in people’s lives. For the first time, men and women would be freed from the drudgery of labour. They would be free to develop themselves physically, mentally and one might even add spiritually. Men and women will be free to lift their eyes to the heavens and contemplate the stars.

Trotsky once wrote: “How many Aristoteles are herding swine? And how many swineherds are sitting on thrones?” Class society impoverishes people, not just materially but psychologically. The lives of millions of human beings are confined to the narrowest limits. Their mental horizons are stunted. Socialism would release all the colossal potential that is being wasted by capitalism.

It is true that people have different characters and aptitudes. Not everyone can be an Aristotle, a Beethoven or an Einstein. But everybody has the potential to do great things in one field or another, to become a great scientist, artist, musician, dancer or footballer. Communism will provide all the conditions needed to develop those potentials to the fullest extent.

This would be the greatest revolution of all time. It would carry human civilization to a new and qualitatively superior level. In the words of Engels it would be Humankind’s leap from the realm of necessity to the realm of true freedom.

London 8 July, 2015

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