Historical materialism

histmatMarxism analyses the hidden mainsprings that lie behind the development of human society, from the earliest tribal societies up to the modern day. The way in which Marxism traces this winding road is called the materialist conception of history. This scientific method enables us to understand history, not as a series of unconnected and unforeseen incidents, but rather as part of a clearly understood and interrelated process. It is a series of actions and reactions which cover politics, economics and the whole spectrum of social development. To lay bare the complex dialectical relationship between all these phenomena is the task of historical materialism.

– From the introduction to What is Marxism?

The latest discovery of a fossil skull in Kenya, more than three million years old, once again demonstrates the complex evolution of humankind. The following article examines the evidence and sees how it fits into the ideas of human origin formulated by Frederick Engels more than 100 years ago.

We reprint this article by John Pickard which reviews Engels contribution to the understanding of human development and specifically his pamphlet The Part Played by Labour in the Transition from Ape to Man.

We are reproducing a slightly edited version of What is Marxism? by Rob Sewell and Alan Woods, last published in 1983 to celebrate the centenary of the death of Karl Marx. The three articles on the fundamental aspects of Marxism, Marxist Economics, Dialectical Materialism and Historical Materialism were originally published separately in the 1970s. These articles are a good, brief introduction to the basic methods of Marxism and can serve as a first approach to the ideas developed by Marx and Engels.

At first sight it may seem that the republication of The Communist Manifesto requires an explanation. How can one justify a new edition of a book written almost 150 years ago? Yet in reality the Manifesto is the most modern of books.

On August 5th, 1895, Frederick Engels died. This article was written for Socialist Appeal on July-August 1995 as part of the series conmemorating Engels centenary. Mary Hanson looks at Engels' classic work, Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State.

"The methods by which social man satisfies his needs, and to a large extent these needs themselves, are determined by the nature of the implements with which he subjugates nature in one degree or another; in other words, they are determined by the state of his productive forces. Every considerable change in the state of these forces is reflected in man’s social relations, and, therefore, in his economic relations, as part of these social relations. The idealists of all species and varieties held that economic relations were functions of human nature; the dialectical materialists hold that these relations are functions of the social productive

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"A short, coherent account of our relation to the Hegelian philosophy, of how we proceeded, as well as of how we separated, from it, appeared to me to be required more and more. Equally, a full acknowledgement of the influence which Feuerbach, more than any other post-Hegelian philosopher, had upon us during our period of storm and stress, appeared to me to be an undischarged debt of honor. I therefore willingly seized the opportunity when the editors of Neue Zeit asked me for a critical review of Starcke’s book on Feuerbach." (Engels)

The family, private property, and the state – the basic institutions of capitalist society – are neither 'natural' nor everlasting. They are the product of specific economic and social conditions. Friedrich Engels traces the evolution of these institutions from the dawn of class society until capitalism. He shows how the oppression of women as a sex begins with the development of private property, and how the development of the modern working class creates the material basis to end that oppression.

This work was originally the first three chapters of a larger work, a polemic against Eugen Dühring entitled Anti-Dühring, which was first published in 1878. This selection, in pamphlet form, first appeared in English in 1892, and along with the Manifesto of the Communist Party, quickly became one of the most popular works of Marxist theory.

A classic of Marxism, Anti-Dühring was highly recommended by Lenin as a ‘text book’ of scientific socialism. It was originally written as a polemic against Eugen Dühring, a German revisionist who challenged the basic ideas of Marxism by counterposing his own ‘scientific’ theories within the Social Democratic Party of Germany. Very reluctantly, Engels was forced to take up these ideas and in doing so explained in the clearest fashion the revolutionary theories of Marxism.

In this essay Engels explains that the decisive step in the evolution of humans was the adoption of an upright posture. This move from walking on four feet to two was the result of changes in the environment, which forced some primates from the forests to the ground below, where they were required to travel long distances in the search for scarce food resources. This transition to a bipedal, upright stance freed up the hands and allowed them to develop a range of flexible functions.

Critique of the Gotha Programme is a critique of the draft programme of the United Workers' Party of Germany. In this document Marx address the dictatorship of the proletariat, the period of transition from capitalism to communism, the two phases of communist society, the production and distribution of the social goods, proletarian internationalism, and the party of the working class.

The Preface of the Critique contains the first connected account of one of Marx's main theories: the materialist conception of history. The participants in history may not always be aware of what motives drive them, seeking instead to rationalise them in one way or another, but those motives exist and have a basis in the real world.

This work represents Marx's analysis of Napoleon III's coup d'etat of December 1851, which provides him with an opportunity for a meticulous examination of the ebb and flow of political forces and social classes in the period preceding Napoleon's seizure of power. Marx digs beneath the surfaces of political rhetoric and the manoeuvring for power by political personalities, and reveals the social forces and mechanisms at work during the political crisis. Its value, then, is as a class analysis of a political crisis.

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