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.

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.