Marx’s materialist conception
 of history revisited

In early 1845, shortly after he had been expelled from France, Marx penned his famous “Eleventh Thesis on Feuerbach”: “The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point, however, is to change it.”1 The Theses were notes he jotted down in preparation for writing The German Ideology with Friedrich Engels, which set out their materialist conception of history (later called historical materialism), but all this work remained unpublished during Marx’s lifetime. The Theses on Feuerbach did not see the light of day for over forty years, when Engels published them as an appendix to his book Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classical German Philosophy in 1888. Since then, the “Eleventh Thesis” has become one of Marx’s most well-known aphorisms. Today, if you visit Marx’s grave in London’s Highgate Cemetery, you will see the “Eleventh Thesis” engraved at the bottom of the tomb that was erected there in 1956.

Marx, of course, did not mean that revolutionaries should abandon the task of interpreting the world—that, after all, was what he spent most of his life trying to do. But he was not interested in theory for the sake of theory, or theory for the sake of satisfying curiosity. Theory is valuable precisely because it can help us change the world. That is the point of Marx’s theory of history.2

Engels may have given the best short summary of the approach to history that he and Marx developed:

Marx discovered the law of development of human history: the simple fact, hitherto concealed by an overgrowth of ideology, that mankind must first of all eat, drink, have shelter and clothing, before it can pursue politics, science, art, religion, etc.; that therefore the production of the immediate material means of subsistence and consequently the degree of economic development attained by a given people or during a given epoch form the foundation upon which the state institutions, the legal conceptions, art, and even the ideas on religion, of the people concerned have been evolved, and in the light of which they must, therefore, be explained, instead of vice versa, as had hitherto been the case.3

Engels calls the way production is organized and the level of economic development that a society has achieved, the foundation on which other ideas and institutions rest. Elsewhere he and Marx sometimes call it the base that supports a legal, political, and cultural superstructure. In using this metaphor, Marx and Engels are not proposing that influence only goes in one direction—legal, political, and even religious ideas can affect the way in which production is organized, for example. But a basic claim of historical materialism is that over the long run it is the productive base of society that has by far the biggest effect on how that society develops.

If the base in some way explains the superstructure, then we should expect that fundamental change in society as a whole to be due to changes in the base. Marx’s most famous short description of how this comes about is contained in the Preface he wrote for his book A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy in 1859:

In the social production of their existence, men inevitably enter into definite relations, which are independent of their will, namely relations of production appropriate to a given stage in the development of their material forces of production. The totality of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which arises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness. The mode of production of material life conditions the general process of social, political and intellectual life. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness.4

The forces of production are all the elements needed to act upon and change the natural world in any particular historical period. First there is human labor power—not just the efforts of individuals, but also the “modes of cooperation” or “work relations” that humans use to produce collectively. Second there are means of production—land and raw materials, and also tools, technologies, and the technical knowledge needed to create and use them.

But the labor process does not by itself tell us what kind of society we have. As Marx puts it in Capital, Volume 1, “The taste of porridge does not tell us who grew the oats, and the [production] process we have presented does not reveal the conditions under which it takes place, whether it is happening under the slave-owner’s brutal lash or the anxious eye of the capitalist.”5

This brings us to the relations of production, which describe who controls the labor process and who controls the output of the labor process. For the past several thousand years, human societies have been divided into antagonistic classes. The class structure of any given society may be quite complicated, but there are generally only two central classes. One group consists of the direct producers, whose work not only meets their own needs but also results in the creation of a surplus, over and above what is required for immediate consumption. The other group consists of the people who control the surplus.

In slave societies, slaves produce the surplus, which is controlled by the slave-owners. In feudal societies, peasants produce the surplus, which is controlled by feudal lords. In capitalist societies, workers create surplus value, which is then controlled by capitalists. It is these relations of production that define the society. In the earliest human societies, there was little surplus produced, and the few goods that were produced were mostly owned in common. These were primitive communist societies with no class differentiation. Since then, we have seen a variety of class societies, each one distinguished by the specific way in which the rulers extract a surplus from the direct producers. As Marx puts it in Capital, Volume 3:

The specific economic form, in which unpaid surplus-labor is pumped out of direct producers, determines the relationship of rulers and ruled, as it grows directly out of production itself and, in turn, reacts upon it as a determining element. . . . It is always the direct relationship of the owners of the conditions of production to the direct producers—a relation always naturally corresponding to a definite stage in the development of the methods of labor and thereby its social productivity—which reveals the innermost secret, the hidden basis of the entire social structure.6

The sum of all of a society’s relations of production constitutes its economic structure, and it is on this that Marx says the legal, political, and cultural superstructure rests.

Two more things should be noted about the relations of production. First, in class societies they involve not just the specific relationship of the ruling class to the direct producers, but also the relationship of members of the ruling class to each other, and the relationship of rulers in one region or country to rulers in another. Second, there is an important relationship between the level of development of the forces of production and the specific relations of production that exist within a society. Marx says that the relations of production correspond to, or are appropriate to, a specific stage in the development of the forces of production. What this means, at a minimum, is that not every set of relations of production is compatible with a given level of development of the forces of production. The forces of production put limits on what relations of production are possible, but—as we shall see—the relations of production can also significantly affect the ways in which the forces of production develop. Together, the combination of the forces of production and relations of production make up what Marx calls the mode of production of that society.

How does society change?

Why do we need all this terminology? Marx thinks the distinctions he is drawing are crucial for addressing the central question of historical change. How does one kind of economic structure—one network of social relations governing material production— shift to a structure of a different basic kind? To put this another way, how can an economically dominant class (such as feudal lords or modern capitalists) particular to one mode of production ever be removed from power by a new dominant class expressing a different mode of production, given that the former has enormous economic, political, and ideological resources with which to defend its interests?

Marx addresses this question of basic change in his 1859 Preface:

At a certain stage of development, the material productive forces of society come into conflict with the existing relations of production or—this merely expresses the same thing in legal terms—with the property relations within the framework of which they have operated hitherto. From forms of development of the productive forces these relations turn into their fetters. Then begins an era of social revolution. The changes in the economic foundation lead sooner or later to the transformation of the whole immense superstructure.

So, Marx’s explanation in the 1859 Preface is that at a certain point the development of the forces of production brings them into conflict with the relations of production. Relations that had previously encouraged the development of the forces now hold them back. This results in a social crisis that weakens the power of the ruling class and eventually results in either its overthrow or its transformation. Marx says little about how this will come about in the Preface, mainly because it was to be published in Prussia and he wanted to be sure that what he wrote would get past the censors.

Still, a lot of people have interpreted Marx on the basis of the Preface and a number of other short general descriptions as being some kind of economic or even technological determinist. On this interpretation, what Marx is saying is that economic and technological progress is inevitable, perhaps because of an underlying human drive to satisfy material needs more efficiently. The relations of production have the character they do in order to promote economic and technological progress, so as soon as they block the development of the productive forces and a superior set of relations becomes available, the old relations will be replaced.

This interpretation should be rejected. First, Marx was well aware that there is no inevitability to human history. As he points out at the beginning of the Communist Manifesto, class struggle can culminate “either in a revolutionary reconstitution of society at large, or in the common ruin of the contending classes.”7 Second, Marx did not believe that history could be reduced to impersonal forces. In 1845, he wrote, with Engels:

History does nothing, it “possesses no immense wealth,” it “wages no battles.” It is man, real, living man who does all that, who possesses and fights; “history” is not, as it were, a person apart, using man as a means to achieve its own aims; history is nothing but the activity of man pursuing his aims.8

Third, Marx knew that history offers no support for the idea that there is a general tendency for economic and technological progress to take place. As the Marxist archeologist and historian Neil Faulkner points out, “Entire generations of peasants in, say, Shang China, Mycenaean Greece, or Norman England might live out their entire lives without ever experiencing a significant innovation in either agricultural or domestic equipment.”9 In China there was sustained development of the productive forces during the T’ang and Sung dynasties, but then centuries of stagnation during the Ming and Ch’ing dynasties. In Western Europe, following the collapse of the Roman Empire, there were several centuries of technological regression. The productive forces regressed in Eastern Europe between 1500 and 1800. French agriculture stagnated during this period. And these examples could be multiplied many times. Even if humans have a drive to satisfy their material needs more efficiently, this can be swamped by other factors.

The forces of production do not develop independently of the relations of production, and it is only with the advent of capitalism that we see a system in which the development of the productive forces is built into the mode of production. Marx even goes so far as to say, “Conservation of old modes of production in unaltered form was . . . the first condition of existence of all earlier industrial classes.”10 That may be an exaggeration, but it emphasizes the fact that capitalism is unique in the ways that it promotes the rapid development of the productive forces.

But the mutual ways in which the forces and relations of production interact with each other are also a reason for rejecting the idea that the forces of production always have primacy in explaining historical change. Fundamental social change can take place because the forces of production develop to a point where the existing relations of production hold them back, but this is not the only way in which such change can take place, and it would surely be surprising if Marx thought that this one basic model was sufficient to explain the whole sweep of human history.

In fact, Marx explicitly rejects the idea that he is trying to formulate a general theory that can be applied like a template to any historical period to understand it. We have to examine each example concretely, not with, as he put it, “the universal passport of a general historico-philosophical theory, the supreme virtue of which consists in being super-historical.”11

Instead of following a single model of change, history unfolds as the result of the interaction of all of the factors that Marx identifies. The development of technology is certainly important, but so is the competition among rulers for wealth and power, and so is the struggle between different classes within a society—the continuous conflict between exploiters and exploited, oppressors and oppressed. All of these factors affect historical development and interact with one another. Any one of them may play the primary role in a given historical situation, but none of them has primacy in all times and all places.

If you read Marx’s general statements about history in isolation, it is easy to come to the conclusion that one of these factors is the most important. But if you examine Marx’s practice as a historian, then I think it pretty soon becomes clear that he does not subscribe to any one simple model. So, let’s look at an important example of Marx explaining a major historical transformation.

Marx on the transition from feudalism to capitalism

In Part 8 of Capital, Volume 1, Marx offers an extended account of how capitalism replaced feudalism in England from the mid-1400s to the early-1700s.12 At the start of this period, serfdom had already been largely abolished, free peasant proprietors made up the largest group in the country, and there were also thriving town economies. But the economy was still feudal because the main methods of extracting a surplus from the immediate producers were by direct force and military dominance, and by taking advantage of political privilege (such as court privileges for merchants), while the pursuit of wealth and power was not governed by a desire for unlimited accumulation. By the end of this period, the economic structure was fundamentally different: society was dominated by the use of wage labor to produce commodities for the maximization of profit.

Marx describes three interacting developments that began to change this in the mid-1400s and early-1500s. First, there was increased demand for English wool in the Low Countries—a commercial development not associated with any great technological change. Second, feudal wars, culminating in the Wars of the Roses, destroyed the great families of traditional feudalism. Given the structure of feudal economies—based on the direct physical dominance of territories—such dynastic competition was virtually inevitable. Third, merchants who had helped the winning side in the feudal wars were given titles, creating a new nobility. The old nobility had disdained money-making and viewed themselves as having traditional obligations to their tenants. The new nobility was prepared to break the old ties for the sake of profits. As Marx notes, “The old nobility had been devoured by the great feudal wars. The new nobility was the child of its time, for which money was the power of all powers.”13

These developments led to the eviction of tenants and the enclosure of land needed to breed sheep to produce wool for export. A class of capitalist farmers emerged who employed wage-labor. However, by the end of the fifteenth century the number of capitalists in the countryside was still quite small, and their impact on the rest of the economy not very great. They were not particularly dynamic, and they had little desire to improve production techniques because they were already very well-off. Crucially, they could still rely on court privilege to keep their markets, so there was no reason for them to get involved in such risky enterprises as lending money to merchants.

The second stage took place during the course of the sixteenth century, when the countryside came to be dominated by a large number of aggressive, expansionist capitalists. This development was the result of two factors. First, the expropriation of the peasants was completed. This benefitted wealthier peasants (the “yeomanry”) who were able to resist being thrown off their land by buying off the overlords or bribing the courts. Meanwhile, the expropriated peasants had to work for the yeomanry for low wages. Since they were no longer self-sufficient, they became a market for the crops they had once raised for their own consumption. The result was class-differentiation among the peasantry and the emergence of a new sort of capitalist.

Second, the new capitalists benefited from inflation (due to a variety of factors, including the influx of gold from the New World). The rent on long-term leases declined; wages set by long-standing agreement or custom also fell, and the price of agricultural products increased. The result was a period of exceptional profits. The resulting economy was one based on the large-scale use of wage-labor and production for the market. Once again, old players had moved into new roles. But the new yeoman capitalists didn’t want to copy the lifestyle of the old nobility, and they had no monopolistic advantages granted by the crown. It was to their advantage to pursue growth aggressively, and so a new psychological outlook emerged.

The final stage in the process was from the mid-1500s to the early 1700s. At the start of this period, traditional guilds and great merchants dominated the economies of the cities. Most nonagricultural production was carried out in conjunction with agriculture in rural domestic industries. But the expulsion of peasants from the land disrupted rural industry and created a gap for the products of capitalist industry to fill. The first factories were set up in the towns. These were places where many craftspeople were already collected in one location, working for one employer, but no new techniques were involved, just new relations of control in the workplace.

The advantages of factory production are due to economies of scale. So these enterprises had to be large, and a correspondingly large wage-fund was required. There were two barriers to setting up such large-scale organization of production: worker resistance and lack of capital. Both these barriers were overcome by brutal means. As a result of expropriation in the countryside, starving workers, not protected by the old guilds, flocked to the towns in search of work. Repressive legislation was introduced to control these “vagabonds,” who came to form the new working class, forced to take whatever work was available. Meanwhile, the capital needed to invest in new enterprises was accumulated from the first wave of imperialist plunder.

The crucial shift in the change from feudalism to capitalism was a move from political control to market mechanisms as the main way of extracting a surplus from the immediate producers. But the material aspects of society did not change fundamentally to begin with. There was not a huge technological gap between fifteenth-century England and early-eighteenth-century England.

The industrial revolution of the late-eighteenth century and nineteenth century did involve major technological developments and the transition to industrial production. But even this transition did not take place simply because new machinery was invented. Marx gives equal weight to the power struggle in the workplace between employers and workers. For example, there was initially no substantial advantage in terms of efficiency between steam-powered tools and hand tools. The major importance of the former was their contribution to worker discipline.

But the old economic structure backed up by the feudal state limited the expansion of the new economic forms. Monopolies were still granted by royal charter, the monarch could postpone or cancel debts, and so on. This is a case of fettering, but it does not fit the model of the relations of production holding back new forces of production. Rather, the political power of the old ruling class held back the expansion of a new market-based mode of production. The fetters were only removed as a result of the English Revolution in the 1640s.

Some conclusions

There are a few conclusions to be drawn from Marx’s account of the rise of capitalism. First, the process begins not with a conflict between the forces and relations of production, but with the decimation of the old nobility in the Wars of the Roses, the result of conflicts internal to the feudal economic structure.

Second, technological improvements play only a minor role in the story Marx tells. To the extent that there were changes in the productive forces, these were initially mainly changes in work relations—the shift from cottage to factory production, for instance. Later, when technical innovations were introduced, they were motivated at least as much by the desire to impose discipline as by considerations of greater efficiency.

Third, the concentrations of wealth that made factory production an attractive venture were the result of imperial expansion, not improved methods of production. Fourth, the main development of the productive forces came after the transition to capitalism, not before it.

Capitalism of course acts as an enormous stimulus for the development of the productive forces, but there is no reason to think that earlier economic structures existed because they were the most economically efficient. When the Roman Empire collapsed in the West in the fifth century, for instance, feudal relations of production did not develop because they were best suited to develop the forces of production. A society based on independent peasant proprietors would probably have been at least as productive, but it couldn’t emerge at that time because small farmers were too divided and localized to prevent a new ruling elite from taking control.

Let’s return to the question that I asked earlier. How is it possible for entrenched ruling classes to be overthrown and for new economic structures to emerge? In the 1859 Preface, Marx describes a process that can break the cycle of social reproduction. A subordinate class pursuing advantages in ways permitted and motivated by the old economic structure can acquire access to expanded productive capacities but ultimately be blocked in the further development of these capacities.

If the fettering produces a strong enough desire for change, and productive growth produces a great enough ability to lead the overthrow of the old social order, an era of revolution begins. The changes that put revolution on the agenda could be technological. But they could be, and often are, commercial and political changes. While technological change is the only process Marx describes in the 1859 Preface, he recognizes other possibilities in his historical writings. For instance, the Wars of the Roses in fifteenth-century England reflected a self-destructive tendency built into the feudal economic structure, where the dispersal of direct coercive control had an inbuilt tendency toward civil war. Social crisis might also result if a mode of production undermines the material conditions of its own existence by radically changing the natural environment.

So, while fundamental change is based on contradictions in the mode of production as a whole, these are not necessarily between the economic structure and the productive forces. What is key is that the previously existing power relations begin to shift, giving a previously subordinated class the ability and opportunity to challenge the old rulers. But whether or not they are successful depends on how well they wage a struggle to change society.

The final point to emphasize is that none of this is of purely historical interest. We began by noting that Marx wanted to understand the past in order to change the present. Just as the processes that initially maintained precapitalist class societies eventually came to undermine them, we see similar processes at work in contemporary capitalism. And just as previously subordinated classes eventually developed the power to transform society, we see the potential of the working class to change society today.14 But as yet it is still only a potential. Whether we will see the revolutionary transformation of society or the common ruin of the contending classes will depend not just on objective factors, but ultimately on how well our side can organize itself to win power.


  1. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, Collected Works, vol. 5 (New York: International Publishers, 1975), 8. https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/wo....
  2. My views on Marx’s theory of history have been most influenced by my former teacher, Richard W. Miller. See especially Chapters 5 and 6 of Analyzing Marx: Morality, Power and History (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1984).
  3. Collected Works, vol. 24, 467–8, https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/wo....
  4. Collected Works, vol. 29, 263, https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/wo....
  5. Collected Works, vol. 35, 194, https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/wo....
  6. Collected Works, vol. 37, 778, https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/wo....
  7. Collected Works, vol. 6, 482. https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/wo....
  8. Collected Works, vol. 4, 93, https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/wo....
  9. Neil Faulkner, A Marxist History of the World: From Neanderthals to Neoliberals (London: Pluto Press, 2013), 23.
  10. Collected Works, vol. 6, 487, https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/wo....
  11. Letter from Marx to Editor of the Otecestvenniye Zapisky (November 1877), in Marx and Engels Correspondence (New York: International Publishers, 1968), https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/wo....
  12. Collected Works, vol. 35, 704–61, https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/wo....
  13. Collected Works, vol. 35, 709, https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/wo....
  14. See Kim Moody, On New Terrain: How Capital Is Reshaping the Battleground of Class War (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2017) for a detailed analysis of how the restructuring of capitalism over the past forty years has reorganized the working class and given it new opportunities to fight for its interests.

 

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September 2012

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