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?

Modern scientific research has identified the major physiological, neurological, and genetic differences between humans and our biological ancestors. In particular, it has been found that the human brain is qualitatively different in terms of the development of the parts of the brain that control abstract reasoning, social behaviour, and manual abilities. This discovery is yet more evidence in favour of the explanation that Frederick Engels gave for the evolution of humans in his essay “The Part Played by Labour in the Transition from Ape to Man”.

One of the great classics of Marxism is the book by Frederick Engels entitled ‘The Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State’. Engels applies the method of historical materialism to this earliest period of pre-history to uncover the past. As a contribution to International Women’s Day, we are republishing an article by Mary Hansen and Rob Sewell which examines this question.

This important series by Alan Woods, provides a Marxist explanation of the processes that led to the collapse of the Roman Republic. Here the method of historical materialism is used to shed light on an important turning-point in world history. For Marxists the study of history is not just a form of harmless entertainment. It is essential that we do study history for the lessons we can learn from it. To paraphrase the words of the American philosopher George Santayana: “He who does not learn from history is doomed to repeat it.”

Recently the Marxist society of the University of London Union met for a discussion on ‘Marxism and Darwinism’. The topic of this meeting was chosen in order to coincide with the recent exhibitions and publicity surrounding the 150th anniversary of the publication of Charles Darwin’s masterwork, ‘Origin of the Species’ in November this year.

The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggle. That is all written history. For the majority of human history man did not live in a class society. But with the development of technique came the production of a surplus of wealth over and above the means of subsistence. This produced a flourish of art, science and philosophy as part of the population was freed for the first time from the toil of everyday labour. Mick Brooks talks on the application of Marxist philosophy to the development of society.

There are many bourgeois historians who believe that history is made by “Great Men and Women”, kings and queens, statesmen and politicians. It is this unscientific approach that Marxism is opposed to. However, Marxists do not deny the role of individuals in history. History is made by people. But we need to uncover the dialectical relationship between the individual (the subjective) and the great forces (objective) that govern the movement of society and see this role in its historical context.

The discovery of the remains of an unknown pre-historic human on a little island near Indonesia shook up the scientific community a few weeks ago. This has been considered the most important event in palaeoanthropology in decades. However, the discovery is accompanied by the usual prejudices that dominate a significant part of the scientific community. Espe Espigares looks at what really distinguishes humans from the apes.

Even those who accept the theory of evolution frequently draw reactionary conclusions from the evidence provided by science. In Darwin’s day, natural selection was presented as a justification of capitalism and its dog-eat-dog morality. The fact that such ideas have no basis in what he actually wrote is conveniently ignored. A recent BBC documentary attempts something similar in trying to establish that the violence of human males is genetically determined and can be proved by looking at the behaviour of chimpanzees. Alan Woods explains why this theory is flawed.

Historical Materialism is the application of Marxist science to historical development. The fundamental proposition of historical materialism can be summed up in a sentence: "it is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but, on the contrary, their social existence that determines their consciousness." (Marx, in the Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy.)

This article by Alan Woods deals with barbarism and the development of human society. In post-modern writing, history appears as an essentially meaningless and inexplicable series of random events or accidents. It is governed by no laws that we can comprehend. A variation on this theme is the idea, now very popular in some academic circles that there is no such thing as higher and lower forms of social development and culture. This denial of progress in history is characteristic of the psychology of the bourgeoisie in the phase of capitalist decline.

We publish here the transcript of a speech by Alan Woods on the subject of the relationship between Art and the Class Struggle. The speech was given at a Marxist Summer School in Barcelona (Spain), in July 2001.

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)