Historical materialism is a methodological approach to the study of human societies and their development over time and was first articulated by Karl Marx (1818–1883) as the materialist conception of history. It is principally a theory of history according to which the material conditions of a society’s mode of production (its way of producing and reproducing the means of human existence or, in Marxist terms, the union of its productive capacity and social relations of production) fundamentally determine it

This aspect of “materialism,” Marx’s “materialist method,” which distinguishes his view from that of Hegel, involves the study of the real economic and social life of man and of the influence of man’s actual way of life on this thinking and feeling. “In direct contrast to German philosophy,” Marx wrote, “which descends from heaven to earth, here we ascend from earth to heaven. That is to say, we do not set out from what men imagine, conceive, nor from men as narrated, thought of, or imagined, conceived, in order to arrive at men in the flesh. We set out from real, active men and on the basis of their real life process we demonstrate the development of the ideological reflexes and echoes of this life process.” [5] Or, as he puts it in a slightly different way: “Hegel’s philosophy of history is nothing but the philosophical expression of the Christian-Germanic dogma concerning the contradiction between spirit and matter, God and the world…. Hegel’s philosophy of history presupposes an abstract or absolute spirit, which develops in such a way that mankind is only a mass which carries this spirit, consciously or unconsciously. Hegel assumes that a speculative, esoterical history precedes and underlies empirical history. The history of mankind is transformed into the history of the abstract spirit of mankind, which transcends the real man.” [6]

Marx described his own historical method very succinctly: “The way in which men produce their means of subsistence depends first of all on the nature of the actual means they find in existence and have to reproduce. This mode of production must not be considered simply as being the reproduction of the physical existence of the individuals. Rather, it is a definite form of activity of these individuals, a definite form of expressing their life, a definite mode of life on their part. As individuals express their life, so they are. What they are, therefore, coincides with their production, both with what they produce and with how they produce. The nature of individuals thus depends on the material conditions determining their production.” [7]

Marx made the difference between historical materialism and contemporary materialism very clear in his thesis on Feuerbach: “The chief defect of all materialism up to now (including Feuerbach’s) is that the object, reality, what we apprehend through our senses, is understood only in the form of the object or contemplation (Anschauung); but not as sensuous human activity, as practice; not subjectively. Hence in opposition to materialism, the active side was developed abstractly by idealism — which of course does not know real sensuous activity as such. Feuerbach wants sensuous objects really distinguished from the objects of thought; but he does not understand human activity itself as objective activity.” [8] Marx — like Hegel — looks at an object in its movement, in its becoming, and not as a static “object,” which can be explained by discovering the physical “cause” of it. In contrast to Hegel, Marx studies man and history by beginning with the real man and the economic and social conditions under which he must live, and not primarily with his ideas. Marx was as far from bourgeois materialism as he was from Hegel’s idealism — hence he could rightly say that his philosophy is neither idealism nor materialism but a synthesis: humanism and naturalism.

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Historical materialism – Definitions

Source: Historical materialism – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia