The theory of historical materialism

A pamphlet in the Socialist Party’s ‘Introduction to Marxism’ series, by Naomi Byron

Capitalism, the system we live under today, is unequal and undemocratic. It is a class society, based on the exploitation of the working class by a ruling class – the capitalists, a small minority of the population who own and control the main industries and financial institutions.

In the capitalist education system we are led to believe that class society has always existed, that class exploitation is natural and unavoidable, and that capitalism is the best way of organising society. We are also told that history is made by famous individuals and that working-class people have no power to change the system of society.

The theory of ‘historical materialism’, developed by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, provides a framework for socialists to analyse human society and the laws of its development. It explains that class societies have not always existed; that in fact the earliest human societies were classless societies based on cooperation and consensus, without systematic exploitation or oppression.

For Marxists, human society is based on material forces. In order for any society to exist, humans must provide the necessities of life which enable us to survive: food, water, shelter, etc. These are material things. The way we interact to provide them, who controls the products of our labour, and how they use them, determines the type of society we live in.

At the beginning: evolution

Without certain physical factors, human society as we know it could not have developed – in particular the opposable thumb, the voice box, and the large human brain.

The opposable thumb allows us to hold, make and use tools. Without the fine handling skills it made possible, early humans wouldn’t have been able to develop and use the sophisticated tools that allowed them to survive and prosper in a changing environment.

Without the range of sounds the human voice box allows us to make, early societies could not have developed the complex languages that made them able to communicate ideas and cooperate at a higher level.

The size of the human brain, much larger than other animals when compared to body weight, was both a result of the growth of human intelligence – driven by the need to cooperate and make tools – and a cause of its further growth. With a larger brain, early humans had more potential to develop intelligence and abstract thought.

Those physical attributes evolved because of the way early humans interacted with their surroundings. They were less well adapted to their environment than many other species and compensated for that by working together in large groups and developing tools.

Hunter-gatherer society

Humans were organised in ‘hunter-gatherer’ societies for the vast majority of the over 100,000 years of human history, until class society began developing around 12,000 years ago. Even today there are a few areas around the world where hunter-gatherer societies still exist, though most have been influenced by pressure to adapt to capitalism.

Why were hunter-gatherer societies so different to society today? The answer lies in the way the production of the necessities of life was organised.

They depended on finding food through a combination of hunting and scavenging wild animals, and gathering wild plants. They were at the mercy of their environment and had no way of storing more than small amounts of food long-term, especially as many groups had to regularly move to find food. How far each group travelled was generally determined by its environment, depending on what food was available in each season. Some, with nearby food sources that were plentiful all year round, were more static.

Everyone was involved in providing the necessities of life – food, shelter, etc – because otherwise the group would not survive. There was no social or economic basis for an elite to form and to develop systematic exploitation of the labour of others, as happened later in class society.

There were often differences in the work people did. Research has suggested that women did more childcare and gathering of plants, while men tended to do more hunting, although this division of labour was flexible and wasn’t the same everywhere. However, value judgments were not made about the status of those different roles as they are today, and the products of everyone’s labour were distributed and shared by all. It was only when class society arose that childcare and other work more associated with women became devalued and the systematic oppression of women began.

Hunter-gatherers tended to operate in small groups, linked to a number of other groups in the same area. The size of the groups depended on the availability of resources. Studies of hunter-gatherer societies carried out in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries show that in many cases they had developed a complex system of sharing resources within and between the groups as a kind of insurance against famine or conflict, called ‘reciprocity’.

The methods of organising varied according to the tasks needed to provide food. In their book, The Dawn of Everything, David Graeber and David Wengrow describe how some hunter-gatherer societies organised differently according to the season. For example, seasonal hunting of fish and game, or the harvesting of nuts, often demanded a different form of social organisation than that needed by small bands of foragers the rest of the year.

Marx and Engels described hunter-gatherer society as ‘primitive communism’, because the way in which the necessities of life were produced and distributed – the ‘mode of production’ – encouraged a democratic and cooperative method of decision-making. Despite the huge variety of hunter-gatherer societies, common features were: few possessions; lack of systematic exploitation; important decisions made by consensus; and authority earned instead of enforced.

Anthropologist George Silberbauer described how consensus worked among G-wi hunter-gatherers in the central Kalahari reserve of Botswana in the late 1950s and early 1960s: “Consensus is reached by a process of examination of the various proffered courses of action and rejection of all but one of them. It is a process of attrition of alternatives other than the one to which there remains no significant opposition. That one, then, is the one which is adopted. The fact that it is the band as a whole which decides… is both necessary and sufficient to legitimise what is decided and to make the decision binding on all who are concerned with, and affected by, it.” (Politics and History in Band Societies, 1982).

We are often told that the selfishness, brutality and war in the world today are part of human nature and that humans are not fully able to cooperate and live as equals. The existence of ‘primitive communist’ societies for such a long period of time proves that this is not the case.

Human nature has almost endless possibilities. Just as the way society was organised under hunter-gatherer society helped to bring out the most positive and cooperative aspects of human nature, socialist societies in the future will be able to bring out similar qualities.

The Neolithic revolution

Around 12,000 years ago, two developments began to revolutionise the way human society was organised: the cultivation of plants (agriculture) and the domestication of animals.

These two achievements, known as the Neolithic revolution, enabled humans to gain a degree of control over their environment for the first time. The productivity of labour increased enormously: instead of travelling to where they could find adequate food at different times of the year, humans were no longer completely dependent on natural conditions. This happened in several places around the world, including the Fertile Crescent in the modern-day Middle East.

More permanent settlements were established, where reserves of food could be stored and crops and animals cared for and protected against raids. For the first time, human society was able to consistently produce and store a permanent surplus – food and goods produced over and above what was needed to survive.

This allowed a section of society to be released from the day-to-day work of producing the necessities of life without endangering the survival of the group. That section could then concentrate on specialist tasks, which ranged from conducting rituals believed to help bring food and fortune to the group, to tool-making and the development of new techniques such as the smelting of metal and firing of pottery.

This led to new and more productive ways of using human labour, for example by the use of metal tools in agriculture. As the productivity of labour increased, the size of the permanent surplus also increased. Societies became more complex, with a consequence being that a layer of administrators emerged.

The development of Sumerian society, which arose between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers not far from modern-day Baghdad, was based on irrigation: human-made systems of channels to take river and rain water to fields of crops. This massively increased the crop yields. But to organise the work of digging and maintaining irrigation channels to support a large and growing population, Sumerian society needed administrators and record keepers.

They developed the first known writing system in the years leading up to 3,000 BC, in the form of symbols scratched into clay tablets to record simple transactions like the number of sheep, or amount of grain. Over several hundred years, as the tasks of the administrators grew and became more complex, those early symbols were developed into a more advanced system of writing understood by all Sumerian administrators, with the ability to write and read being a closely-guarded privilege.

The rise of class society

The specialists and administrators who were freed from the work of producing the necessities of life played a progressive role in helping to develop the productive forces. But the development of a permanent surplus also raised the question of what to do with it, and who should decide?

There were countless battles over this. However, over a long period of time, many specialists and their descendants became entrenched in their positions through the accumulation of wealth, status and tradition.

This laid the basis for the emergence of ruling elites, a new class with different interests to others in society. They attempted to make rules not just to develop society, but also in order to protect their privileged position. The most successful of these new elites established special bodies of servants and warriors to enforce their rules within society, as well as to protect it from attacks from outside.

This was not a uniform, straight-line process. In many groups, research suggests that an emerging ruling class was blocked from consolidating a grip on power, and collective organisation was re-established. Some hunter-gatherer societies traded with societies that had developed agriculture and at the same time chose to remain as they were instead of adopting the farming methods of their neighbours.

But the rapid growth in the size of the populations due to the Neolithic revolution often created a threat to nearby hunter-gatherer groups. Neolithic societies expanded, sometimes at a ferocious rate, needing more and more land to feed their ever-expanding populations.

Development of the productive forces

The development of tools, machinery and techniques that increase the productivity of human labour, such as irrigation, the horse-drawn plough, or the invention of factory production, increased the size of the population that societies could support. It also increased the extent of specialisation and division of labour.

The type of society we live in is based on the way production is organised. The ancient slave societies, for example Ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome, were based on the exploitation of slave labour on a massive scale. Large cities where wealthy landowners lived were supported by huge numbers of slaves – mostly captured in war – who worked the land and made most of the goods, such as oil, wine, pottery and jewellery, that made those societies so rich.

The use of slave labour to produce the necessities of life freed up more people in the rest of the population to greatly develop science, technology and literature. The Ancient Egyptians understood the principles necessary to build the steam engine, for example, and the waterwheel was invented in Roman times. However, at that stage in history, as production of goods was mainly done by cheap and easily available slave labour, it was an economic system that didn’t encourage the use of new technology to increase the productivity of labour.

In time, those powerful empires began to come up against the limits of that economic system, including the costs of the wars to expand and to acquire more slaves. They began to fall apart until, divided and weakened, they were conquered by foreign invaders.

Slavery has existed in other periods as well, including in some forms today. The brutal, racist exploitation of the transatlantic slave trade from the sixteenth to the nineteenth century is particularly prominent in people’s consciousness. The feudal monarch of England, Queen Elizabeth I, sponsored the first English attempts to profit from this in 1561. Later on, the huge profits made from that slave trade played a significant role in funding the early industrial revolution in Britain.

But it was in the pre-feudal, ancient slave-based societies that slaves were the primary and central workforce of society, to the extent of being the main defining feature of the mode of production, and eventually becoming the main limiting factor on economic progress.

Feudalism

Feudalism was the economic system of production that eventually superseded slavery. It was based on the labour of serfs, poor peasants who produced food on small plots of land and who were forced to give a certain proportion of their produce to the feudal lord who owned or controlled that land. That surplus taken by the lord could take other forms, for instance by the peasant doing a certain number of days of labour on the lord’s land, or through paying rent.

The landowning aristocracy was the ruling class under feudalism. Although the state usually centred round the monarchy, the royal family was generally drawn from the landowning aristocracy and followed its interests. Feudal monarchies around the world usually defended their privileges and power by leaning on religious ideas and institutions. In England the church supported the monarch’s ‘divine right’ to rule, and declared that ordinary men and women had no right to question a monarch who had been chosen by God.

Like with the era of slavery before it, the mode of production under feudalism eventually became a fetter on further progress. In England the feudal system had begun to reach the limits of its development over 200 years before the English civil wars of 1642-1651, which replaced the feudal ruling class with a capitalist ruling class.

Improvements in agricultural methods and the clearing of forests and other areas to provide more land for cultivation had enormously increased agricultural productivity, but could go little further under the feudal system of small peasant plots exploited by feudal lords.

Poor harvests and inflation in the price of luxury items put pressure on the lifestyle of the feudal aristocracy. They in turn tried to squeeze more out of the peasantry, demanding rent in money rather than grain or labour.

In 1348 the Black Death epidemic struck Europe. It is estimated that 40-60% of the population of England died, and later outbreaks added to the toll. This created a shortage of labour in the countryside that gave the peasantry more power in their ongoing struggle with the feudal lords, who were forced to allow better conditions and lower rents. There were many peasant struggles and uprisings, the most powerful and widespread being the peasants’ revolt in 1381.

The landless poor, who were forced to work for others in order to survive, were able to demand better wages, both in the countryside and in the towns. That layer grew as some peasants escaped the feudal manors, and others were driven off their land by feudal lords who turned their land over to sheep farming, desperate to get some of the huge profits from rising wool prices. Many landless labourers moved to the towns to seek work.

As the feudal ruling class sank into decline, the embryo of a new society was beginning to form in the towns. Encouraged by growth in long-distance trade, artisans and merchants gathered at town markets to sell their goods. Artisans also found buyers for their goods locally, particularly among the feudal lords and the richer peasants.

The towns in England – and most of Western Europe – had relative freedom from direct control by the feudal lords and soon the artisans and rich merchants were forming guild organisations and corporations to protect their own interests.

These processes – growth in the production of goods to sell at market and the increasing crisis of feudal power in the countryside – reinforced each other. Town guilds and corporations were beginning to introduce capitalist relations, employing a growing army of wage-labourers, the basis for the capitalist mode of production.

But however much the economic power of this embryonic capitalist class grew, the government and legal system of England were still based on the interests of the feudal aristocracy. Despite their growing economic role and presence in parliament, the rising capitalist class was in constant conflict with the monarchy. For large parts of the early fifteenth century the monarch ruled by decree, regularly dissolving parliament when it came into collision with it, for example, when parliament objected to new taxes to fund foreign wars.

Capitalist victory in civil war

The capitalists drew the most oppressed sections of the population behind them in their struggle. These were fighting for their own demands, such as an end to the enclosure of common land, for religious tolerance, and against being taxed to fund the church.

The capitalist-led forces overthrew the monarchy and established a parliament dominated by capitalist representatives as the supreme political authority, and a legal system that backed up the economic and political interests of the capitalist class.

Once they had helped the capitalists win power, radical groups such as the Diggers and the Levellers were crushed. Scared of the aspirations of the peasantry and wage labourers, the capitalists made some concessions to the aristocracy and restored the monarchy. Nearly 400 years on, Britain still has relics of feudalism, including a House of Lords.

This process of capitalist triumph over feudal relations took place at different times across the world, for instance in the late eighteenth century in France and the United States. As well as establishing political and legal systems and other state institutions to serve capitalist rule, another key task of the capitalist revolutions was to create or consolidate nation states with a common language, in which to base those institutions and capitalist industries; and to provide a domestic market.

Marxists sometimes refer to ‘uneven and combined development’, meaning that not every country goes through the stages of development in a linear, evenly time-spaced way, but that they develop through the stages of ‘historical materialism’ in different ways unique to their own characteristics. At the same time they are affected by global influences. Leon Trotsky, a leader of the 1917 Russian revolution, applied that concept to Russia over a decade before 1917, when he explained that the Russian working class was the only class able to remove the lingering Tsarist feudal relations. He argued that at the same time it would need to sweep aside the stunted form of capitalism that was co-existing with Tsarism, and move straight onto a socialist revolution.

Capitalism’s gravediggers

Capitalism is based on the mass production of goods and the private ownership of the means of that production: the machinery, raw materials and resources needed for industry and large-scale farming.

Most working-class people, and a large layer of the middle class, don’t have land, investments or inherited wealth that can provide an income, so are forced to sell their labour to survive. Capitalists buy that labour power, then get their money back and more, through the profits they make. Marx called workers ‘wage slaves’.

Before long-term economic decline set in, the achievements of capitalism in developing the productive forces were immense. Driven by the investment of profits to create more capital came the mechanisation of the production process, railways, an extensive road network, electrification, motor vehicles, the invention of computers and the development of virtually instantaneous communication around the world. These advances and others took trade to a higher level and produced goods and wealth in previously unimaginable quantities.

But it came at the price of more intensive and destructive exploitation of the working-class and the planet. Capitalists, in competition with each other, attempt to force down the wages and working conditions of their workforce or to find cheaper labour, in order to increase their profits. They treat the environment as a free resource to profit from as they like, regardless of any damage to it or to local communities.

The major capitalist powers have used their economic and military might to seize territories abroad and callously exploit the populations and natural resources in those areas.

However, as well as explaining that capitalism is only the most recent form of exploitative class society, Marx and Engels explain also made clear that it has sowed the seeds of its own destruction. The central role that the working class has played in the capitalist production process has developed a class that has the potential to challenge the rule of the capitalists and remove them from power. It is also the class in society that is capable of building a socialist society and ending the existence of class-based societies forever.

The labour of working-class people produces the vast majority of wealth in capitalist society. It also makes society function: building schools, homes, hospitals, railways and roads; producing and transporting food and other necessities of life; caring for the sick and elderly; and many other vital jobs.

The middle class – encompassing small business owners, small-scale farmers, and professions such as doctors and accountants, among others – also plays a role in capitalist society in many different ways. Struggles regularly break out from among the middle class; capitalism today is pushing workers within it closer to the conditions of the working class, so they have much to gain from joining trade unions and participating in the workers’ movement. But it is the working class that has the greatest potential to unite behind common interests, combined with the power to bring the capitalist economy to a halt by striking – and re-organise it along socialist lines.

Capitalist ‘superstructure’

Societies can change their type of government without changing the economic system they are based on. During the 20th century, the class struggle in Spain caused the system of government to be changed from a monarchy to a republic, then to a fascist regime, and subsequently to a parliamentary democracy with a constitutional monarchy. Different political representatives were in power at different times, but Spanish society was still based on capitalism.

The government, legal system and ideology of any society are parts of the ‘superstructure’ that grows out of the economic base of society. The form that the superstructure takes is determined first of all by the economic relations that society is based on, but this doesn’t mean that the economic system determines everything. For instance, traditions and the particular way a society has developed influence the political and legal system, as does the class struggle.

From a historical viewpoint, capitalism’s most important achievement has been to develop the productive forces to a level where a socialist society is possible. Without the material basis for abolishing hunger, poverty and illiteracy worldwide, a socialist society is impossible.

Capitalism has achieved this material basis. A United Nations ‘human development report’ 25 years ago, in 1997, said: “It is estimated that the additional cost of achieving and maintaining universal access to basic education for all, basic health care for all, reproductive health care for all women, adequate food for all and safe water and sanitation for all is roughly US $40 billion a year… This is less than 4% of the combined wealth of the 225 richest people”. Today the richest people are even richer, and inequality is greater still.

Capitalism globally will not even deliver the relatively minor redistribution of wealth that would be entailed in taking 4% from the richest, to spend on basic needs. Also, private ownership of the major corporations is holding the productive forces back. The modern globalised world economy is continually in contradiction with the limits caused by competition between nation states. Also, it plunges into regular crises due to the inability of workers to buy back the goods that they produce, because they are not paid the full value of their labour.

The parasitic nature of modern capitalism is shown by the massive growth in financial speculation as opposed to investment in the productive forces. The incredible communications technology that has been developed would help a socialist society to democratically plan a modern economy to meet people’s needs in detail. But under capitalism it is monopolised by the large multinationals to ensure they squeeze every extra drop of profit out of both their workers and the buying public.

In each type of class society, over time, the contradictions within the economic, political and legal structures increased, eventually holding back the development of the productive forces – the productivity of human labour. This is no less the case with capitalism, with the resulting economic, political and social crises very apparent worldwide today.

The socialist future

Socialism is the next, entirely logical, stage of human society. It will be able to utilise the technological advances and mass production methods developed under capitalism in order to solve all the present problems faced by humanity – including the environmental crisis. It will also be able to free the productive forces from the limits of capitalism and take them onto a much higher level, on a sustainable basis.

There will be an end to the waste of resources on weapons of mass destruction, huge military machines, the duplication and distortion of scientific research – including in big pharma – the waste of food to keep world prices high, and so on. To achieve all this, private ownership of the major industries and financial institutions must be removed and replaced by common ownership, workers’ democracy, and socialist economic planning.

Marx and Engels did not invent the idea of socialism. Movements such as the Diggers, who fought for an end to private ownership of land during the English civil wars, had put forward basic socialist ideas much earlier. However, at that stage those ideas were overwhelmingly ‘utopian’, putting forward the idea of a better society but without a real understanding of how it could be achieved.

The contribution of Marx and Engels was to accurately reflect and explain the material conditions that the working class experiences under capitalism and to show that socialist ideas have a scientific and objective foundation – and to put them in context by explaining how human society had developed.

Material conditions under capitalism mean that working-class and middle class will be forced to search for a socialist alternative. However the popularity of socialist ideas will not be enough by itself to remove capitalism and replace it with a socialist society. Nor is capitalism a system that will eventually collapse under the force of its own contradictions. The capitalist ruling classes will desperately try to cling onto their privileges and power, inflicting horror upon horror, including more terrible wars, until revolutions are carried out to overthrow their rule and set up a new way of organising society.

Leon Trotsky wrote in the preface to his book, The History of the Russian Revolution: “The most indubitable feature of a revolution is the direct interference of the masses in historic events. In ordinary times the state, be it monarchical or democratic, elevates itself above the nation, and history is made by specialists in that line of business – kings, ministers, bureaucrats, parliamentarians, journalists. But at those crucial moments when the old order becomes no longer endurable to the masses, they break over the barriers excluding them from the political arena, sweep aside their traditional representatives, and create by their own interference the initial groundwork for a new regime”.

The October 1917 revolution in Russia did indeed create a ‘new regime’ – a workers’ state, in the early years afterwards. However, other revolutions against capitalist conditions have not yet been so successful. There have been many setbacks as well as advances, and periods of stalemate between the opposing class forces.

A Marxist understanding of history, and of the lessons of the Russian revolution, is crucial for achieving future success. Those lessons include that the grotesque caricature of socialism called Stalinism arose from a particular set of historical conditions and had nothing to do with real socialism.

A socialist revolution against capitalism has to be led by the working class, drawing behind it other oppressed layers of the population, whether those be the middle layers of the economically developed countries or the rural poor and urban small business people of the less developed countries. It must spread internationally – a genuine socialist society cannot be built in one country, in what is an economically interlinked world.

Revolutions against previous forms of class society were led by a minority class who exploited the anger of the masses in a struggle to gain political power for themselves, as happened in capitalist revolutions against the feudal ruling classes. The task in the socialist revolution is for the majority to act in its own interests – for the working class to act independently as a class to move to free itself and the overwhelming majority in society from all oppression and exploitation.

The socialist revolution is the first revolution in human history that has the power to do this. Consciousness among workers will inevitably grow on this pivotal, historic task, as their experience of capitalism draws them towards socialist conclusions, although not all at the same pace, or in the same way. Encouraging the development of class consciousness and socialist ideas is one of the tasks of a revolutionary party, which can help to draw different sections of the working class and other oppressed people together, uniting them in a common fight, led by the working class.

Class-based rule is only needed when a minority of people rule over the majority. Under socialism, the overwhelming majority in society will be democratically debating and agreeing how society will be run. This will allow the collective and truly democratic running of society to reappear for the first time since hunter-gatherer society. But it would be on a far higher material basis: instead of living at subsistence level, dependent on the environment, society would be based on productive forces that are capable of providing more than enough for every person’s needs, and much more – giving everyone access to leisure facilities, education at any age, and every other possible means of developing their talents and interests.

Capitalist states would need to be replaced by workers’ states based on workers’ democracy rather than class exploitation, and those new states would eventually wither away, as Engels – and later Lenin – explained in their writings. Socialism, and then genuine communism, will be built, so transforming life for human beings across the planet; and also saving the environment in which we all live.

Note on terminology:

Marx and Engels referred to the first types of class society as ‘barbarism’ and the rise of the ancient slave empires of Egypt, Rome and Greece as ‘civilisation’. While their analysis remains invaluable, today these terms can be misunderstood. Therefore in this text terms have been used to describe each type of society that has arisen from research carried out since Marx and Engels were writing – such as Neolithic society, slave societies, etc. 

Further reading:

  • The German Ideology (part 1) – Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels
  • The Communist Manifesto – Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels
  • What Happened in History? – Gordon Childe
  • Man Makes Himself – Gordon Childe
  • Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State – Friedrich Engels
  • It Doesn’t Have to be Like This – Christine Thomas

This series was first published in Socialism Today, during 2022.