Historical and Dialectical Materialism
Economics, History, And Materialism
The political character of historical materialism derives from its narrative history of civilization, and the special role assigned to "relations of production" and technological change within it. Matter-in-motion does not figure in this account, except as an unacknowledged ontological presumption. Rather the materialism operative in the doctrine is transformed metaphorically into a selective focus on the human activities ordinarily termed "economic," that is, the production, consumption, distribution, and exchange of the "material" means of life. Linking those activities with materialism played on the material qualities of economic goods, associating them in turn with what is basic and indispensable for human life. This doctrine further suggests that the economic activities associated with goods of this kind are more real and therefore have more explanatory power than anything else, particularly "mere" ideas or thoughts. Religion, utopianism, "good intentions," morality, and moralizing were commonly cited by Marxists as "superstructural," as opposed to the material "foundation" or "basis" in economic activities regarded as "determining." The base/superstructure distinction is itself a metaphor derived from Marx's own preface to his A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (1859), the occasion for Engels's original systematizing review.
In the Preface Marx offers a periodization of history in successive "modes of production." These were evidently based on composites of technology together with legal and property systems: Asiatic, ancient, feudal, and modern. Since some of these were coincident with others in the world at large, the schema does not represent a strict diachronic account of history, nor is it the case that all transitions were necessarily progressive. What is clear is that Marx regarded modern commercial and capital-accumulating societies as distinctly different from previous economic and political systems because they were so much more productive of goods and services and so continuously innovative. Moreover they seemed to him to be a prelude to a comprehensive economic collapse and a political struggle between contending socioeconomic classes. From that would come a vastly different society, which he variously termed communism or socialism. Alternatively, he wrote (with Engels) in the Communist Manifesto (1848), the result would be a "common ruin."
Marx's Preface also contained certain passages that were commonly interpreted as causal claims relevant to the social and political changes marking a transition, for example, from feudalism to capitalism: "At a certain stage of their development the material productive forces of society come into contradiction with the already existing relations of production.… From forms of development of the productive forces these relations turn into their fetters. Then an epoch of social revolution commences."
Technological innovations, and the introduction of "free" wage-labor and individualized "private" property, were the important elements through which this massive change was effected. Marx's conception was thus an ambitious attempt to recast history in terms of economic systems and economic changes (rather than reigns, religions, empires, etc.). It also aimed to identify the most crucial changes in modern life and politics with the economic changes around and through which revolutionary political forces gathered, ushering in constitutional, liberal democratic, and "bourgeois" forms of government. Whether these phrases fit the "dialectics" espoused by Engels, who late in life supplemented this with a notion of "determinism in the last instance," or whether they fit instead some non-dialectical explanatory model favored by other writers, has been a recurrent issue within and about the Marxist tradition.
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