Sociology 250

September 21, 1999

Marx's Historical Materialist Approach

See Hadden, pp. 47-55.

1. The Materialist Approach

Hadden notes how Marx's early writings critiqued Hegel and the Young Hegelians. The writings of the latter primarily concerned religion, ideas, and consciousness, paying little attention to how these were connected to the actual conditions of life experiences of people. That is, for the Hegelians, "all their activities had taken place in the realm of pure thought" (Hadden, p. 47, top). Marx considered this to be little more than mere phrases and while they were "heroes of the mind" (p. 47), they had little to say about the real social conditions surrounding them. From Feuerbach, from his journalist work and studies of political economy, and with the help of Friedrich Engels, Marx developed an approach that is sometimes referred to as an historical materialist approach.

Essential to this materialist approach is the view that the material environment (physical and biological) and people's real world activities and experiences in this environment form the basis for society, social organization, ideas, consciousness, and the social relationships among people. Hadden says that "we must look at people, their conditions, their activity, and their relation to the rest of nature" (p. 47). Human labour is the process by which people work on nature and the natural environment around them, and transform the environment into new forms that define human society. This is a creative and a social process, and one that distinguishes human from non-human animals.


2. Historical Specificity

Marx's materialism is also an historical process in that "various aspects of our human, collective consciousness grow, change and develop" (Hadden, p. 48). Human society is not static or unchanging, but people collectively have an ability to alter their economic and social conditions, and these conditions can develop and improve over time. The result of this is that humans have a history (Hadden, p. 48). There have been many historical developments and in order to understand each period of human history, it is necessary to examine the forms of social organization that characterize the period. Hadden refers to this as the principle of historical specificity (top of p. 49).

The very earliest forms of human social organization were primarily structured around the struggles to just survive. As some early human societies survived, they were able to begin organizing themselves to produce more than the minimum necessary for survival. Social organization began to be organized around attempts to improve society and build a better life. These material realities involve (i) the relationship of people to nature, (ii) production and the labour process, and (iii) the relations of people to each other.

The structures in which human labour and the productive process are organized forms the basis for each form of economic and social organization. Some of these different forms are societies characterized as nomadic, tribal, slave, Asiatic, Ancient, feudal, capitalist, and socialist. Each of these can be characterized by a particular way in which human labour is organized to carry out production (mode of production), and how the possession, ownership, and distribution of products is structured. For Marxists, much or all of the social structure of the society is a result of the manner in which property, human labour, and production are organized.

As change occurs, either natural change (changes in climate, population growth although some of these may not be entirely natural) or changes that result from human creative activity (technological change, new forms of production, exploration and discovery), the labour process and the social structure are affected. Marx referred to these changes as the development of the productive forces. The development of the productive forces, as well as contradictory forces that are built into sociey's social structures, create stress within these social and economic structures and lead to dramatic developments such as class conflict or wars. When the small quantitative changes accumulate to the point that a major, qualitative change results, the old form of organization may be overthrown or end, and a new form of social and economic organization may emerge. This is the dialectical process of historical materialism.

Note that Marx uses the notions of historical progress and stages of history to describe and understand human history. Historical materialism is an approach which argues that the way in which humans produce and reproduce their society, particularly through the manner in which human labour is organized, is the key to understanding the development of human history. This is in contrast to the idealist approach, which considered the development of ideas as the key to understanding and explaining human history.istoric

3. Organization of Production

Hadden does not explicitly discuss this, but it is implicit in his discussion of modes of production and capitalism. Humans need to produce the food, clothing, shelter necessary for survival. In addition, humans produce other products that allow them to have more than the minimum necessary for survival. In today's society, we would term these products the goods and services that are produced the basic necessities plus transportation, entertainment, health care, etc. These products are produced by human labour, using the tools, machinery, equipment, buildings, infrastructure, etc. that have been developed over time. Marx referred to the means of production and the labour process as the way in which production is organized.

a. Means of Production. The means of production are composed of two parts the objects of labour and the instruments of labour. For Marx, the objects of labour are the raw materials on which workers exercise human labour. In early forms of society, these may be communally owned or owned by each family or tribe. Gradually many of these become turned into the private property of a few property owners. Some remain fairly widely distributed (e.g. forests and grazing land) while others are more easily converted into private property (e.g. productive land, livestock or mines). Those who own or possesses these objects of labour can exercise considerable power and control in society. Those who do not own objects of labour may be subordinate to powerful owners and be forced to work for those with such property. Examining the ownership and possession of raw materials is key to understanding the class structure of any society, especially early societies since they had limited development of the productive forces.

The second part of the means of production are the instruments of labour, what we might better understand as the tools, machinery, buildings, equipment, and so on that are part of the production process. In addition, infrastructure or large scale structures such as roads, canals, communication, and power networks are part of these as well. These may be privately owned and become part of private capital or they may be socially owned and part of social overhead capital. In each case, they are the result of past human labour (dead labour).

Part of Marx's critique of capitalism is that these products of earlier human labour come to dominate workers (domination by dead labour) and are a source of alienation. For example, we frequently hear people talk about the need to limit wages and debt to ensure adequate profits, the state of the economy, etc. For Marx, these claims may be an indication of alienation of the domination of workers by the capital constructed by labour in the past, but with this capital owned by a few wealthy individuals who use it for their own private purposes.

The objects and instruments of labour together form the means of production. In early forms of society, the means of production may not have been alienated from the producers those who originally produce the products that humans need and use. With the development of exchange, more of the means of production become taken away from the direct producers and become the property of a few. It is this denial of ownership of the means of production to producers that turns these producers into workers or the proletariat. At the same time, those who manage to maintain or increase ownership of the means of production become the owners, capitalists or bourgeoisie.


b. Labour Process. The labour process is the manner in which the exercise of human labour is organized, in conjunction with the means of production. Human labour produces useful products that are necessary for human survival and form the basis for human economic and social progress. The labour process can be regarded as the way in which purposeful or useful human labour works with the objects of labour, the products of earlier human labour, and the instruments that have been created with earlier human labour.

The labour process involves manual labour or the exercise of human physcial energy in production. It also includes mental labour, or the ability of humans to think consciously about how they exercise this physical energy. Note that in contrast to the means of production, the labour of humans cannot be separated from people, except through the production of objects. The fact that humans own their ability to work, yet the products of this work may be used or taken by others, means that the forms in which human labour is organized becomes an important aspect of understanding the nature of production in the different stages of human history.

The manner in which the labour process is organized is partly the result of the state of technology and technological change, and partly the forms of ownership that characterizes different stages. For example, in early societies or even in some small businesses or farms today, the labour process may involve the producers directly owning the means of production and producing the products necessary for survival. In other cases, the means of production may be owned and controlled by employers, who organize the labour process around machine production, assembly lines, and bureaucracies.

4. Surplus

Each social and economic system that lasts for any period of time must be capable of producing enough for its own survival. In addition, the society has the capability of producing a surplus, over and above that necessary for minimum survival. This is because human labour is creative and productive, and in combination with nature (objects of labour) and the means of production, there is a possibility for human society to develop a surplus. This surplus need not be produced, but can be taken as "leisure time." When it is produced, it can form the basis for the division of society into different groups. So long as a society is close to subsistence, cooperation and equality may be necessary. Once a surplus over and above this begins to be produced, this surplus may be equally shared, or control and use of it may become concentrated in the hands of a few. As a result, different forms of class relations develop (Hadden, p. 50).

The (a) extent to which the surplus is produced, (b) the manner in which the surplus is used, (c) what forms it take, and (d) who controls or owns the surplus become keys to explaining the social organization of each historical period. In some pre-capitalist systems, surplus was often produced and became concentrated in the hands of religious leaders or kings. Or it may have been stolen by other societies, through war, slavery or "trade" tribute was often extracted from groups that had been defeated in war. The pyramids and the cathedrals are examples of the use of the surplus. What Marx notes though is that these forms of use of surplus were often not systematically connected to the system of production. Rather, ownership of the means of production was often left with the producers, and a surplus extracted from them. In the Ancient World, this meant that there was no systematic pressure to increase productivity from existing resources (Giddens, p. 28), but pressure to expand trade and conquer new areas.

With capitalism, surplus takes the form of surplus value (Hadden, pp. 65-68). All products are produced for the market, surplus is produced with human labour, and realized in exchange. It is controlled by the owners of the means of production, capitalists and other sellers. This implies that workers do not receive this surplus. Competition and survival of the capitalist as capitalist (making profits) imply that there is a systematic pressure on capitalists to expand the surplus. This leads owners to control the labour process, continually attempting to change various aspects of the labour process and the division of labour cheapening labour power, increasing intensity of work, speedup, etc. as well as attempting to market the products so as to maximize profits. All of this implies quite a different form of social relations and social organization than in earlier social systems where there was not continual pressure to expand profits.

The surplus, how it is produced, how it is controlled, and the uses to which it is put, all are keys to understanding the difference between forms of social organization.

5. Relations of Production

The manner in which people relate to each other in society is a key to understanding the nature of the society. While sociologists would generally agree with this approach, what distinguishes a Marxian approach to social relations is the focus on who produces and who does not produce. Hadden notes that "the fundamental relation, for Marx, is that some own and others do not; some produce and others do not" (p. 50). It is the form of these social relationships related to property, work and labour, production, and the surplus that are the most basic relationships governing the structures of the society.

Marx notes that the social relationships of production may not always be what they seem, and that is why his theoretical analysis is necessary. Hadden discusses this in the section on the fetishism of commodities in capitalism (p. 63), where it seems that exchange relationships are natural, when in fact they are a result of the form of organization of the means of production and labour. In capitalism, the major classes are the capitalists and workers, although some other strata and groups also exist. The dominant relations of production are the relationships between capitalists and workers employment, struggle, exploitation and alienation. For Marx, these are social relationships in that they affect the way people relate to each other, and are relations of domination and subordination. The social relationships may seem to be purely market relationships, and relationships that have an appearance of formal equality. But where the relationships are the result of different positions with respect to ownership of the means of production, these are unequal relationships, and ones that involve subordination and domination.


6. Mode of Production

Like other nineteenth century social theorists, Marx divided human history into stages or periods, which he called modes of production. These stages refer to the whole society or social system, how it is structured, how it holds together, what are the contradictory forces within it, and how it changes. Each mode of production has a particular form of the division of labour, a certain type of property ownership or possession, a set of social relations associated with the relations of production, and a manner in which the surplus is used. Resulting from this is a characteristic system of organization of workers, the labour process, and social structure. The factors that define a mode of production are the means of production, the labour process, the division of labour, the relations of production, and the production, control, and use of the social surplus.

For Marx, the major modes of production in human history were the Asiatic mode, the mode of Classical Antiquity (sometimes referred to as the slave mode), the feudal mode, the capitalist mode, the socialist mode, and the communist mode. Each of these has a system of organization of production and social relationships associated with it. Marx spent most of his time providing a detailed analysis of the capitalist mode of production, but also spent some time discussing other modes of production.

The Asiatic mode of production was characterized by self-sufficient villages operating on a small scale, but tied together politically by ruler. This system generally did not have private property in land, but land was under state control, with rents or taxes paid to the state (Hadden, p. 51). Expansion occurred by creating new communities with the same structure and relationship to the state as exisitng communities had. The political system tended to be despotic, with different segments of society connected by religion, not by economics and exchange. As a result, there was no compulsion to develop the division of labour, no large cities developed and change was fairly slow. Where there was change, it tended to be political, with one group replacing others. As Hadden notes, there is considerable controversy associated with Marx's view of the Asiatic mode. Marx generalized based on the limited historical materials he had available.

The slave mode of production that characterized Classical Antiquity (Greece and Rome) was one where the primary relationship was that between master and slave. In this mode, the labour process was characterized by masters owning slaves, with masters being able to buy and sell the (slave) worker. This was a mode where production of wealth required military conquest, in order to capture slaves who could be put to work for the slave-owners. In the slave mode the dominant form of struggle was between slaves and slave-owners, and the contradictions caused by the need for a strong military.

The feudal mode of production which emerged in Western Europe following the collapse of the Roman Empire was characterized by lords and serfs. Unlike slavery, the lord did not own the serfs, but the serf was bound to the land by tradition, law, and custom. These same factors provided serfs with certain rights to use of land, and certain obligations to provide labour, products, or rent to the lord. Social relationships were not primarily monetary, but were personal, hierarchical, and hereditary. The surplus was produced by the serfs, but taken by the lords in the form of direct labour (servants, work on the lord's lands) or taxes (initially products and later in monetary form).

In addition to describing the structure of a society, a mode of production is also characterized by change. Contradictory forces exist and operate in each mode of production, thus creating change. The forces that create change are (i) the inherent contradictions of each mode of production. In capitalism, the main contradiction is that between capitalists and workers. The expansion of capital means the expansion of the working class the latter eventually undermines and destroys capitalism; and (ii) the contradiction between the forces and relations of production. The forces of production (productive forces technology, trade, development of agriculture) may develop independently of the mode of production. For example, in the middle ages the growth of trade, the expansion of the money economy and the development of cities all occurred outside, or in the spaces between, the feudal mode. These led to the growth of new social classes and new social relationships (bourgeoisie and proletariat) that undermined feudalism and created the conditions for capitalism to develop.

7. Capitalism

The mode of production which primarily concerned Marx was the capitalist mode of production. The social relationship that characterizes capitalism is that between capitalists as owners of property and workers as owners of only their ability to work. Capitalists as a group form the bourgeoisie, or capitalist class, and they own and control the means of production. Their identity in capitalism comes from their ownership of property. This property is turned into capital when they hire workers to produce products and extract surplus labour from the workers. The products created by the surplus labour of workers is sold and this produces surplus value for capitalists. This surplus value creates the profit, rent, and interest which forms the wealth of capitalists, landlord, and bankers.

The subordinate social class is that formed by workers, or the proletariat, those who have no property other than their ability to work. Since the only means by which workers can support themselves is to sell their ability to work to capitalists, they are dependent on the work that is available. In general, this work pays only limited wages and does not provide workers with any means of enriching themselves. In fact, they have to provide surplus labour to the employers; thus their work leads to perpetuating their position as workers (without property) and creating wealth (for their capitalist-employers).

The primary relations of production in the capitalist system then are the capitalist/worker relationship. This social relationship characterizes the capitalist mode of production. The things that comprise property become "capital, therefore, only when they enter into a social relationship with wage labour, thus having their value increased" (Hadden, p. 54). Similarly, labourers become workers, or members of the proletariat, only when they enter into the social relationship with capitalists where their labour is used to create surplus value and expand capital. For example, farmers or peasants exercise much human labour, but they are not workers in the sense of directly creating surplus value for capitalists through the labour process. Similarly, small business people who do not hire workers, but rely on family labour only, are not capitalists because they do not extract surplus labour directly from workers.

Marx's later writings provide a detailed model of the capitalist mode of production. His major work, Capital, was entirely devoted to the description, analysis, and dynamics associated with this mode of production. The labour theory of value provides an analysis of the basic structure of capitalism. Marx also showed how the historical dynamics of capitalism depend on the contradictory aspects of the capital/labour relationship, struggle between capital and labour, the need for capitalists to expand their capital, and the social and political consequences of these features of the capitalist mode of production.

While Marx's model of capitalism was historical and theoretical, it provides a close description and explanation of how capitalism in mid nineteenth century Britain was organized and operated. Capitalism of this period had the social structures and dynamics of capitalism that are part of the model of Marx. While capitalism has changed since Marx's day, many of the social forces and structures that he described still exist and are important aspects of the further development of capitalism.


Last edited on September 23, 1999.

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