The Ethical Foundations of Marxism Eugene Kamenka 1962

13. The Materialist Interpretation of History and Marx’s Critique of Moralities

THE basis of the ‘materialist interpretation of history’, according to Marx and also to Engels, is a simple proposition both were to reiterate time and time again — the proposition that ‘the mode of production in material life determines the general character of the social, political and spiritual processes of life’ (CPE II). ‘Material life’ is what the eighteenth-century philosophers and Marx himself used to call ‘civil society’; Marx now refers to it more frequently as ‘the material foundation’ or ‘the world of industry and trade’. On this, he believes, everything else is in some (not always clear) sense dependent.

Marx, and Engels after him, distinguish within the material life of men two separate, if related, factors: productive forces and relations of production. The productive forces are the skills, knowledge and tools (all of them social products) existing at any given period of society. The relations of production are the ways in which different factors of production are appropriated and secure their returns — in other words, what Marx calls the class structure of society. While both Marx and Engels are generally loose in their references to the economic or productive foundation by which all social life is allegedly determined, Marx does make it clear that, on his theory, ‘the relations of production correspond to a definite stage of development of their [men’s] material powers of production’ (CPE II). The fact that it is these forces of production that are taken as the basic determinants of social change is confirmed by his insistence that social change takes place always violently — when the relations of production come into conflict with the productive forces. For while the productive forces are constantly developing, the relations of production in any given period are comparatively fixed and resist change. It is thus that the relations of production which began by ‘expressing’ (serving the needs of) the development in the forces of production, end by becoming ‘fetters’ upon this development. It is then that a new class, called into being by the new developments in the productive forces, emerges into the arena of history and bursts the old class structure asunder. Inevitably and repeatedly the constantly developing forces of production triumph over the lagging productive relations. Only with the supersession of all classes and the emergence of ‘rational and intelligible relations’ among men does the tension between productive forces and productive relationships and the violent change from one social form to another disappear from the historical stage.

Engels, most of Marx’s followers and most of his critics took and have taken Marx’s position to imply an underlying technological determinism. On the basis of some of Marx’s statements and many of Engels’, including the latter’s discovery of primitive communism,[87] the theory has been elaborated thus:[88]

The study of history shows that there have been four stages of technological development, each of them producing a corresponding stage of the relations of production. First, there was an era of stone tools, to which corresponds a primitive communism in the means of production and the distribution of products. With the advent of metal tools, society split apart into masters and slaves — the first form of the class society. Then came feudalism, which, as Marx suggests in the Poverty of Philosophy,[89] was based on the hand-mill and finally industrial capitalism, based on the steam-mill or power-driven machinery in general (though there was an earlier form of mercantile capitalism preceding the industrial revolution). The highly elaborate forces that result from the increasing application of modern science to industry will bring about the next stage, that of socialism merging into Communism, where the division of labour will be replaced by the organisation of production (cf. Grundrisse, pp. 88-9), where control and planning will be by the community as a whole.

The technological interpretation of Marx’s materialist doctrine cannot treat it as a theory of direct and unmediated technological determinism. Marx insists that the history of society is the history of social struggles, that the key to political and ideological forms lies in the class structure of all past societies. The determinism exercised by the productive forces must therefore be mediated by the productive relationships that result from these forces — else all classes would share the same ideology. The theory thus becomes that productive forces determine productive relations and that these, in turn, determine the social superstructure: the legal and political forms of the society and the philosophical, ethical, legal, aesthetic and economic theories or ideologies to be found in that society.


Marx’s materialist interpretation of history has been discussed often and at length, both as a fundamental ‘principle’ belonging to the philosophy of history and as a summary of detailed historical studies to be confirmed or disproved by actual historical events. Some critics have denied the possibility of framing any general law of historical development; others have striven to prove, as a matter of fact, the independence and power of ideological forces in history. But the argument has constantly been bedevilled by doubts: precisely what is Marx’s position, exactly what is he claiming?

It does not follow from the fact that Marx has a position that he himself would have been able to provide satisfactory answers to these questions. In the German Ideology, it is true, he and Engels write confidently:

Morality, religion, metaphysics, all the rest of ideology and their corresponding forms of consciousness thus no longer retain the semblance of independence. They have no history, no development; but men, developing their material production and their material intercourse alter — along with these — their real existence and their thinking and the products of their thinking.
(M 1, 5, 16; GI 14-15.)

But before examining the sweeping propositions contained in this passage in themselves, let us see what they come down to — in Marx’s own hands — in practice. Consider first Marx’s handling of a problem in aesthetics — is it shown to have no ‘semblance of independence’, to be completely reducible to men’s material production and intercourse? In his notebook Marx writes:

Known — that Greek mythology is not only the arsenal of Greek art but its foundation. Is the view of nature and of social relations which lies at the basis of Greek imagination and therefore of Greek mythology possible with self-actors and railways and locomotives and electric telegraphs? What becomes of Vulcan faced with Roberts et Co., Jupiter faced with the lightning-conductor, Hermes faced with the Credit mobilier? All mythology overcomes and dominates and moulds natural forces through the imagination and in the imagination, disappears therefore with actual domination over these [forces]. What happens to Fama next to Printing House Square? Greek art presupposes Greek mythology, i.e., Nature and social forms already worked over by folk imagination in an unconsciously artistic form. That is its material. Not any mythology you care to choose, i.e., not any unconsciously artistic fashioning of Nature (hereby everything objective, therefore society, included). Egyptian mythology could never be the foundation or maternal lap of Greek art.... But in any case, a mythology. Hence in no circumstances a social development which excludes any mythological relationship to Nature ...

From another side: is Achilles possible with powder and shot? Or the Iliad, altogether, with the printing press and the steam press even ...

But the difficulty does not lie in understanding that Greek art and Greek epic poetry are tied to specific forms of social development. The difficulty is that they still give us artistic satisfaction and in certain respects remain as norms and unattainable models.

A man cannot become a child again, or he becomes childish. But is he not pleased by the naivete of the child and must he not again strive to reproduce its truth on a higher level? Does not the nature of the child reveal to each epoch its own character in its elemental truth? Why should the historical childhood of mankind, where it blossoms most beautifully, not exercise eternal charm as a stage that can never reappear? One finds bad-mannered children and children old before their time. Most of the ancient peoples belong in these categories. The Greeks were normal children. The charm of their art for us is not inconsistent with the fact that their art grew from an undeveloped stage of society. [The charm] is rather the result of this and is rather indissolubly linked with the fact that the unripe social conditions under which this art developed, and only under which it could develop, can never come back.
(Grundrisse, pp. 30-1.)

Consider this passage carefully. First, we note that Greek mythology and art are not here presented as passive reflections or passive effects of Greek social organisation. The existence of Greek social organisation and the absence of later social organisations and knowledge are necessary for Greek art and mythology, but not sufficient. To become mythology, Greek nature and social forms must be ‘worked over by folk imagination in an unconsciously artistic form’. To become art, one gathers by implication, they must be worked over in a consciously artistic form. (How this would enable us to distinguish a myth from a short story without inspecting the author is not clear, but that is not our present point.) Artistic form, then, is also necessary for something to become mythology or art, and this artistic form, clearly, is not something that reflects the social organisation, but something additional to it.

Secondly, consider Marx’s attempt to account for the charm that Greek mythology still exercises on us. This is not an attempt to account for the artistic form of Greek art or mythology; the form is presupposed as an intrinsic characteristic independent of our attraction to what has the form. But Marx is not willing to say that its charm lies in the form. He wants an economic account. But again, the account breaks down. The parallel with childhood is forced; the ‘elemental truth’ which Greece reveals to us remains obscure. But in any case, the appeal of childhood and of such elemental truth is presented as an eternal verity, a truth of human psychology in no way linked with the social organisation under which we — the appreciators — live. Once again, Marx has shown at best — and this time, quite unconvincingly — that the economic organisation of Ancient Greece (its infantile character) is a necessary condition for its fascination over us; it is not a sufficient condition because it requires also our interest in the infantile — an interest which remains unrelated to economic factors altogether. At the same time, Marx seems also to concede that not all children exercise fascination for us — it is only (in the first reference) beautiful children or (in the second, more explicit reference) normal children. In any case, it is clearly not the children that reflect our economic structure, satisfy our economic needs or serve the interests of our class. In such an analysis, it is hardly surprising that Marx should speak of Greek art and mythology being ‘tied to’ specific forms of social development instead of saying they are determined by them.

Nor is this bringing in of factors which are not on the face of it economic at all confined to Marx’s rough and possibly ill-considered notes. We find it repeatedly in his long, concrete and considered account of capitalist development in the first volume of Capital. ‘The forcible process of expropriating the mass of the people in the sixteenth century gained new and terrible momentum from the Reformation and the colossal theft of church property which followed it,’ he writes (K I, 759; C I, 792). ‘Church property constituted the religious bulwark of the traditional relationships in landed property. With its fall these could no longer be maintained’ (K I, 761; C I, 793-4). Again, discussing the methods of primitive accumulation in general: ‘These methods rest partly on the most brutal might, e.g., the colonial system. But all of them use the might of the State, the concentrated and organised might of society, in order to accelerate the process of transforming the feudal into the capitalist mode of production and to shorten the transitions. Might is the midwife of every old society pregnant with a new one. It is itself an economic power.’ (K I, 791; C I, 823-4 — Marx’s italics.)

In Marx’s brief discussion of aesthetics, his economic account eschews — as we have noted — such central issues as the characteristics of ‘artistic form’ and the nature of beauty. The same is true of his far more frequent comments on law. In general terms, Marx insists in the German Ideology, in the Poverty of Philosophy and in Capital itself on the secondary character of law, its dependence on economic factors and its service in the interests of the ruling class. At no stage, apart from a few vague remarks about law being based on property, does Marx try to analyse the fundamental categories and principles of English law, or of its various branches, and show that they are determined by the economic structure of English society. He noticeably avoids any consideration of the large and important part of the criminal law concerned with offences against the person; nowhere does he discuss the tremendous changes in the substantive content and procedural rules of the civil law, changes that were taking place and arousing widespread attention before his very eyes. Instead, he shows, with considerable and generally convincing supporting detail, the capitalist bias of contemporary European Factory Acts, the shameless protecting of their own interests by mill-owners sitting as justices of the peace, and the way in which legal procedure was used to discriminate against workers, e.g., by prosecuting workers for breach of contract, while similar causes of action against masters were confined to the civil courts.[90] It is significant that all this material shows economic interests at work in the actions of individuals or in Parliamentary legislation; Marx never attempts to show the same economic interests enshrined in the very structure of the common law.[91]

Nowhere does Marx show in detail that the structure or content of any ideology is wholly determined by the economic conditions or social structure of the group or society that gave it birth. But neither does he show precisely what it is that would, on his view, determine the content of the ideology. This difficulty emerges even in the scant references that the mature Marx makes to morality. What does a morality ‘reflect’? The general character of productive relations in the society? This seems to be the suggestion Marx is making when he insists on the conflict of rights and duties as ‘reflecting’ the conflicts and incoherence of ‘civil society’. But how, then, is one morality to be distinguished from its remaining contemporaries? Here Marx falls back on a different determinant: the social situation seen from the standpoint of a specific class. Thus he reduces Kant’s doctrine of the good will not directly to the productive relations in eighteenth-century Germany, but to the political impotence of the German bourgeoisie coupled with its aping of the French model. How is the standpoint of one class to be distinguished from that of another? Here Marx falls back on a doctrine of class ‘interests’ (seen, no doubt, as themselves economically determined). The proletarian, Marx and Engels write in the Communist Manifesto (SW 1, 42), sees law, morality and religion as ‘so many bourgeois prejudices, behind which lurk in ambush just as many bourgeois interests.’ This, in very crude terms, is the line popularised by Engels in Anti-Dühring:

We maintain ... that all former moral theories are the product, in the last analysis, of the economic stage which society had reached at that particular epoch. And as society has hitherto moved in class antagonisms, morality was always a class morality; it has either justified the domination and the interests of the ruling class, or, as soon as the oppressed class has become powerful enough, it has represented the revolt against this domination and the future interests of the oppressed.
(AD 109.)

Thus Engels distinguishes in modern times the Christian-feudal morality of the feudal aristocracy, the modern bourgeois morality and the proletarian morality. Kautsky, following the Engels line in his Ethics and the Materialist Conception of History, argues that in the ancient world the ethical question first emerged clearly as a result of the class tensions that followed the Persian wars. These wars placed the Greeks at the centre of widespread commercial activity and produced three leading types of morality: the Epicurean, representing those connected with private production; the Platonic and Neo-Platonic, representing the section of the aristocracy not engaged in personal control of production; the Stoic, representing several of the remaining classes and acting as a mediating ethical theory.[92]

All this has its origin in a subtler and rather more intelligent treatment of historical moral codes by Marx and Engels in the German Ideology. The interpretation given there does not lay itself open to a voluntaristic ‘conspiracy’ theory of morality, by which moralities come to be seen as consciously-fashioned tools in the struggle for domination. In the German Ideology Marx and Engels consistently take morality as aiming to express the common interests of a society. In the rational society of Communism such interests will be truly harmonious and universalisable; a perfectly coherent morality, in which private and social interest will be completely fused, will therefore arise. In the class society, the common interest is an illusion, an ideal which alienates man’s social functions from man and sets them up to oppose him. The moralities of class society are therefore necessarily fraudulent and incoherent. They represent not the common interest of the whole society, but only of a class; its particular economic interests disguised as general social interests. The result is on the one hand a constant changing of moralities as the social initiative passes from one class to another, on the other a tension between the specific interests of the class and its claim to represent society as a whole:

Each new class which puts itself in the place of the one ruling before it, is compelled, merely in order to carry through its aim, to represent its interests as the common interest of all the members of the society, put in an ideal form; it will give its ideas the form of universality, and represent them as the only rational, universally valid ones.
(GI 40-1; M 1, 5, 37.)

This procedure, according to Marx and Engels is not, in the initial stages of the new class struggles, entirely Machiavellian.

The class making a revolution appears from the start, merely because it is opposed to a class, not as a class but as the representative of the whole society; it appears as the whole mass of society confronting the one ruling class. It can do this because, to start with, its interest really is more connected with the common interest of all other non-ruling classes, because under the pressure of conditions its interest has not yet been able to develop as the particular interest of a particular class.
(GI 41; M 1, 5, 37.)

The situation described here, Marx and Engels seem to assume, provides evidence for their view that history displays a moral advance toward true universality. After describing how the victory of the French bourgeoisie over the aristocracy enabled many proletarians to raise themselves into the ranks of the bourgeoisie, they conclude:

Every new class, therefore, achieves its hegemony only on a broader basis than that of the class ruling previously ...
(GI 41; M 1, 5, 37.)

These are the most explicit and detailed comments on morality to be found in the work of Marx the Communist, and the most sensible to be found in the work of Engels. They are not enough. They tell us nothing about the vexed question of interests; they eschew any consideration of the truth or falsity of moral claims; they give no account of the issues that have dominated the history or moral theory and ethical controversy. They give us no basis for distinguishing between the political programme and the ethical convictions of a class, nor do they make any attempt to see whether there are constant themes in the history of ethics and, if so, how they could be accounted for. Moralists, after all, have condemned other things beside theft.


We are now in a better position, perhaps, to return to a general consideration of the content and force of the materialist interpretation of history. It comes out, even in Marx’s work, as a theory that is formulated loosely, ambiguously, without proper care; it is never demonstrated in detail in even a single case; it is frequently ignored and virtually subverted in the discussion of concrete social developments. Its most concrete point seemed to be that economic conditions determine ideology and never vice versa, yet even this had to be modified the moment it was seriously questioned. In his letter to Conrad Schmidt of October 27, 1890, Engels made a host of concessions:

Where there is division of labour on a social scale there is also mutual independence among the different sections of work. In the last instance, production is the decisive factor. But when the trade in products becomes independent of production itself, it follows a movement of its own which, while it is governed as a whole by production, still in particular cases and within this general dependence follows particular laws contained in the nature of this new factor; this movement has phases of its own and in its turn reacts on the movement of production ...

It is similar with law. As soon as the new division of labour which creates professional lawyers becomes necessary, another new and independent sphere is opened up which, for all its general dependence on production and trade, still has its own capacity for reacting upon these spheres as well. In a modern State, law must not only correspond to the general economic position and be its expression, but must also be an expression which is consistent in itself, and which does not, owing to inner contradictions, look glaringly inconsistent. And in order to achieve this, the faithful reflection of economic conditions is more and more infringed upon. All the more so, the more rarely it appears that a code of law is the blunt, unmitigated, unadulterated expression of the domination of a class — this in itself would already offend the ‘conception of justice’ ... Thus to a great extent the course of the ‘development of law’ only consists: first in the attempt to do away with the contradictions arising from the direct translation of economic relations into legal principles, and to establish a harmonious system of law, and then in the repeated breaches made in this system by the influence and pressure of further economic development, which involves it in further contradictions (I am only speaking here of civil law for the moment).

The reflection of economic relations as legal principles is necessarily also a topsy-turvy one: it happens without the person who is acting being conscious of it; the jurist imagines he is operating with a priori principles, whereas they are really only economic reflexes; so everything is upside down. And it seems to me obvious that this inversion, which, so long as it remains unrecognised, forms what we call ideological conception, reacts in its turn upon the economic basis and may, within certain limits, modify it. The basis of the law of inheritance — assuming the stages reached in the development of the family are equal — is an economic one. But it would be difficult to prove, for instance, that the absolute liberty of the testator in England and the severe restrictions imposed upon him in France are only due in every detail to economic causes. Both react back, however, on the economic sphere to a very considerable extent, because they influence the division of property. (SC 478, 481-2.)

Here, again, we have all the usual ambiguities. Law now reflects economic relations and not class interests; though precisely how an economic reflex or an economic relation becomes a normative legal principle is not clear. Nor is it readily apparent why the translation of economic reflexes into legal principles should lead to contradictions, or how a materialist interpretation of history would account either for the interest in harmony and consistency or for our conception of justice. But what is clear is that Engels has conceded that ideologies are not purely passive, and even that they may affect the economic base ‘ to a very considerable extent’. There is no force after this in Engels’ attempt to save the situation by insisting that ‘in the last instance, production is the decisive factor.’ If production is affected by ideology, then the production that proves decisive is not the production that formed the economic base. Once we grant even ‘relative’ independence and multiple interaction in social events, once we recognise that law may react back on economic forces and economic relationships, we have to admit that history is not a single-factor story, that social action does not move in only one direction, and that there is no way of setting necessary limits to the possible social effects of social movements, activities and beliefs.


What accounts for much of the confusion surrounding the materialist interpretation of history is Marx’s inadequate view of causality — his consistent tendency to think of causality in general as the production of an effect by a single cause which is by itself both necessary and sufficient for the effect. This view, I have suggested earlier, is unsound: it is only by acting on afield that a cause will produce anything, and the cause which is necessary and sufficient to produce effect E in field A may not be necessary or sufficient to produce effect E in field B. The steam mill may produce capitalism in certain social situations; it will not do so in others. Precisely because Marx does not distinguish between the cause and the field on which it acts, we find him and Engels so frequently amalgamating the two and treating as the social determinant what amounts simply to the entire social situation. Again, because the false picture of causal action as a direct passage from cause to effect so readily suggests logical implication, Marxists consistently think they have saved economic determinism by arguing that patently non-economic causal factors acquire honorary economic status because they were themselves at an earlier stage economically determined.

With all these — fatal — weaknesses, the materialist interpretation of history still carries with it a suggestion of saying something very important. Why? It is not only that emphasis on economic factors, social pervasiveness and social situations is infinitely preferable to the naive individualism and emphasis on the directing role of moral ideals which Marx’s theory largely displaced and discredited. It is rather that Marx is saying something positive, which was only obscured by his causal formulation of the materialist interpretation of history and can be salvaged from it. His real point is the point he had made as a young man against Hegel: Hegel reverses a true and important relationship by treating the State as the subject and society as its predicate. For Marx, society remained the subject. From 1845 onward he came to recognise the central and continuous role of production in social life. He recognised that what distinguished the social from the non-social was its being a productive organisation and that men were not the subjects to which this productive process belonged, but were themselves part of it. A coherent development of this insight would not lie in treating needs, interests, rights and moral and legal rules as causal products of a system of production, as effects following it in time. The rights, etc., as many critics of Marx have pointed out, would be part of the system of production. The point is rather, as Anderson puts it,[93] ‘that it is to a given factor in production that “rights” belong, that it is their “subject”, that through which alone their character and history can be grasped, just as the productive process in general is the “subject” of the whole system or distribution of “rights”.’ It is in the internal function and external conflict of social provinces that laws and sanctions are required; it is forms of activity, and not ‘individuals’, that have needs and formulate ‘rights’.

The important insight underlying the materialist interpretation of history has been obscured by the causal formulation Marx tended to give his doctrine; it has been weakened even more seriously by Marx’s inability to free himself from individualism, from seeing moralities as serving human ends and human interests. He thus opened himself up to the individualistic caricature of his work by Engels and made it possible for a subsequent generation of Communists to erect — in his name — a preceptual morality and a coercive system of law.