Philosophy and Class Struggle. “Dialego” 1975

Chapter 4
The Materialist Theory of History

What are the forces at work in society which bring about revolution? How can we explain the dynamics of social change? Why do we say that social and political upheavals are inevitable in class-divided societies?

These are vital questions for revolutionaries to think about today. At a time when the imperialist world is desperately trying to “damp down” the explosive contradictions in southern Africa and deflect the course of the liberation movements into harmless, neocolonial channels, a scientific understanding of the nature of revolution is essential indeed, for the world of political struggle is a harsh one and it is not enough to tackle questions of social change simply in terms of what we would “like” to see happen or may “dream” about. Effective leadership of the forces of liberation rests upon an ability to creatively combine a careful and continuing analysis of particular events (e.g. the struggles of Soweto and the developments since June 16th, 1976, the twists and turns of U.S. strategy towards Zimbabwe and Namibia), with an overall understanding of the nature of revolution itself and the reasons for historical change.

It is because communists seek to link the particular with the general in this way that they can claim, in the words of the Manifesto, to “always and everywhere represent the interests of the movement as a whole": if they form an advanced and resolute section of the movement, that is because theoretically

they have over the great mass of the proletariat the advantage of clearly understanding the line of march, the conditions and the ultimate general results of the proletarian movement. [1]

A precise understanding of particular events must be linked to an understanding of history and society itself.

Previous articles have looked at the principles of dialectical materialism and the way in which Marxist philosophy helps us understand the world in general: what must now be tackled is the way in which we relate dialectical materialism to the social development of man — the study of what is generally called “historical materialism” or “the materialist theory of history”. An analysis of this theory must begin with a consideration of

(i) The Nature of Men as Social Producers

All theories of society and history must operate with some conception of “human nature” for they are theories which seek to explain what happens in all societies and what determines the way people behave. It is.sometimes said that Marxists do not believe in human nature but this is only true in the sense that we reject any conception of a static or unchanging “human nature”, for we know that people’s ideas, behaviour and institutions are continually changing — that human nature can be found in many different forms. But the question still needs to be posed: what is it about men and their society which makes this change both possible and necessary?

It is the fact that human beings have to produce all the things which they need in order to survive: they cannot simply “live off” nature in the way animals do. The animal, as Engels notes,

merely uses his environment and brings about changes in it simply by his presence; man by his changes makes it serve his ends, masters it. This is the final, essential distinction between man and other animals [2]

and it is only in terms of such a distinction that we can understand man’s historical “nature” as a being who produces.

But do not some animals, particularly the higher primates like apes and chimpanzees, use their hands to build nests, grasp sticks and even hurl stones at their enemies? The truth is that human beings, even at the most primitive technical stage of their development, can accomplish something which no ape has ever been seen to do and that is to make tools with which to produce and to use their tools to alter the world around them in a conscious and deliberate way.

Mankind, Engels was to say,

must first of all eat, drink, have shelter and clothing, before it can pursue politics, science, art, religion, etc; [3]

and this need to produce is described by Marx and Engels as

a fundamental condition of all history, which, today, as thousands of years ago, must daily and hourly be fulfilled merely in order to sustain human life. [4]

But why should this approach to history be called “materialist” in character? It is materialist

(a) because the activity of production itself brings people into direct and continuing contact with the forces of nature (or the world of matter); and

(b) because production is necessary to human survival whether people are aware of this fact or not. -Hence Marx often refers to production as a “material” process which people enter into independent of their will”. [5] With the development of classes in society so that a privileged few do the “thinking” and an exploited majority have to create the wealth, the materialist basis to human existence is obscured by the philosophers and priests, etc. rather in the way that many white people in South Africa don’t think very much about the importance of production and what it involves because they have black servants and employees who do the real work for them! Nevertheless material production is the most important fact of human life and it explains why

(c) men can only be understood as individuals who survive in a society. Production is essentially a collective activity in which people have to work together so that when we speak about social production, we necessarily refer to the relationships which people enter into when they produce. Even the “Robinson Crusoes” and the hermits of the world can only live in isolation because they have first acquired the ability to think, speak and produce by working in society.

But in order to explain how the nature of men as social producers affects the way they act in society, we need to look more closely at the two aspects which constitute the production process:

(ii) Productive Forces and the Relations of Production

The activity of production involves first and foremost the making of tools or the development of technology whether we think of the manufacture of spears for hunting or computers for programming. This technology includes not only the tools or machines themselves but all the raw material, technical skills and know-how which go into making and using them and it is described in Marxist theory as a force of production. It is obvious that every time a fresh invention is made, these forces of production change accordingly.

Tools whether simple or sophisticated have to be operated by people and since people must enter into a definite set of relationships in order to produce, the “forces of production” are necessarily linked to the “relations of production”. Since the way in which we relate to one another or cooperate in production depends upon the kind of technology we are actually using, we may say therefore that

the relations of production into which people enter are determined by the forces of production which they have created.

As Marx puts it

social relations are closely bound up with productive forces . . . The hand-mill gives you society with the feudal lord; the steam mill, society with the industrial capitalist. [6]

Thus, for example, in hunting societies in the stage of “primitive communism”, everyone works together as a team and there is insufficient wealth produced to allow some to sit idly by while others do the work for them. The collective way in which people work together determines the collective or communal way in which they share out and own the wealth they produce. Productive forces determine the relations of production.

What happens when these productive forces change so that hunting gives way to agriculture and some individuals can accumulate, by fair means or foul, more wealth than they actually need? The relations of production must also change for, to put it simply, a herd of cattle can be owned privately in the way that a herd of buffalo cannot. It is now profitable to systematically plunder your neighbours, make them work for you as slaves, and develop private property in crops and cattle.. A clan or tribal society owning the means of production in common is gradually transformed into a society divided into classes: the wealth produced by one group is owned by another and although the development of class antagonisms and exploitation had not developed to any significant degree in much of pre-colonial Africa, the changing relations of production can ultimately be explained by changes taking place in the productive forces. Every change in these forces — whether we think of the invention of the plough to till the land or the spinning jenny which mechanised the weaving loom — must transform production relations.

Indeed, it is the dramatic change in the forces of production brought about by capitalism so that thousands of people work together in mines and factories using highly advanced technology, which makes it not merely possible but ultimately necessary for private ownership to give way to social ownership and in conditions of growing abundance for everyone to at once take part in production and yet at the same time, enjoy a life of security and freedom. A socialist and communist society cannot however simply come about because people “want” it: new forces of production alone make it possible. This is why it would be naive and utopian to try to establish socialist relations of production — where the means of production are owned in common — in a society where most people were still individual handicraft producers or peasant farmers working small plots of land in isolation from one another. The relations of production must, in Marx’s words, be “appropriate to a given stage in the development of their forces of production” [7]

It is only on the basis of developed industry and cooperative and collective agriculture that socialism can be built, and since most African countries who have recently freed themselves from imperialist and neocolonial control suffer from serious technological backwardness, they need to pursue policies of non-capitalist development in order to create the forces of production necessary to sustain socialist relations of production. In South Africa itself, however, tiyings are rather different, and following the national democratic revolution, the mechanised agriculture and developed industrial base (already created by the capitalists) would make it possible to build socialism much more rapidly.

Although, as we have seen, the forces of production in any society determine the relations of production and changes in the relations are only possible because of changes in the productive forces, it should not be thought that these changes occur smoothly and automatically. In fact, the very opposite is true particularly when we are speaking of societies divided into antagonistic classes. Here not only do the relations of production “lag behind” changes in technology, but the production relations actively resist the need to adapt and change, they become obsolete and outmoded and enormous pressure has to build up in society before the transformation of production relations can take place and they are brought into line with the altered production forces. In fact, it is precisely this pressure which builds up to force old production relations to adapt to the new forces of production that is the real cause of every social and political revolution.

In Marx’s words,

at a certain stage of development, the material productive forces of society come into conflict with the existing relations of production . . . from forms of development of the productive forces these relations turn into their fetters. Then begins an era of social revolution. [8]

Thus we can now formulate the basic propositions of the materialist theory of history by saying

(a) every alteration in the way a society produces (its forces of production) brings about a change in the way people cooperate in production (the production relations) and because changes in technology are natural and unavoidable in all societies, we can describe the need for the relations of production to adapt to the forces of production as the most basic law of human history — the real explanation for all social change. But

(b) because the development of exploitation, class divisions and the institution of private property arises at a particular stage in history, the adaption of the relations to the forces of production cannot take place “gradually” and “continuously”. A revolution is needed in order to take power out of the hands of one class and vest it in another in order to make it possible for the relations and forces of production to once again correspond.

To understand more clearly why it is that class divisions have the effect of obstructing the adjustment of productive relations to productive forces, it is now necessary to introduce into the theory, the concepts of

(iii) Basis and Superstructure

When people enter into a particular set of production relations, they do so through the entire range of social institutions which function to regulate, justify and protect these particular relations. Just as the forces of production cannot exist in the real world without the people who cooperate in a definite way to work them, so the relations of production only develop because men are also members of a family, are guided by a morality and sometimes a religion, accept certain cultural values, and in class-divided societies, have their lives ultimately regulated by the coercive machinery of the state. And just as productive forces determine the relations of production, so for their part, the production relations constitute what we call the economic basis of society which determines all the social institutions and ideas which make these production relations possible — the decisive force which moulds “the general process of social, political and intellectual life”. [9]

Marx describes this economic basis as “the real foundation” of society upon which, as he puts it, there

arises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness. [10]

Marx uses the term “superstructure” to describe society’s institutions and ideas because he argues that these aspects of our life do not simply dwell in a self-contained world of their own but have their origin in the way we relate to one another in the realm of material production. They are a “superstructure” because they can only be understood, in the last analysis, in terms of a society’s economic “basis”.

Thus, for example, it is not simply a “coincidence” that in South Africa you have the vicious exploitation of the black people in the factories, mines and farms existing “alongside” a political system which denies them any say in the government of the country existing “alongside” social and religious prejudices which claim that inequality is “natural” and that “races” should be kept apart. Nor is it enough to simply note that all these facets of apartheid “hang together” and are related. The fact is that it is not the ideas of a few eccentric professors from Potchefstroom or Pretoria which have brought about the nightmarish policies of “separate development” — it is the demand for cheap black labour by the industrialists, mine owners and the big farmers. In so far as economic realities come into conflict with pet schemes of this or that apartheid ideologue, it is the ideas and not the realities which suffer! It is the basis which ultimately determines the superstructure. It is not, as Marx says,

the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness. [11]

The secret of every society is to be found neither in its politics nor in its ideas but in the precise character of its production relations and it is only by studying these that we can ultimately explain why a society has the kind of culture, family structure, political system and “spiritual life” that it does. This is because it is the role of the superstructure in a class-divided society to justify and protect, to entrench and institutionalise a privileged and oppressive way of life so that the owners of the means of production — the ruling class — try to fossilise the kind of production relations which favour their interests and prevent these relations from smoothly adapting to the ever-changing forces of production. This is why an oppressed people in fighting for their freedom cannot merely transform obsolete relations of production without at the same time radically altering the entire political and ideological superstructure which is rooted in and serves to perpetuate economic exploitation.

It is sometimes thought (usually by the critics of Marxism) that concepts like “productive force” and “productive relation”, economic “basis” and ideological “superstructure” refer to easily separable slices of reality so that one can actually point to a “basis” in one part of society and a “superstructure” in another. This in fact is not so. In the real world, technology and social relationships, economic, cultural and political institutions all inextricably interpenetrate and the concepts which historical materialism employs have been separated out in the form of an analysis in order to produce a scientific theory of change.

Indeed, the very need for a scientific theory of change arises from the fact that what really happens when societies develop or revolutions occur should never be confused with what the people taking part in the events may think or imagine is going on. The distinction between the “basis” and “superstructure” makes it possible for us to distinguish the real roots of a revolution — the conflict between society’s relations and forces of production — and the events of the superstructure: the arena of politics and ideology in which, as Marx says, “men become conscious of this conflict and fight it out”. [12]

This does not mean that the superstructure can be ignored for the political and ideological factors of the struggle help us to understand why events take the particular form they do. Thus, for example, in analysing the rebellion in Soweto, we need to examine the political events very carefully, taking note of what the young revolutionaries are saying and thinking, what the reactionary police chiefs and white politicians imagine is going on, how the Bantustan ‘leaders’ view the events, what the reaction of business opinion is, at home and abroad, to the new mood of protest and defiance, etc. All these aspects of the “superstructure” require our attention, but if we wish to penetrate to the heart of the situation we must follow Marx’s advice and

distinguish between the material transformation of the economic conditions of production, which can be determined with the precision of a natural science, and the legal, political, religious, artistic or philosophic — in short, ideological forms in which men become conscious of this conflict and fight it out, [13]

From the superstructure we learn how the particular ideas and personalities, parties and politicians shape the event so that it turns out the way it does: from the basis we find why the event really occurred in terms of the underlying, deeply rooted causes which exist “beneath the surface”, as it were. In the case of Soweto, the political and ideological aspects of the situation explain the role of the protests against Afrikaans, Bantu education and the whole system of white domination; but for the basic cause of the explosion we must look to the vicious economic exploitation upon which the apartheid system rests — the unbearable poverty, insecurity, joblessness and inflation, sanctioned by racial discrimination and protected by the machine guns and barbed wire of a ruthless dictatorship. The superstructure expresses the struggle as people battle in the streets, refuse to go to work and join the ranks of the liberation movement: the basis actually explains it as the uprising of the African, Coloured and Indian people who are robbed by a racist white minority of the wealth which they collectively produce. While millions work in the mines, factories and on the farms, a clique of monopoly capitalists privately own South Africa’s immense riches — this is the root of the conflict, and of the protest, struggle and movement towards revolution, for it is here, in the economic basis of society, that the relations and forces of production collide with a raw and searing intensity. It is here that the events have their real source.

The fact that the economic basis of a society provides us with the ultimate cause of its development does not and cannot mean that it is the only cause of social development, for this would imply, for example, trying to study capitalism in South Africa without taking account of the way in which the army, police, courts, judges, administration, propaganda are used by the ruling class to keep them in power. A basis and superstructure must always be examined together, for the superstructure not only arises out of a given basis but reacts back upon economic developments and decisively influences them. Is it not clear that the battery of racist laws in South Africa — a political factor -gives economic exploitation its peculiarly vicious form? No account of development is possible unless all the political, ideological and cultural factors are carefully considered, for the economic causes cannot be meaningfully understood “on their own”.

The colonial character of South African society, the influence of Calvinism and Cape liberalism, the heritage of popular struggle against conquest and enslavement, the awakening of a national African consciousness — all these aspects of the superstructur6 help to explain why capitalism and the fight against it has developed as it has in the South African context. To simply ignore these aspects on the grounds that only economic factors “count” — that historical materialism is some kind of one-sided “economic determinism” — would lead to a grotesquely distorted understanding of reality.

What the Marxist theory of history argues is this: all factors are important and all need to be taken into account but while the aspects of the superstructure — where people express their consciousness of what is going on — determine the form of the development, the economic basis is ultimately decisive for it is only here that we can understand why in the last analysis society develops at all.

It follows of course that the more clearly we understand the dynamics of history in terms of the relationship between basis and superstructure, the conflict between the forces and relations of production, the more consciously we can control the course of events through the strategies and tactics we adopt for revolutionary change.

(iv) Historical Laws and Modes of Production

The materialist theory of history, as I have so far outlined it, cm be said to apply to all societies known to man, for where people produce, so forces of production must determine production relations and a superstructure arise out of an economic base. But although production is a common feature of every society, the character or, as Marx calls it, “the mode” of production differs from one historical period to another. “In broad outline”, Marx writes, “the Asiatic, ancient, feudal and modern bourgeois modes of production may be designated as epochs marking progress in the development of society” [14] and as economic formations or “modes of production” each is more advanced than the one preceding it — technology has been more extensively dcveloped and new and “better” forms of exploitation have been devised. Clearly we are not talking about “progress” in any straightforward moral sense, for as Engels has pointed out,

every step forward in production is at the same time a step backward in the position of the oppressed class. [15]

so that although “potentially” things may get better, in practice they get worse. Let us look briefly at what each of these modes of production entails. In what Marx calls

(a) the “Asiatic” mode (so called because of its general geographical location) the land is still owned by the community but the irrigation system which makes it possible to develop agriculture is controlled and administered by kings and priests who rely upon slaves to produce some of the wealth; however the use of slavery and the production of goods for sale in a market becomes much more dominant in

(b) the “ancient” or slave mode of production (so called because it existed in ancient Greece and Rome) in which with the development of trade and commodity production, the land itself becomes privately owned, under

(c) the “feudal” mode of production: the exploitation of slaves (in the sense of people owned like cattle by their masters) gives way to the exploitation of serfs who are bound to serve a particular lord by working so many days a year for him, fighting his wars and paying dues to the church, etc. The highest and the most deceptive form of exploitation exists however in

(d) the capitalist mode of production in which not only is the production of commodities the overriding form of economic activity, but people who have no wealth of their own are forced by economic circumstances to hire out their services (or “labour power”) to a capitalist, so that people themselves become commodities who are paid according to the amount of food and shelter they need to continue functioning as wealth-producing machines. When they are no longer required by the capitalist, he simply sacks them.

It is worth remembering that each of these “modes of production” are extremely general categories and no actual society, past or present, will necessarily fit them exactly. They serve only as a guide to understanding the development of history and although as Marx puts it, each mode of production is an epoch “marking progress in the development of society”, this does not mean that any particular society either has or has to progress through each of the four stages as though each society is preordained to clamber up the same historical ladder. In fact every society is in its particular form quite unique but these distinct features can only be appreciated when analysed through the general concepts which apply to all societies of a particular kind. Thus for example, the concept of a “capitalist mode of production” — a general term — helps us to identify and explain the peculiar features of apartheid in the South African system. In other words, a general theory of history and society is essential to any “concrete study of concrete conditions” because without it, we would not know where to begin. The materialist theory of history should never therefore be thought of as a “preconceived scheme” but rather as a guide to understanding historical realities as they really are.

Because, for example, capitalist relations of production had nowhere developed in Africa before the colonial period, this does not mean that before the people can build socialism they must endure a capitalist epoch! What we call the “historical laws” at work in a given mode of production relate to particular forces and relations of production which have developed and there is no reason why societies in Africa which are guided by a Marxist leadership and assisted by the socialist countries, cannot change these forces and relations so that they establish a socialist society based upon a socialist mode of production. There is nothing in the Marxist theory of history which says that everyone has to follow the identical path of development.

What the materialist theory of history seeks to establish is that while every society has its own specific features which fit generally into a mode of production ranging from “primitive communism” to developed socialism, nevertheless particular laws of development are themselves determined by the most basic and general historical law: the adaption of a society’s relations of production to their productive forces. The law lies at the heart of the Marxist theory of history and it explains the development of all societies without exception.

In class-divided societies, as we have seen, forces and relations of production come into sharp conflict, whereas in societies in which class divisions are disappearing (as in the socialist countries), this conflict or “contradiction” between the forces and relations can be relatively smoothly and painlessly overcome (as for example happened in 1956/57 in the Soviet Union when new forms of planning were introduced), for now there are no entrenched class interests or privileged “ways of life” which social change threatens. In a society in which, as Marx puts it, “there are no more classes and class antagonisms”, then “social evolutions will cease to be political revolutions” [16], but although the state as the embodiment of class conflict withers away, and differences can be settled through persuasion, debate and the direct action of the people themselves, change continues as it always has and always must. There will always be a continual movement in the growth of productive forces, this will require the continuous adjustment of productive relations and society’s superstructure and so we will need to continue studying the particular manifestations of the basic law of historical development which must rank as one of Marx’s great scientific discoveries.

Those who claim therefore that Marxism contradicts itself by looking towards the establishment of some kind of “perfect” communist society in which historical development “runs out of steam” and grinds to a halt have not really understood what the materialist conception of history is all about. In fact the development first of socialism in which a planned economy is built and then of communism in which class divisions finally disappear and the machinery of the state dies out, represents the start of a new history for man — a history in which the forces of production can be consciously regulated and controlled, changes are made without wars or revolution and a new world arises which can be called human in the fullest sense of the term.


1. “The Manifesto of the Communist Party”, Collected Works 6, (Moscow/London, 1976), p.497.

2. Dialectics of Nature, (Moscow, 1964), p.182.

3. “Speech at the Graveside of Karl Marx”, Selected Works in one vol., (Moscow/London, 1968), p.435.

4.The German Ideology”, Collected Works 5, (Moscow/London, 1976), p.42.

5. Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, (Moscow/London, 1971), p.20.

6. “The Poverty of Philosophy”, Collected Works 6, op. cit. p. 166.

7. Preface to the Critique, op. cit., p.20.

8. Ibid., p.21.

9. Ibid., p.20-21.

10. Ibid., p.20.

11. Ibid., p.21.

12. Ibid.

13. Ibid.

14. Ibid.

15. The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, (Lawrence and Wishart, 1972), p.231.

16. “The Poverty of Philosophy”, Collected Works 6, op. cit. p. 212.