Historical materialism, Karl Marx‘s theory of history, is an attempt to make history scientific. To quote the German Ideology,

“The premises from which we begin are not arbitrary ones, not dogmas, but real premises from which abstraction can only be made in the imagination. They are the real individuals, their activity and the material conditions under which they live, both those which they find already existing and those produced by their activity. These premises can thus be verified in a purely empirical way.” (theGerman Ideology, p. 42)

This marks a great contrast with the idealist, Hegelian history prevalent in Germany in Marx’s time. To quote the German Ideology again,

“In direct contrast to German philosophy which descends from heaven to earth, here we ascend from earth to heaven.” (The German Ideology, p. 47)

The main thrust of historical materialism is that history is ultimately about economics. There is the famous division of base and superstructure. Marx argues that the nature of a society, including the state, in other words the superstructure, is determined ultimately by the economic base of that society. Also, the values and ideals of that society are determined by the base.

Historical materialism offers us a formula for historical development. First, the relations of production and the forces of production correspond. In other words, the pattern of ownership of the means of production is ideally suited to the development of the economy. Then, technology develops, and a contradiction arises. The relations of production no longer correspond to the forces of production. The economy is not able to develop as well as it could under some other set of relations of production. Revolution follows, and new relations of production are established. In turn, another contradiction arises, and there is another revolution. And so forth.

There are definite advantages to this approach to history. First of all, there is no doubting that historical materialism is a significant step forwards from the Hegelian philosophy of history. Historical materialism rightly separates what is actually happening from what people think is happening. To quote the German Ideology again,

“…in particular in each historical epoch (historians) have had to share the illusion of that epoch. For instance, if an epoch imagines itself to be actuated by purely “political” or “religious” motives, although “religion” and “politics” are only forms of its true motives, the historian accepts this opinion. The “idea”, the “conception” of the people in question about their real practice, is transformed into the sole determining, active force, which controls and determines their practice.” (The German Ideology, pp. 59-60)

Historical materialism is a more sophisticated way of looking at history. It digs deeper than previous explanations which concentrated on the actions of great individuals and of the ruling class. The Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm has argued that all history is now essentially Marxist, since no one thinks history should be written in the terms of Hegelian idealism rather than materialism. And many non-Marxist historians employ essentially Marxist techniques in their research. A good example would be Paul Kennedy’s explanation of the Rise and Fall of the Great Powers in terms of their material resources.

There are definite problems with historical materialism, however. Though it is important to separate peoples’ perceptions of reality from the reality itself, it is highly relevant to understand those perceptions, since they affect how people behave and thus shape the historical reality itself. It is dangerous to always assume that peoples’ perceptions of historical reality are mistaken and hide some deeper process, since one risks imposing one’s own ideas of what that process is on the actual reality. Arguably Marxism does this. Marxism has an idea of historical progress from various modes of production ultimately ending in communism. It tries to fit the often very complex historical reality into this model. The fact that the crucial conclusion derived from Marx’s notion of history, the establishment of communism, has failed to happen, suggests that perhaps his whole idea of historical progress is mistaken, and that he is simply imposing his own prejudices on an extremely complex reality.

Historical materialism also denies the importance of individuals. It may be naïve to write history in terms of great individuals, but great individuals do matter. It is hardly possible to deny that if different people had been in charge of German and Soviet foreign policy that the battle of Stalingrad and thus the Second World War would have turned out differently. The outcome would have been different even if Hitler could have simply suppressed his stubbornness and look at the situation rationally.

Perhaps more importantly, historical materialism denies the relevance of the political, relegating it to the superstructure determined by the economic base. However, political institutions do matter, independently of economics. A comparison of Finland and Russia after 1917 illustrates this point. Both were poor agricultural societies, and the crucial difference causing the divergence in their development was the political institutions set up in each country. Finland had democracy and the rule of law, which fostered economic development and eventually prosperity. Russia, on the other hand, had brutal dictatorship, which did lead to some development but at an extremely high price. And obviously, the Russian system eventually collapsed.

I think it is also a problem for historical materialism that it denies the relevance of ideals and values. Another comparison shows their relevance. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Estonia and Russia had very similar starting points. Both were poor. However, today Estonia is clearly the more affluent society. Why? It think it is essentially because in Estonia, the values of democracy and the rule of law are strong, which made it possible to establish democracy and stable political institutions quickly. This created the environment for rapid economic growth. In Russia, democratic values have never really taken root, and democracy and the rule of law are precarious in today’s Russia, to put it mildly.

I think historical materialism represents a definite step forward in historical analysis. It presents an essential point of view into the understanding of history - the economic. However, historical materialism clearly has severe deficiencies. By itself, historical materialism is an inadequate and dangerously reductionist way of looking at history. It ignores some crucial aspects of the historical reality. There are numerous empirical cases which historical materialism fails to explain. However, if historical materialism is combined with an adequate understanding of the role of political institutions, values, and significant individuals, it can be a powerful tool of historical analysis.

Karl Marx: The German Ideology
Karl Marx: Preface to the Critique of Political Economy
Jon Elster: An Introduction to Karl Marx. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1986
Professor David Howell: lecture on Marx's theory of history, University of York, 2004