Completed in 1846 by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The German Ideology succeeds in providing a sound and empirically verifiable alternative to the idealism of Young Hegelians in the form of historical materialism. In Part A of Chapter 1, they sought to outline the problems of idealism and the Young Hegelian movement, and to describe the premises of historical materialism as an alternative philosophical outlook. In this essay, the claims and the premises of the historical materialist theory will be analysed as well as the reasons of its success.
Historical Materialism: The Past and the Present
Both the materialistic and the idealistic approaches discussed in the paper have an interpretation of history as their primary goal, though historical materialism strives to do more than just interpreting. As Cornforth (2016, p. 13) noted, “The materialist conception of history is not only a theory about how to interpret history but also a theory about how to make history.” Since, for the most part, Marx was the author of the chapter in question, this paper will only refer to him and not to Engels. There are several reasons why historical materialism is still relevant today, unlike the idealism of Young Hegelians.
Marx had a difficult relationship with Hegelian philosophy. Although he abandoned the Young Hegelians after his youth and criticised their (and Hegel’s own) idealism, Marx still admired Hegel, which is shown in his work. He even had to emphasise that his dialectic methods are the opposite of Hegel’s multiple times. As Fine (2001, p. 71) noted, “The ghost of Hegel haunts Marx’s writings.” Another German philosopher criticizing Hegel’s idealism was Feuerbach, and, while Marx’s materialism is hardly identical to Feuerbach’s, it was most certainly influenced significantly by it. As Stalin (1949, p. 4) stated, “Marx and Engels took from Feuerbach’s materialism its ‘inner kernel,’ developed it into a scientific-philosophical theory of materialism and cast aside its idealistic and religious-ethical encumbrances.” In short, Hegel’s Feuerbach’s ideas played a large role in the development of Marx’s own ones.
Marx begins introducing historical materialism to the viewer only after establishing a need for such a theory. In the first paragraph of Chapter 1 of The German Ideology, Marx criticises “decomposition of the Hegelian philosophy,” and mocks the appraisal of many new interpretations of Hegel (Marx, 2000, p. 57). Then, by further describing the problems with Young Hegelian views, Marx establishes the need for a new philosophical outlook that does not completely rely on Hegel’s ambiguous writing. He argues, that “The entire body of German philosophical criticism from Strauss to Stirner is confined to criticism of religious conceptions” (Marx, 2000, p. 59). In short, the Young Hegelians (according to Marx) prey on the ambiguity of Hegel’s writing without developing any new useful approaches.
As an answer to ambiguous, idealist and impractical Young Hegelianism, Marx outlines the premises for his materialist method, noting that, in contrast to the Young Hegelians’ idealist approach, his is not “devoid of premises” (Marx, 2000, p. 69). He claims that his premises are: a) “real premises from which abstraction can only be made in the imagination,” b) “can […] be verified in a purely empirical way” (Marx, 2000, p. 61). It is best to examine the claims one after the other, applying them to the premises.
Although no longer valid in its original description, the first premise of historical materialism is grounded when considering the time of completion. Marx (2000) argues that history must be based on humans, their surroundings, and the impact that the people’s actions have on nature. All of these are real, unambiguous concepts that are not left for the reader to interpret. The exact wording of the first premise is “the existence of living human individuals” (Marx, 2000, p. 61). As a distinguishment of humans from animals, as well as a driving force of societal development, Marx (2000) suggests the human production of subsistence. Therefore, the first premise of historical materialism is empirically verifiable.
The change in modes of production is what drives society forward. It is comprised of objects of production, its methods, and, most importantly, the division of labour. Production is not just the result of the existence of individuals, but “a definite form of activity of these individuals, a definite form of expressing their life, a definite mode of life on their part” (Marx, 2000, p. 62). In essence, a society’s way of life is determined by the mode of production that is in place, and those change with the increase in population. As previously, Marx did not leave any ambiguity and extensively described the premise.
The division of labour is what mainly shows a nation’s degree of development. Through it, industrial and commercial separate first from agricultural labour, then from each other. This brings the conflict of interest between areas of high (“towns”) and low (“country”) urbanisation (Marx, 2000, p. 63). Division of labour is empirically measurable and unambiguous. It is, in turn, closely tied to forms of ownership. Marx (2000) describes four of those – three historical ones, and one that is still present today. The former will be examined primarily as described by Marx: tribal ownership, ancient communal and State ownership, and feudal ownership.
The first form of ownership described by Marx is tribal ownership, which is characterised by elementary division of labour and slaves as the workforce. The mode of production at this stage of societal development is rather primitive. Production is limited to hunting, fishing, gathering and (later) agriculture. Marx provides a concrete definition of the tribal stage of production, and it is therefore easy enough to determine whether a society’s form of ownership falls under this definition.
Right after tribal ownership comes ancient communal and State ownership. Marx (2000) describes this stage as mainly the transition from communal to private property. At this point, there is still slave ownership, but private property, both movable and immovable, starts to develop. The division of labour is already more present, and the antagonism between the town and the country starts showing itself. Once again, none of the criteria provided by Marx is ambiguous or not verifiable.
The third and last historical form of ownership is feudal ownership, which is tied to the Middle Ages. As Marx himself describes it, “If antiquity started out from the town and its little territory, the Middle Ages started out from the country” (Marx, 2000, p. 66). Development at this stage is more evenly distributed in space due to the Roman conquests and the sparseness of the population. Feudal ownership, like other historical forms, is based on a community, but “the directly producing class standing over against it is not […] the slaves, but the enserfed small peasantry” (Marx, 2000, p. 66). In towns, there is a counterpart to feudal property “in the shape of corporative property, the feudal organisation of trades” (Marx, 2000, p. 66). The division of labour is little in the feudal form of ownership, the starkest division present is the difference between the country and towns, yet Marx does not find it important. All the criteria for feudal form of ownership are specific and measurable.
Marx’s writing is, in contrast to that of Hegel’s, unambiguous, clear, and specific. He makes use of Hegel’s dialectics without depending on the philosopher for his theory. Unlike the idealism of Young Hegelians, historical materialism of Marx is easy to apply and is based on verifiable facts. As he himself stated, “Its premises are men, not in any fantastic isolation and rigidity, but in their actual, empirically perceptible process of development under definite conditions” (Marx, 2000, p. 69). That is one of the reasons why his outlook stood the test of time, while the Hegelian (especially Young Hegelian) idealism is now viewed mostly in the context of opposition to it.
Marx’s historical materialism achieves more than its initial goal of materialistically interpreting human history. The principles outlined by Marx are applicable not only to the past but also to the present. The last form of ownership listed by him – modern private ownership – is one that is still dominant across the world to this day. In a separate section, Marx (2000) describes the problems with this form of ownership and a way out of it through communist revolution. The ideas described there laid a base for all the subsequent writings of Marx, for the development of communist political theory.
A concept that plays an important role in this section is alienated, or estranged, labour. Thompson (1979, p. 25) summarizes it this way: “Wage labor reduces not only his [a human’s] product, but also his labor into a commodity that is controlled by another person.” Through alienation, a human’s result of labour is no longer representative of the person and starts to lack individuality. Wage labour also alienates person from person, and “enslaves” wage labourers. This concept had already been in use by Marx before The German Ideology in several works, gradually developing over time.
Division of labour also is an important concept for historical materialism and particularly this section of the chapter. In modern society, Marx (2000) argues, the division of labour is imposed on individuals and alienates them. It is restrictive: one must adhere to the division of labour and only advance themselves in one field if one desires to keep one’s means of livelihood. Furthermore, the division of labour implies a conflict between the interest of a subject (a person or a family) and the interest of the community as a whole. From this conflict “the latter takes an independent form as the State,” the function of which is to impose the division of labour on individuals (Marx, 2000, p. 77). According to Marx, the general interest is, however, illusory at this stage.
The way out of alienation is the reformation of society and the abolition of private property. Marx (2000) describes two premises for such an event: intolerability and universality of alienation. It becomes intolerable at such a point, where it has resulted in the stark contrast between the super-wealthy minority and the poor majority (with a substantial amount of people being “propertyless”) (Marx, 2000, p. 81). Marx (2000) has noted, that it had been empirically verified, that the divide between the wealthy minority and the rest of humanity has been steadily increasing throughout history. In fact, even today, data shows the same trend of the wealthy getting wealthier and the poor getting poorer. Marx believed that these premises already existed in his time, but he was not correct.
Modern Critiques of Historical Materialism and The German Ideology
Every theory is a product of its time and, however intricate and detailed, imperfect due to the flawed nature of humans. Such is also the case with historical materialism of Marx and Engels. Written in the nineteenth century, The German Ideology is not a modern book in the same way that Marx is not a modern philosopher. Firstly, Marx’s language is outdated and difficult to understand for a modern reader. He writes sarcastically and, at times, his writing sounds like more of a rant than a philosophical discussion. The exclusive usage of “he,” “man,” etc. instead of the neutral “they” (or “he or she”), “person” (or “one”), etc. excludes women from the discourse. The German Ideology is a very characteristically nineteenth-century book, while, at the moment, it is the twenty-first century. Secondly, The German Ideology and historical materialism are based on nineteenth-century science. Over the course of almost two hundred years, science, including social sciences, has advanced greatly. All that shows that there is a need for a modern theory of historical materialism.
There were multiple attempts at reconstructing historical materialism, but as an example, discuss the one made by Jürgen Habermas will be discussed. In “Towards a Modern Reconstruction of Historical Materialism,” he outlines the existing problems with Marx’s theory and proposes his solutions. Using modern knowledge of anthropology, he argues that Marx’s definition of social labour (the distinction of humans from animals) may be suitable from distinguishing hominids from other animals, but not humans from animals (Habermas, 1975). That is because, as modern anthropology discovered, it is not only humans that organise labour and utilise tools but other hominids as well. To solve that problem, he proposes that the line be drawn at the moment when “the economy of the hunt is supplemented by kinship structures” since the latter are unique to humans (Habermas, 1975, p. 289). That is only one of many imperfections of Marxian historical materialism that Habermas attempts to solve.
Without criticizing the existing norms, theories, and beliefs, society and science do not progress. One should always strive to improve upon oneself and upon the community one is associated with. Marx saw the inadequacies of existing philosophical theories, criticized them, and developed his own ones as an alternative. These theories determined the course of the next century of history and continue to be massively influential to this day. They are not perfect, no theory is, and, as Marx sought to improve on the existing theories, so should today’s thinkers avoid becoming the “Young Marxists” and instead develop Marx’s ideas into something better.
Cornforth, M. (2016) Historical materialism. New York: Red Star Publishers.
Fine, R. (2001) ‘The Marx-Hegel relationship: revisionist interpretations’, Capital & Class, 25(3), pp. 71-81.
Habermas, J. (1975) ‘Towards a reconstruction of historical materialism’, Theory and Society, 2(1), pp. 287-300.
Marx, K. (2000) The German ideology. Electric Book Company.
Stalin, J. (1949) Dialectical and historical materialism. Moscow: Foreign Languages Publishing House.
Thompson, L.A. (1979) ‘The development of Marx’s concept of alienation: an introduction’, Mid-American Review of Sociology, 4(1), pp. 23-38.