2 December 2012
Historical Materialism: a short working definition
Historical materialism, the theory of society developed by Karl Marx (1818-83), needs a clear practical definition.
Historical materialism is a theory about and a method of studying human society. In the first instance, it is a theory about the workings of society as a whole; i.e. it is a macro theory. Its starting point is that human beings live on the planet Earth, are part of the Earth and extract the means to life from the Earth. Human beings live socially: i.e. not as Robinson Crusoes, but in society. They produce and reproduce their lives socially. Historical materialism is a theory of technique: i.e. it asserts that how we socially produce the means to life, and how we have historically produced the means to life, determines what we are as a society.
Historical materialism is an inclusive, not an exclusive science. Aspects of life are also governed by geography, human physiology, psychology, etc. These sciences are related to and are enriched by historical materialism, but are not deducible from it. Historical materialism is a macro-sociology; i.e a study of human behaviour in the whole of society.
Historical materialism stresses history because what exists today is the result of the past. It stresses materialism because at root human society is the complex result of people producing the means to life from nature. Some people produce but everybody lives from what is produced. What people think they are doing and the ideas that they have in their heads are important in determining what happens, but are necessarily secondary to what actually is happening.
Historical materialism thus recognises the basis of human existence as a collective production of society from nature in a process which develops over time. This fundamental point plays two roles in the further development of historical materialism.
First, it is a core statement of meaning about what society and human existence is.
Second, it provides the first tool for viewing the world, asking research questions and developing concepts to interpret and understand the social world.
Observations underlying historical materialism
Moving beyond the short working definition above, historical materialism can be seen to draw on three simple observations from human history. These should be spelled out.
First, as stated above, human history is the result of humans beings socially working on nature to produce the means to life. In that sense, humans aren’t different from other gregarious creatures like ants or bees. But what makes human society unique is twofold: first, human beings get better at conquering the natural world by means of developing their technology and skills, and in so doing change not only nature (e.g. the building of dams) but also change the kinds of lives they live. Second, human beings are unique in having the ability to think about, reflect on and express in language, art, music, etc. what they are doing and what they think and feel about it. Hence, for instance, the theory of historical materialism itself.
Second, all hitherto existing society has been characterised by a division of labour. Those divisions may stem from efficiency considerations (e.g. electricians not doing the work of plumbers and vice versa), cultural roles (e.g. men’s work, women’s work) or from different access to wealth and income, (e.g. factory worker, leisured gentleman). As society changes, so the divisions of labour change.
Third, all human society is based on a scarcity, or perceived scarcity, of desired things, such as money, wealth in the form of material assets, status and power. Therefore, there is a struggle for these things, which means that the principles governing their allocation are usually a matter of dispute.
The labour theory of value
The labour theory of value is an integral part of historical materialism, and needs to be stated in such a way that it applies to all human history, not just to capitalism. And for the sake of easy comprehension, the theory should be explained without mathematics.
The core idea is simple. Most of the things which we need in order to live are the products of human labour, e.g. food clothes, houses. That is, of course, not true for everything; for instance the air we breath is available without any effort. But crucially, we cannot live without those products which can only result from human labour; and that is true even in modern times when many products are manufactured by machines, because those machines have to be built and maintained by human labour.
It is a observable fact that throughout history the vast majority of people spend a huge part of their lives involved directly or indirectly in the making of useful products - or else are engaged in services to support that production. But by contrast only a minority own and control what is produced and the means of producing it, and this minority hugely benefits as a result.
In the terminology adopted by Marx, the value of a good is equal to the amount of labour time that went into making it. (And here it is vital to avoid a misunderstanding: do not confuse the value of a good in the Marxist sense with its market price because the price of a good is determined by several factors, not just the labour time that went into making it.) Some of the value resulting from produced goods is given to those involved in its production; another part (the so-called surplus value) is given to people who have legal ownership or other rights over the product, but who did not participate in the work to produce it - the landlord, factory owner, banker, etc. The higher the proportion of surplus value, the greater the level of exploitation.
The terms value, surplus value and exploitation should be understood as technical expressions, and do not always mean the same as they do in everyday speech.
Not everything that happens in society is directly about economic production, distribution and exchange. What lies outside the economy is termed the superstructure because, using a spatial metaphor, non-economic institutions and activities are seen as being located on top of the economic base. The superstructure consists of two elements: organisations and ideas.
Organisations, sets of relations between people, include governments, militaries, churches, schools, pressure groups, etc. Of course some organisations may be mainly based in the economy, for instance multi-national companies, but others less so, and some hardly at all. Organisations mould people’s ways of thinking and help form their identities and therefore play a key role in determining what people do and what happens in society.
Ideas include the whole way in which people see the world, both in terms of how the world is and how it ought to be. Some ideas, for instance the view that the world is round, are held by almost everybody, while other ideas are held by some but not all of the people. Like for organisations, some ideas concern the economy, for instance marketing, while others are not related or are more distantly related.
A word of caution should be introduced here. The two superstructural elements, organisations and ideas, are interconnected. Ideas are promoted and articulated by organisations, for instance schools, churches, the media; and conversely, ideas play an indispensable role in binding together organisations (e.g. militaries, governments).
The key question now is: what is the relationship between the superstructure (i.e. organisations and ideas) and the economy? Clearly, the relationship varies from place to place and over history, but here we are answering the question, not for any specific historical period or place, but universally.
First, although organisations and ideas play a key role in what happens in society, they have limits set for them by the economy and what is materially real. Organisations are things and do things; they cannot be something made impossible by the economy: for example, a twenty-first century army in a primitive tribal society. Likewise for ideas: goals, plans assumptions, if they are not grounded in what exists, have limited effectiveness. Yet - and this point needs stressing again - because organisation and ideas have boundaries set by the economy, it does not mean that organisations and ideas cannot play a vital role in determining what happens in the economy.
Second, it is possible to talk about a relative correspondence between superstructure and base. Quite clearly, if the economy, organisations and ideas were completely uncoordinated, society could not function. Some level of correspondence is needed for society to exist, but equally the absence of absolute coordination creates social tensions, known as contradictions; and these contradictions are an important cause of change in society.
Third, the economy involves people doing things with some benefiting more than others from the results of human production. How people relate to the economy - through their position in the functional division of labour (e.g. electrician or plumber) and through access to the rewards of economic activity (e.g. factory owner or labourer) - plays the biggest part in determining the social position of people in society. And from the position people find themselves in, so they see the world. Their socio-economic position, in other words, determines their interests and perspective; thus the different social outlook of the senior manager and the office cleaner. Through this analysis, we can identify a clear line of causality: from the economy, to social classes and other social divisions, and then to people's viewpoint and outlook on society.
To sum up, we can see the economic base of society setting limits to human organisation and thinking. We can see the need for some degree of coordination between economy, organisations and thinking. And finally, the economy gives people interests which affects the way they think.
Of course in particular periods of history (e.g. advanced capitalism), more can be said about the relationship between the superstructure and base (i.e. economy). The comments above are intended to provide (i) an understanding of what the superstructure is, and (ii) give an overview of how it links into the economy.