Historical Materialism By maurice cornforth

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Author of Science and Idealism,
In Defense of Philosophy

Originally printed in 1954

Reprinted in 2016 by


A previous volume by the same author dealt with Materialism and the Dialectical Method. It was originally intended to have a second volume on Historical Materialism and the Theory of Knowledge. The present book, however, is devoted exclusively to Historical Materialism, and the Theory of Knowledge will be discussed in a third volume.



Part One, General Principles


Scientific Socialism



Materialism and the Science of Society



The Role of Ideas in Social Life


Part Two. How Society Develops


The Mode of Production



Fundamental Laws of Social Development



Economic Laws and their Utilisation



The Social Superstructure



Class Ideas and Class Rule


Part Three. The Future: Socialism and Communism


Socialism and Communism



Motive Forces of the Development from
Socialism to Communism



Planned Production








Part One




Socialism is the social ownership of means of production and their utilisation to satisfy the material and cultural requirements of the whole of society. Socialism is necessary because only by such a radical transformation of the economic basis of society can the evils resulting from capitalism be done away with, and new powerful techniques be fully utilised.

Socialism can be achieved only by means of the struggle of the working class, and only on condition that the mass working-class movement is equipped with scientific socialist theory.

Marx and Engels established the bases of this theory. The foundation of their teaching was their discovery of the laws of development of society, the laws of the class struggle.

Capitalism and Socialism

The idea of socialism arose and gripped men’s minds in modern society because of discontent with the evils of capitalism, and the perception that only by a radical transformation of the entire economic basis of society could these evils be done away with.

In capitalist society the means of production—the land, factories, mills, mines, transport—belong to the capitalists, and production is carried on for capitalist profit. But the essence of socialism is that the means of production become social property, and that, on the basis of social ownership, production is carried on for the benefit and welfare of the whole of society.

From its very beginning, capitalism meant a previously undreamed of increase in the powers of producing wealth. But this wealth went to swell the profits of a few, while the mass of the working people were condemned to toil and poverty. To use the new powers of producing wealth, not to enrich the few but to enrich the whole of society, is the aim of socialism.

Great new productive forces have been created in modern society—as witness the discoveries of science and the growth of industry. But it becomes yearly more evident that the capitalist owners and managers cannot direct the development and utilisation of these forces for the benefit of the majority of the people.

Today this is more evident than ever before.

The great capitalist monopolies of today subjugate everything to their drive for maximum profits, to secure which they step up the exploitation of the workers, ruin and impoverish the majority of the population, annex other countries and plunder their resources, militarise the national economy and prepare for and wage wars.

The newly discovered techniques of atomic energy production, for example, are not being developed and utilised by the capitalist powers for the benefit of the people. On the contrary, they are being developed to produce new weapons to intimidate rival capitalist powers and to try to overawe those peoples who have already rid themselves of capitalism.

Vast territories have been annexed by the capitalist powers as their colonies, and they have claimed to “develop” these territories. The peoples living in them, however, remain in conditions of incredible poverty.

Despite all the resources of science, capitalism is unable even to feed masses of people adequately. In the United States of America, the richest capitalist country in the world, “surplus” food is today going to waste, while about half the population of the United States remains undernourished. If the profit system fails even to distribute existing supplies, no wonder it fails to increase them to meet the needs of the hungry.

People have even come to fear new knowledge and high techniques, because they fear that the result of higher technique may only be crisis and unemployment, and that the result of more knowledge may only be the discovery of even more fearful weapons of destruction. The profit system has converted men’s highest achievements into threats to their livelihood and very existence. This is the final sign that that system has outlived its time, and must be replaced by another.

Socialism means that the vast resources of modern technique are developed and utilised to meet the needs of the people. Production is not carried on for profit, but to satisfy the material and cultural requirements of society. And this is ensured because the means of production, all the means of creating wealth, are taken out of the control of a capitalist minority, whose concern is for capitalist profit, and come under the control of the working people themselves.

Socialist Theory and the Working-class Movement

But in order to achieve socialism, we need something more than a general idea of socialism as a better order of society than capitalism. We need to understand what social forces must be organised and what opponents they will have to defeat.

The first conceptions of socialism were utopian in character. The first socialists conceived the vision of a better order of society; they gave it form and colour and proclaimed it far and wide. But it remained a mere vision. They could not say how to realise it in practice.

The utopians criticised the capitalist order of society as unreasonable and unjust. For them, socialism was based simply on reason and justice; and because they considered that the light of reason belonged equally to all men, they appealed to everyone equally—and first of all to the rulers of society, as being the most influential—to embrace the truth of socialism and put it into practice.

They contributed the first exposure and condemnation of capitalism, and the first vision of socialism—a society based on common ownership of the means of production—as the alternative to capitalism. But this vision was spun out of the heads of reformers. The utopians could not show the way to achieve socialism, because they had no conception of the laws of social change and could not point to the real social force capable of creating a new society.

That force is the working class. The capitalist class is bound to resist socialism, because the end of the profit system means the end of the capitalist class. For the working class, on the other hand, socialism means its emancipation from exploitation. Socialism means the end of poverty and unemployment. It means that workers work for themselves and not for the profit of others.

The achievement of socialism depends on the mobilisation of the working class in the fight for socialism, and on their overpowering the resistance of the capitalist class. And in this struggle the working class must seek to unite with itself all those sections—and together they constitute the majority of society—whose interests are infringed upon and who are impoverished and ruined by the greed for profits of the ruling capitalist minority.

But more than that. If socialism is to be won, if working-class emancipation from capitalism is to be achieved, then the working-class movement must become conscious of its socialist aim. But this consciousness does not arise of itself, it does not arise spontaneously. On the contrary, it requires the scientific working out of socialist theory, the introduction of this theory into the working-class movement, and the fight for it inside the movement.

The very conditions of life of the workers lead them to combine and organise to defend their standards of life from capitalist attack and to improve them. But the trade union struggle to defend and improve working-class standards does not get rid of capitalism. On the contrary, so long as working- class struggle limits itself to such purely economic aims, it seeks only to gain concessions from capitalism while continuing to accept the existence of the system. And the movement can pass beyond this phase of fighting for no more than reforms within capitalism, only when it equips itself with socialist theory. Only then can it become conscious of its long-term aim of getting rid of capitalism altogether, and work out the strategy and tactics of the class struggle for achieving that aim.

In the history of the working-class movement there have been leaders whose standpoint went no further than concern for winning concessions from capitalism. This outlook is the root of opportunism in the working-class movement—the tendency to seek merely temporary gains for different sections of the working class at the expense of the long-term interests of the whole class. The root of opportunism in the working- class movement consists in accepting the spontaneous struggle for reforms as the be all and end all of the movement.

If socialism is to be achieved, the working-class movement must not rely only on the spontaneous development of the mass struggle for better conditions. It must equip itself with socialist theory, with the scientific understanding of capitalism and of the position of the different classes under capitalism, with the scientific understanding that the emancipation of the working class can be achieved only by uniting all forces for the overthrow of capitalism and the establishment of socialism.

Hence without the guiding and organising force of scientific socialist theory, the working class cannot win victory over capitalism. The union of socialist theory with the mass working-class movement is a condition for the advance from capitalism to socialism.

The Marxist Science of Society

The great contribution of Marxism was to develop scientific socialist theory and to introduce it into the working-class movement.

Marx and Engels based socialism on a scientific understanding of the laws of social development, of the class struggle. And so they were able to show how socialism was to be achieved, and to arm the working class with knowledge of its historical mission.

Marx did not arrive at his conclusions as a pure research worker, though he did conduct profound research. In the 1840’s Marx was participating as a revolutionary democrat and republican in the movement which led up to the revolutionary year 1848. And he arrived at his conclusions as an active politician, striving to understand the movement in which he participated in order to guide it to the goal of the people’s emancipation from oppression, superstition and exploitation.

These conclusions were formulated in The Manifesto of the Communist Party which Marx wrote, in collaboration with Engels, in 1848.

They saw the whole social movement as a struggle between classes; they saw the contending classes themselves as products of the economic development of society; they saw politics as the reflection of the economic movement and of the class struggle; they saw that the bourgeois revolution then in progress, the task of which was to remove the vestiges of feudal rule and establish democracy, was preparing the way for the proletarian, socialist revolution; and they saw that this revolution could only be achieved by the working class conquering political power.

It was only because they espoused the cause of the working class and saw in it the new, rising, transforming force in history, that Marx and Engels were able to discover the laws of social change, which those who adopted the standpoint of the exploiting classes could never do.

“Certain historical facts occurred which led to a decisive change in the conception of history,” wrote Engels. “In 1831 the first working-class rising had taken place at Lyons; between 1838 and 1848 the first national workers’ movement, that of the English Chartists, reached its height.

“The class struggle between proletariat and bourgeoisie came to the front.... But the old idealist conception of history . . . knew nothing of class struggle based on material interests, in fact knew nothing at all of material interests. . . . The new facts made imperative a new examination of all past history.”

From this new situation, Engels continued, it became clear.

“That all past history was the history of class struggles; that these warring classes are always the product of the conditions of production and exchange, in a word, of the economic conditions of their time; that therefore the economic structure of society always forms the real basis from which, in the last analysis, is to be explained the whole superstructure of legal and political institutions, as well as of the religious, philosophical and other conceptions of each historical period.”1

From the recognition of the significance of the class struggle in capitalist society came the realisation that the class struggle was likewise waged in previous epochs and that, in fact, the whole of past history since the break-up of the primitive communes was the history of class struggles.

But on what was the class struggle based? On the clash of the material interests of the different classes. Realising this, the key to historical development as a whole had to be sought in the sphere of these material interests. The different classes with their different interests were seen to be “the product of the conditions of production and exchange”, of the economic conditions, prevailing in society.

Marx pointed out that “in production men not only act on nature but also on one another. They produce only by co-operating in a certain way and mutually exchanging their activities. In order to produce, they enter into definite connections and relations with one another, and only within these social connections and relations does their action on nature, does production, take place.”2

Marx and Engels discovered the key to understanding the whole development of society in the investigation of the development of economic conditions, of the conditions of production and exchange, and of the struggle between classes produced by these economic conditions.

Thus understanding the laws of historical development, Marx and Engels showed that socialism was not a utopian dream, but the inevitable outcome of the development of capitalist society and of the working-class struggle against capitalism. They taught the working class to be conscious of its own strength and of its own class interests, and to unite for a determined struggle against the capitalist class, rallying around itself all the forces discontented with capitalism. They showed that it was impossible to get rid of capitalism and establish socialism unless the working class conquered political power, deprived the capitalists of all power and stamped out their resistance. And they showed that in order to vanquish the old world and create a new, classless society, the working class must have its own party, which Marx and Engels called the Communist Party.



The first guiding principle of historical materialism is that change and development in society, as in nature, take place in accordance with objective laws.

What happens in society is brought about by the conscious activities of human individuals. But the outcome of this activity, and the conscious motives by which it is directed, are in the last analysis conditioned by the operation of laws of economic development which operate independently of the will of men.

Marx’s discovery of the laws of social development arms the working-class movement with the scientific knowledge with the aid of which it can carry its struggle against capitalism through to the victory of socialism, and then build socialist society.

The Marxist concept of social laws is not fatalistic, but shows how people by their own efforts can and do change society. Nor does it deny the role of individual leaders, but shows that such leaders always represent and serve the interests of classes.

The Materialist Conception of History

The general theory of the motive forces and laws of social change, developed on the basis of Marx’s discoveries, is known as the materialist conception of history, or historical materialism.

The materialist conception of history was arrived at by applying the materialist world outlook to the solution of social problems. And because he made this application, materialism was with Marx no longer simply a theory aimed at interpreting the world, but a guide to the practice of changing the world, of building a society without exploitation of man by man. Above all, historical materialism has a contemporary significance. It is always applicable here and now, at the present day. It leads to conclusions, not only about the causes of past events, but about the causes of events now taking place, and therefore about what to do, about what policy to fight for, in order to satisfy the requirements of the people.

It is precisely in this contemporary application that historical materialism demonstrates its scientific character. For, in the last analysis, the test of social science, as of all other science, can lie only in its practical application. If historical materialism makes history into a science, this is because the materialist conception of history is not only a theory about how to interpret history but also a theory about how to make history, and therefore the basis for the practical policy of the revolutionary class which is making history today.

The application of the materialist world outlook to social questions leads to three guiding principles, which historical materialism employs in the understanding of social affairs. They are:

(1) That society in its development is regulated by objective laws discoverable by science;

(2) That views and institutions, political, ideological and cultural developments, arise on the basis of the development of the material life of society;

(3) That ideas and institutions which thus arise on the basis of conditions of material life play an active role in the development of material life.

These guiding principles will be the subject of this and the next chapter.

Social Processes Regulated by Objective Laws

The first guiding principle resulting from the application of materialism to social questions is that change and development in society, as in nature, take place in accordance with objective laws. Social processes, like processes in nature, are regulated by objective laws.

Materialism maintains that the processes of nature always take place in accordance with laws which are discoverable and are characteristic of the processes and objects concerned. Materialism explains what takes place in the material world from the material world itself. It does not recognise inexplicable happenings, divine interventions or control of material events by non-material, supernatural agencies.

And so, because it understands human affairs as part of the material world and not as belonging to some other “higher” sphere of being, materialism does not recognise inexplicable happenings, divine interventions or supernatural agencies in human affairs any more than it does in nature.

If the materialist standpoint is applied to social questions, it follows that we must seek to explain the movement of society, too, as taking place according to characteristic laws which are discoverable from the investigation of the processes of social life.

Consequently, for materialism, “social life, the history of society, ceases to be an agglomeration of ‘accidents’ and becomes the history of the development of society according to regular laws, and the study of the history of society becomes a science. . . . Hence the science of the history of society, despite all the complexity of the phenomena of social life, can become as precise a science as, let us say, biology, and capable of making use of the laws of development of society for practical purposes.”1

The Materialist Conception of Objective Laws

What in this context do we mean by “laws”? What exactly is the materialist conception of “laws”, whether it be laws of natural or of social processes?

Laws are expressions (usually only approximate) of objective regularities discoverable in events.

A law, such as the law of gravity, is a rule which has been formulated to express certain regular connections between phenomena, that is, regular connections between observed events, between observed features of things and processes.

These connections and regularities, which are expressed in the law, do not depend on ourselves. We can get to know them and express them in laws, and then we can take these laws into account in our practical activity. But the laws, in so far as they are objective and scientifically valid, express objective connections and regularities which operate independently of our consciousness and our will.

For example, the mutual attraction between bodies which is expressed in the law of gravity operates independently of our consciousness and of our will. It operates just the same, whether we observe it or not, and whether we like it or not. We have to adapt our actions to the law of gravity, since we cannot by any possibility alter it.

And if social processes are regulated by laws, then the same must apply in society. There are regularities in social processes, and connections between social events, which are independent of our consciousness and will. Whether we notice them or not, whether we like them or not, they operate just the same.

If such regularities and connections exist in nature and in society, they exist because events do not take place, whether in nature or society, without a cause, and because causes once being set in train, their effects must follow. If, for example, certain events took place without causes, or if there was supernatural intervention in the course of events, or if similar causes failed to produce similar effects—then we could not say that events were regulated by laws. For in that case, the regularity and connection which is expressed in laws would not be present.

If, then, we say that society develops according to objective laws, then we mean (1) that social events take place only when the conditions causing such events have come into being. If, say, a movement starts up in which people put new social objectives before themselves, then that movement arises when and only when the conditions for it exist. It occurs at a definite time and in definite circumstances, and could not have occurred at another time and in other circumstances when its causes were not present.

So, for example, if we are considering the rise of Christianity in the Roman Empire, we ought to seek for its causes in the conditions which had developed in Roman society at that particular time. And similarly, if we are considering the rise of rationalism and freethinking in modern Europe, once again we should seek its causes in the particular conditions of society which were coming into being in modern Europe. Neither in the one case nor the other should we seek for the explanation of the movement in some special illumination of men’s minds taking place independently of the general movement of society.

We mean (2) that once certain events have taken place their effects will follow, independently of people’s desires or intentions. Subsequent actions, subsequent events, may modify these effects, but cannot nullify them.

For example, the invention of the mariner’s compass set in motion a whole train of effects which went far beyond what anyone had intended or foreseen; so did the invention of the steam engine, the invention of the spinning jenny, and so on. Once such a train of effects is set in motion, it gives a direction to social events which cannot be reversed. It is the same in the political and ideological sphere. Men’s political and ideological activities, coming to pass as products of definite social circumstances, lead to effects in accordance with those circumstances which may go far beyond and even be very different from what they foresaw or intended.

And we mean (3) that though circumstances are continually changing, and exactly the same circumstances never recur, nevertheless the same causal connections are discoverable in different sequences of events.

Thus the great social movements arising at different periods of history exemplify the same causal connections operating in different circumstances. If, for example, three hundred years ago there was a movement to get rid of feudalism, and today there is a movement to get rid of capitalism, these movements, different as they are, repeat the same process—they both arise because an existing social system has become a fetter upon economic development.

But it is one thing to say that social processes are regulated by laws and that therefore a science of society is possible. It is another thing to discover these laws, to lay bare the fundamental laws of change and development in society. How does Marxism approach this problem?

Determining Factors in Social Development

The development of society has unique features which distinguish social changes from natural events. The essential difference lies in the fact that society is composed of conscious human beings, from whose conscious activity everything that arises in society results.

“In one point the history of the development of society proves to be essentially different from that of nature,” wrote Engels. “In nature . . . there are only blind, unconscious agencies acting upon one another. ... In the history society, on the other hand, the actors are all endowed with consciousness, are men acting with deliberation or passion, working towards definite goals; nothing happens without a conscious purpose, without an intended aim.”1

For this reason it has commonly been assumed that objective laws cannot be discovered in society as in nature. In nature, it is argued, everything is determined in accordance with natural law. But in society, what happens is determined by people’s conscious aims and intentions; and in this sphere there exists no such order and repetition as will admit of the discovery of objective laws regulating the sequence of events.

(1) Marxism, however, calls attention in the first place to the circumstances determining the outcome of people’s intended acts. People may intend anything they please, but what actually results from their actions may be something else, which they did not intend.

For example, in imposing bans on trade with the socialist world the rulers of the U.S.A. today intend to strangle the socialist countries. But this is not what actually results from their actions. On the contrary, the socialist countries continue to flourish despite the bans, and the chief outcome is to cause economic difficulties for the capitalist countries, and conflicts between the U.S.A. and its capitalist allies.

What, then, determines the outcome of people’s intended acts? Here is a sphere of the operation of objective laws independent of the will of men.

(2) Marxism calls attention in the second place to the circumstances which give rise to the formation of aims and intentions in people’s minds. When people form intentions and place various aims before themselves, they do this in response to the varying circumstances in which they find themselves. Different people have different aims, and different aims are formulated at different times. This does not express merely the fact that individual psychologies differ, but it expresses the fact that people find themselves in different circumstances, with different interests arising from those circumstances. It is these differences which, in the last analysis, give rise to their different aims.

For example, if at the present time .some people set themselves the aim of fomenting wars, while others try to keep the peace, this is not primarily because some people have an aggressive turn of mind while others are more friendly and peaceable, but because, in present circumstances, there are some people whose interests are served by heightening international tensions while the interests of others are served by resolving international tensions.

If, then, we take into account the development of the circumstances under which people form their different aims and of the interests which these aims express, here again is a sphere of the operation of objective laws independent of the will of men.

Dealing with this problem, Engels pointed out (1) that while nothing happens without an intended aim, what actually takes place has, in the long run, seldom been the same as what was aimed at.

“That which is willed happens but rarely. In the majority of instances the numerous desired ends cross and conflict with one another, or these ends themselves are from the outset incapable of realisation, or the means of attaining them are insufficient. Thus the conflict of innumerable individual wills and individual actions in the domain of history produces a state of affairs entirely analogous to that in the realm of unconscious nature. The ends of the actions are intended, but the results which actually follow from these actions are not intended; or when they do seem to correspond to the ends intended, they ultimately have consequences quite other than those intended.”1

In other words, while history is made by men’s conscious activities, yet we cannot find the explanation of what results from men’s activities in the will or intentions of the people taking part in these events. For “the many individual wills active in history for the most part produce results quite other than those they intended—often quite the opposite.”2

And so Engels concluded (2) that “their motives in relation to the total result are likewise of only secondary significance.... The further question arises: what driving forces in turn stand behind these motives? What are the historical causes which transform themselves into motives in the brains of the actors?”3

Looking, then, for the circumstances which give rise to the formation of aims and intentions in people’s minds and which determine the final outcome of their social activity, Marxism discovers these in the development of the material life of society—in the sphere of economic development, in the development of production and of the conditions of production and exchange.

The capitalist system as it exists today, for example, could only develop as a result of the destruction of the former feudal social relations and feudal institutions, and this revolution was made by people who rallied behind such aims as “liberty, equality, fraternity”. From the position which they occupied within the economic structure of feudal society, the peasants, the town workers and the rising bourgeoisie were all frustrated in the pursuit of their material interests, and all consequently oppressed, under feudal rule. That is why they arose to fight for liberty, and it was this which was expressed in their aim of liberty. By their actions the feudal fetters were smashed. But what then resulted was something not intended by the majority of those taking part in the revolution. For as soon as the feudal fetters were smashed, free scope was afforded to the development of the economic activity of the bourgeoisie and so the laws of economic development, independent of whether anyone intended it, led to the development of capitalism. Thus capitalism developed in accordance with social laws of which most of the people whose actions forwarded that development were quite unaware.

Marxism concludes, therefore, that while society is composed of individuals who together make their own history by their own conscious activity, yet we must look behind people’s conscious aims, intentions and motives to the economic development of society and the class struggle in order to find the laws of historical development. It is there that we discover the laws which regulate the changes in the circumstances conditioning people’s actions, the transformation of material interests into conscious motives in their heads, and the final outcome of their activity.

Laws of Economic Development

The materialist conception that change and development in society, as in nature, are regulated by objective laws, leads then to the conclusion that the fundamental laws regulating change and development in society are economic m character. In other words, the fundamental laws of society are the laws governing the development of production, the conditions of production and exchange, the rise of classes and class relationships, and the class struggle.

Regulating the development of the conditions of material life of society, these fundamental laws of social development operate behind people’s backs, as it were, without them being aware of it. Their operation leads to the coming about of definite circumstances which then condition people’s conscious outlook and motives of action, and determine, independently of their intentions, the actual outcome of their actions.

But then what follows, if once people do become aware of these laws, do get to know and understand them?

If once people come to understand that the real possibilities of social action are conditioned by material circumstances and material interests, if once they come to understand by what laws the outcome of their social activities is governed, it follows that they can then consciously and deliberately shape their course in accordance with the real possibilities of the situation, and can adapt their associated actions to the real material circumstances and laws of their social existence.

Like all major scientific discoveries, therefore the discovery of the laws of development of society is a great liberating fact, creating new powers and potentialities of social action. For it points the way to the future utilisation of these laws for securing the satisfaction of the basic requirements of men in society. If we understand the laws of historical development, then we can begin to make history in a new way—consciously basing our policy on the recognition of historical necessity, framing our policies in accordance with the real requirements of the majority of society, and so setting ourselves realisable objectives which accord with real social needs, and finding the wav to attain them.

Such is the use to which the working-class movement can and must put the discoveries of Marxism. As we have seen, it was precisely the need of the rising working-class struggle for socialism which created the conditions for the discovery by Marx of the laws of development of society. Armed with scientific knowledge of the laws of development of society, the working-class movement can carry its struggle against capitalism through to the victory of socialism, and then lead the way in building socialist society in which exploitation of man by man is abolished and the whole of social development serves the aim of satisfying the ever-rising material and cultural requirements of the whole of society.

Is Marxism Fatalist?

The materialist conception that society develops according to objective laws is often held to imply some form of “fatalism” —that what will happen is always “fated” and that what we can do makes no difference to the outcome. In the light of what has been said, however, it should now be clear that Marxism implies the opposite.

There have been, and there are, fatalist theories of history. But these are idealist theories. Marxism is opposed to them, and they are opposed to Marxism.

Such, for example, are the theories which see in history the working out and realisation of some sort of divine plan—like Hegel’s philosophy of history, which sees the whole historical development of society as the realisation stage by stage of the so-called Absolute Idea.

Such, too, are the various theories which see history as moving through “cycles”, every civilisation passing by some inescapable necessity through the cycle of rise, plenitude of power and decline—as in Spengler’s Decline of the West or Toynbee’s Studies in History.

The idealism of such theories lies in the fact that they see the laws of development of society as a “fate” imposed upon society from outside, so that men and women are mere instruments of fate, the tools of an external necessity. If such theories are accepted, then we are indeed driven to fatalism. If what takes place is in the hands of God, or is decreed by fate, or follows by some iron necessity—it makes little difference in practice which you say—then it follows that there is indeed little we can do to determine our own destinies for ourselves.

For Marxism, on the other hand, men make their own history. Materialism can recognise no divine plan, no fate, no external necessity determining historical events. The events are determined wholly and entirely by men’s own actions in the historical circumstances in which men find themselves.

“Men make their own history,” wrote Marx, “but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly encountered, given and transmitted from the past.”1

This is the objective condition and limitation of men’s historical activities. But these “circumstances given and transmitted from the past” were themselves made by men. If, then, we can come to know the economic and class forces which men themselves create in their historical activity, and the laws of their operation, then we can know what can be achieved and what must be done to achieve it. Far from leading to fatalistic inaction, therefore, the materialist conception of history leads to a programme of action.

Certainly, such a programme of action, based on scientific knowledge of laws of social development, is not possible for a reactionary class. It is such classes, indeed, which tend to cook up fatalist theories of history. They are capable of action, and of very vigorous action; but it is guided by their perception of their own narrow class interests and their wide experience of defending and advancing those interests—not by any scientific understanding of fundamental laws of social development, which they are concerned to resist, and understanding of which they therefore resist too. Such understanding can be achieved only by the progressive class, which eventually is able to utilise the laws of social development for overthrowing the old system of society and establishing a new one.

For the working people today, historical materialism tells them that by their own efforts, and by their own efforts alone, they can attain power and find the way to happiness and plenty. “The emancipation of the working classes must be conquered by the working classes themselves.”1

Individuals and Classes

While Marxism is opposed to “fatalist theories of history, it is equally opposed to theories which make social development depend on nothing but a series of accidents. Such theories see no laws of development operating in society, but regard events as determined by unpredictable circumstances. Those who hold such views commonly attribute the decisive role in history to exceptional individuals, whose influence or force of will brings it about that events follow one course rather than another.

How, then, does Marxism regard the role played by exceptional individuals in history? If it denies that the course of history can in the long run be determined by the accidental characteristics of individuals, does it deny that certain individuals do play an exceptionally important part in shaping the course of events?

Marxism does not deny the role played in history by exceptional individuals. It does not deny the influence which such individuals have on the course of events. Nevertheless, historical development is not determined by exceptional individuals but by the movement of classes, and the exceptional individuals play their role only as representatives or leaders of classes. Unless the individual bases his authority and his influence upon the support of some class, whose interests and tendencies he represents, he is impotent and can exert no decisive influence. On the other hand, movements require leaders; and when classes are in movement they require to find and do find the individuals who can act as their representatives and leaders. These may be good leaders or bad, leaders of genius or second-rate leaders. In the former case the movement is accelerated and in the latter case retarded. But in any case, and in the long run, the course of history is not determined by the accidental characteristics of leading individuals, but by the movement of classes, of masses of people.

“When it is a question of investigating the driving powers which... lie behind the motives of men who act in history,” wrote Engels, “…then it is not a question so much of the motives of single individuals, however eminent, as of those motives which set in motion great masses, whole peoples, and again whole classes of the people in each people. To ascertain the driving causes which are reflected as conscious motive in the minds of acting masses and their leaders the so-called great men . . . that is the only path which can put us on the track of the laws holding sway both in history as a whole, and at particular periods in particular lands.1

The working class today, therefore, must rely for its emancipation on its own class action. It must not accept leaders on their own valuation, but must judge its leaders by their actions and keep a check on their activities through its mass organisations. For the leaders of the movement are effective only in so far as they faithfully serve the class, remain close to the people and show the way forward based on scientific understanding.

“We may take it as a rule,” wrote Stalin, “that as long as the Bolsheviks maintain connection with the broad masses of the people they will be invincible. And, on the contrary, as soon as the Bolsheviks sever themselves from the masses and lose their connection with them, as soon as they become covered with bureaucratic rust, they will lose all their strength and become a mere cypher. ... In the mythology of the ancient Greeks there was a celebrated hero, Antaeus.... Wherein lay his strength? It lay in the fact that every time he was hard pressed in a fight with an adversary he would touch the earth, the mother who had given birth to him and suckled him, and that gave him new strength…. I think that the Bolsheviks remind us of the hero of Greek mythology, Antaeus. They, like Antaeus, are strong because they maintain connection with their mother, the masses, who gave birth to them, suckled them and reared them, and as long as they maintain connection with their mother, with the people, they have every chance of remaining invincible.”1

Marxism, then, shows scientifically the way to win socialism. It proves scientifically that the victory of the working class and the downfall of capitalism are alike inevitable. But this is not brought about by any preordained fate, nor by the will of a few individuals, but by the conscious activity of millions of men and women united in the working-class movement, and led by a party and by leaders who base their leadership on scientific understanding, on collective discussion and criticism and faithfulness to the interests of the people.



The second guiding principle of historical materialism is that social ideas arise out of the conditions of material life of society.

But ideas arising from conditions of material life of society then play an active role in the development of material life. This is the third guiding principle.

Ideas either promote or hinder social development. Old ideas, corresponding to conditions already outmoded, always tend to survive even after the conditions which gave rise to them are past. Such ideas are championed by the reactionary classes. But the new, rising social forces need to equip themselves with new ideas, which correspond to what is new and rising in the development of the material life of society. Such new ideas play a tremendous organising and mobilising role in the struggle to transform society.

Historical materialism teaches that the working class today needs (1) to base its practical policy on the objective laws of social development, (2) to base its programme on the real needs of the material development of society, and (3) to equip itself with revolutionary ideas, revolutionary theory.

The Material Life of Society determines its Views and Institutions

The second guiding principle of historical materialism is, that the views current in society, together with the institutions of society, are always in the last analysis determined by the conditions of material life.

In other words, the application of materialism to social questions leads to the conclusion that the material life of society determines its spiritual life.

For materialism, matter or the material world is primary, while mind or thought is secondary and derivative. The existence and inter-relationship of material things does not depend on our ideas of them, but on the contrary, our minds and the ideas in our minds depend on the prior existence and inter-relation of material things.

Applied to society, this means that the origin of all the views current in society lies in the conditions of material life of society, and not the other way about.

“It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being,” wrote Marx, “but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness.”1

“The material life of society is an objective reality existing independently of the will of men, while the spiritual life of society is a reflection of this objective reality,” wrote Stalin, explaining Marx’s standpoint. “. . . Hence the source of formation of the spiritual life of society, the origin of social ideas, social theories, political views and political institutions should not be sought in the ideas, theories, views and political institutions themselves, but in the conditions of the material life of society, of which these ideas, theories, views, etc., are the reflection.”2

This is the very opposite of what is usually taught. And it implies in turn that the ultimate causes of historical events are not to be found in the changes in men’s ideas, but in the changes in the conditions of material life.

“The whole previous view of history was based on the conception that the ultimate causes of all historical changes are to be looked for in the changing ideas of human beings,” wrote Engels. “. . . But the question was not asked as to whence the ideas come into men’s minds. . . . The ideas of each historical period are most simply to be explained from the economic conditions of life and from the social and political relations of the period, which are in turn determined by these economic conditions.”3

Consequently, “the ultimate causes of all social changes and political revolutions are to be sought, not in men’s brains, not in men’s better insight into eternal truth and justice, but in changes in the modes of production and exchange. . . . The growing perception that existing social institutions are unreasonable and unjust, that reason has become unreason and right wrong, is only proof that in the modes of production and exchange changes have silently taken place, with which the social order, adapted to earlier economic conditions, is no longer in keeping.”4

Let us take an example.

It is often supposed that our forefathers overthrew the former feudal relations of subordination because the idea was born in their minds that men were equal and should enjoy equality of rights. But why should this idea have suddenly become so influential? Why should the feudal relations of subordination, which for centuries had been held to be just and reasonable, suddenly begin to appear unjust and unreasonable? Those questions lead us from the sphere of ideas to the sphere of the conditions of material life. It was because material, economic conditions were changing that people began to think in a new way. The existing feudal relations were no longer in keeping with developing economic conditions. It was the development of economic activity and economic relations which created the forces which overthrew feudalism and laid the foundations for capitalism. And so the rise and spread of the idea of equality of rights, as opposed to feudal inequality, followed upon and reflected the changes in material conditions of life.

Again, why should the idea of socialism, the idea of social ownership of means of production, have suddenly grown influential once capitalism was under way? For centuries private property had been regarded as just and reasonable, and even as the necessary basis for civilised society. But now, on the contrary, it began to appear unjust, unreasonable, oppressive. Once more, this new way of thinking, and the profound influence which socialist ideas began to exert, arose from new economic conditions. Under capitalism production was ceasing to be an individual matter and becoming a social matter, and private property and private appropriation based on private property were no longer in keeping with the new character of production.

In general, the rise of new ideas can never be regarded as a sufficient explanation of social changes, since the origin of ideas and the source of their social influence must always itself be explained. And this explanation is in the last analysis to be sought in the conditions of material life of society.

We shall find accordingly that corresponding to the different conditions of material life of society at different periods quite different ideas are current, and that the differences in the views of different classes in different periods are always in the last analysis to be explained in terms of the differences in conditions of material life.

“Does it require deep intuition,” asked Marx and Engels, “to comprehend that man’s ideas, views and conceptions, in one word, man’s consciousness, changes with every change in the conditions of his material existence, in his social relations and in his social life?”1

“If at different times men were imbued with different ideas and desires,” wrote Stalin, “the reason for this is that at different times men fought nature in different ways to satisfy their needs, and, accordingly, their economic relations assumed different forms. There was a time when men fought nature collectively, on the basis of primitive communism; at that time their property was communist property and, therefore, at that time they drew scarcely any distinction between ‘mine’ and ‘thine’, their consciousness was communistic. There came a time when the distinction between ‘mine’ and ‘thine’ penetrated the process of production; at that time property, too, assumed a private, individualist character, and therefore, the consciousness of men became imbued with the sense of private property. Then came a time, the present time, when production is again assuming a social character and, consequently, property too will soon assume a social character—and this is precisely why the consciousness of men is gradually becoming imbued with socialism. . . . First the material conditions change, and then the ideas of men, their habits, customs and their world outlook change accordingly.”2

The laws of social development, to the economic aspect of which we have already referred, have, therefore, this further aspect—that they include the laws whereby on the basis of the given material or economic conditions of society there arises a whole superstructure of social views and corresponding institutions.

The economic structure of society always constitutes the basis on which the views and institutions of society arise and to which they correspond. The rise of new views and new institutions always reflects the fact that economic conditions are changing.

Thus “in different periods of the history of society different social ideas, theories, views and political institutions are to be observed. . . . Under the slave system we encounter certain social ideas, theories, views and political institutions, under feudalism others, and under capitalism others still. . . . Whatever are the conditions of material life of society, such are the ideas, theories, political views and political institutions of that society.”1

The Active Role of Ideas in Social Development

Materialism teaches that the ideas which are formed in men’s minds depend upon the prior existence of material things and material relationships. But this does not mean that, having arisen on the basis of material conditions, ideas play no part in the social activity whereby material conditions are changed. On the contrary, having arisen on the basis of material conditions, ideas become an active force reacting back upon material conditions.

We must distinguish, therefore, the question of the origin of ideas from the question of their significance and social role.

The third guiding principle of historical materialism deals with the role which ideas play in social development. It states that ideas which arise on the basis of conditions of material life of society themselves play an active role in the development of the material life of society.

Some types of mechanistic materialism stress only that ideas are called forth by external material conditions. But having said that, the mechanists pay no more attention to the further active relationships which arise between ideas and the material conditions which called them forth. Dialectical materialism, on the other hand, which is concerned to study things in their complex inter-relationships and in their real movement, must take into account also the ways in which ideas react back upon the material conditions, and the role which ideas play in the total complex movement of society.

Let us consider, for example, a skilled workman engaged in production. He is not an automaton. He possesses knowledge, that is to say, ideas, about the materials of his trade. These ideas have not come into his mind from nowhere. A carpenter has ideas about the properties of wood, and a toolmaker has ideas about the properties of metal, and his ideas are the reflection in his mind of the properties of external material objects—wood or metal—which he has come to know in the course of his practical use of them. These ideas of his originated in his mind as reflections of external material things and as a result of his productive activity. But having been formed in his mind, they are then a factor, and an indispensible one, in determining his productive activity, in which he shapes and changes the wood or metal in conformity to his ideas about it and about what can be done with it. People do not work without ideas. Indeed, when primitive man made his first stone implements, he was already demonstrating the role played by ideas in man’s activity of changing his conditions of material life.

What is true of labour is true of social activity in general. People do not carry out their social activity without ideas. The ideas which arise in their heads are in their origin determined by their material activity arising from the conditions of material life of society. Possessing these ideas, men undertake activities which react back upon and change the conditions of material life.

Thus the ideas which become current in society are formed in men’s brains as a consequence of and as a reflection of their material activity and the conditions of material life. Men’s social activity takes place on the basis of given conditions of material life; these conditions are reflected in ideas in men’s brains; and with these ideas men then carry out social activity reacting back upon the conditions of material life.

“Everything which sets men in motion must go through their minds,” wrote Engels. “But what form it will take in the mind will depend very much upon the circumstances.”1

We have already remarked that certain mechanistic materialists see only that ideas are called forth in the brain through the influence of external material conditions. They do not see the active role which ideas then play in human activity to change external reality. Idealists, on the other hand, are “one-sided” in the opposite sense. They see only the ideas, disregarding the material conditions from which they take their origin, and then stress the active role which ideas play in human life. They separate ideas even from the brain in which they are formed, regard them as separate existences and as the first cause of everything men do. Dialectical materialism, in opposition to idealism, sees how ideas arise in the brain only as reflections of given material conditions. But it does not the less see also the role which ideas play in the human activity of changing material conditions.

“It does not follow,” wrote Stalin, “. . . that social ideas, theories, political views and political institutions are of no significance in the life of society, that they do not reciprocally affect social being, the development of the material conditions of the life of society.... As regards the significance of social ideas, theories, views and political institutions, as regards their role in history, historical materialism, far from denying them, stresses the role and importance of these factors in the life of society, in its history.”1

New Ideas and Old

In relation to social development, ideas play one or other of two roles—they either promote or hinder the development of society, they are either progressive or reactionary.

It is characteristic of social ideas that, having arisen on the basis of the development of given conditions of material life, they tend to continue in existence even after the conditions which gave rise to them have disappeared, or are in process of disappearance. In other words, there is a tendency for ideas to lag.

This tendency may be observed also in individuals. Here is an example.

“Let us take a shoemaker who owned a tiny workshop, but who, unable to withstand the competition of the big shoe manufacturers, closed his workshop and took a job at a shoe factory. He went to work at the factory not with a view to becoming a permanent wage-worker, but with the object of saving up some money, of accumulating a little capital to enable him to re-open his workshop. As you see, the position of this shoemaker is already proletarian, but his consciousness is still non-proletarian, it is thoroughly petty-bourgeois. In other words, this shoemaker has already lost his petty-bourgeois position, it has gone, but his petty-bourgeois consciousness has not yet gone, it has lagged behind his actual position.”2

Even today in some factories there are people who still suffer from this “lag” in consciousness. But the individualistic, petty-bourgeois ideas, which may have been very useful to a small trader in trying to run his business, are not at all beneficial to the wage worker: they prevent him from combining with his fellow workers.

Ideas arising out of old conditions of existence, but continuing their influence when those old conditions are already demolished or ripe for demolition, thus come to act as a reactionary, conservative force, hindering the new, progressive developments in society.

The struggle to organise a factory, for example, may involve a struggle to supplant the old, small-capitalist ideas in the minds of some workers, which prevent them from combining against the employers, by new, working-class ideas.

It is the same when the fight against the employers has placed power in the hands of the working class. Even when capitalist exploitation has been abolished, the struggle to build a new, socialist society involves the struggle to eliminate the remnants of capitalism in the minds of men for ideas born of the capitalist social relations lag on, even after those social relations have ceased to exist.

Old ideas, reflecting social conditions dating from the past which have become outmoded, serve the forces which are striving to preserve the old social conditions, and hamper the forces which are striving to bring new social conditions into being. It is therefore the reactionary classes which champion such ideas, strive to keep them alive by dressing them up in new forms and adapting them to the exigencies of the current struggle, and propagate them in every way and by every means in their power. The progressive class, on the other hand, needs to combat such ideas, to destroy their influence, and to develop its own new ideas corresponding to the new social tasks.

In class society, therefore, ideas reflect the standpoints and tendencies of different classes. The class struggle is waged also by means of ideas. So in the sphere of ideas, reflecting the class struggle in all its complexity, there occur periods of apparent quiescence and periods of open conflict—victories and defeats, alliances and splits, compromises, manoeuvres and struggles for positions of leadership. In the battle of ideas, in fact, the whole battle to change society is fought out. Ideas are always a potent force in society.

Hence when we speak of the battle of ideas it should never be supposed that we are referring merely to some task of a minority of “intellectuals”, who are carrying on controversies in the higher ideological spheres of philosophy, religion, science or art. We shall examine in the third volume how such “higher ideology” arises and what is its significance. The fundamental work of the battle of ideas, however, is being carried on by everyone who recruits a non-unionist into a trade union or a new member into the Communist Party, who argues against and exposes current capitalist propaganda or combats right-wing labour ideas which represent capitalist influence in the labour movement.

The social role of ideas can, then, be summed up by saying that while old ideas, based on the material conditions of the past, hamper the progressive development of society and are championed by the reactionary classes, new ideas, based on what is new in the development of the material life of society and on the needs of that development, are championed by the progressive classes and actively assist the progressive development of society.

“New social ideas and theories,” wrote Stalin, “arise only after the development of the material life of society has set new tasks before society. But once they have arisen they become a most potent force which facilitates the carrying out of the new tasks set by the development of the material life of society, a force which facilitates the progress of society. It is precisely here that the tremendous organising, mobilising and transforming value of new ideas, new theories, new political views and new political institutions manifests itself.”1

Such ideas and theories are indispensable if the new tasks set before society by the development of material life are to be fulfilled. People cannot act effectively without ideas.

Thus “new social ideas and theories arise precisely because they are necessary to society, because it is impossible to carry out the urgent tasks of development of the material life of society without their organising, mobilising and transforming action. Arising out of the new tasks set by the development of the material life of society, the new social ideas and theories force their way through, become the possession of the masses, mobilise and organise them against the moribund forces of society, and thus facilitate the overthrow of these forces which hamper the development of the material life of society.”1

When such new ideas, generally put forward in the first place by a few people only, have indeed “become the possession of the masses”—when, because these ideas correspond to their material needs, the masses have made them their own—then ideas become an invincible force.

“Theory becomes a material force as soon as it has gripped the masses.”2

Socialist Theory and the Mass Movement

We have now attempted to summarise three guiding principles of historical materialism, resulting from the application of the materialist world outlook to social questions.

What practical conclusions follow?

(1) The conclusion follows that the working class today, in its struggle for emancipation, must base its practical aims and policy, not on mere dreams and ideals, but on consideration of the actual social circumstances and the objective laws of social development.

If we base practical aims and policy on mere dreams and ideals, however noble and inspiring, we have no guarantee that we shall ever find the way to realise them or even that they will be capable of realisation at all. The laws of social development will assert themselves against us or in spite of us, frustrating our schemes and issuing in events which take us by surprise and leave us bewildered and helpless. If, on the other hand, we base our practical activity on scientific knowledge of the laws of development of society, then we can consciously utilise those laws, we can formulate practical objectives which correspond to the actual circumstances and needs of the people, and we can find how to mobilise the forces capable of actually achieving those objectives.

“The practical activity of the party of the proletariat,” wrote Stalin, “must not be based on the good wishes of ‘outstanding individuals’, not on the dictates of ‘reason’, ‘universal morals’, etc., but on the laws of development of society and on the study of these laws. . . . The party of the proletariat should not guide itself in its practical activity by casual motives, but by the laws of development of society and by practical deductions from these laws.”1

(2) The conclusion follows that in striving to change society we must base our programme on consideration of the real conditions and needs of development of the material life of society. Only such a programme can correspond to the real requirements of masses of people and so effectively serve to mobilise the forces capable of changing society.

If, on the other hand, our programme consists only of ideal projects of reform; and if we suppose that we can translate abstract conceptions of reason or justice which arise in our heads into concrete reality without taking into account the actual material conditions of social life; then, however fine-sounding the programme, it is divorced from real life, and those who follow it will be led into an impasse.

Our programme, therefore, based “not on the good wishes of ‘great men’ but on the real needs of development of the material life of society”, must show in a practical way how people’s material needs are to be satisfied. “The strength and vitality of Marxism-Leninism lies in the fact that it does base its practical activity on the needs of the development of the material life of society and never divorces itself from the real life of society.”2

(3) The conclusion follows that in order to transform society and to build socialism we must have socialist ideas, a revolutionary theory, corresponding to the task.

Historical materialism, therefore, teaches us to stress at all times the need for socialist ideas, for socialist theory.

“The party of the proletariat must rely upon such a social theory as correctly reflects the needs of development of the material life of society, and which is therefore capable of setting into motion broad masses of the people and of mobilising and organising them into a great army of the proletarian party, prepared to smash the reactionary forces and to clear the way for the advanced forces of society.”1

If we neglect to study revolutionary theory and to develop it, if we turn our backs upon the need for advanced ideas and are content to follow our noses and rely upon the spontaneous movement of the masses, then we will never build a movement capable of changing society.

If we neglect to fight for socialist ideas in opposition to capitalist ones, and to struggle to make those socialist ideas the possession of the mass movement, then we will ourselves inevitably remain the dupes of capitalist ideas as can be verified in the case of all those “socialist” leaders today who think that socialist theory is of no importance. No one’s head contains a vacuum, however near this state some heads may have become; and the old ideas lag on unless consciously expelled by new ones.

The conclusion is, then, that knowledge of the laws of development of society, of the conditions of the material life of society and of the needs of their development, becomes a great social force acting to end the old social conditions and bring in new ones, when it is developed and applied by the party of the working class, when the ideas of scientific socialism are united with the mass movement of the working class.

Such, then, are the leading principles and conclusions drawn from the application of materialism to social questions. As we can see, the materialist world outlook now becomes a practical programme, a fighting strategy, for the working- class movement.

In the ensuing chapters we shall examine in more detail the conclusions reached by historical materialism about the laws of social development.

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