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The Foundations of Historical Materialism


From: ‘Chapter 1: The Blueprint of History’.

In: The History of the USSR & the Peoples’ Democracies


Saed Teymuri

One can semi-metaphorically regard materiality as the mass of objects: that which is more material contains more matter and thus bears a higher mass. And the higher its mass, the more the other objects gravitate towards it, giving it a more important role in space. In the same way, the more material a historical factor, the more it matters and has weight in the course of history. The less material, the less its influence over history. The more material factors affect the less material factors more than vice versa, much as how the heavier objects pull the lighter objects more than vice versa and bring such lighter objects into their orbit.

The minds of individuals who seek to determine the course of history are inevitably confined within history itself; the less material (e.g. the individual psyche) is confined within the more material (the military reality, geopolitics, economy, etc.). The less material factors such as the individual psyche can bring about change in the more material conditions only if utilizing, or supported by, a material force sufficient to overpower the material conditions they seek to change.

Materiality, though itself a continuous spectrum, can be divided into echelons or levels of materiality for historical materialist analysis, as summarized in the pyramid below. The more to the bottom the factors are, the more material they are, and thus the more they matter and bear weight as factors in history.

At the very bottom of the pyramid is geography. Marx and Engels in ‘The German Ideology’, under the heading ‘First Premises of the Materialist Method’, wrote:

The first premise of all human history is, of course, the existence of living human individuals. Thus the first fact to be established is the physical organisation of these individuals and their consequent relation to the rest of nature. Of course, we cannot here go either into the actual physical nature of man, or into the natural conditions in which man finds himself – geological, hydrographical, climatic and so on. The writing of history must always set out from these natural bases and their modification in the course of history through the action of men. (The German Ideology, Marx and Engels, MIA. Bold added) (IMG)

In a letter to Marx, Engels expressed his agreement with Marx that the geographic set-up in the Orient was a key cause of the difference of the region’s mode of production with that of the Occident:

The absence of landed property is indeed the key to the whole of the East. Therein lies its political and religious history. But how to explain the fact that orientals never reached the stage of landed property, not even the feudal kind? This is, I think, largely due to the climate, combined with the nature of the land, more especially the great stretches of desert extending from the Sahara right across Arabia, Persia, India and Tartary to the highest of the Asiatic uplands. (Engels to Marx in London, Manchester, June 6, 1853, evening. In: Marx-Engels Correspondence 1853, Marxists Internet Archive. Original Source: MECW Vol. 39, p. 355. First published in full in MEGA, Berlin, 1929.)

DiagramDescription automatically generated

Geography affects the level of the development of the productive forces (industries and technical equipment), which in turn affects property relations and the class character of the state. Advancements in the productive forces lead to the advancements of the progressive classes in society. Historical experience demonstrates that the geographic areas in which the development of the productive forces has been naturally more difficult and slower, have seen a lower advancement of the progressive classes, and have thus been dominated by reactionary classes. The desert areas (central Arabian Peninsula and much of Mongolia) as well as excessively mountainous areas (parts of western Ukraine and Chechniya), precisely owing to their geographic inability to develop productive forces, have seen a lower advancement of progressive classes concurrent with the low advancement of the productive forces. Such areas have thus been centers of barbaric ultra-reaction. By contrast, the areas more fertile or more resourceful, provided that basic incentives for economic development existed, naturally tended towards higher advancements in productive forces and thus the development of more progressive classes.

The physical/natural environment of a region indeed affects not only the level of the development of the productive forces, but also the very existence of the incentives for economic development – e.g. some societies may not have incentives to move out of hunter-gatherer mode, for the geographic setting they inhabit already provides enough food resources for them not to feel the need to develop sophisticated agriculture. Examples of these were seen in parts of Africa and North America.

The development of productive forces allow society to afford progressing from one type of property relations system to another:

Social relations are closely bound up with productive forces. In acquiring new productive forces men change their mode of production; and in changing their mode of production, in changing the way of earning their living, they change all their social relations. The hand-mill gives you society with the feudal lord; the steam-mill society with the industrial capitalist. (The Poverty of Philosophy, Marx, Abstracts (Chapter 2), 1847)

The development of the productive forces is correlated with the development of new classes, driving out the old classes. The advanced industries possessed by the industrial bourgeoisie renders them economically mightier, allowing them to undercut and drive out the feudal landlords. However, without labouring as much, the bourgeoisie gain a massive profit as the unpaid income of the proletarians, the latter being a class of individuals who have no private property (as in business property) but have only their labour to sell. Typically, though not always, the proletariat can be found in the densely urbanized areas. Advanced machinery can economically boost cities, thus concentrating a larger population of labourers in the cities. The larger population density in turn results in a greater supply of labour and hence lower wages. The result of such driving down of the price of labour is the great exploitation that gives rise to the proletarian class.

Depending on the context, the interests of some classes align and the interests of some classes are antagonistic. This lays the basis for inter-class alliances in class conflicts. In some classes, there also exist intra-class competitions, just as there can be intra-class cooperation, depending on the contexts. There are individuals within classes that betray their own classes. In the current context, the two main classes in play are the proletariat and the bourgeoisie. There also exist outliers who betray their class.

Society is made up of individual actors (whom we can assume are often 'rational' and in the broad sense, 'self-interested') who, as a result of property relations, line up into different classes. It is indeed property relations which line up competitive-and-cooperative humans into different classes. It is important to make a distinction between the term ‘class’ and the term ‘stratum’. Phrases such as ‘the poor’, ‘the middle class’, ‘the intelligentsia’, ‘the mullahs’, etc. do not really refer to classes, because such phrases do not really properly define how individual members of these categories are related to the property ownership. Rather, these categories are layers within society, i.e. the strata of society. These strata are nonetheless usually overlapping with or closely related to specific classes; ‘the poor’ usually refers to the proletariat or non-kulak peasants, the so-called ‘middle class’ is typically a reference to the petit-bourgeoisie or to white-collar workers, the intelligentsia, due to their bourgeois family origins, are often linked to the bourgeoisie, etc. Strata should be considered in class analysis, but strata are not the same as classes.

The productive forces give rise to classes. Yet, classes wages their struggles by employing the productive forces. The most decisive, the ‘heaviest’, subcategory of the productive forces, however, is that of the destructive forces: the weaponry, the military-industrial backbone, the means of violence. The extent of dominance over the military as a subcategory-annex of the productive forces affects the extent of dominance over the rest of the productive forces, and thus affects the outcome of class struggle itself. It thus follows that the question of class dominance over the means of violence determines the class character of the state.

The productive forces, the industrial power of a state, lay the basis for the military strength of a state. From there, emerges the military-industrial backbone, the decisive control over which automatically yields the decisive control over the state. The means of violence, as a subcategory of the productive forces, is distinct from the category of the 'Class Character of the State', though the control of the means of violence directly determines the class character of the state. The class character of the state, the question of which class alliance controls the means of violence, in turn determines the directions of the economy and hence the issue of control over the productive forces. The means of violence is therefore that subcategory of the productive forces through which is determined the control over the other sectors of the economy and other subcategories of the productive forces. 

In all countries, without exception, the extent of dominance over the means of violence determines the extent of dominance over the means of communication. Whichsoever class dominates the security and intelligence bodies can, using carrot-and-stick measures, gain dominance over the mainstream media. By dominating the media, the class can propagate a culture favourable to its class interests. Culture in turn nurtures a mindset and psychological behaviour in the individual. Class culture thus affects the individual psyche.


The pyramid can be explained in a reverse way as well. An individual cannot transform society without having behind oneself a subculture, an ideological grouping. A subculture cannot transform society unless through dominance over the means of violence on behalf of the class tendency to which this subculture is affiliated. And productive forces cannot easily advance without the natural resources available by the geographic setting.

An individual can have more influence than a collective if the individual has access to material forces that can help him/her overpower the specific collective’s power. Such access to material forces can include sufficient charisma to appeal to the culture of a larger collective so to overpower and outnumber the influence of the smaller collective; such access to material forces can include the support of a state whose character is in line with the views and aims of the specific individual, property relations favorable to the views and aims of the specific individual, productive forces under the influence of or controlled by the individual, etc. As can be seen, the individual in-itself cannot have much influence; he or she can exercise influence only with support from the more material forces so to be able to contradict the other material forces. This renders the individual psyche the least material of the factors listed in the pyramid. A military genius, for example is limited in his/her by the more material forces he/she is surrounded by: the culture of the troops, the quality of the productive forces to produce his/her weapons, the geographic terrain, etc. At the same time, what makes a military genius so, is the genius mind’s ability to strategically use the contradictions between the material forces for reaching the desired military outcome. Hence, while material conditions may limit the military genius, they may also be used intelligently as sources of opportunity for reaching the desired outcome. Stalin explained this point well:

Marxism does not at all deny the role played by outstanding individuals or that history is made by people. In Marx's The Poverty of Philosophy and in other works of his you will find it stated that it is people who make history. But, of course, people do not make history according to the promptings of their imagination or as some fancy strikes them. Every new generation encounters definite conditions already existing, ready-made when that generation was born. And great people are worth anything at all only to the extent that they are able correctly to understand these conditions, to understand how to change them. If they fail to understand these conditions and want to alter them according to the promptings of their imagination, they will land themselves in the situation of Don Quixote. (Talk With the German Author Emil Ludwig, J. V. Stalin, December 13, 1931)

Theories, as thoughts, in-themselves are not material enough as a force to yield changes in history. However, once a sufficient mass begins to uphold a theory, the theory gains enough material force to bring forth a material change. This is why Marx said:

The weapon of criticism cannot, of course, replace criticism by weapons, material force must be overthrown by material force; but theory also becomes a material force as soon as it has gripped the masses. (Abstract from The Introduction to Contribution To The Critique Of Hegel's Philosophy Of Right, Marx, 1844)


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