Historical Materialism and Class Divison

[Published 25th November 2010]

Although he lived throughout the 18th century (1818 – 1883), Karl Marx is such a central figure of philosophical discussions even today due to his works’ specifications in different areas such as economy, politics and sociology and also his ability to embrace even today’s economical and social conditions. It would be unfair to Marx just to focus on his practical roadmaps and revolution convictions for proletariat class and also some may argue that rise and shine of capitalism in 20th and 21st centuries is crucial to make it possible for us to still discuss him today as deep as it can be. Obviously Marx’ writings are more than the practical roadmaps or analyses of capitalist regimes. He shows us the nature of class division throughout the history of mankind and explains the reasons of its economical, political and social consequences.

To explain the stratification of structures in society, Marx focuses on the mode of production understanding in the capitalist political economy. He gets help from the historical process to show the materialistic relations between the agents of the society and justifies the inevitability of different forms of class struggle throughout the history. According to him the reason for this structural division is the property owning where the productive power of human which separates him from an animal becomes a burden for mankind through alienation to his own labor. In this paper I will try to emphasize his understandings of mode of production and material relations through highlighting historical materialism, the causality of the structural relations, importance of production as a tool for human to identify himself and his nature’s decay of means as a livelihood. Moreover, definitions and revelations of concepts like division of labor, extraction of surplus value and alienation should be fully understood to master his works on mode of production and material relations.

The term “relations of production” refers to the relationship between two classes: those who possess the means of production that are capitalists or bourgeoisie and those who do not that are workers or the proletariat. Capitalism, which constantly urges these two classes to realize the existing conditions, is constructed on the scale of ownership of the means of production. In brief, owner of the capital (like factories and machines) tries to keep his conditions as well as possible to stand straight in the competitive market and extract as much labor as possible from the workers to do so. In return workers continue to produce labor in conditions offered by the capital owners which are serving the employers’ interests in the market. Yet, workers feel obliged to be integrated to this cycle to maintain their status-quo and be able to stay alive. As a result of the never-ending competition in the market, this structural division continues and the gap between these two classes gets bigger and bigger which eventually, in Marx’ assumptions, will bring the revolution of proletariat.

To understand the material relations between these two classes, we should first be familiar with Marx’ historical materialism conception and his links with German philosopher Hegel. Like Hegel, Marx also supports the reality of clashes between opposing forces through a dialectic relation. However Marx differs from Hegel in the shape of dialectic relations. Hegel believes in the idealism of a true reality that the world we live in is a world of appearances where the material world of the ideals prevents us from the “real” world. He points out the spirit of time; “zeitgeist” as he defines that shapes the structures, economical and material relations. On the contrary, Marx turns Hegel upside down and underlines that it is the economical and material relations that shape the history. According to Marx specific ideologies and conditions prevents people from seeing the material beings of their lives clearly.

This causal relationship can also be figured out with the help of base and superstructure concept of Marx. According to him, social positioning of agents and structures is a result of the characteristics of the “base”. Here, base is the determinant concept that is related to material relations and ownership habits of society. Thus, the superstructure is the total of political, ideological and legal forms that are created autonomously by the base to complete the cycle of relations. That can again bring us to his understanding of causality which separates him from Hegel that it is not the superstructure that creates the base and it is not the spirit of time or existing structures that shape the material relations. Therefore, it is the presence of property ownership, profit-maximizing and their consequence of material conditions that create structures of political and legal forms. In addition this formulation of elements comes from an habitual characteristic of history which repeats itself again and again in different forms but in similar ends.

Marx’ concept of materialism is much related to the history of human being as one can see that the relations, especially the economic relations, among the human beings have always been a determinant force in the development of history. In the early forms of co-operation between men the creation of basic materials to satisfy the needs and the co-operation between the individuals are minimal, but important points to explain are the birth of material relations and division of labor. What one should realize is that division of labor starts from the early forms of family life as husband dominates wife where woman is supposed to feed children and man is supposed to bring food to the table. Along with this, the condition to satisfy material needs creates a consciousness of material connectedness. So the material activity and becomes the dominant determinant in individual’s life where the society and its structures are also affected fundamentally.

Evidently this history of materialism is not bounded with the contemporary ideology of capitalism. Throughout the history, society is shaped by the forces and relations of individuals in the aspects of owning materials and means of production. Again Marx’ assumption of “base”, the economic structures and relations, is the core of the foundations of every society existed in the history. Naturally every type of society has its own particular set of rules, material relations and structures and as a result own set of classes. He underlines “… a certain mode of production, or industrial stage, is always combined with a certain mode of co-operation, or social stage, and this mode of co-operation is itself a ‘productive force”. Long before capitalism, tribal society offered its members a natural division of labor where primitive economic actions were hunting and gathering. Then the communal ownership came in which master and slave relationship occurred in the basis of owning property and not owning it. Next one, the prominent type of system before capitalism, was feudalism in which the material difference between the agents was whether they owned a land or dug a land. Apart from powerful man of faith whose strength came from the religion, two main actors were landowners and their peasants that were determined by their possession of goods. In each form, social structures and division of society were formed by the material relations.

Marx continues to explain the ongoing historical process of materialistic relations and its consequence of segregated society with the example of capitalism. In his projection, capitalism is the last class-based system before the classless systems of socialism and communism. To further his explanations on capitalism and reasons of class division, we should look at the mode of production which brings us to division of labor, extraction of surplus value and alienation of labor. The most significant correlation he draws here is the inversely correlated relation between the worker’s misery and his size of production. According to Marx, human-being is capable of making or shaping his own nature to some extent which separates him from animal-being. That capability is the power to produce things for himself or for others in need and as a result to realize himself. In German Ideology, he says ‘Men can be distinguished from animals by consciousness, by religion or anything else you like. They themselves begin to distinguish themselves from animals as soon as they begin to produce their means of subsistence, a step which is conditioned by their physical organization.’ However, capitalist system of economy diverts mankind’s ability to produce and its entity through a process of its own. Marx calls the result of this process as alienation and argues that the labor which human-being identifies himself with becomes a miserable commodity of others than himself.

Here we can further the correlation mentioned above and say that the devaluation of human value increases in direct relation with the increase in the value of the world of things/materials. In this system, workers are forced to make more labor as their employers push them to race in the competitive market. As much as workers produce, the world of materials becomes more dominant and as long as they work and spend their time producing they have less time to consume things they had produced. The result is they become unfamiliar and distant to what they produce. The labor of men develops into an object, an external thing which outside of them and alien to them. As a consequence of the capitalist system, the labor of product man produces belongs to other people, not to himself. Eventually the term “private property” turns into a thing that is different from the ancient times in which you own where you dig. According to Marx, property becomes a burden for workers that they produce but do not possess and this process would lead to revolution of proletariat. But before that, we should also know the other class that is supposed experience revolution: Bourgeoisie.

Again, it should be remembered that the division between bourgeoisie and proletariat is a result of the rule of mode of production. If you own the capitals like factories, machines and other stuff to keep workers produce, you become the class which dominates the proletariat. If you produce goods and in turn face a bunch of conditions that develop your labor, which identifies you, into an alienated thing outside of yourself, then you are a part of the proletariat class. But how does this distinction happen and grow between these two classes? The commodity, which is the result of labor, takes place in the market and meets the demands of consumers. People sell a commodity or labor and buy another commodity to satisfy their needs. On the other hand, capitalist class has a different agenda which is not only to satisfy needs with purchasing commodities but to accumulate money to acquire more of it. For this purpose, they use their power to set wages and working hours to extract the greatest amount of labor from workers at the lowest possible cost and to sell the products of workers at a higher price than they are paid for to produce. Rather than buying or selling the product in its real value, they extract a surplus value from laborers. This is because neither of the workers produces a whole part of product on himself but produce some of it and never have a right to buy it for the same price they create.

The roadmap for proletariat that Marx presents, which is also inevitable according to him, is simple: Revolution. However he explains the reasons for the revolution and the circumstances that proletariat will experience until the end, not the instructions for “how to accomplish a revolution”. As he argues that division of society into classes is a result of material relations in historical process, the change in economic structures, again, will lead a revolution, this time by the proletariat. In long term, richness of bourgeoisie and poverty of proletariat will reach maximum levels and because of extreme level of production, investment and trade, capitalism will go into a big crisis. The critical point here is for proletariat to gain a class consciousness that they were oppressed by the bourgeoisie and their realization was diminished in the hands of this dominant class. Other step will be to unify and make a violent proletariat revolution. Eventually, private property will be abolished and economic structures like means and modes of production will be reshaped which will lead to a new social structure and system called socialism. Along with the reshaped economic and social structures, there will also be a change in the political structures and socialism will evolve to communism. When we look at the big picture, we can see that the transformation in the society will be a result of change in the economic structures.

There are many counter-arguments against Marx, and some of them concentrate on his predictions on the revolution from capitalism to communism. It is logical enough to question his argument on the transformation as there has been more than a century and capitalism still stands as strong as before. His urge on the awareness of proletariat class consciousness seem like a far possibility since the division between bourgeoisie and proletariat does not seem as extreme as he foresees. Or let’s say that the propaganda made by capitalist class, with the help of the legal grounds they support as a result of the base-superstructure relation, prevent proletariat to feel that much oppressed. But the reality is that there is also a class of petit-bourgeoisie who is close to the dominant capitalist class but distant from the proletariat. Also no need to mention about the middle class people, which constitutes a large group of people today, that are to be again stuck between the two. It can be propaganda of capitalist class to give hope to every man that one day they also can be a bourgeoisie class member but the reality stands out there that there are some other classes between bourgeoisie and proletariat.

To sum up, it is crucial to understand historical relations between the agents of the society. According to Marx, those relations were always built upon the material correlations and clashes between opposing forces. As I mentioned above, Hegel’s concept of dialectic idealism is turned upside down by Marx as dialectic materialism that conditions we experience and structures we live in are products of material and economic relations. All this has happened before but in different shapes and understandings like tribal, communal and feudal systems. For Marx, labor is a value for man-beings with which they can define and realize themselves. However, with the help of capitalism and its propagandist habits, capital owners oppress workers and extract the surplus value of their work which results as an alienation of workers to their labor. This loss of consciousness by workers forces the proletariat to stay poor and the bourgeoisie to become rich. Yet, some day this ongoing division of wealth will become a burden for the capitalists and system will collapse in the end with the violent revolution of enlightened proletariat class. Eventually, base and superstructure relation will change also as the base, which is determined by the economic relations, will affect the superstructure, which is the political and ideological form in the society, in a way different than the previous systems. All this, according to Marx, can be real with a better understanding of historical materialism concept and the mode of production habits in the society.


Karl Marx and Fredrick Engels. The Communist Manifesto. Middlesex, The Echo Library, 2009.

Henry Ward. Introduction to Dialectical Logic. Bucharest, Editura Academiei, 1975.

Karl Marx and Frederick Engels. The German Ideology. New York, International Publishers, 2004

Louis Althusser. For Marx. London, Verso, 2005

Karl Marx. A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy. Moscow, Progress Publishers, 1977

Harold Joseph Berman. Law and Revolution: The Formation of the Western Legal Tradition. Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1983

David W. Lovell. From Marx to Lenin. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2009

Ken Morrison. Marx, Durkheim, Weber. London, Sage Publications, 2006

Michael Löwy. The Theory of Revolution in the Young Marx. Chicago, Haymarket Books, 2005

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2 yorum

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  2. Batuhan Apaydin

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