Marx and Engels revealed the dialectical-materialist character of development not only of nature but also of society, creating thereby the only scientific theory of social development: historical materialism.We shall now explain what historical materialism is. First of all, let us ascertain the nature of the revolution made by Marxism in social theories.
Thinkers long ago pondered over questions about society. How does human society develop? What are its driving forces? Are the changes in society accidental or are they dictated by necessity, by objective laws? If society’s development is causally conditioned, what is the chief cause, the foundation of social life? It was natural that these and many similar questions arose. Man lives in society, is bound to it by countless threads, and cannot but take an interest in the fate of society, the ways in which it develops.
Many correct ideas about social development were expressed by scholars even before Marxism. The French 18th-century materialists, for example, asserted that man, his views and behaviour are a result of the influence of social environment. French bourgeois historians (Guizot, Thierry, Mignet) pointed to the existence of opposite classes and the class struggle in society. The British bourgeois economists (Smith and Ricardo) tried to find in economic life a basis for the existence of classes. The Utopian Socialists (Saint-Simon, Fourier and Owen) anticipated individual features of future communist society.
A big contribution to the theory of social development was made by Belinsky, Herzen, Chernyshevsky and other Russian revolutionary democrats of the 19th century. Their ideas about the role of economic life in social development, about the people as the makers of history, the irreconcilability of the class interests of the exploited and the exploiters, the class character of philosophy, literature, art, and so on, were profound for their time.
Nevertheless pre-Marxist sociology was not scientific. What were its main failings?
To begin with, prior to Marx idealism reigned supreme in sociology. The French materialists, having shown the influence of the social environment on man, erroneously regarded this environment as the product of human reason. “Ideas rule the world”—this was the epitome of their views of society.
Other pre-Marxist materialists likewise had an idealist view of society. And the unscientific nature of the idealists’ views of social development is self-evident. Hegel, although he made a valuable contribution to philosophy by his ideas of historical necessity and although he attempted to view the history of mankind dialecticly, ultimately arrived at the false conclusion that society is ruled by divine will. God rules the world, the realisation of his plans constitute world history. This sums up Hegelian philosophy of history.
Another shortcoming in pre-Marxist sociology also stemmed from the approach to society in an idealist way. Pre-Marxist sociologists, acting on the premise that ideas rule the world and that these ideas are fathered by outstanding individuals—kings, military leaders, scholars, etc., arrived at the wrong conclusion that these great men alone make history. They did not see the decisive role played by the working people in historical development.
Pre-Marxist sociologists also proved incapable of revealing the dialectics of the historical process. In the presentation of these sociologists history appeared as a conglomeration of unconnected facts. Being idealists they were unable to grasp the unity and interconnections of social life, the real driving forces and material sources behind historical events. Only Marx and Engels proved capable of penetrating the nature of society and fully revealing its complex and contradictory development. They overcame the shortcomings of the old sociology and created a qualitatively new theory of social development, historical materialism, thereby causing a revolution in social theories.
What is the substance of this revolution?
Marx and Engels drove idealism from social science. They correctly solved the fundamental question of philosophy as applied to society and formulated the principal postulate of historical materialism: social being determines social consciousness.
What is social being and social consciousness?
The sphere of social being encompasses the material life of society, and above all people’s productive activity, the economic relations between them in the process of production. Social consciousness is the spiritual life of people, the ideas, theories and views which guide them in what they do.
In asserting that social being is primary and social consciousness secondary, Marx and Engels acted on the premise that before people can engage in science, art, philosophy and so on, they must get food, clothing and shelter, for which they must work and produce material wealth. From this it follows that “the production of the immediate material means of subsistence and consequently the degree of economic development attained by a given people or during a given epoch from the foundation upon which the state institutions, legal conceptions, art, and even ideas on religion of the people concerned have been evolved, and in light of which they must, therefore, be explained, instead of vice versa, as had hitherto been the case” (1). Historical materialism is a genuinely scientific, materialist understanding of history.
Marx and Engels, by singling out from the numerous social relations the economic production relations as the chief, decisive ones, arrived at the concept of the socio-economic formation, a fundamental concept of historical materialism.
The socio-economic formation is the totality of social phenomena and process (relating to the economy, ideology, family, way of life, etc.) based on a historically determined mode of production. Society develops through the natural replacement of one socio-economic formation by another, more improved. History has progressed from the primitive-communal system to the slave-owning system, then to feudalism and to capitalism, to socialism and, finally, to the communist formation.
By creating the concept of historical materialism, Marx and Engels proved that the masses, the working people, are the real makers of history. The people by their labor produce all material wealth. The labor of millions of ordinary men and women constitutes the indispensable foundation of mankind’s life and progress.
Marx and Engels overcame the metaphysical nature of the old sociology and revealed the objective dialectics of social development. Thanks to this great accomplishment history ceased to be a chaotic conglomeration of unconnected facts, and appeared as an integral and harmonious process governed by dialectical laws.
(1) Fredrich Engels,””Das Begrabnis von Karl Marx”, Marx/Engels, Werke, Dietz Verlag, Berlin, 1962, Bd. 19, S.335-336.