The subject matter of historical materialism is the study of society and the laws of its development.
These laws are as objective, i.e., independent of man’s consciousness, as the laws of nature’s development. Like the laws of nature, they are knowable and are applied by man in his practical activity. There are, however, essential distinctions between the laws of social life and the laws of nature. The laws of nature reflect the operation of blind, spontaneous forces, while the laws of social development are always manifested through people, acting as intelligent beings who set themselves definite aims and work to achieve them.
The laws of social life are studied not only by historical materialism, but also by the other social sciences: political economy, history, aesthetics, pedagogics, and so on. But all these sciences study a certain group of social phenomena, examine society from one angle, without giving an idea of the process of social development as a whole. Political economy, for example, studies the economic, production 184relations between people. History is concerned with society’s development in different epochs and in different countries. Aesthetics is confined to the sphere of art, and so on.
In contrast to the concrete social sciences, historical materialism studies the most general laws of social development. As an integral part of the Marxist-Leninist world outlook, historical materialism furnishes a scientific, dialectical materialist interpretation of phenomena of social life. It solves such important general problems of historical development as the connection between social being and social consciousness, the importance of material production in people’s lives, the origin and role of social ideas and of their corresponding institutions. Historical materialism enables us to understand what role the people and individuals play in history, how classes and the class struggle arose, how the state appeared, why social revolutions occur and what is their significance in the historical process, and a number of other general problems of social development.
Not all the laws studied by historical materialism have the same sphere of operation. Some of them operate at all stages and others at particular stages of society’s development Among the former are the law of the determining role of social being in relation to social consciousness and the law of the determining role of the mode of production in society’s development. Among the latter is the law of the class struggle which operates only in societies divided into hostile classes.
Historical materialism also elaborates the corresponding categories or concepts which reflect the most general and essential aspects of social development. These include “social being”, “social consciousness”, “mode of production”, “basis”, “superstructure”, “social progress”, and many others. Only the sum-total of the laws and categories of historical materialism furnishes a single and harmonious picture of social development.
Historical materialism arose as a result of the generalisation of people’s practical experience throughout history and the achievements of the social sciences, and it is absolutely inconceivable outside of them. On the other hand, without historical materialism, without a knowledge of the general laws of social development no social science can develop fruitfully. Historical materialism is the methodological foundation of all the other social sciences. It enables historians, economists and other scholars to find their way in the intricate maze of social phenomena and determine the place and significance of each phenomenon in social life. Knowing, for example, the basic premise of historical materialism that people play the decisive role in social development, it is possible to bring out the genuine character of a particular historical event, for instance, to ascertain the causes of the social revolution, and its motive forces, and explain the source of the strength of socialism, etc. The premise of historical materialism that society’s spiritual life depends on economic, material relations between people, helps to trace the sources of various theories and views and correctly assess their role in history, particularly in revolutionary periods when the replacement of one type of economic relations by another results in the fall of old conceptions and the rise of new ones.
Knowledge of the laws of historical materialism enables us not only to understand complex social phenomena, but also to influence social life, to transform it in the interests of the working people. To transform reality on the basis of the laws of social development means to give effect to the historical necessity of mankind’s progressive development. In the process of this development man gains-genuine freedom. Let us examine what historical materialism understands by necessity and freedom.