Marx's theory of history

The Marxist theory of historical materialism sees human society as fundamentally determined at any given time by the material conditions—in other words, the relationships which people have with each other in order to fulfill basic needs such as feeding, clothing, and housing themselves and their families.[1] Overall, Marx and Engels claimed to have identified six successive stages of the development of these material conditions in Western Europe. In contrast to many of his followers, Marx made no claim to have produced a master key to history, but rather considered his work a concrete study of the actual conditions that pertained in Europe. As he put it, historical materialism is not "an historico-philosophic theory of the marche generale imposed by fate upon every people, whatever the historic circumstances in which it finds itself."[2]

Private property

The Marxist concept of private property gives the basis for Marx's theory. "Private property" in the terminology of Marx's time, for Marx himself, and for Marxists sometimes today, does not mean the simple possessions of a person, but the ownership of productive property or property which produces a profit for the owner,[3] such as corporate ownership, share ownership, land ownership, and—in the case of slave society—slave ownership (since slaves work the land, mines and other means of producing the material means of existence).

Stages of history

Marx saw that each stage or epoch created a new class or invention that would lead to its downfall. However the downfall would not be an automatically negative event, since with each step humanity at large would benefit. Each passing stage would therefore raise the standard of living of the masses while at the same time be doomed to its own downfall because of internal contradictions and class conflicts.

Only the last two epochs are spared from this fate. With socialism the final oppressive class is overthrown and society is put under the dictatorship of the proletariat and thus advances into communism.

The first three stages are not given particular attention, since by Marx's time they had long come to pass. As such, he does not provide the principles of these stages as he does for capitalism and the stages that follow. Nonetheless, these epochs have common characteristics.

Primitive communism

The First Stage: is usually called primitive communism. It has the following characteristics.

The primitive communism stage most likely begins soon after the dawn of humanity itself, at the stage where fire is developed, and communal living therefore becomes more convenient. Primitive communist societies tend to be very small, consisting of a maximum of a few hundred members, with size being dependent upon the environment. In this stage humanity is no different from any other animal, in that it has not yet found ways to bend nature to its will.

This stage ends with the development of private property, especially with the development of large scale agriculture. This in turn produces productive property, such as cattle and slaves.

Slave society

The Second Stage: may be called slave society, considered to be the beginning of "class society" where private property appears.

The slave-owning class "own" the land and slaves, which are the main means of producing wealth, whilst the vast majority have very little or nothing. The propertyless included the slave class, slaves who work for no money, and in most cases women, who were also dispossessed during this period. From a Marxist perspective, slave society collapsed when it exhausted itself. The need to keep conquering more slaves created huge problems, such as maintaining the vast empire that resulted (i.e. The Roman Empire). It is ultimately the aristocracy born in this epoch that demolishes it and forces society to step onto the next stage.


The Third Stage: may be called feudalism; it appears after slave society collapses. This was most obvious during the European Middle Ages when society went from slavery to feudalism.

During feudalism there are many classes such as kings, lords, and serfs, some little more than slaves. Most of these inherit their titles for good or ill. At the same time that societies must create all these new classes, trade with other nation-states increases rapidly. This catalyzes the creation of the merchant class.

Out of the merchants' riches, a capitalist class emerges within this feudal society. However, there are immediate conflicts with the aristocracy. The old feudal kings and lords cannot accept the new social changes the capitalists want for fear of destabilizing or reducing their power base, among various other reasons that are not all tied to power or money.

These proto-capitalist and capitalist classes are driven by the profit motive but are prevented from developing further profits by the nature of feudal society where, for instance, the serfs are tied to the land and cannot become industrial workers and wage earners. Marx says, Then begins an epoch of social revolution (the French Revolution of 1789, the English Civil War and the Glorious Revolution of 1688, etc.) since the social and political organization of feudal society (or the property relations of feudalism) is preventing the development of the capitalists' productive forces.[4]


Marx pays special attention to this stage in human development, as it was the one he lived on. The bulk of his work is devoted to exploring the mechanisms of capitalism, which in western society classically arose "red in tooth and claw" from feudal society in a revolutionary movement.

Capitalism may be considered the Fourth Stage in the sequence. It appears after the bourgeois revolution when the capitalists overthrow the feudal system. Capitalism is categorized by the following:

In capitalism, the profit motive rules and people, freed from serfdom for that purpose, to work for the capitalists in exchange of wages. The capitalist class are free to spread their laissez faire practices around the world. In the capitalist-controlled parliament, laws are made to protect wealth.

But according to Marx, capitalism, like slave society and feudalism, also has critical failings—inner contradictions which will lead to its downfall. The working class, to which the capitalist class gave birth in order to produce commodities and profits, is the "grave digger" of capitalism. The worker is not paid the full value of what he or she produces. The rest is surplus value—the capitalist's profit, which Marx calls the "unpaid labour of the working class." The capitalists are forced by technological advances and partially by competition to drive down the wages of the working class to increase their profits, and this creates a more direct conflict between these classes, and gives rise to the development of class consciousness in the working class. The working class, through trade union and other struggles, becomes conscious of itself as an exploited class.

In Marx's view, the struggles of the working class against the attacks of the capitalist class lead the working class to establish its own collective control over production—the basis of socialist society. Marx believed that capitalism always leads to monopolies and leads the people to poverty; yet the fewer the restrictions on the free market, (e.g. from the state and trade unions) the sooner it finds itself in crisis.


After the working class gains class consciousness and mounts a revolution against the capitalists, socialism, which may be considered the Fifth Stage, will be attained, if the workers are successful.

Lenin divided communism, the period following the overthrow of capitalism, into two stages: first socialism, and then later, once the last vestiges of the old capitalist ways have withered away, stateless communism or pure communism.[5] Lenin based his 1917 work, The State and Revolution, on a thorough study of the writings of Marx and Engels. Marx uses the terms the "first phase" of communism and the "higher phase" of communism, but Lenin points to later remarks of Engels which suggest that what people commonly think of as socialism equates to Marx's "first phase" of communism.

Socialism may be categorized by the following:

Marx explains that socialist society, having risen from a class-conscious movement of the vast majority, makes such a society one of the vast majority governing over their own lives:

The proletarian movement is the self-conscious, independent movement of the immense majority, in the interest of the immense majority. The proletariat, the lowest stratum of our present society, cannot stir, cannot raise itself up, without the whole superincumbent strata of official society being sprung into the air.[6]

Now the productive forces are truly free to develop, but in a democratically planned way, without the vast waste of anarchic capitalist society, its wars and destruction of the planet. One of the primary tasks of the workers in the socialist society, after placing the means of production into collective ownership, is to destroy the "old state machinery.” Hence the bourgeoisie's parliamentary democracy ceases to exist, and fiat and credit money are abolished. In Marx's view, instead of a dictatorship of capital, in which rulers are elected only once every few years at best, the state is ruled through the dictatorship of the proletariat with the democratically elected workers' commune to replace the parliament:

The Commune was formed of the municipal councilors, chosen by universal suffrage in the various wards of the town, responsible and revocable at any time. The majority of its members were naturally working men, or acknowledged representatives of the working class.... The police, which until then had been the instrument of the Government, was at once stripped of its political attributes, and turned into the responsible, and at all times revocable, agent of the Commune. So were the officials of all other branches of the administration. From the members of the Commune downwards, the public service had to be done at workmen's wages. The privileges and the representation allowances of the high dignitaries of state disappeared along with the high dignitaries themselves.... Having once got rid of the standing army and the police, the instruments of physical force of the old government, the Commune proceeded at once to break the instrument of spiritual suppression, the power of the priests.... The judicial functionaries lost that sham independence... they were thenceforward to be elective, responsible, and revocable.[7]

The commune, in Marx and Engels' view, modeled after the Paris Commune, has a completely different political character from the parliament. Marx explains that it holds legislative-executive power and is subservient only to the workers themselves:

The Commune, was to be a working, not a parliamentary, body, executive and legislative at the same time...Instead of deciding once in three or six years which member of the ruling class was to represent and repress [ver- and zertreten] the people in parliament, universal suffrage was to serve the people constituted in communes, as individual suffrage serves every other employer in the search for workers, foremen and accountants for his business.[7]

Marx explained that, since socialism, the first stage of communism, would be "in every respect, economically, morally, and intellectually, still stamped with the birthmarks of the old society from whose womb it emerges", each worker would naturally expect to be awarded according to the amount of labor he contributes, despite the fact that each worker's ability and family circumstances would differ, so that the results would still be unequal at this stage, although fully supported by social provision.

Fiat money and credit whose values were determined by anarchic market forces are abolished. Instead, in his Critique of the Gotha programme, Marx speculated schematically that from the "total social product" there would be deductions for the requirements of production and "the common satisfaction of needs, such as schools, health services, etc" which latter deduction "grows in proportion as the new society develops", and, of course, deductions "for those unable to work, etc". After these deductions the workers could divide up the wealth produced by their labor and everyone could be simply given a "certificate from society", which could then be exchanged for products. This schematically introduces a means of exchange ("the same principle" i.e. money) in socialist society but with the speculative element removed.

In this way, each worker is paid according to the amount of labor contributed to society, in other words according to the agreed difficulty, length of time, and intensity of his labor. All goods (such, for instance, as housing) are priced in a greater degree according to the amount of labor required to produce them, which the individual worker can buy with his labor voucher.

What he has given to it is his individual quantum of labor. For example, the social working day consists of the sum of the individual hours of work; the individual labor time of the individual producer is the part of the social working day contributed by him, his share in it. He receives a certificate from society that he has furnished such-and-such an amount of labor (after deducting his labor for the common funds); and with this certificate, he draws from the social stock of means of consumption as much as the same amount of labor cost. The same amount of labor which he has given to society in one form, he receives back in another.

Here, obviously, the same principle prevails as that which regulates the exchange of commodities, as far as this is exchange of equal values. Content and form are changed, because under the altered circumstances no one can give anything except his labor, and because, on the other hand, nothing can pass to the ownership of individuals, except individual means of consumption. But as far as the distribution of the latter among the individual producers is concerned, the same principle prevails as in the exchange of commodity equivalents: a given amount of labor in one form is exchanged for an equal amount of labor in another form.[8]

Only if this new socialist society manages to end the destructiveness of capitalism and leads to a higher quality of life for all will socialist society be successful. As socialism raises everyone's quality of life above the precarious existence they knew hitherto, providing decent health care, housing, child care, and other social provision for all without exception, the new socialist society begins to break down the old inevitably pecuniary habits, the need for a state apparatus will wither away, and the communist organization of society will begin to emerge. Socialism, in the view of Marxists, will succeed in raising the quality of life for all by ending the destructive contradictions which arise in capitalism through conflicts between competing capitalists and competing capitalist nations, and ending the need for imperialist conquest for the possession of commodities and markets.


Some time after socialism is established society leaps forward, and everyone has plenty of personal possessions, but no one can exploit another person for private gain through the ownership of vast monopolies, and so forth. Classes are thus abolished, and class society ended. Communism will have spread across the world and be worldwide. Eventually the state will "wither away" and become obsolete, as people administer their own lives without the need for governments or laws. Thus, stateless communism or pure communism, which may be considered the Sixth Stage, is established, which has the following features:

In The Communist Manifesto, Marx describes communism as:

When, in the course of development, class distinctions have disappeared, and all production has been concentrated in the hands of a vast association of the whole nation, the public power will lose its political character. Political power, properly so called, is merely the organized power of one class for oppressing another. If the proletariat during its contest with the bourgeoisie is compelled, by the force of circumstances, to organize itself as a class; if, by means of a revolution, it makes itself the ruling class, and, as such, sweeps away by force the old conditions of production, then it will, along with these conditions, have swept away the conditions for the existence of class antagonisms and of classes generally, and will thereby have abolished its own supremacy as a class. In place of the old bourgeois society, with its classes and class antagonisms, we shall have an association in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.[6]

Few applications of historical materialism, the philosophical system used by Marxism to explain the past progressions of human society and predict the nature of communism, account for a stage beyond communism, but Marx suggests that what has ended is only the "prehistory" [9] of human society; now, for the first time, humankind will no longer be at the mercy of productive forces (e.g. the free market) which act independently of their control. Instead human beings can plan for the needs of society, inclusively, democratically, by the vast majority, who now own and control the means of production collectively. By implication, then, only now does the real history of human society begin.

Cohen's interpretation of Marx

Karl Marx's Theory of History: A Defence by G. A. Cohen is a key work for the philosophical school of Analytical Marxism. In it, Cohen advances a sophisticated technological-determinist interpretation of Marx "in which history is, fundamentally, the growth of human productive power, and forms of society rise and fall according as they enable or impede that growth."[10]

Cohen proposes that explanation in Marx’s conception of the social system is functional, by which he means roughly that the character of what is explained is determined by its effect on what explains it, so that economic relations of production profoundly affect productive forces (technology), and legal-political superstructures strongly condition economic foundations. Thus, in the latter case, in one direction a society’s legal-political superstructure stabilizes or entrenches its economic structure, but in the other direction the economic relations determine the character of the superstructure, so that in this sense the economic base is primary and the superstructure secondary. It is precisely because the superstructure strongly affects the base that the base selects that superstructure. As Charles Taylor puts it, "These two directions of influence are so far from being rivals that they are actually complementary. The functional explanation requires that the secondary factor tend to have a causal effect on the primary, for this dispositional fact is the key feature of the explanation."[11] It is because the influences in the two directions are not symmetrical that it makes sense to speak of primary and secondary factors, even where one is giving a non-reductionist, "holistic" account of social interaction.

The level of development of society’s productive forces (i.e., society’s technological powers, including tools, machinery, raw materials, and labour power) determines society’s economic structure, in the sense that it selects a structure of economic relations that tends best to facilitate further technological growth. In historical explanation, the overall primacy of the productive forces can be understood in terms of two key theses:

(a) The productive forces tend to develop throughout history (the Development Thesis).
(b) The nature of the production relations of a society is explained by the level of development of its productive forces (the Primacy Thesis proper).[12]

In saying that productive forces have a universal tendency to develop, Cohen’s reading of Marx is not claiming that productive forces always develop or that they never decline. Their development may be temporarily blocked, but because human beings have a rational interest in developing their capacities to control their interactions with external nature in order to satisfy their wants, the historical tendency is strongly toward further development of these capacities.

See also


  1. See, in particular, Marx and Engels, The German Ideology
  2. Marx, Karl: Letter to the editor of the Russian magazine Otetchestvennye Zapisky, 1877.
  3. Gewirth, Alan (1998). The Community of Rights (2 ed.). University of Chicago Press. p. 168. ISBN 9780226288819. Retrieved 2012-12-29. Marxists sometimes distinguish between 'personal property' and 'private property,' the former consisting in consumer goods directly used by the owner, while the latter is private ownership of the major means of production.
  4. Marx, Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy Marx, Early writings, Penguin, 1975, p425-6
  5. Lenin: The State and Revolution
  6. 1 2 Marx and Engels, The Communist Manifesto
  7. 1 2 Marx and Engels, The Civil War in France
  8. Marx and Engels, The Critique of the Gotha Programme
  9. Marx, Early writings, Penguin, 1975, p. 426.
  10. G. A. Cohen, Karl Marx’s Theory of History (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1978), p. x.
  11. Charles Taylor, “Critical Notice”, Canadian Journal of Philosophy 10 (1980), p. 330.
  12. Cohen, p. 134.
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