Karl Marx’s Theory Historical Materialism - Sociology Optional Study Material

Historical Materialism: Karl Marx’s Theory of Social Change

Marx was greatly affected by the contemporary Germanic philosophy of Feurbach and French philosophy of Hegels. He was critical of Fichte that society progresses in a haphazard and unorganised manner. In pursuance of an organised development of society, he adopted dialectic of Hegel's "dialectic idealism" but rejected Hegel's view that it is ideas which are in dialectic. Instead, he proposed that it is "material conditions" which are in dialectic. This he borrowed from the Feurbach idea that Human consciousness is determined by existing material conditions.

Juxtaposing Hegel and Feurbach he said that the process of thesis, antithesis and Synthesis (dialectic) is "the guiding principle of development, but it is not ideas which are in dialectic relationship but material conditions. He was much influenced by Feurbach's emphasis on "ideas from being" but rejected his conception of human being as an object. According to him Human being is creative in nature.
Also read: Emergence of Sociology

Marx's this theory of change is known as Historical materialism. Marx did never use this term, instead he named it "material conception of History". He was more concerned with the development of Human being in a Historical perspective.

According to Marx, Man is engaged in social production which needs cooperation. This cooperative need forces them to enter into social relations independent of their will. This social relation is dependent upon economy of the society.

Marx says that each society can be distinguished on the basis of economy i.e. infrastructure and super structure. The infra-structure essentially consists of the forces of production and relations of production. While within superstructure figure the legal and political institutions as well as ways of thinking, ideologies and philosophies, the main mechanism of Historical movement is the contradiction within the infrastructure i.e. between forces of production and relations of production. The forces of production is essentially a given society's capacity to produce which is a function of scientific knowledge, technological equipment and the organisation of collective labour.

The relation of production dichotomizes the society in two classes. Whenever new source of energy is invented, forces of production develop. With the development of forces of production, old relations of production doesn't fit or say is compatible to new forces of production. This happens at certain period in the given stage. This period is known as revolutionary period. One class is attached to the old relations of production which become an obstacle to the development of forces of production and another class, on the contrary, is progressive and represents new relations of production which is progressive in nature and favours maximum growth.

This internal contradiction leads to the change of mode of production and hence the establishment of new social order which is dominated by progressive class of old social order. This change occurs at the time when the forces of production cannot be contained in the old relations or production. As in Marx's words "No social order ever disappears before all the productive forces, for which there is room in it, have been developed and the new higher relations of production never appear before the material conditions of their existence matured in the womb of old society."

Thus mankind takes up only such problems which it can solve, since, looking at the matter more closely we will find that problem itself arises only when the material conditions necessary for its solution already exists or at least in the process of formation.

With the change in mode of production which lies in the domain of infrastructure, the superstructure is more or less changed. The legal domain is suited to progressive class and confirming to the ideologies. Thus, human consciousness is conditioned in dialectic interplay between the subject and the object, in which man actively shapes the world he lives in at the same time as it shapes him.

History is thus a process of the continuous creation, satisfaction and recreation of human needs. This is what distinguishes man from animals whose needs are fixed and that is why labour, the creative interchange between man and their natural environment is the foundation of human society.

Further elaborating this theory of change Marx says the dialectics of subject (forces of production) and objects (relations of production) produces different modes of production. His analysis of west produces four types of society before the appearance of communism.

Types of Society Characterized by

Primitive communism absence of property
Ancient Society Slavery
Feudalism Serfdom
Capitalism Wage Earner

Ancient society, feudalism and capitalism is characterized by the dichotomy or society into oppressor and oppressed.

But the proletarian revolution will finish off the antagonistic character of society. Communism will be preceded by socialism.

Marx's has differentiated stages of west from that of China and India. He termed it Astatic Society which is characterized by the ownership of production in the hands of state. State is all oppressive. This difference questions unilinear theory of social development. Many social scientists have feared that socialistic stage which is transitory according to Marx may lead to state oppression i.e. Asiatic mode rather than communist society. 

Change from Capitalism to Communism

Theory of surplus-value

Capitalism is a System of commodity production. In the capitalist System producers do not simply produce for their own needs, or for the needs of individuals with whom they are in personal contact; capitalism involves a nationwide, and often an international exchange market. Every commodity, according to Marx, has two fold aspect its 'use -value' on the one hand, and its 'exchange -value' on the other. Use -value, which is realized only in the process of consumption, has reference to the needs which the properties of a commodity as a physical artifact can be employed to cater to 'Exchange -value' refers to the value of a product has when offered in' exchange for other products. Exchange value is inseparable from a market on which goods are exchanged. 

Any object can have only value in so far as human labour power has been expanded to produce it. This is the core proposition of the labour theory of value which Marx takes over from Adam Smith and Ricardo. It follows from this that both exchange -value and use -value must be directly related to the amount of labour embodied in the production of a commodity. It is clear, Marx says, that exchange -value cannot be derived from use value. This can be shown by the example of the exchange -value of two commodities such as corn and iron. A given quantity of corn is worth a specifiable quantity of iron. The fact that we can express the worth of these two products in terms of each other, and in quantified form, shows that we are using some common standard which is applicable to both. This common measure of value has nothing to do with the physical properties of corn or iron, which are incommensurate. Exchange -value must then reset upon some quantifiable characteristics of labour. There are obviously many difference between specific kinds of labour: the actual tasks involved in the work of growing corn are very different from those involved in manufacturing iron. Just as exchange -value abstracts from the specific characteristics of commodities, and treats them in abstract quantitative ratio in the derivation of exchange -value we have to consider only 'abstract general labour', which can be measured in terms of the amount of time expended by the worker in the production of a commodity. Concept of abstract labour does not apply to any individual worker, but to the 'Socially necessary' labour time. This is the amount of time required for the production of a commodity under the normal conditions of production, and with the 'average degree of skill and intensity' prevalent at a given time in a particular industry. The socially necessary labour time can be fairly readily determined through empirical studies. A sudden technological improvement can reduce the amount of socially necessary labour time required to produce a particular commodity, and will therefore lead to a corresponding diminution in its value.

In this analysis, Marx doesn't ignore the value of demand and supply in establishing the price of a commodity. Marx States "demand does not determine value, although it can affect prices". For Marx, demand is the most significant in relation to the allocation of the labour force to different sectors of the economy. If the demand for a certain commodity becomes particularly high then producer of other goods will be stimulated to move into the production of that commodity. The increase in price following the heightened demand will then become reduced in the direction of its value.

Profit in capitalist society

The necessary basis of capitalism is the fact that workers are free to sell their labour in the open market, What this signifies is that labour power is itself a commodity, which is bought and sold on the market. Thus its value is determined like that of any other commodity, by the labour time necessary for its production. Human labour power involves the expenditure of physical energy, which must be replenished. To renew the energy expended in labour, the worker must be provided with the requirements of his existence as a functioning organism -food, clothing and shelter for himself and his family. The labour time socially necessary to produce the necessities of life of the worker is the value of the worker's labour power. The latter's value is, therefore, reducible to a specifiable quantity of commodities those which the worker requires to be able to subsist and reproduce. 'The worker exchanges with capital his labour itself he alienates it. The price he receives is the value of this alienation'.

The conditions of modern manufacturing and industrial production allow the worker to produce considerably more, in an average working day, than is necessary to cover the cost of his subsistence. Only a proportion of the working day, that is, needs to be expended to produce the equivalent of the worker's own value. If say, the length of the working day is ten hours, and if the worker produces the equivalent of his own value in half that time, then the remaining five hour's work is surplus production which may be appropriated by the capitalists. The ratio between necessary and surplus labour is the "rate of surplus value' or the rate of exploitation'. Surplus value is the source of profit. Profit is the visible 'surface' manifestation' of surplus value.

In capitalism capitalists spend capital in two forms: one on hiring labour and other on machinery, raw materials, maintenance of factory fitting etc. First is variable capital and later one is constant capital. Only variable capital creates value. Constant capital does not, in the process of production, undergo any quantitative alteration of value. In contrast to the rate of surplus value, which is the ratio of surplus value to variable capital (s/v), the rate of profit can only be calculated with reference to both variable and constant capital, The ratio of constant to variable capital constitutes the 'organic composition' of capital: since the rate of profit depends of the organic composition of capital, it is lower than the rate of surplus-value, The rate of profit is given by the formula p = s/c + v the lower the ratio on expenditure on constant capital to that on variable capital, the higher the rate of profit.

Note: Since Theory of Surplus value and falling tendency of rate of Profit is not in the Syllabus, so just use the concept in the social change theory.

The economic contradictions of capitalist production

“Law of the falling tendency of rate of profit”

According to Marx, the search for profit is intrinsic to capitalism: 'the aim of capital is not to minister to certain wants, but to produce profit. But at the same time in capitalist economy there is a structural tendency for the rate of profit to decline. This is explained by integrating the concept of organic composition of capital and surplus value. The total amount of profit in the capitalist economy depends upon the surplus value created within it; the ratio of constant to variable capital in the economy as a whole determines the average rate of profit. The rate of profit thus stands in inverse proportion to the organic composition. 

Since capitalism is founded upon the competitive search for profit, technological improvement, including above all the increasing mechanization of production, is a major weapon of each capitalist in the battle for survival on the market. But increasing mechanization will reduce the rate of profit. 

A rise in expenditure on constant capital frequently goes along with an increase in the productivity of the labour, which therefore effectively reduces the proportionate unit value of the constant capital, and thereby may keep the rate of profit stable or even raise it. Another mode of offsetting the declining rate of profit is via the feeding in of cheap materials through foreign trade, the result of which is to increase the rate of surplus-value if these are used to supply the subsistence needs of workers, and to lower the value of constant capital. But Marx lays most stress upon those countervailing forces to the falling rate of profit which involve the intensified exploitation of labour. These include the expansion of the working day, and the depression of wages below their value. Other things being equal the lengthening of the working-day, which was a definite empirical phenomenon during the early years of the nineteenth century, raises the rate of surplus-value. The productivity of labour relative to constant capital can also be augmented, and the rate of surplus-value increased, through making more intensive use of existing machinery by speeding up its operation,' applying shift-system. Enforced depreciation of wages is normally only a temporary expedient, and has no long-term effects upon the rate of profit.

The periodic crises occurring in capitalism are the most evident manifestation of the internal 'contradictions' of the capitalist system. In a sense capitalism is an 'anarchic' system, because the market is not regulated by any definite agency relating production to consumption. It is also an intrinsically expanding system, the basic motor of which is the restless search for profit. Since the profit motive is dominant, any state of affairs involving a pronounced imbalance between the volume of commodities produced and their saleability at the average rate of profit constitutes a crisis for the system. Capitalism is the first system in human history where a large volume of production is possible. Overproduction in terms of Exchange-value and not use-values.

A crisis is simply an expression of production beyond what the market can absorb and still return an adequate rate of profit. Once overproduction occurs, even only in one segment of the economy, it can set into motion a vicious circle of reactions. As the rate of profit falls, investment declines, part of the labour force has to be laid off, which further diminishes consumer purchasing power, producing another decline in the rate of profit, and so on. The spiral continues until unemployment has increased to such a degree, and the wages of those still in work has been forced down to such a level, that there exist new conditions for the creation of an increased rate of surplus value, and thereby a stimulus to the resumption of investment. During the crisis some of the less efficient enterprises will have gone out of business; those remaining can therefore take over their share of the market, and are in a position to begin a new period of expansion.

Crises therefore do not represent a 'break-down' of the capitalist system, but on the contrary form the regulating mechanism which enables the system to survive the periodic fluctuations to which capitalism is subject. According to Marx, Crises are momentary, The effect of crises is to further the centralization of capital.


According to Marx, recurring crises play an important role in fostering revolutionary consciousness, because they make evident the common class situation of the proletariat the more so because they tend to occur as a sharp recession following a period of relative prosperity for the working class during which unemployment is low and wages are high.

It is only rarely in the capitalist economy that conditions of near full employment prevail. The existence of a group of chronically unemployed, the industrial Resere Army is necessary to capitalism. Reserve Army has also been called by Marx 'Relative surplus population'. Reserve army constantly works as depressant upon wages. During periods of prosperity, when the demand for labour increases, part of the reserve army becomes absorbed into the labour force, and thus holds wages down; in other times, it provides a potential source of cheap labour which inhibits any attempt of the working class to improve their lot. The reserve army is 'the lever of capitalistic accumulation, and is 'a condition of existence of the capitalist mode of production'.

Marx further says that with the development of capitalism, relative disparity between Bourgeoisie and proletariat increases due to increasing 'rate of exploitation' say surplus .value. This relative poverty due to reserve army and due to disparity is "pauperization'.

According to Marx. pauperism is the 'hospital of the active labour army and the dead weight of the industrial reserve army'. Most or the worst forms of material exploitation are concentrated in this latter group, among whom there develops an accumulation or misery, agony of labour, slavery, ignorance, brutality, moral degradation'. Thus the contradictory character of capitalism manifests itself in the accumulation of wealth' at one pole', and of poverty and misery at the other. 

Concentration and centralization of capital

The rising organic composition of capital which takes place as capitalism proceeds, is intimately connected with a trend towards the centralization and concentration of capital. 'Concentration' refers to the process whereby as capital accumulates, individual capitalists succeed in expanding the amount of capital under their control. Centralization. on the other hand, refers to the merging of existing capitals. The effect of both is to lead to larger and larger productive units. And in turn, these larger units tend to drive smaller ones out of business and to absorb their capital. Centralization is further promoted by credit system.

The relative poverty of the mass of the working class, the physical misery of the 'reserve Army" and the rapid diminution in wages and upsurge of unemployment which occur incrises, all provide a growing reservoir of revolutionary potential. The industrial system itself provides a source of perception of community of interest, and a basis for collective organization, since the factory concentrates large number of workers together in one place, worker's organizations begin on a local level, but eventually merge to form national units. The self-consciousness of. the proletariat expands progressively along with the undermining of the position of the entrepreneurial capitalist by the centralization and concentration of capital. The conjunction of these circumstances makes possible the achievement of socialist society.

Socialism will pass through

First stage: The Socialization of production is completed by putting an end to private property. In this phase, property become collectively owned and wages are distributed according to a fixed principle, Out of the total social product certain amounts are allocated to. Cover collective needs of the administration of production, the running of schools, health facilities and so on. In this worker is given back according to his contribution to society. In other words, at this stage labour is still treated as an exchange value. but instead of this being confined to a class group (the proletariat), this now becomes universalised.

Second Stage: Dictatorship of the proletariat. The proletariat will use its political domination to wrest, by degrees, all capital from the bourgeoisie, to centralize all instruments of production in the hands of the state i.e, of the proletariat organized as the dominant class, and to increase the total of productive forces as rapidly as possible. Political power will disappear only when this stage is completed, Alienation will remain.

Third Stage: Division of labour. exists in Bourgeoisie society will be abolished ending alienation. It will replace the worker of today by a fully developed individual,  that is for a variety of labour.

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