Rebellion Is Justified!: Dialectical and Historical Materialism

Monday, May 22

Dialectical and Historical Materialism

Karl Marx stresses clearly and repeatedly that the materialist conception of history is qualitatively different than the idealist method of historical analysis, which, Marx says, “confines itself to high-sounding dramas of princes and states.” (46) Marx’s criticism of the idealism of his German opponents is aimed at highlighting his historical materialist conception, and specifically its application to the actual struggle of the proletariat to affect revolution.

There can be no contradiction between the “human experience” and human history, because, as Marx points out, human history is a continuity, a process of self-development leading directly into, and explaining, the actual productive relations of society, and these relations’ “efflux,” man’s mental intercourse, world outlook. Marx’s revolutionary party, the communists, could not hope to initiate revolutionary consciousness among the proletarians without being able to posit the class struggle into the context of historical development. Marx’s stress on man’s world-historical acts leads directly to understanding the class struggle of the communists as the self-conscious making of current history.

The German Ideology wittily and clearly attacks the philosophical muck of historical idealism. But the point appears not to be identifying idealism, so much as developing its opposite: historical materialism. Using the materialist method, seeking to analyze concrete productive relationships and processes of development, and in a dialectical way, seeing the dynamic, multi-sided character of this development. But this was to Marx no scholastic exercise, so much as a programmatic expression of the communists, declaring to the world that history is on the side of the proletariat, as the class to end class division once and for all. To Marx, the struggles of class society lead directly to the present, in which the propertyless, socialized working class, combined with mighty productive forces, could and would seize power.

The crux of The German Ideology is its identification of the process of self-development of human society, and its forecast that the communist revolution will qualitatively transform this. “All-round dependence, this natural form of the world-historical cooperation of individuals, will be transformed by this communist revolution into the control and conscious mastery of these powers, which, born of the action of men on one another, have until now overawed and governed men as powers completely alien to them.” (58) Here, Marx highlights the fundamentally heteronomic (dependent) state of man until present, in which the hand of necessity both alienates him from the product of his work, and leads him to ascribe this process of alienation to metaphysical concepts such as “God,” or “fate.” This alienation will be resolved through the revolution, when human creativity will no longer be smothered by necessity and class oppression.

Indeed, the real value of this work is its application of materialism to the analysis of the motion of history, and, from that standpoint, the optimistic forecast of a communist future. Marx’s dialectical method can be applied to physical as well as social science, but historical materialism has perhaps shattered the old, reactionary traditions more than has anything else. Marx transformed the notion of historical development into a “specter,” that has long haunted the exploiting classes, and provided a basis for optimism among revolutionary forces. After the fall of many self-proclaimed socialist states, some bourgeois ideologists, wishing to bury Marx’s contributions once and for all, triumphantly declared “the end of history,” in which all forward motion was said to be a utopian mirage. But the fundamental power of Marx’s analysis here lies in its focus upon the broad, world-historical development of the productive forces, relations, and the correspondent superstructure. The contradictions giving rise to revolutionary crises cannot be covered over with any idealist philosophy, and, ultimately, the conscious, willful mastery of human creative and productive power foreseen by Marx will be realized.

Works Cited

Marx, Karl. The German Ideology. New York: International Publishers, 1947.