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The materialist conception of history

By Paul D'Amato | January 26, 2007 | Page 13

IT IS popular to describe society as a conglomeration of individuals, and to see the individual as the "atom" of society.

This is certainly how the ideologues of the market want us to see it. The material basis of this thinking is the existence of the market itself.

It is a useful concept if the aim is to atomize and divide the working class from itself, and encourage ordinary people to think of themselves not as part of a class or a collective. What the approach obscures is that human beings cannot function in isolation, but only in and through various forms of social organization.

As Marx once wrote, it is a bourgeois conceit to look at society from the standpoint of the isolated individual. However, "Production by an isolated individual outside as much of an absurdity as is the development of language without individuals living together and talking to each other."

A defining feature of human life is social organization. Human beings, with the exception of shipwrecked individuals, appropriate their material needs as a group, not in isolation. Again Marx: "All production is appropriation of nature on the part of an individual within and through a specific form of society."

For Marx, the key was to discover the essential determinants of human social organization, and how they changed through time. For the bourgeois economists, this was a non-question, because as far as they were concerned, the market had existed as the fundamental form of social organization since the beginning of mankind.

Most historical inquiry is arbitrary in that it fails to discover they key material factors that shape history. The idealist conception--that ideas shape history--is the least satisfactory because it is the most arbitrary. It cannot explain why particular ideas arise at a certain moment in history, or why at that particular moment in history those ideas were able to influence the course of events.

Starting with the fact that human beings are part of the natural world, and therefore subject to its laws, puts us on a much more solid foundation. But it is only a starting point.

There are some biologists who say that human beings' behavior is a product of our genetic make-up. Since our genetic makeup is relatively fixed, so our behavior is. Of course, there is an important element of truth to this, insofar as upright gait, large brains, and the capacity for language are products of our genetic inheritance. One could argue on this basis that the very fact that human beings are social animals and not "lone wolves" is itself a product of our evolutionary development.

What genetic determinism, however, cannot explain, is what accounts for the differences, the changes to be precise, in human social organization over time. Merely listing genetic attributes is inadequate if we are to explain how we went from being hunters and foragers to where we are today.

Human beings' language and tool-making skills give human social organization plasticity not present in other species. Changes in technology--in the primary means used to produce subsistence--produces changes in human social organization. This idea is the foundation of Marxist "historical materialism."

"The materialist conception of history," wrote Engels, "starts from the proposition that the production of the means to support human life and, next to production, the exchange of things produced, is the basis of all social structure; that in every society that has appeared in history, the manner in which wealth is distributed and society divided into classes or orders is dependent upon what is produced, how it is produced, and how the products are exchanged."

We will deal with the question of the division of society into classes in a future article. The important point here is that to understand human history, we must look first to the changes in the economic foundations of society. Critics of Marxism are fond of claiming that this is a "reductionist" theory that neglects other non-economic factors. But that is like saying that atoms are the building blocks of matter reduces all elements to the atoms from which they are constructed.

Engels answered the critics by saying: "According to the materialist conception of history, the ultimately determining element in history is the production and reproduction of real life. Other than this neither Marx nor I have ever asserted. Hence if somebody twists this into saying that the economic element is the only determining one, he transforms that proposition into a meaningless, abstract, senseless phrase."

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