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Matthew Toll, "Marx's Grand Narrative: The Materialist Conception of History"

Mathew Toll writes:

"Marx's Grand Narrative:
The Materialist Conception of History"

Matthew Toll

The materialist conception of history was formulated by Marx in reaction to the major philosophies within Germany during the 1800s. Hegel, an influential theorist at the time, advocated absolute idealism, considering history as the unfolding of God’s plan. Marx aimed to give history an objective basis within the material conditions of human life in order to explain social movements. His conception of history, while highly influential, is not without contenders who criticise its ability to account for social change. This paper will give account of Marx’s materialist conception of history in its theoretical outline. The conception will then be illuminated in relation to historical examples of social change and tested in its ability explain these movements, in contention with another conception of history.

The foundation stone for the materialist conception of history was the existence of individual human-beings and their subsequent reproduction (Marx, 1969, pp.419-420). Marx considered the distinguishing feature between humans and animals was the formers ability to produce their own “means of subsistence” i.e. food, through their social organisation (Marx, 1969, p.409). Human-beings as social-beings organise along relations of production for mutual benefit or in the case of a slave because the threat of force coerces their natural volition (Marx, 1969, pp.419-420). Economic systems restrained by scarcity necessarily lead to conflict in the relationships between individuals in the economic sphere for scarce resources. Development of these relations of production leads to the organisation of societies into class systems, whereby individuals which have a particular relation to the means of production form a class (Marx, 1996, p.160).Antagonism between classes over the means of production leads to a particular class’s hegemony over other classes (Marx, 1996, p.160). The economics of a class system is the base with a corresponding superstructure with its legal-political systems and forms of social consciousness (Marx, 1969, p.438). Class hegemony maintains itself with both state-power and ideological apparatus (Heywood, 2002, pp. 91-92). While a class structure has been a general feature of societies, in particular there have been different modes of production with their particular relations organised around the means of production (Marx, 1996, p.160). Marx sought to explain the development and change of modes of production and therefore class systems (Marx, 1996, p.160). The historical process of transformation from Feudalism to Capitalism will help elucidate Marx’s materialist conception of history and its explanatory power in relation to social change.

Feudalism can be defined by the predominance of an exploitive relationship between a dominate landowning aristocracy and subordinated peasant class (Hilton, 1978, p. 30). The Feudal mode of production developed in Western Europe after the fall of the Roman Empire. The feudal mode of production relative to the capitalist mode of production was stable and change-resisting (Dobb, 1978, p.59). But this did not exclude internal contradictions: the expropriation of surplus-value from peasants by the lord led to conflict. The pressure placed upon peasants by the feudal lord caused some to flee, leading to a concentration of semi-proletarians within the towns (Dobb, 1978, p.60). The development of towns within the feudal mode of production was a precondition for the development of the capitalist mode of production. These developments placed more pressure on the traditional feudal relationship between serf and lord (Dobb, 1978, p. 60). By the 14th century the institution of serfdom had largely disappeared from England (Marx, 1986, p 671). The replacing of labour services with money rents lead to disintegration of feudal relations, while there still existed a relationship of servitude the surplus-value extracted became less and less (Takahashi, 1978, pp.83-4). The two hundred years between 14th and 16th century then became a period of transformation, neither classically feudal nor capitalist (Takahashi, 1978, p.84).

The Feudal mode of production had reached a point where its forces of production had been developed in full. But as the materialist conception of history states a new mode of production does not develop until the material conditions that make them possible have developed in the old system (Marx, 1996, p.160). The capitalist farmers begin to hire wage-labour and concentrate their own capital within space left by the disintegrating feudal mode of production (Marx, 1986, p. 694). Marx held that changes in the economic base lead to changes in consciousness (1996, p.160). He argued that the first political economists to conceptualise a coherent account of capitalistic production, the physiocrats developed as the social consciousness of the capitalist farmers (Marx, 1919, p. 415).

Marx’s theory of the correlation between mode of production and social consciousness has been criticised as economic determinist, reducing complex social realties into economic factors alone (Ganguly-Scrase, 2003 p.53). The complexities of forms of consciousness and Marx ability to explain such changes has been criticised by postmodernism. Postmodernists consider Marx’s conception of history to be a grand-narrative, a theory which tries to attain an understanding of a unified social logic. Postmodern theorists reject this project in its basic assumption that such a unified logic exists (Poole and Germov, 2007, p.58). They further suggest that no appraisal of ‘facts’ can be made as reality is socially constructed and therefore not independent of the subjectivities that construct it (Poole and Germov, 2007, p.58). Consequently, according to postmodernists it is untenable to talk of ‘material conditions’ and ‘class’ because these categories represent grand-narratives (Joyce, 1995, pp. 75-76). This would render Marx’s conception of history’s ability to explain social change redundant, as there would be no historical continuum to explain or facts independent of consciousness and therefore no objective ‘material conditions’. An irony of this perspective is that a representative Lyotard, postulated that there was a correlation between the development of postmodernism and the process of deindustrialization (1984, p. 3). This established association would support the materialist conception of history’s thesis that the realm of production has a direct relationship with the forms of consciousness that arise from it (Marx, 1996, p.159-160).

The Materialist conception of history as outlined by Marx has several components in its analysis of social change. Marx’s tried to situate his conception of history in the fundamental relation of human to human and human to nature. By showing the necessary relations entered into by individuals to produce their material needs indispensable to their continued existence. Expanding from these basic principles to explain that modes of production that arise from an economic system with limited recourses lead to a class system. For Marx these are not static but plagued by the internal contradictions of class conflict driving social change. Therefore, he set out to explain the nature of classes and class conflict and the mechanism by which one mode of production was replaced by another. The example of transformation of feudalism into a capitalist mode of production served to illuminate this complex process, both in concrete relations but also the place of consciousness illuminating the materialist conception of history’s ability to account for social change. The relationship between social organisation and forms of consciousness has been a controversial point in Marx’s explanation of social change. Postmodernism rejects the idea of a unified and objective social logic. Therefore their criticism considers Marx’s theory as unable to handle the complexities of social realties and forms of consciousness. Against this proposition, the very strength of Marx’ conception of history is that it grounds its understanding in the material necessities of life, providing a unified and objective base from which to explain social change.


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