Dialectical Materialism and Economic Determinism by Karl Marx

Both dialectical materialism and economic determinism form the essential components of the theory of Historical Materialism. The proponents of historical materialism are German Philosopher Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, both of whom are referred to as the champions of communism. This particular theory is also widely known as the “materialistic interpretation of history”. Marx interpreted history through dialectical materialism and believed that economic conditions highly determined historical phenomena. Simply put, historical materialism is the economic interpretation of history.

Dialectical Materialism

Supposedly, the consolidation of the principle ideologies of Marx and Engels as a scientific philosophy is what dialectical materialism is. This can also be considered as a “philosophical approach” used by Marx and his followers to analyse and understand reality. In literal terms, ‘dialectic’ means discussion, or in other words, the study of contradictions which form the rock basis of human existence. Although Marx and Engels developed this theory as a factored consequence of what they learnt from Hegel, a famous German thinker, they eventually rejected Hegel’s idealistic interpretation of society, or what is widely known as ‘Hegelian Idealism’. Unlike Hegel who believed that external reality was a mere reflection of the human mind, Marx and Engels were materialists who thought that matter or nature existed independent of and outside the human mind. They believed that matter was primary and mind was secondary. Marx’s theory of philosophical materialism states that the world is by nature materialistic and different forms of dynamic matter give rise to different phenomena. Hence, whereas material life is primary, spiritual life can be treated as secondary. The material life of society is dependent on the method using which people secure their means of livelihood and the way they produce material values.

Hegel considered history to be a dialectical process or “struggle of the opposites” in which the dominant or the principle idea that characterised each stage of evolution, was treated as a thesis. This thesis was subjected to confrontation and defeat at the hands of an opposite force (or idea) which came to be known as an anti-thesis. This gave rise to the production of “synthesis”. The opposite forces of society never balance each other; rather, one must be stronger than the other. Perhaps, this inequality produces tensions between both the forces. History, supposedly, presents the process of action and reaction between the two forces. The two forces of society are majorly capital and labour, with the latter forming the anti-thesis and the former acting as a thesis. This results in what Marx called ‘Class Struggle’.

Economic Determinism

Marx believed that economic forces alone impacted all the evolutionary stages in history. Hence, economic forces are the predominant dynamic agency of human society and its history. He considered economic (or material) conditions as more important than the spiritual and ideological aspects. Marx stated, “It is not the consciousness of the man that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness.” The form and structure of every society are determined by what Marx referred to as the economic structure which further came to be known as “infrastructure”. The infrastructure majorly consists of two things – material forces of production and the indispensable relations of production.

Social, religious, political, moral, legal, educational and other institutional networks were referred to as “super-structures” which were built upon the rock basis of the economic infrastructure. The forces of conflict which impacted the historical evolution of the society gave rise to a conflict within the economic structure, that is, between the “forces of production” and “relations of production”. However, the ideological forms make men conscious of the conflict within the economic structure. Marx also claimed that the productive forces of society determine its total or overall conditions. The social, intellectual and political life of a society is highly determined by the modes of production. A change in the mode of production will bring about changes in all of the aforementioned components. Hence, the forms of production create differences between legal, social, religious and political institutions of the capitalist, feudal and pastoral societies.

Relations Between The Social Structures and The Modes of Productions

Marx believed that society transitioned through five stages which correspond to five different modes of production. These are:

  • Primitive Society and Primitive Modes of Production. This is also referred to as the communist stage as there is no private property and productions are owned by the community.
  • Ancient Society and Ancient Mode of Production. This society or stage is characterised by slavery where members of one class (or the dominant class) who own the property, exploit the members of other classes.
  • Feudal Society and Feudal Mode of Production. Here, the aristocratic landowners and barons who form the dominant class exploit the peasants and serfs.
  • Capitalist Society and Capitalist Mode of Production. In this society, people who own all the important means of production and treat the workers as wage-slaves and tools are considered to be the capitalists. These capitalists who own the maximum wealth exploit the poor presents and workers.

Marx says that society goes through these different stages to finally reach a classless society. Each of the stages is better than the previous one as their modes of production are more economically productive than their predecessors’. However, tensions between the two classes in these societies (except for the primitive stage) give rise to class conflict and revolution which mark the advent of the fifth stage, that is, socialism.

  • The Communist Society. Here, the mode of production is socialist and is based on social ownership. This stage is a factored consequence of the revolution initiated by the industrial workers. This society aims to overthrow capitalist society.

Although Marx’s theory of historical materialism has been widely criticised by various prominent scholars, this has influenced generations of social scientists and their ideas and has resulted in a variety of scholarly discussions and policy framing works. Moreover, the two most important contributions of Marx are that he viewed human society as a whole rather than as an isolated concept – it is apparent through his work that social groups and institutions are interrelated and hence these need to be studied in their inter-relations and also believed societies to be inherently mutable systems and that changes are produced by conflicts and internal contradictions. In other words, he revolutionised generations of people to further question the existing systems instead of merely accepting their life conditions as pre-ordained. Hence, it impacted the upward social mobility which eventually contributed to the betterment of the society, in general.


  1. Rao, C.N.S. (2009). Karl Marx and His Thoughts. In C.N. Shankar Rao’s Sociology: Principles of Sociology with an Introduction to Social Thought. New Delhi: S. Chand Publications. (18th Ed, pp. 724-745).
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Sukanya is pursuing a Bachelor’s degree in Sociology from Jadavpur University, Kolkata. She is a feminist, anti-fascist and anti-capitalist and hopes to document the lives of remarkable women so that their stories don’t vanish into anonymity.