Marx’s theory of historical materialism came with a few central concepts, a large hypothesis, and a heuristic for social research. The concepts include class, the forces and relations of production, the economic structure, the superstructure, and the idea of determination (“in the last instance”, as Althusser and Poulantzas put it) between the economic structure and elements of the superstructure. The heuristic is, “Look to the circumstances of property and class — the material circumstances of society — in order to discover the causal relationships that exist in large social change across history.” The large hypothesis is that the historical dynamic created by tension between the forces of production (the level of technology and labor skills) and the relations of production (the property relations) creates a set of imperatives and constraints for social change that leads to the formation and transformation of other social elements, such as the state, morality, or culture. Class and class conflict play a central role in mediating the effects of the economic structure on other aspects of society.
Are these elements of historical materialism still of value to sociology and historical explanation?
The concepts associated with the theory of historical materialism are legitimate macro-sociological tools for organizing and analyzing social institutions and structures within particular societies. Their utility depends on the degree to which they permit the historian to identify and explain in detail the real social processes that are underway in the society under examination. There is no a priori basis for judging that this conceptual scheme is superior to other alternatives (as Marx sometimes seems to suggest). Rather, we need to evaluate the materialist conceptual scheme through its fecundity in identifying causal mechanisms and processes within the empirical phenomena under study.
The heuristic too remains insightful — as long as we keep in mind the fact that historical change has many causes. It is fair to say that material factors have historical influence — levels of technology influence other social institutions such as the educational system, the property system creates a set of interests that have important political effects on mobilization, and struggle over the control of social wealth is plainly an important historical factor. And it is a productive strategy for historians to examine in details the ways in which material circumstances produce other kinds of social change through the actions of historically situated actors. Further, careful study of the material circumstances of a society shed important light on the circumstances of life for the almost invisible ordinary people.
The master hypothesis of historical materialism is the least enduring. Marx’s reading of history within the lenses of historical materialism was simply too deterministic, too unidirectional, and too single-factored, to provide a credible basis for explaining historical change. The difficulty with the hypothesis is its comprehensiveness and its suggestion that there is only one major historical dynamic. But take any particular historical outcome of interest — the dynamics leading to a rebellion in North China, for example. Material conflicts of interest are likely enough to be part of the motivations of the participants, and the powers associated with various groups derivative from their control of wealth and property are plausibly related to the ability of various groups to play an influential role in the developing events. However, there are plainly other social and causal factors that are unrelated to the property system — for example, a history of drought or flooding in the region, the structure and tenacity of kinship systems, the nature of local morality and justice sensibilities, the degree of transportation interconnectedness of the region, and indefinitely many other factors.
It is implausible, then, to suppose that a single factor — whether material class circumstances, ideology, or other social characteristics — is the sole important causal factor in large historical processes. Historical processes are contingent and conjunctural, so the effort to discover a single key to explain all large historical processes and outcomes is futile. At the same time, it is plausible enough that the circumstances and institutions associated with technology and property have historical effects; and in fact, it is straightforward to describe the microfoundations through which these institutions interact with ordinary human behavior and choice to lead to social outcomes. This assessment suggests that historians and sociologists are well justified in including the concepts and heuristics of historical materialism in their tool kit, but that they would be well advised to reject the almost metaphysical certainty of the grand hypothesis.
(See Gerald Cohen, Karl Marx’s Theory of History, for an analytic philosopher’s pathbreaking treatment of historical materialism.)