What is materialism?

Karl Marx was a materialist thinker. But what does this amount to? What is materialism as a way of thinking about historical and social reality? Is materialism an empirical theory, a philosophical theory, or perhaps part of a social-science paradigm?

Here is a statement of Marx’s materialism from the German Ideology, written in 1845-46:

The premises from which we begin are not arbitrary ones, not dogmas, but real premises from which abstraction can only be made in the imagination. They are the real individuals, their activity and the material conditions under which they live, both those which they find already existing and those produced by their activity. These premises can thus be verified in a purely empirical way.

The first premise of all human history is, of course, the existence of living human individuals. Thus the first fact to be established is the physical organisation of these individuals and their consequent relation to the rest of nature. Of course, we cannot here go either into the actual physical nature of man, or into the natural conditions in which man finds himself – geological, hydrographical, climatic and so on. The writing of history must always set out from these natural bases and their modification in the course of history through the action of men.

Men can be distinguished from animals by consciousness, by religion or anything else you like. They themselves begin to distinguish themselves from animals as soon as they begin to produce their means of subsistence, a step which is conditioned by their physical organisation. By producing their means of subsistence men are indirectly producing their actual material life.

The way in which men produce their means of subsistence depends first of all on the nature of the actual means of subsistence they find in existence and have to reproduce. This mode of production must not be considered simply as being the production of the physical existence of the individuals. Rather it is a definite form of activity of these individuals, a definite form of expressing their life, a definite mode of life on their part. As individuals express their life, so they are. What they are, therefore, coincides with their production, both with what they produce and with how they produce. The nature of individuals thus depends on the material conditions determining their production.

This production only makes its appearance with the increase of population. In its turn this presupposes the intercourse [Verkehr] of individuals with one another. The form of this intercourse is again determined by production.

To start, Marx’s words here are directed against “philosophy”, and the Young Hegelians in particular. So Marx is advocating for a different form of reasoning — not speculative philosophical reflection, but concrete analysis grounded in knowledge of the circumstances of human life. Marx is saying that we can understand certain important things — for example, the development of ideas or religion — by examining the “material” circumstances of life in which they emerge. And what are those circumstances? They are circumstances of material need and human labor: the fact that human beings satisfy their material needs on the basis of the transformation of nature through labor. So what is “material” in this setting is two characteristics: the material needs that human beings have (food, shelter, warmth) and the material-physical properties of the world in which human beings find themselves. Human beings as “producers” — intelligent transformers of nature through individual and social labor — this is the fundamental material fact in this passage.

History comes into this account through Marx’s reference to the “nature of the actual means of subsistence they find in existence”, because this is the social history of technology. Human beings create new tools and techniques over time. So materialism, when applied to human beings, has an inherently historical character; men and women transform the tools and knowledge they use in order to transform nature and satisfy needs. And, as the following paragraphs make clear, the social relations through which production takes place are themselves historical products, in a regular process of change and development. Social relationships are “material” insofar as they are the forms of cooperation through which labor and production take place; central among these material social relationships are the property relations of a given level of society.

These comments focus primarily on the conditions of production as a foundation for materialism. A related line of thought in Marx’s writings is the idea of the social relations of production as the material foundation of society. Here is a famous passage from Marx’s Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (1859):

In the social production of their existence, men inevitably enter into definite relations, which are independent of their will, namely relations of production appropriate to a given stage in the development of their material forces of production. The totality of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which arises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness. The mode of production of material life conditions the general process of social, political and intellectual life. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness. At a certain stage of development, the material productive forces of society come into conflict with the existing relations of production or – this merely expresses the same thing in legal terms – with the property relations within the framework of which they have operated hitherto. From forms of development of the productive forces these relations turn into their fetters. Then begins an era of social revolution. The changes in the economic foundation lead sooner or later to the transformation of the whole immense superstructure.

In studying such transformations it is always necessary to distinguish between the material transformation of the economic conditions of production, which can be determined with the precision of natural science, and the legal, political, religious, artistic or philosophic – in short, ideological forms in which men become conscious of this conflict and fight it out. Just as one does not judge an individual by what he thinks about himself, so one cannot judge such a period of transformation by its consciousness, but, on the contrary, this consciousness must be explained from the contradictions of material life, from the conflict existing between the social forces of production and the relations of production. No social order is ever destroyed before all the productive forces for which it is sufficient have been developed, and new superior relations of production never replace older ones before the material conditions for their existence have matured within the framework of the old society.

Mankind thus inevitably sets itself only such tasks as it is able to solve, since closer examination will always show that the problem itself arises only when the material conditions for its solution are already present or at least in the course of formation.

In broad outline, the Asiatic, ancient, feudal and modern bourgeois modes of production may be designated as epochs marking progress in the economic development of society. The bourgeois mode of production is the last antagonistic form of the social process of production – antagonistic not in the sense of individual antagonism but of an antagonism that emanates from the individuals’ social conditions of existence – but the productive forces developing within bourgeois society create also the material conditions for a solution of this antagonism. The prehistory of human society accordingly closes with this social formation.

Here the emphasis is on the social relations of production, not just the forces of production (tools, materials, technical knowledge). And on this approach, study of the class relations of a given society is a “materialist” study — even though class relations are abstract and intangible. And we provide a materialist analysis of a circumstance when we show how that circumstance corresponds to or emerges from certain features of the social relations of production.

So far, then, we seem to have two things going on: first, an approach to the history of ideas (“place systems of ideas into the roles they play in the social arrangements through which human populations satisfy material needs”), and an approach to the unfolding of history more generally (“attempt to understand historical developments in terms of the role they play in production and the satisfaction of needs”). So materialism is a theory about historical causation: what kinds of circumstances cause what other kinds of circumstances. And, perhaps, it is a theory about knowledge: that knowledge proceeds from analysis of material facts, not pure philosophical speculation or imagination.

There seem to be several hazards built into this approach. One is the temptation of reductionism that the approach seems to invite: the impulse to reduce thought, theory, and philosophy to some compound of the “needs of the social system of production”. But is it really compelling to imagine that the Young Hegelians were simply working out some of the contradictions of the system of property and factory manufacturing? No; Marx’s rhetoric seems to be getting away from him here — in ways in which later thinkers such as Mannheim perhaps allowed the sociology of knowledge to spin out of control as well. And the hazard of reductionism also raises the worry of a blindspot when it comes to the relative autonomy of politics or culture: human beings seem to be better at imagining and extending political or cultural inventions than a crude materialism would permit.

So a defensible contemporary materialism can’t be as simple as this: “Material conditions determine the content of culture, politics, and thought.” Rather, we might hold more modestly: “Material conditions constrain, influence, and stimulate the content of culture, politics, and thought.” We can understand Aristotle’s philosophy better when we understand something of its material and historical setting; but the fact remains that Aristotle was a creative and imaginative philosopher who transcended his time in a variety of ways.

So, once again, what sort of theory is materialism? Perhaps we could say this: it is a “meta” – framework, a philosophical premise about how the world works. In this respect it functions as a substantive metaphysical theory. And it is a premise about how a style of thinking, a recommendation about how we should reason about the world and what factors to subject to careful analysis. Here materialism serves as something like an applied epistemology — a theory about how and what to investigate in order to arrive at valuable, justified knowledge. It falls in the general category of ideas such as idealism, monism, atomism, physicalism, or dualism: organizing ideas about the nature of reality, within the context of which more specific theorizing and investigating can take place.

There are many questions that remain. Do these two aspects of materialism hang together? Could one accept the metaphysics but reject the epistemology, or vice versa? Once we have rejected the reductionism associated with vulgar materialism, how much remains of the theory? And is there a continuing role for materialist thinking in the twenty-first century world?

(Courbet’s Stonebreakers is a suitable companion to this topic. Painted in 1849-50, the painting illustrates several aspects of a materialist perspective on the world: an interest in conditions of life and work, an interest in the situation of ordinary working people, and, of course, the depiction of concrete labor — all of these aspects of the painting complement the mentality of Marx’s materialism. T. J. Clark’s brilliant book on Courbet and his social context is well worth reading (Image of the People: Gustave Courbet and the 1848 Revolution).)


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