Anti-Capitalist Chronicles: Marx’s Historical Materialism

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In this episode of Anti-Capitalist Chronicles, Prof. Harvey uses Marx’s theory of historical materialism as a means of tackling large societal problems such as climate change. Marx asserts that there are seven distinctive aspects of society which coexist and coevolve in relation to one another. These elements—technology, relationship to nature, labor process of production, reproduction of labor power, mental conceptions of the world, structure of state, and social relations—make up the totality of a society. Historical materialism asks that we not assume one element is a silver bullet answer to a problem, but rather that we look at the ways in which each element would have to shift in order to address the issue.


Transcript has been edited for clarity

This is David Harvey and you're listening to The Anti-Capitalist Chronicles, a podcast that looks at capitalism through a Marxist lens. This podcast is made possible by Democracy At Work.

This week I want to try and do something which is seemingly a bit complicated, but do it in a way which I hope is going to be simple enough for everybody to grasp. I was always very much impressed by the fact that Einstein, having come up with the formula E=mc2 into which you could put almost everything going on in the universe, was asked about the simplicity of it all, and his response was very interesting. He said what we should strive to do all of the time is to be as simple as possible but no simpler, and I've always borne that in mind when giving these talks, and also when I'm writing. My version of it is to say that I try to be as simple as possible without being simplistic. I'm very conscious of the fact that I sometimes fall over into the simplistic camp and I sometimes fall over in the other direction, but it’s a difficult balance to keep. I'm going to try and keep the balance today by trying to talk through what I think Marx's historical materialism was really all about and how we might define how to use it.

Now this is something that Marx himself never wrote out, but one of the things I've found about reading Marx is that he often leaves clues about things in his footnotes. There's a fantastic footnote – footnote four of the chapter on machinery and modern industry in Capital, Volume One. He takes up his relationship to Darwin and then makes a commentary on it. Marx wrote this:

“A critical history of technology would show how little any of the inventions of the 18th century are the work of a single individual. Hitherto there is no such book. Darwin has interested us in the history of Nature’s Technology, i.e., in the formation of the organs of plants and animals, in which organs serve as instruments of production for sustaining life. Does not the history of the productive organs of man, of organs that are the material basis of all social organisation, deserve equal attention? And would not such a history be easier to compile, since, as Vico says, human history differs from natural history in this, that we have made the former, but not the latter?”*

He then adds a coda to this:

“Technology discloses man’s mode of dealing with Nature, the process of production by which he sustains his life, and thereby also lays bare the mode of formation of his social relations, and of the mental conceptions that flow from them.”*

I used to teach this and say that something interesting was going on there, but as things went on, I found myself spending a whole session just on the meaning of those little passages. The last part [of the footnote] really defines five or six different aspects of a social order.
The first aspect is technology. The second aspect is a relation to nature. The third aspect is the form of production of his life, and you could divide that into two: one is the labor process of production, and the second would be the reproduction of labor power. (You could call that two if you want or just just one.) Then there is the question of mental conceptions of the world and
how these mental conceptions work, and then finally the social relations of class, gender, and all the rest of it.

So you have these these six elements, and if you read Capital, you find there's a seventh element – the whole structure of administration, law, the state, and the like, which become very important in defining what is a market and how a market works, and also become very important to defining the functions and operations of money. Let's look at these five relations, or six relations if you like, and then talk about how they merge together.

In earlier sessions, I did talk a bit about the notion of “totality.” So I want to think here of the totality of a capitalist social order, and that totality is made up of these seven distinctive moments, or activity spheres, or elements, or whatever else you want to call them, which actually make up the whole. In the same way, a human body has many functions going on inside of it, so society has many functions going on inside of it. These elements—technology, relationship to nature, labor process of production, reproduction of labor power, mental conceptions of the world, structure of state, and social relations—make up the totality of a capitalist society.

So that is the simplification which we're going to make about historical materialism. Now notice something here about the language when Marx says “technology reveals” (in other translations it's “discloses”) and in the rest of the passage here it's “lays bare.” He doesn't say technology “determines.” What he's suggesting is that, if you start really analyzing technology very carefully in all of its aspects, you very soon find yourself talking about all sorts of other elements, for instance the relation to nature. Technology defines something about the labor process. It defines our conceptualization of the natural world, what we can use it for and what we shouldn't use it for. So the relations in nature and technology are closely bound together. You can go one step further and say when people started to develop certain technologies, it changed ideas about the world.

Consider what happened when people invented telescopes and microscopes, and started to see things about the world which completely changed their ideas as to what constitutes the world. When microscopes came in to use, you could look at germs and bacteria and you could look at disease in a different kind of way. So technology redefines how we see the world. The same applies with telescopes. We start to see things in a completely different way, such as when that first image of the Earth from outer space, from the Apollo Mission in the late 1960s, was published and people started to realize that the Earth was a planet floating out in space and and that the health of Planet Earth was something that needed to be cared for.

So the technology reveals and discloses.

For example, I started to look at social relations and production processes. What kind of social relations are compatible with these particular production processes? When you shifted from a skilled labor of the manufacturing period – the skilled carpenter, for example, is a very different kind of persona from the person who simply “Minds The Machine in the Cotton Factory” – that persona is something that arises out of the new technology, which is in this case a mass production in the cotton industry.

It is very interesting to start with any one of those elements, and if you expand from there you very soon see that each element is embedded with, coexists with, co-evolves with all of the other elements. This is one of the things that's important in Marx's concept of historical materialism – that we need to look at the interactions between many of these different elements. Radical changes in one element are likely to sort of permeate throughout all of the other elements, and end up having big impacts. Therefore this whole system is evolving.

Marx talks about the way in which systems are becoming. They're changing over time, and because each one of these elements is connected to all of the others. It’s not stationary, and it's not static. The relation to nature is constantly changing. For example, hurricanes come along, diseases come along, and so on. It's not as if any one of the elements is static. Social relations are constantly changing. All of the elements are in constant motion, but they're all impinging upon each other, both encouraged by but also constrained by relationships with the other elements.This is the way in which Marx understands his historical materialism: historical materialism is a study of society, and you have to look at societies being made up of these different elements.

Now, you could add elements. I'm choosing the seven that Marx used, but you could add some other elements to it if you want. The point is to look at society, and to look at the relations between the different elements, at the same time as we see that all of the elements are in motion. Technology is constantly changing. Social relations are constantly changing. Mental conceptions of the world are constantly changing. Nature is constantly changing, yet at the same time it starts to change, it can't go any further, because it's limited by mental conceptions.

Now, the interesting thing is that if you start to look at social theory, you'll frequently find social theories laid out as if one of these seven elements is the leading element, and everything else sort of falls to one side. For example, if you read the works of Jared Diamond or Jeffrey Sachs, you’ll see that they're very much about the relation to nature. They’re environmental determinists. They both say basically that the real forces making for historical change in the society have to do with environmental changes. Those are the elements which introduce new configurations into the situation, and all the other features of society have to adapt to the environmental changes. Jared Diamond, for example, in his environmental determinism, is someone who in his work emphasizes that the relation to nature is kind of the “silver bullet” that explains everything.

Within Marxism, there's a long tradition of saying that technology or productive forces are the element that leads. A lot of Marxists take that position. Gerry Cohen, in Karl Marx’s Theory of History, says that the leading element is productive forces. Everything else depends upon that. He is what we would call a technological determinist. There are bourgeois versions. For example, if you read Thomas Friedman's book The Earth Is Flat, you'll find him talking about changes in technology, and the changes in technology are essentially dictating to the whole of society everything else which goes on. From their point of view, the “silver bullet” is technological dynamism, a technological change.

There are other people who pick up on other elements – for example, saying social relations are absolutely crucial and that you want to actually deal with them. You will find anarchists saying that the real changes have to be in the move towards a non-hierarchical set of social relations. There are some feminists who will say the patriarchy is the problem and that therefore the abolition of patriarchy is imperative – abolish that and everything else in society will go fine. The anarchists say to abolish all the forms of hierarchy in social affairs and
social relations and everything will go fine. So again, the “silver bullet” is the nature of social relations. Then there are other people who will talk about how the dynamics of daily life actually end up creating new situations for people, and it's out of that that we find social change occurring throughout the world, so that in a sense social change sort of seeps up from daily life
and lots of community movements around the world are beginning to redefine how production shall occur, so that for somebody like Paul Hawken, it's the politics and prospects of daily life which are the “silver bullet.”

I don't think that is the right way to look at it. I think that what Marx is saying is that you have to look at the whole lot in relation to each other, which does not mean that in particular historical moments that one or the other of these elements does not get out front and start to pull all of the other elements alongside, until it is constrained and pulled back by major movement in one of the others. For example, what we see right now is that the relation to nature has become extremely problematic, which was not the case when Marx was writing. Climate change is very much constraining many of the things which are going on in society, and we really need to start to take very carefully into account the fact that all of these these floods – I mean the third of Pakistan being flooded out, the Colorado River and the Yangtze River drying up – are the kinds of phenomena which indicate something going on in terms of the relation to nature which needs to be taken care of. It has to be taken care of by societal adaptation to this new situation.

Politically, one can ask what kinds of changes would we require to deal with climate change problems? It's interesting to look at those seven elements and ask which one of those is important and what kinds of changes would be needed? What kinds of changes would be needed in production processes, for example, to solve the climate change problem? Industrial
capitalism is the center of it, and agrarian or agricultural capitalism is at the center of this, and there has to be radical reconfigurations of the way in which industrial capitalism and agricultural capitalism is working, because it's only in that way that the production system will be in accordance with the requirement that the climate change problem is going to be addressed – but it wouldn't be in itself sufficient.

Somebody said to me the other day, when I was talking about this, that I was imagining there's going to be a great change of mind on the part of the population. Yes, mental conceptions have to change, but that alone won’t be enough to address climate change. Technologies are a great emphasis right now – “the solution is technological.” I don’t think the solution is technological. There's no question that the technological moment is terribly important to mobilize in dealing with climate change, but then you find that it's not only your technology, but that what we need to do is to change social relations. Social relations need to shift. It's unlikely that a world which is dominated by an oligarchy that is largely organizing the world to preserve its own privileges and power is very unlikely to be able to address the climate change problem. What we're going to need is to allow for the fact that initially, when climate change was set up as a problem, it was largely an elite scientific group talking about it, but now people are recognizing that it's the grassroots, that a lot of poor people are suffering because of climate change and therefore we need to change the politics of the social relations if we are going to find some answer to the climate change problem.

And then there is the administrative and legal and local social structure. One of the things I find fascinating right now, is to ask the question, what kind of administrative structure, what kind of interstate system, would be able to solve the climate change problem? Clearly the interstate system as it's currently constructed, with a lot of competition going on between individual states and then huge competition going on between power blocs – you're not going to get that administrative and and state structure organized, so I would argue that one of the biggest barriers to dealing with climate change right now is the interstate structure or the interstate system. The United Nations is supposed to take care of this, but all you get from the United Nations is a lot of hot air, with no possibility of or power to do anything.

If you ask the question, how will we deal with climate change, it's not simply a matter of dealing with it in isolation. You have to deal with it by taking care of all of these other elements, and each one of the elements has to shift and be realigned around this idea that somehow or other, we are going to change the way in which we use the environment, and change it in such a way that the question of climate change is dealt with and managed properly.

This is the way in which I think Marxist historical materialism is working. It would say: if you want to find a an answer to this question of climate change, if you want to be able to better manage it, you've got to start thinking about dismantling the interstate system or somehow or other superseding the interstate system, so that this kind of competition between states and the competition between power blocs is somehow submerged in a greater drive to deal with the world. It also has to be that the power structures in society are no longer disoriented towards that of an oligarchy and that of an autarchy. It's going to be a different kind of world.

So, if we all agree that climate change is a priority, what do we need to change in order to get there? Do we need to change our mental conceptions? The answer is yes, but change into what, exactly? Big debate. We need to change our social relations, but into what? Big debate – very interesting kind of question. We need to change our production apparatus, yes indeed. We need to change our technologies, yes indeed. We need to change all of these elements.

So the theory of historical materialism would say: historically, capital has evolved through an interaction between these seven elements (and as I say I'm just choosing seven because that's a good number to work with). If we want to look back historically, we'll look at the way in which all of those elements have been working together, and if we want to look to some way of managing the current dilemmas, then we have to look at how to change all of the elements and how to get a political process in motion. So this part starts to change a little bit in such a way that that part is facilitated to change, which allows that part to change– this is the sort of politics that comes out of Marxist historical materialism.

It's interesting to look at those societies that sought radical change. Consider the history of the Soviet Union. One of the things that happened in 1917 was that a lot of the elements of this configuration I'm talking about started to change. There were very innovative things going on in the sphere of cultural production. New ideas were coming about, in a more complicated kind of way, in those early years of constructivism in the Soviet Union. We see a revolutionary movement in which there was some movement in all of the elements, and it wasn't clean – it was obviously messy and very difficult – but along came Stalin in 1928 and he put put an end
to all of that speculative activity. He said, basically there's only one thing that matters and that one thing is the productive forces. That is, as with G.A Cohen and a long line of thinking in Marxism, productive forces are at the root of historical change. Stalin said get the productive
forces working, get them working in a better kind of way, revolutionize the productive forces and everything else will fall into line. It was a “single bullet” theory of the creation of socialism.

Most of this also in the history of Maoism – a “single bullet” kind of thinking. At a certain point, Mao looked at the situation and said in effect that the social relations are really screwed up in China. We need to do something about this. He sought to change it through the Cultural Revolution – which is, in a sense, saying our mental conceptions have to change dramatically.

I think it's very interesting to look at the history of the attempts to change society in some way, and then ask, what were construed to be the “silver bullets,” and why those “silver bullets” create dilemmas? I think one of the failures of the Soviet Revolution was this idea that somehow or other, the [only] thing that really mattered was to mobilize the productive forces and get with the new technologies. So the model of a revolutionary change there paid no mind whatsoever to cultural beliefs, paid no mind to questions of social relations in the very general sense and paid no mind to the qualities of daily life.

You can say that, in a sense, a socialist project should think about the dynamics of relations, and the kinds of relations that exist between these different elements that are going to
be brought together in a different way. Now, I'm not going to argue that I know exactly what the
elements should do. I'm just posing the questions and trying to sketch a way of thinking that, when we look at what is going on around us right now and we start to ask, what are the dominant ideas? What are the dominant mental conceptions? Where do they come from? How are they changing? What's going on? What's being contested in the field of social relations?

It's a complicated problem, but I think that Marx's answer to the question of how do we go about dissecting it, how do we go about using it, how do we go about thinking about the transformations of society and the whole history of capital accumulation – what it's been about and what it might be about in the future – all of those elements can actually be put together.


I hope that by laying this out in as simple a way as I possibly can, I'm not being too simplistic, and I hope at the same time that one can start to think about all of these relations in a much more serious way. I would add one other thing, which is that Marx sees these relationships existing within this totality, dialectically and relationally. It's interesting that invariably, the “silver bullet people” have a mechanical view, and they end up with a kind of positivist science.

Therefore you find somebody like G.A. Cohen and his Karl Marx's Theory of History basically debunking dialectics and saying dialectics is nonsense, it's not analytic, it has no truth value to it. (I used to teach with Cohen when I was in Oxford, and we used to have some really fierce arguments about this. Whenever I mentioned dialectical motion and dialectical method, he would scream and say “that's nonsense, it's bullshit Marxism”). I think that there's still a real question as to how we each interpret Marx – do we interpret it through the positivist, analytical, philosophical lens, or do we translate it through the dialectical lens?

I'll have something more to say about that in the next session.

This episode references Capital: https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/download/pdf/Capital-Volume-I.pdf

Transcript by Cindy Mitlo

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Showing 1 comment

  • pasqual digesu
    commented 2022-10-13 12:58:19 -0400
    Professor Harvey

    Interesting concepts which not surprisingly are very old. Please allow me to share some literature which involves this subject, and was actually printed in 1929, with the exception of comments which I have noted in parentheses.

    “Before the war [WWI] the world was already recognizing, even if no one would say so, that government did not do much and charged a fearful price for what they did. Somehow by some mysterious dark and devious and almost inexplicable maze of reasons self-government was not in the hands of the majority where it belongs, but was in the hands of some minority where apparently, unless it belies its fair name, it ought not to be. The political party as an institution began to be suspected even before the war. Voters were getting bored. Patriots were scolding them towards the polls where many voters were not. Even where there were only two political parties in a democracy, the issues between them often grew so thin, just as they are now in America, that each party was obliged to go hunting for some kind of a colorful mask in order to glower properly at the other. [Also creating or escalating conflicts over contentious issues that despite their escalation to fanatical popularity, are in truth much less significant in the realm of priorities of proper governing and perhaps less the responsibility of government].
    Where there were many parties afflicting a democracy even the pretense of clear issues disappeared. It was even noticed by the inarticulate average man that instead of finding or touching real problems of life and justice, democracies under the territorial and representative party systems were avoiding with cautious deliberation the vital issues. Industry was one. Agriculture was the other. There is an increasing conflict between rural and urban interests all over the world which political parties carefully duck. A third is a clear definition of whether government is to confine itself to regulating the rights and obligations between man and man (and woman) or is to extend its functions to issuing various commandments to be added to the original Ten by some minority which is holier-than –thou…(or alternatively surrendering their governing services to special interests). A fourth was a clear decision as to whether government should be an agency which taxes A at the request of B, to give it in some concealed form to C.
    Somehow democracy, even more than the sovereigns we once shuddered over, met real questions usually with utter cowardice, pointing blame at various political parties in constant battle (in an arena of studied insincerity) and under the mutually accepted facade of “self-government”. The nearest approach of an idea of responsible government at this time came in forms of socialism, and even that was a theory, a policy or an issue; it made a sorry pretense, at offering any new effective machinery to administer the job of government even after a job was defined and an aim or policy laid out. Socialism wanted to found a new home, but it had no house and no tools and no bricks or wood.
    Legislation was, and still is, the god of governments, or at least of their politicians; Administration and the arts and sciences of administration was and is still neglected. The reason for this is plain: legislation is interesting because by laws special privilege is legalized; administration when it – “passes out” special privilege is engaging in graft. The first, however, is more damaging to your pocket and mine and there is no way to get an indictment! (Hence the importance of controlling legislation and legislators first and foremost)
    In spite of all “democratic” governments existing with this problem, they suffered no test of breaking strength. The masses had striven for self-government and were satisfied with mere signs that were over their governmental doorways – such as Democracy, Liberty, Freedom, Representation, or Self-Government. It made surprisingly small difference what was inside. It made small difference that the number of voters often unfit and untrained for self-government was multiplying in quick time at the very period that the indifference of sloth or cynicism or common sense was persuading the self-governed that they really profited little by their franchise, except to boast that they were “self-governed”(reflecting further the inefficiency of universal suffrage). Political interests had lost their vitality in seas of words and mires of intrigues, about which peoples cared nothing, but economics had become important IN A PRODUCING world bristling with problems about which the people actually cared a great deal and which governments and their parties’ side stepped.
    “Someday, said a wise man on the eve of war, humanity will ask itself if a political party is a better government from the viewpoint of integrity, efficiency, sincerity, salvage of waste and wise kindliness than were kings, dictators, and aristocracies”. Like others and especially professors, he forgot that even when the last straws are put on the camel’s back, it is not necessary to return to any of the other dromedaries. Someone might invent a motor truck or an airplane. (Or a cell phone to furnish every want and need to calm the misdirected)
    One may be sure that democratic peoples as a whole want less legislation and better and more administration. They have learned (if they are keen), that legislation is often generated by fanatics or self-serving minority treasure hunters. When they look for the forces which foist upon them this legislative oversight (in its present form), they find that the political party is the agency by which this control or affliction is brought upon us.
    They see also that old political parties based on territorial and district representation probably cannot be organized to express primarily the national welfare, as a whole, regarding modern economic and social life.
    The challenge to this “old democracy” or system will come from those sources which wipe out the old political party entirely and base registry of the will of the people not upon a geographical accident, but upon a deliberate plan to obtain the will of various component elements in a civilization.
    The Soviet challenge (at the time of the 1917 revolution) not only proposes such a change but also proposes to rearrange all the elements in a civilization by abolishing capital, nationalizing property (as with Fascism in times of emergency with crucial industries and resources), conscripting labor, attacking religion and even family unit. The other end of the picture is the Fascist proposal to accept the elements of society as they exist, to accept capital, to accept organized labor, to preserve all vigors or inheritance and property (as with the personal property of the most ardent working class socialists), of the family and of religion, and to set up new and greater recognition of the authority of the State to administer these forces whenever they conflict, and compel them to become a workable political, social and economic whole of solidarity. The later plan is the antithesis of the former in effect but in common with the Soviet idea it presents a representative system in which the old political party or parties is rubbed off the slate (If ever the twain shall meet). It is replaced by one smaller body of representatives which understand and represent the various elements themselves involving agriculture, capital and labor industry, science, professions or guilds, the whole population and government itself. They, fewer in number no longer simply represent a party, but the social and economic component parts of national life. A government democratic board of directors – (whose education, purpose and goal is not spent on personal corporate profits or personal stock enhancement using any means through the people’s purse.)

    R.W. Child
    U.S. Ambassador, and author
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