Marx's Historical Materialism on Trial

An Assessment of the Historic Transformations of the Modes of Production

Essay, 2013

11 Pages, Grade: 1,0



In this essay I will look at states and places in which there had been (or is said to happen) a transition between different modes of production, especially feudalism, capitalism, and socialism, with the aim of verifying or falsifying Marx’s historical materialism.

In this essay I will look at states and places in which there had been (or is said to happen) a transition between different modes of production, especially feudalism, capitalism, and socialism, with the aim of verifying or falsifying Marx’s historical materialism.

I will begin with a short explanation of the historical materialism and its modes of production and theoretical arguments against the concept. Then I will look at all the political entities which called themselves socialist and communist. The countries which fit Marx’s definition quite well can be divided into two groups: those that were feudalistic before the transition to another mode of production, and those that already were capitalistic before the transition.

I will try to answer the question if the socialist states are becoming truly communist, or if the system is just stable, or if they are doomed to “regress” to capitalism. For the capitalist countries, I will also research their future development: if they will become socialist, if they stay capitalist, or if they will regress to some form of feudalism.

The research will show which of the possibilities have happened or are bound to happen, and therefore it is possible to say if the development predicted by Marx and Engels is realistic.

Historical materialism and its modes of production

According to Marx, the productive forces of a society (e. g. technology, land, raw materials) are owned by certain people, and the character of the productive forces that are present determine these production relations (i. e. who owns the means of production). Because the productive forces may change (e. g. the industrialization), the production relations are changed as well.

Marx analyzed the past and identified certain modes of production, which are determined by the productive forces and thus the production relations. He concluded that in each mode of production, the advancement of the productive forces led to the opposition between the ruling and ruled class growing stronger, until a revolution of the lower class started the next mode of production. In the beginning, when mankind lived in hunter-gatherer societies[1], there was no permanent surplus product and thus it was not possible for economic classes to emerge. This mode of production is called primitive communism.

The next mode of production, building on more modern forces of production such as agriculture, livestock farming, and trade, allowed the division of society into two classes: slave owners and slaves. The slave owners accumulated the surplus product generated by the slaves. The mode of production of the ancient society experienced some slave revolts, but was ultimately doomed because of the low birthrate among the slaves and the necessity to permanently wage war against other states in order to make new slaves. This lead to an inevitable decline in the number of slaves and therefore a crisis of the ancient society, as Max Weber suggested. Another explanation why the ancient society of Rome came to an end without a revolution of the lower classes, as Marx’s theory would suggest, is that the Germanic tribes from outside of the empire were an “outside proletariat” that led to the downfall of Rome and its slaveholder society. In general, already here Marxists have some problems in defending the historical materialism empirically, also because of the fact that slaveholder societies were not present globally.

Following the ancient society comes feudalism. This mode of production is based on landowners and their serfs, which were legally dependent on their aristocratic landlords as they were entailed upon the land. The serfs had to give their surplus product to the landowners. The productive forces that led to this mode of production were more complex agriculture (e. g. three field agriculture), newer technology (e. g. wind-mills), and more intense specialization in the crafts. The term feudalism in its strictest sense applies only to European history (where the entire society from top to bottom was bound by reciprocated contracts which allowed exploitation), but similar systems existed nearly everywhere. In the French Revolution (1789), the end of feudalism in France was announced; while it came to an end in most German states in 1848, and 1917 in Russia (where it was replaced by socialism right away instead of capitalism).

The next mode of production, capitalism, is based on the capitalist class (or bourgeoisie), which owns the means of production (through state guaranteed contracts) and receives money by investing their capital, and the working class (or proletariat), which has to exchange their labour for wages and is exploited by the capitalists, according to Marx. This exploitation occurs because the wage is only a fraction of the surplus product the worker produces, and is just enough for him to survive[2]. Capitalism is associated with industrialization, modern technology, and highly advanced work specialization, and is the mode of production which is prevalent in most countries today. The capitalist system is deemed inherently unstable by Marx and Engels, because of the falling rate of profit. They furthermore predicted that the alienation of the worker with his highly specialized tasks and the exploitation by the capitalists would lead to a socialist revolution, in which the bourgeoisie is brought down and the workers rule the state in a dictatorship of the proletariat.


[1] There are still some of these societies in existence, such as the Sentilese people from the Andaman Islands, who aggressively resist attempts from outsiders to contact them.

[2] It can be argued that this is only true if there is more supply than demand of labour. If there is more demand than supply, companies have to compete over workers by offering higher wages or otherwise better working conditions. In this light, it is interesting to see that nowadays employers’ associations in many countries demand more immigration in order to combat the declining domestic supply of labour.

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Marx's Historical Materialism on Trial
An Assessment of the Historic Transformations of the Modes of Production
Seoul National University
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Marxismus, Wirtschaftssysteme, Kapitalismus, Sozialismus, Feudalismus, Kommunismus
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Florentin Rack (Author), 2013, Marx's Historical Materialism on Trial, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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