Major Historical Influences on Karl Marx’s Materialist Conception of History

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Historical materialism is a term that refers to a methodological assessment of economics, society as well as history. This concept was for the first time articulate by Karl Marx, although on his part, Marx termed this approach as “the materialist conception of history.” (Ritzer & Smart, 2001). The concept of historical materialism attempts to establish changes and developmental causes amongst the human society, by way of assessing the various ways and means through which humans jointly seek to produce life necessities. On the other hand such non-economic features of a society as political structures, social classes and ideologies are often viewed as economic activity outgrowths (Morrison, 2006).

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Nevertheless, there are a number of key influences of historical materialism that Karl Marx fervently championed, mainly on the basis of divergence ideological differences with such great philosophers of his time as Hegel. To start with, Marx had to break ranks with the ideological philosophy of Hegel, mainly with regard to the understanding of the society and history. These are the very issues that led to Marx shifting to a materialistic view of the society (Morrison, 2006). There is also the issue of slave and master relationship that Marx believed existed purely on economic necessities.

Historical materialism

The origin of historical materialism is the human existence reality and its underlying fundamentals, to the effect that for human beings to exist or survive from one generation to the next, producing and reproducing of life’s material requirements are a necessity. This could be seen as an obvious argument, yet prior to the work of Marx, the concept was not viewed at as a basis for comprehending historical development and the human society as a whole (Morrison, 2006). In a bid to further asserting this premise, Marx noted that for both production and exchange to take place there is a need that people are engaged in explicit social relations, production relations even.

The current day socials theory came into being for the first time following the events of “massive social change” that occurred in Europe starting from 1750, moving on to 1920 (Morrison, 2006). Marx utilizes social and economic concepts to offer an explanation to developments in history. Whereas the French revolution helped in shaping the historical perspective that Hegel sought to pursue, in the case of Marx and Engels, their thinking were shaped by the industrial and economic changes that were taking place in England at their time. In France, such thinkers as Saint-Simon (1760-1825), Emile Durkeim (1858-1917) and Auguste Comte (1798-1857) helped in shaping up the social thought process in France (Morrison, 2006). These threes thinkers were trying to come up with revolution themes, industrial change and social progress. On their part, both Durkeihm and Comte helped establish a school of theory that for the most part, relied on science for it’s from. This was accomplished by responding to the French revolution in a conservative manner, along with a rebuffing of philosophy as a social inquiry basis.

Principles of historical materialism

By and large historical materialism may be seen to hinge upon a number of principles. First, the way in which humans ‘work on nature’ for purposes of producing subsistence means forms the very foundation of the human society. Secondly, social classes are characterised by a division of labour, or what nay be regarded as the relations of production, on the basis of the ownership of property, and in which a number of people relies on the human labour of their fellow humans for their own livelihoods (Giddens & Griffiths, 2006). Thirdly, class division system relies on production means. Furthermost, the levels of productive forces determines production modes. Another principles worth of note is that society evolves from one stage to the next, as a result of an emerging class seizing power from a dominant class.

Key influences

Aside from seeing capitalism and the industrial worker developing in England and Europe, several ‘key influences’ helped shape the way in which Marx conceived both history and society at the time. It is these influences that resulted in a hypothetical development, and which are often viewed at as significant in the creation of overall historical and societal view by Marx. Even then, there are two of these key influences that are quite outstanding. One of these influences entails the idea by Marx to break with the idealist philosophy as advocated by Hegel (Morrison, 2006). As a result, this decision enabled Marx to come up with a suitable technique to facilitate in an assessment of both history and society, and which previously, had been outside the scope of philosophy.

The other key influence involves the introduction of, as a hypothetical outlook, both a materialist assessment of how societies have historically been formed. As a result of having brought to the fore the materialist outlook, Marx managed to illustrate that the “very first act of all societies” (Morrison, 2006) was to bear at all times an economic perspective, seeing that humans needed to fulfil their daily materialistic needs, even before they can fulfil any other need.

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Marx and the idealist rejection

From a philosophical point of view, Hegel could be regarded as the ‘most dominant thinker in Europe’ (Morrison, 2006). Hegel happened to have been popular around the same time when Marx was immersing into his philosophical work. Despite the fact that Hegel passed on in 1831, nevertheless his writing legacy proved quite significant to the social and intellectual base that existed around Marx. If truth be told, a majority of the early writings by Marx may only be comprehended from the pint of view to the thinking of Hegel.

Hegel happened to be the pioneer of philosophical outlook of idealism is credited wit advancing the notion that human existence, in addition to development, may be attained by way of an assessment of non-representational philosophical class (Anderson & Kaspersen, 2000).

What is worth noting about Hegel’s idealism is that this philosophy preferred to look at history, the world and basically, existence of human beings on the basis of connected processes, as opposed to looking at history and individuals as free-standing and separate entities.

Marx, in his personal work, appeared to have been towards the direction of understanding and developing history and reality and eventually, an experience of the material world. As a result of this outlook, Marx was able to lay his focus on an exploration of the issue of economic necessity and social existence. So as to create a thought body in line with the aforementioned two issues, Marx sought to illustrate what he felt were the criteria fro his decision to beak away from the idealism philosophy (Giddens & Griffiths, 2006). This he achieved through a rejection of the philosophy of Hegel based on four key hypothetical premises.

To start with, Marx disagreed with Hegel on the issue of philosophy. Hegel had insisted that the primary role of philosophy was to assess the role that abstract historical classes popularised; existence and reason in the development of human beings (Morrison, 2006).

According to Marx, only the philosophical classes should be regarded as real, at the expense of real standards of living challenges, appearing to ignore or overlook these

Next, Marx failed to agree with Hegel with regard to the role played by ideas, in as far as history is concerned. While Hegel had asserted that ideas were causes of historical and social development, Marx, on the other hand, felt that Hegel had failed to acrid due regard to the social life of human beings (Morrison, 2006). Thirdly, Hegel and Marx disagreed on the issue of state and society. While Hegel opted for a political and conservative perspective, Marx, on the other hand felt that human hardships were as a result of social inequalities in the society, in addition to social disadvantages. Finally, Hegel and Marx disagreed on the issue of slave and master. While Hegel felt that this scenario was a philosophical class struggle prototype, Marx, on his part, felt that the binding element of a slave to his master was economic necessity.

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Materialism from a hypothetical perspective

Marx introduced the materialist perspective as a way of overcoming the challenges that idealist philosophy often pose along with its construct of history and societies (Ritzer & Smart, 2001). Perhaps what we ought to be concerned about here, from a theoretical point of view, is what Marx’s view on materialism was. Materialism might be regarded as a hypothetical perspective that seeks to address human problems by way of analysing the real conditions under which humans exist (Morrison, 2006). This is especially so with regard to conditions that has a bearing on material needs (these include food, clothing, as well as shelter).

An assumption made by materialism is that both history and society gets established from “a sequence of productive acts”, often designed for purposes of aiding in the fulfilment of the basic needs (Anderson & Kaspersen, 2000). As such, materialism could be described as a hypothetical perspective which presumes that first and foremost, humans should always seek to fulfil their daily economic needs via productive activity and physical labour. From such a perspective then, both society and history may be viewed as historical consequences of simple production acts that enable people to simply produce as a way of fulfilling their “immediate material needs”.


Historical materialism as a philosophical concept is a term that refers to a methodological assessment of economics, society as well as history (Giddens & Griffiths, 2006). The concept helped influence the French revolution, in addition to the events in England. Historical materials attempt to help us understand that man first seeks to fulfill the very basic necessities life such as food, clothing and shelter, before they can try to fulfill other needs, an extension of the hierarchical theory of needs that Abraham Maslow championed.

A numbers of principles help define this concept. Nevertheless, two significant influences are a characteristic of the historical materialism, one of which is the decision by Marx to break ranks with the idealism concept that he had upheld, and which was championed by Hegel (Morrison, 2006). The other key influence to the historical materialism concept was the introduction of a hypothetical outlook of the formation of a materialistic society. These are some of the key factors that led to a divergence with regard to the ideological differences between Marx and such other great philosophers as Hegel.


  1. Anderson, H. & Kaspersen, L. B, 2000, Classical and modern social theory. New York: Wiley.
  2. Giddens, A., & Griffiths, S, 2006, Sociology. London: Polity
  3. Morrison, K, 2006, Marx, Durhheim, Weber. Formations of modern social thought. New York: Sage.
  4. Ritzer, G, & Smart, B, 2001, Handbook of social theory. London: Sage

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