Historical materialism and Engels

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Historical materialism is a way of looking at human societies and their evolution over time. Historical materialism, as defined by Engels, is a historical perspective that seeks to discover the primary cause of history and the power behind all significant historical events in the economic growth of the society affected by the changes. 1939 (Engels). “The ultimate causes of all social changes must be sought.... in changes in the mode of production,” says Engels (Engels, 1939). The concept of historical materialism focuses on the changes in the methods of production as well as an exchange that led to the societies being broken down into the different classes that exist now as well as the struggles of the various classes against each other. Therefore, historical materialism is a concept that answers the question of which circumstances made the most impact in changing the civilization of humans. From the materialistic perspective, the beginning of history is the struggle of humans with nature, and it includes all the means that people have used over the different steps of civilization to make utilize nature to serve the needs of humans that also increase as they are met. Humans differ from other organisms from their ability to make and use tools. Therefore, according to Engels, the materialistic conception of history begins from the idea that production and with it, the exchange of goods that result from the processes of production is the center of all social order. “…the production, and with production, the exchange of its product is the basis of all social order” (Engels, 1939). Therefore, the methods of producing, the goods that are produced and the exchange of the goods determine the social classes of the society as well as the distribution of the goods in the society. Therefore, Engels says that the forces behind social changes should be sought in the shifts in the modes of production and the exchange of products rather than in philosophy and the insights of the minds of people into the eternal truths.

The fundamental contradiction in capitalism is between the forces of production and the social associations of production. According to Engels, many workers work to produce products which capitalists appropriate to themselves (Engels, 1939). Consequently, the workers are wage slaves who work for the benefit of the capitalists in the society. Even though they work hard, the product of their hard work belongs to someone else who is usually the capitalist employer. Typically, the wages that the capitalists pay their employees are not enough for long-term survival. Instead, it is only enough to keep them until the next time they are paid. Therefore, the workers remain wage workers for life. The capitalists use the profit they make from enslaving wage earners to strengthen themselves further and oppress more wage workers. Some of the money gotten from the hard work of the workers will be invested in the revolutionizing of the methods of production. The better machines improve the output of the output and therefore expand the enterprise of the capitalist. The capitalists have enough to sustain themselves and employ more wage workers. The capitalists exploit their workforce and cheapen the price of the products of the workers. The reason for devaluing the products is that the capitalists never exist alone in the different industries. They exist with competitors, and while competing with each other, they exploit the workers more. The workforce is therefore always forced to work harder or longer for the benefit of the capitalists.

Also, the hard work of the workers is used to subjugate them (Engels, 1939). When the workers work hard, their output is applied to buy machines that work faster. Therefore, fewer workers are needed than before. Thus, the capitalists threaten to replace the workers with machines when they complain and demand more wages. The machines are used to cause downward pressure on the employees to enable the capitalists to benefit as much as they can from their workers. Therefore, under capitalism, the increased production of workers leads to the capitalists exploiting them more. Engels calls the situation "a vicious circle" (Engels, 1939).

The contraction “…between the organization of production in the individual factory and the anarchy of production in the society as a whole” refers to the fact that capitalism causes more and more people to become part of the working class and therefore, the masses of the working class, in turn, end the social anarchy (Engels, 1939). The energy behind social anarchy (state of social equality) causes the capitalists to endeavor to better their machines. The perfection of the machines in turn results to less need for human labor and an overabundance of the labor force. The excess labor force is used by the capitalists during the times of pressure and tossed aside when not needed. Therefore, the system is set such that the push of the employees for equity will lead to more need for the mechanization of the production processes that will lead to the reduced demand for the employment of human labor. Therefore, attempts of employees to make their working conditions better only increase the urgency of the capitalists to improve their machinery and replace the employees.

The contradiction “…the mode of production rebels against the mode of exchange; the productive force rebels against the mode of production, which they have outgrown” (Engels, 1939). The author means that the laws of production and those of circulation become incompatible. The mechanisms of the mode of production of capitalists break down under the forces of production that the mechanisms created. The mechanisms no longer transform the production into capital. Therefore, the abundance of products become the problem in the system. The situation renders the capitalists unable to exploit the workforce. Thus, capitalism becomes unable to control its productive forces. The productive forces on the other hand press forth to end their position as capital and to gain recognition as social forces of production. Therefore, capitalism by nature is self-limiting and ends up regulating its growth and thereby checking the power of the capitalists over the wage workers.

Engels envisions the ultimate future of the development of the capitalist culture despite the crippling contradictions that he highlights. The author begins by discussing the struggle that the society has experienced to find a precise system of social order. Nevertheless, the society is now at a point at which capitalism has become a limitation to the development of the society (Engels, 1939). Despite the fact that Engels agrees that capitalism has contributed to the achievement of the freedom of the society to some point, it has also divided the society regarding classes and the suppression of the wage workers. Angels declares that the seizure of production by the society will cause the equality of the social output to be replaced by an organization that is standardized that represents the society as one. Also, the seizure will lead to the disappearance of the struggle for ownership and private property. Thus, if the workforce earmarks civil power and unleashes the mode of production from the grip of the capitalist, the society will gain liberation.


Engels, F. (1939). Herr Eugen Dfihring's Revolution in Science (Anti-Dfihring), trans, by Emile Burns, NY.

August 09, 2021

Sociology Economics


Sociological Theories

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