PHIL 41150: Political Philosophy
Dr. Robert Lane
Lecture Notes: Monday April 7, 2003

[4.3.] The Materialist Conception of History.[1]


Economic actualities determine human culture, including human ethics:


                Does it require deep intuition to comprehend that man's ideas, views, and conceptions, in one word, man's consciousness, change with every change in the conditions of his material existence, in his social relations, and in his social life? (CM, Cahn p.858)


More specifically, Marx sees the following relationships between economic actualities and human consciousness:


productive forces

(the material resources and tools used in production, e.g. the handmill, with which wheat is ground into flour)




relations of production

(relations between people and things, e.g. a worker owns a mill, or rents it from its owner; and between people and other people, e.g. a worker is a serf to a lord, or is an employee of a capitalist)




the superstructure of society

(legal, political, religious, aesthetic, moral and philosophical doctrines)



This is Hegel turned upside down (or rightside up!): unlike Hegel, who held that the evolution of mind/spirit/consciousness determined the actual history of the material world, Marx held that it's the material conditions in which man finds himself, especially the economic conditions, that determine the evolution of consciousness:


                In direct contrast to German philosophy which descends from heaven to earth, here we ascend from earth to heaven. That is to say, we do not set out from what men say, imagine, conceive, nor from men as narrated, thought of, imagined, conceived, in order to arrive at men in the flesh. We set out from real, active men, and on the basis of their real life-process we demonstrate the development of the ideological reflexes and echoes of this life-process. ... Morality, religion, metaphysics, all the rest of ideology and their corresponding forms of consciousness, thus no longer retain the semblance of independence. They have no history, no development; but men, developing their material production and their material intercourse, alter, along with this their real existence, their thinking and the products of their thinking. Life is not determined by consciousness, but consciousness by life. (The German Ideology; Cahn p.842)


And like Hegel, Marx held that there is an ultimate goal toward which history is proceeding (each held a teleological view of history). On Hegel's view, the goal toward which history is proceeding is mind's coming to know itself as mind and thereby becoming free. On Marx's view, the final stage of history is reflected on all three tiers described above:


the full development of productive forces


leads to


changes in the relations of production

(i.e. to communism: no more employment and ownership)


leads to


the liberation of "human capacities" (Singer 57)--

part of which is the elimination of greed


Thus, man is not essentially selfish (as Hobbes has it). It is because of capitalist relations of production that man has become completely self-interested. At the advent of communism, the relations of production will change, and this will result in a change in man's culture and ethics. In a communist society, man will find his happiness in working for the good of all.


In this way, Marx's materialist conception of history makes his vision of a communist society seem more plausible. In Marx's communist society, no one tries to grab more than his fair share for immediate consumption and in which no one shirks his fair share of the work needed to keep society going, is made plausible. But it's only if Hobbes is wrong (and psychological egoism is false) that this sort of society can even begin to work.



[4.4.] The Disappearance of Government.


At the earliest stage of communism, there will continue to be a state or government: the proletariat will seize control by violent overthrow. But eventually, all government -- in the sense of an entity that wields political power -- will cease to exist. This is because political power is (on Marx's view) nothing but the power wielded by one class to oppress another. So when there are no more classes, there can be no political power.


Political power, properly so called, is merely the organized power of one class for oppressing another. If the proletariat during its contest with the bourgeoisie is compelled, by the force of circumstances, to organize itself as a class, if by means of a revolution, it makes itself the ruling class and, as such, sweeps away by force the old conditions of production, then it will, along with these conditions, have swept away the conditions for the existence of class antagonisms and of classes generally, and will thereby have abolished its own supremacy as a class. (CM, Cahn p.859)


[1] Informed by Singer, Marx, ch.6 and ch.9.

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