An Overview of Dialectics & Historical Materialism

MESSAGE TO READER FROM THE AUTHOR: Below is a summary of Karl Marx’s theorizations of dialectics and historical materialism that I put together.  What I review is the main contributions of Karl Marx’s work that contributes to how many critical scholars theorize the place of capitalism and hegemony in what we see as the history of “modernity”.  This encyclopedic entry is NOT a replacement for reading Marx’s work.  Your thoughts and analysis of a text matters. With that being said, you must read things for yourself to confirm and evaluate their value and context to your political ideological development and principals.


Karl Marx Encyclopedia Entry

Karl Marx’s philosophy of history is an inversion of Hegel’s ‘idealist conception of history’ that argues that society is determined at any given time by its material conditions.  Marx’s theory of historical materialism, “led him to the view that instead of the state being the basis of “civil society,” as Hegel held, civil or bourgeois society is the basis of the state” (Tucker, 1978:16).  Marx’s historical materialism reveals that no means of social reproduction can exist without the necessary material conditions.  This articulation also reveals that the very circumstances that create social phenomena also harbor the means for their demise: their contradiction.

Marx advanced his materialist conception of history through dialectics to reveal that every phenomena has contradictions, processes, and histories. “Dialectics restructures our thinking about reality by replacing the common sense notion of “thing”, as something that has a history and possible futures, and “relation”, which contains as part of what it is ties with other relations. Nothing that didn’t already exist has been added here. Rather, it is a matter of where and how one draws boundaries and establishes units (the dialectical term is “abstracts”) in which to think about the world” (Ollman, 1993:11). Dialectics is a way of thinking that helps highlight what Ollman calls the full range of changes and interactions occurring in the world into perspective. The dialectic is about seeing things in motion, being historically accurate, avoiding essentialist assumptions, and constantly thinking about the contingencies of events. Dialectics places the notion of any phenomena within its context or within the material conditions and circumstances in from which it arrived. This means that everything has a history and must be studied within the context of its history/material conditions.

Marx’s analysis of relations between people and land is a critical read of history and contemporary.  Marx analyzes the place of class struggle within feudalist relations to understand the origins of capitalism.  Marx’s philosophy of history and dialectical approach led him to the conclusion that the overthrow of capitalism lies in the elimination of private property.  The material conditions that bore the rise of capitalism lie within private property.  And according to dialectics, the contradiction of private property lies in the rise of the proletariat and their demands for its negation.  As stated by Tucker, “History, particularly under modern capitalism, is seen as a story of man’s alienation in his life as producer, and communism is presented as the final transcendence of alienation via a revolution against private property” (1978:66).  Political economy, according to Marx, is a mere means of expressing the abstraction of and material processes that private property passes through to become law (social order).  So while it may appear that what Marx was studying was an abstract economic system, he was studying at its core the relations between people, nature, and man himself.

Marx argues that private property is the end product of alienated labour, “of the external relation of the worker to nature and to himself” (Tucker, 1978:79). Private property is thus the product of alienated labour and the means through which labour “alienates itself, the realization of this alienation” (Tucker, 1978:79). More specifically, labour is labour power in motion. Capitalism rises through the commodification of labour power and the objectification of nature. The pre-capitalist form of exchange, barter, was a closed system. You barter for a commodity and you consume it. You don’t collect it to try to exchange in a continuous manner to make a profit. Barter is based on need.  Capitalism is a system in which the process of exchange is constantly perpetuated. Exchange happens for the purpose of exchange not the purpose of consumption.

This brings us to the starting point of capital, the circulation of commodities. There are two forms of exchange that we are concerned with here: commodity-money-commodity (C-M-C) and money-commodity-money (M-C-M’).  C-M-C is the transformation of commodities into money and the change of money back again into commodity or selling in order to buy (Tucker, 1978:329). The circulation C-M-C, the money is in the end converted into a commodity, which serves as a use-value and it is spent once and for all. M-C-M’ on the other hand, is the transformation of money into commodities, and the change of commodities back into money or buying in order to sell. This money that circulates is transformed into, becomes capital, and is already potentially capital (Tucker, 1978:329). In M-C-M’, the buy lays out money in order that, as a seller, he may recover money. By the purchase of the commodity he throws money into circulation, in order to withdraw it again by the sale of the same commodity.  He lets the money go, but only with the sly intention of getting it back again (Tucker, 1978:331).

Moreover, the commodification of labour power occurs when the wage-worker sells their labour power for money.  The exchange of commodities is based on labour, the amount of labour & time required to produce a commodity & it equals the same amount of time to produce the other commodity being bartered for. The amount of time and labour that quantifies the commodity is an abstraction meaning that the material becomes a quantity of labour based on time, effort, and industry. As stated by Marx, labour power is a commodity measured by the clock (Tucker, 1978:204). As a commodity, labour power has a use value and an exchange value. The use value is the utility while the exchange value is an abstraction of the utility. When we talk about exchange value, we’re making an abstraction and saying that a certain amount of socially necessary labour goes into the production of the commodity.  Production is the use value of labour power while the exchange value of labour power is wages. Wages are the means of subsistence or the cost of reproducing labour power. The source of surplus value lies between the distinction between the use-value of labour power and the exchange value of labour power – you work for some hours for the production of labour power and then work the rest for surplus value. The capitalist can increase surplus value through a number of means: lowering wages, increasing specialization, or by de-skilling labour though technology to help increase the competition among wage workers. While the wage worker’s tendency is to work with unions and political parties that negotiate wages, in order to be free you have to abolish property in the means of production. Hence increasing wages doesn’t end exploitation, it just makes things a bit easier.

Pursing this further, capitalist production leads to alienation through the exploitation of the worker’s life activity.  Labour, the exercise of labour power, is the manifestation of life or what Marx calls conscious life activities. Via labour, you are producing therefore transforming your environment & labour is the realization of humans as species being (humanity). According to Marx, capitalism alienates in four ways: alienation from the product of labour, alienation from the process of production, alienation from the species’ being, and alienation from other humans.  The wage-worker is alienated from the product because they don’t own it. A commodity is a realization of a part of the worker, the worker extends themselves in the production of the commodity and there is a part of them that is objectified in that commodity. Capitalism separates man from meaningful human activities, separating men from themselves and other humans. Instead of engaging in labour to transform the world in ways that is meaningful to them, the wage-worker is made to sell their labour power to another person in order to live. This labour power is sold in order to obtain the necessary means of subsistence (wages). Hence, the wage-worker’s labour is only a means to enable them to exist. Under capitalism, you work to live and satisfy means external to you. Thus the product of the worker’s conscious life activities are not the object of their activity (Tucker, 1978:205). Commodities take on a life of their own and become objects that mediate relationships between the worker and the consumer, as well as the worker/producer and nature, and nature and the consumer. According to Marx, commodities actually become things of themselves and exercise power over us. They become objects of desire. Commodities are produced and then placed in the market. The worker has to go buy the very product they produced because it’s not theirs and in order to buy it they have to work. This commodity as though it appears lifeless, in reality exercises a lot power over/shapes/forms/conditions human lives.  It’s forced labour, it’s not the satisfaction of the need (to realize yourself via production) but merely a means to satisfy needs external to it. Meaning you’re engaging in a process external to the need to buy the commodity (which is consumptive in nature). In conclusion, being alienated form the process of work means that you become separated from the realization of yourself through work and the need to realize yourself through what you do.


Ollman, Bertell. 1993. Dialectical Investigations. New York: Routledge.

Tucker, Robert C. 1978. The Marx-Engels Reader. New York: Norton and Company.

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