historical materialism

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historical materialism:

see dialectical materialismdialectical materialism,
official philosophy of Communism, based on the writings of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, as elaborated by G. V. Plekhanov, V. I. Lenin, and Joseph Stalin.
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historical materialism

a general term for MARX and ENGELS’ conception of historical, social and economic change, and the method of analysis associated with this. The basic idea underlying Marx's MATERIALISM, as expressed in A Contribution to Critique of Political Economy (1859), is that ‘in the social production of their life, men enter into definite relations that are indispensable and independent of their will, relations of production which correspond to a definite stage of the development of their productive forces’.

Unlike the more rigid, economic reductionism and scientism of the DIALECTICAL MATERIALISM propounded by later ‘official Marxisms’, historical materialism can be seen as allowing for a variety of interpretations. including ‘humanistic’ and ‘voluntaristic’ as well as deterministic’ versions. Part of the warrant for the former is Marx's insistence that ‘a distinction should always be made between the material transformation of the economic conditions of production which can be determined with the precision of natural science, and the legal, political, religious, aesthetic or philosophic, in short ideological, forms in which men become conscious of conflict and fight it out’. A further view of historical materialism is that it constitutes a ‘method’ (compare ECONOMIC INTERPRETATION OF HISTORY) in which the investigator is invited to focus on the role of economic factors in historical explanations, rather than a finished theory in which economic factors are claimed to have primacy. See also MARXISM, MARXIST SOCIOLOGY, BASE AND SUPERSTRUCTURE.

Historical Materialism


(the materialist conception of history), the Marxist theory of the development of society and a methodology for the cognition of society. The object of historical materialism is society, as an integral and developing social system, and the general laws and driving forces of the historical process. Historical materialism is an essential part of Marxist-Leninist philosophy and at the same time a specific component of the system of social sciences.

Historical materialism is organically linked with dialectical materialism. The unity of dialectical and historical materialism does not cancel out the relatively independent character of historical materialism as a science of society having its own conceptual apparatus and having elaborated a philosophical and sociological methodology for social cognition. The necessity for such a philosophical science of society is determined primarily by the fact that any social theory analyzing human activity encounters the problem of the relationship between people’s consciousness and their existence. Historical materialism offers a solution to this fundamental philosophical problem in regard to society, that is, the question of the correlation between the social existence of people and their consciousness, by following the general philosophical principles of dialectical materialism and basing itself on the facts of history itself. Having discovered the laws and driving forces of social development, the founders of historical materialism raised sociology to the level of a genuine science of society. Historical materialism also served as an overall Marxist theory of sociology, disclosing the specific structural elements of a given social system, the nature of the interaction of these elements, and the laws of social development and the ways in which they are manifested.

Before the rise of Marxism, idealism went unchallenged as the predominant view of society. Even the materialists before K. Marx, as well as such outstanding social scientists as A. Smith, D. Ricardo, Saint-Simon, C. Fourier, A. Thierry, F. Mignet, N. G. Chernyshevskii, and N. A. Dobroliubov did not have a materialist conception of the life of society.

The basic propositions of the historical materialist theory were developed by Marx and Engels in the 1840’s. They first formulated the fundamental principles of historical materialism in their work The German Ideology (1845–46, published in the USSR in 1933). An important place in the development of the Marxist conception of history is held by such works as TheMisery of Philosophy (1847), the Communist Manifesto (1847), and The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (1852).

The social prerequisites for the rise of historical materialism were related to the development of capitalism, which enlarged the possibilities of sopial knowledge, and the class struggle of the proletariat, which created a social need for objective knowledge of social reality. Historical materialism is linked with the preceding social philosophy and social sciences. Before Marx and Engels, the ideas of historical necessity and social development had been formulated by. G. Vico and G. Hegel, the labor theory of value had been stated by Smith and Ricardo, the class struggle had been discovered by A. Thierry, F. Mignet, and F. Guizot, and certain features of socialism, although in Utopian form, were anticipated by T. More, C. Fourier, Saint-Simon, and R. Owen.

A brief but complete characterization of the essence of historical materialism was first given in Marx’ preface to his A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (1859).

First proposed as a hypothesis, historical materialism had to demonstrate its verity and fruitfulness. This was accomplished by the founders of Marxism, who applied it to the study of various social processes and historical events and above all to the analysis of the functioning and development of the capitalist system. Since Marx’ Capital appeared (1867), the scientific certainty of historical materialism can be regarded as completely proved (see V. I. Lenin, Poln. sobr. soch., 5th ed., vol. 1, pp. 139–40). Historical materialism made a genuine revolution in philosophy and social science. The appearance of historical materialism made it possible to “put the roof on” the structure of materialism; to create an integral scientific and philosophical view of the world, including both nature and society; to concretize the general principles of a philosophical world view in regard to society as a special social form of the motion of matter; to scientifically analyze the specific features of social knowledge; and to investigate the nature of social concepts and the dialectics of their interrelations.

The basic categories of historical materialism are social existence, social consciousness, socioeconomic formations, the mode of production, productive forces, productive relations, the base, the superstructure, social revolution, and the forms of social consciousness.

There are a number of principles of major importance to historical materialism: the recognition of the primacy of the material life of society—of social existence in relation to social consciousness, and of the active role of social consciousness in social life; the distinction of the productive relations from the totality of all other social relations as being the economic structure of society that in the final analysis determines all the other relations between people and provides an objective basis for the analysis of those relations; the historical approach to society, that is, the recognition of development in history and the understanding of it as a regular process of motion consistent with natural history, a process by which socioeconomic formations follow one another in a series; the idea that history is made by people, the working masses, and that the basis and source of the motives inspiring their activity must be sought in the material conditions of social production in their lives.

As a result of the elaboration and application of these principles, the chief deficiencies in preceding historical and sociological theories were overcome: in particular, idealism in the conception of history and disregard for the creative role of the masses of people in history. As a result it was possible to substitute a scientific theory of social development for abstract philosophical and historical schemas. “People make their own history, but what determines the motives of people, of the mass of people, that is, what gives rise to the clash of conflicting ideas and strivings? What is the sum total of all these clashes in the mass of human societies? What are the objective conditions of production of material life that form the basis of all of man’s historical activity? What is the law of development of these conditions? To all these Marx drew attention and indicated the way to scientific study of history as a single process which, with all its immense variety and contradictoriness, is governed by definite laws” (Lenin, ibid., vol. 26, p. 58). Historical materialism constitutes the theoretical and methodological basis for every sphere of scientific social science, whether it be historical science, political economy, law, the theory of art, or another social science.

Historical materialism rejects both the idealist separation of society from nature and the naturalistic equating of science with nature. The specificity of society is expressed primarily in the social relations that make up a particular social system and in man-made culture. The character of such a system is ultimately determined by the degree of power over nature embodied in the material means of labor, in the productive forces. Production, that is, the functioning and development of productive forces, is the fundamental basis of existence of human society. “In the social production of their life, men enter into definite relations that are indispensable and independent of their will, relations of production which correspond to a definite stage of development of their material productive forces. The sum total of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the foundation, on which rises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness. The mode of production of material life conditions the social, political, and intellectual life process in general. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness” (Marx, in K. Marx and F. Engels, Soch., 2nd ed., vol. 13, pp. 6–7). At the same time, historical materialism differs in principle from vulgar economic materialism, which regards economics as the only active force in history. Historical materialism insists that the relative independence and particularity of different social phenomena be taken into account. The dependence of spiritual life on material life, of the superstructure on the base, and of the whole social system on the mode of production is by no means unilateral. Historical materialism provides substantiation for the enormous role that ideas, and the subjective factor generally, play in social development and in the solution of social problems that have come to a head. History is the result of the complex interaction of different social phenomena and social forces. But the mode of material production is always the foundation upon which all other aspects of social life interact, and in the final analysis it determines the character of society and the general trend of the historical process.

A very important category in historical materialism is the concept of the socioeconomic formation as a qualitatively distinct society at a given stage of its development. This concept makes it possible to single out the common element in the social systems found in various countries at the same stage of historical development and at the same time to apply the universal scientific criterion of recurrence to historical research, to move toward knowledge of the objective laws of social development. Every socioeconomic formation constitutes a unique “social organism,” the particular nature of which is determined, first of all, by the material relations of production that constitute the base of the formation. The base forms the “economic skeleton” of the social organism, as it were, and its “flesh and blood” are made up by the superstructure that arises on the base (see BASE AND SUPERSTRUCTURE). The superstructure is the sum total of ideological, political, moral, and legal, that is, secondary, relations, as well as the organizations and institutions such as the state, the church, and the court system that are connected with them; and also various feelings, sentiments, views, ideas, and theories that taken together constitute the social psychology and ideology of a given society. The base and the superstructure characterize the particular nature of each formation and its qualitative difference from other formations with sufficient precision and completeness.

In addition to the base and superstructure, the category of a socioeconomic formation covers a number of other social phenomena as well, which are necessary for the functioning of the particular formation and for the life of the “social organism.” Every formation is associated with certain productive forces; no society can exist without the means of communication represented by language; in modern societies an ever greater role is played by science, and so forth. Moreover, every formation is involved with particular types of differentiation into social groups (classes and social layers) and associations, such as the family, a nationality, or a nation. These entities stand in various relations to the base and the superstructure and intersect with them but cannot be assigned to one or the other. Thus, historical materialism regards each socioeconomic formation as a complex social system in which all the elements are organically linked with one another and in which, in the last analysis, the mode of production of material goods is the central constituent element of the system.

By means of the category of the socioeconomic formation, historical materialism inseparably ties together the analysis of the structure of society with the study of the process of its development. Treating the historical process as a dialectic of development and a succession of socioeconomic formations places the study of history on a concrete foundation. The analysis and comparison of various formational structures make it possible to single out certain general laws and contingencies of social life and to understand the historical process in its totality. The law discovered by Marx that the relations of production must correspond to the productive forces is a general sociological law governing the historically necessary transition from one socioeconomic formation to another, higher one and making the essence of historical progress understandable. The productive forces determine the relations of production. The correspondence of the relations of production to the productive forces is necessary for the normal functioning and development of the productive forces. However, the productive forces, developing within the framework of given relations of production, come into conflict with those relations at a certain stage of their development. “From forms of development of the productive forces these relations turn into their fetters. Then begins an epoch of social revolution. With the change of the economic foundation, the entire immense superstructure is more or less rapidly transformed” (Marx, ibid., p. 7).

Until the beginning of the socialist era, social revolution is the normal means of transition from one socioeconomic formation to another in the progressive development of society. The progressive stages of development are primitive communal society, a slave-holding society, feudalism, capitalism, and communism. Outside of primitive communal society, all social formations preceding the communist one have been based on exploitation and class antagonism. Among the numerous differences—for example, of age, of sex, of race, and of occupation— the distinctions of primary social importance among people in antagonistic social formations are those of class, for the relations of production in these formations are relations of dominance and subjection and of the exploitation of one class by another, and all social problems are resolved in the struggle between classes. Class struggle is the driving force in the development of antagonistic class society. In this struggle each class upholds and defends its own material interests, which are determined by the place of that class in the system of existing relations and in its relations to other classes. For material interests to become the guiding principle for action, they must become conscious to one degree or another. The reflection of the fundamental interests of a class as a whole are systematized theoretically in the form of the ideology of that class.

Ideologies can be divided according to their social roles into progressive and reactionary or revolutionary and conservative, and according to the way they reflect reality into scientific and nonscientific, or illusory. Historical materialism requires that every ideology be regarded from a party point of view; that is, it must be connected with the interests of certain classes. Marxism-Leninism is a revolutionary and consistently scientific ideology that expresses the interests of the proletariat and of socialist development. The Marxist principle of partiinost’ (party spirit) makes it possible for a scientific analysis to be made of social classes and ideological phenomena and processes. Objectivity and a consistent scientific approach are identical with Marxist partiinost’. This is so because the working class and its revolutionary party construct the program of their struggle for liberation on the basis of the objective laws of social development. Therefore the correct understanding of these laws is a precondition for the successful liberation struggle of the working people.

The class approach makes it possible for historical materialism to determine the nature of the state scientifically. The state arose with the appearance of classes, and it constitutes the result and the manifestation of irreconcilable class contradictions. By means of the state, the economically dominant class imposes its political rule and suppresses the resistance of the oppressed classes. In antagonistic class society the state is in its essence the instrument of violence by one class against another. The types of state and the forms of the state apparatus change with the development of antagonistic class society, but its essence as the dictatorship of the exploiting class remains the same. Under capitalist conditions the development of the proletarian class struggle against the bourgeoisie results in the socialist revolution and the dictatorship of the proletariat, a qualitatively new type of state, which serves as an instrument for the suppression and ultimate abolition of exploiting classes, for the rallying of all working people around the proletariat, and for the establishment of socialist relations of comradely cooperation and mutual assistance based on social ownership of the means of production.

Socialism is the first phase of a new socioeconomic formation, in which exploitation is eliminated but the distinctions between different working classes and social groups still remain, a phase within which the conditions are prepared for the passage to a socially homogeneous classless society, that is, to the higher phase of communism. This transition comes about gradually on the basis of the conscious, planned utilization of the laws of social development, on the basis of the solidarity and collaboration of all classes and social groups, with the working class maintaining its leading role. In this process the socialist state becomes the state of all the people. With socialism begins a new era in human history, in which the conditions for conscious regulation by human beings of their social relations are gradually built up—conditions in which social relations come under the control of society, in which the harmonious development of the individual becomes possible, and in which the entire mass of the working people is drawn into the conscious process of making history. The scientific conception of historical development that is found in historical materialism serves as a foundation for working out social ideals as spiritual values in the new society, the basis for which was laid by the Great October Socalist revolution in Russia. This revolution heralded the coming of the revolutionary epoch, the transition from capitalism to socialism on a world scale.

The general conception of historical development worked out in historical materialism is of the highest importance insofar as methodology and the formation of a general world view are concerned. But it is not a schema that can be imposed upon the historical process from outside or interpreted in a teleological spirit as history striving from the very beginning to realize a certain goal. The possibility and necessity of passing over into a new socioeconomic formation arises only within the framework of the preceding formation, to the extent that the material conditions for this transformation have ripened. “Mankind,” Marx wrote, “always sets itself only such tasks as it can solve; since, looking at the matter more closely, it will always be found that the task itself arises only when the material conditions for its solution already exist or are at least in the process of formation” (ibid.).

The theory of historical materialism allows both of the extreme positions in the understanding of the historical process, fatalism and voluntarism, to be overcome. History is a process governed by laws. People cannot make it according to their own wishes, for each new generation functions within certain objective conditions that have been created before its time. These objective material conditions and laws allow a widely varied but nevertheless limited number of possibilities for social action. The realization of these possibilities and consequently the actual course of historical development depend on the activity and initiative of people and upon the degree of organization and cohesiveness among the revolutionary and progressive forces. Thus, the specific course is never ordained in advance; it takes shape through action, through struggle, and through the interplay of various forces, factors, and events. By using historical materialism the unitary internal logic of the historical process and the sources of its diversity may both be revealed.

Historical materialism is organically linked with the practical experience of the proletarian revolutionary class struggle and with the needs of the development of socialist society. The determination of specific goals and the selection of means for achieving them, the elaboration of policies, and the working out of strategy and tactics in the class struggle are all done by each Communist Party, based on the application of historical materialist principles to the analysis of social reality. The foundation on which historical materialism develops is the accumulation of new historical experience and new advances in social knowledge.

Lenin made an enormous contribution to the advancement of historical materialism, enriching it by generalizing the experience of the proletarian class struggle in the age of imperialism, proletarian Revolutions, and the beginning of socialist construction in the USSR. Observing that any social activity must be geared to an assessment of the objective conditions, Lenin, taking the tasks of the proletarian class struggle as his starting point, paid special attention to the methods of analyzing the objective conditions of the revolutionary movement, among which he included not only the material level of development, the nature of social relations, and the specific class structure of the society, but also the state of consciousness of the masses and their psychology and moods.

Lenin further clarified the role of the subjective factor in the historical process and from many different angles revealed the major role of scientific theory in the revolutionary movement and the importance of creative initiative on the part of the masses, classes, parties, and individuals. In polemicizing against bourgeois theoreticians, reformists, dogmatists, and revisionists, Lenin developed the Marxist theory of class struggle and the theory of nations and the national liberation movements in relation to the overall tasks of the proletarian revolutionary struggle and the building of a socialist society. He also developed the theory of socialist revolution and of the dictatorship of the proletariat and the theory of culture and the cultural Revolution. Lenin formulated a number of very important methodological principles regarding the approach to the communist socioeconomic formation, having to do with the conscious and purposeful nature of the development of this formation and of the liquidation of antagonistic classes. It was he that worked out a program for socialist construction in the USSR.

Basing themselves on the principles of Marxism-Leninism, the Communist and workers’ parties and Marxist scholars are further developing historical materialism, in the light of the experience of the world revolutionary movement and of the development of the socialist system and in the course of struggling against theories and tendencies hostile to Marxism-Leninism. There are three basic categories in which work is under way on problems of historical materialism.

The first category has to do with the analysis of social progress in the socialist countries and the developed capitalist countries as well as in the countries of the so-called Third World, both those that are pursuing a socialist orientation and those that are not. The application of historical materialism to these new social conditions required both the further development of “traditional” problems in historical materialism and the raising of new questions. What is involved is the concretization and further elaboration of the theory of social formations; the principles and methods of analyzing the class structure of society and the structure and special features in the development of social consciousness, particularly ideology; the general laws and specific conditions of the transition from capitalism to socialism; the evaluation of the social results of the modern scientific-technical revolution under the conditions of capitalism and socialism and of the struggle between the two opposing social systems; the methodological problems of planning, forecasting, and managing the processes of the formation and development of socialist society; and the problem of the relation between the individual and society.

The second category has to do with work on the methodological problems of particular social sciences, especially such sciences as the history and political economy of modern capitalism and socialism and jurisprudence. A number of problems have arisen in connection with the need for work on philosophical problems having to do with an overall world view. These problems are important primarily because of the heightened role of social sciences in the life of modern society, especially in the development of socialism, and the development of the sciences themselves, the accumulation of new material requiring theoretical generalization. In their most general form the methodological problems arising where historical materialism and the specific social sciences overlap have to do either with the difficulties of following general principles in a specific social study—for example, the correlation between the objective and the subjective in socialist economics or the problem of the mechanism of social determination in various historical circumstances—or with an insufficiency that has shown up in the apparatus of categories and the necessity of developing and mastering new concepts allowing the social phenomena under investigation to be reflected more adequately and to be encompassed more completely. The working out of methodological problems in specific social sciences promotes the development of historical materialism and raises the theoretical level of those sciences.

As an overall sociological theory, historical materialism constitutes the theoretical and methodological foundation of the specific social areas of investigation. In regard to the development of these fields of study a point of view has been formulated and elaborated according to which the structure of Marxist sociology includes, along with historical materialism, particular sociological theories that generalize and reflect various categories of sociological research. These particular sociological theories dealing with communities at different levels, for example the sociology of labor, of the family, of science, and of law, serve as intermediate steps between overall sociological theory and the empirical base of sociology.

Finally, the third category has to do with the development and use for the sake of social knowledge of certain general scientific research methods, such as the systems approach, mathematical methods, and the structural-functional approach. Work on methodological problems arising in connection with the interpene-tration of sciences and their mutual influence upon one another and with the appearance of new methods of social research also fall within the sphere of historical materialism and its tasks.

Research in historical materialism and the enrichment and development of this science have great importance in respect to theory, methodology, and the elaboration of an overall world view.

In the ideological struggle historical materialism is opposed to bourgeois sociophilosophical and sociological conceptions and views on functional questions of the theory of social development and social knowledge. Most bourgeois sociologists reject the main principles of historical materialism or call them into question. Particularly unacceptable to them is the historical materialist thesis that capitalism is the last antagonistic social formation in history, that it will necessarily be replaced by the communist social formation, and that the transition from capitalism to socialism can only come about through a socialist revolution and the dictatorship of the proletariat. They contend that historical materialism is a purely ideological construction, a doctrine having nothing to do with real life, whose purpose is to justify the activities of the Communist parties, and that the development of a rational historical sociological science of society is gradually leading to the rejection of historical materialism. In fact the opposite process is taking place: with the growth of various spheres of social knowledge the importance of historical materialism as a general theory and methodology of social knowledge is growing. Historical materialism specifies the ideological and theoretical point of view of all Marxist social science.

Historical materialism had had a profound influence on all of modern sociological thought. While rejecting historical materialism as a whole, many bourgeois sociologists make use of some of its individual principles or propositions, distorting them as a rule. Marxist sociologists and philosophers, criticizing bourgeois sociology as a whole, still take into account its particular accomplishments that are of scientific interest, especially the work of progressive sociologists who provide a wealth of factual material for the criticism of capitalism.

A major area of the theoretical and ideological struggle is the critique of various distortions of historical materialism. This entails primarily the unmasking of various attempts to smuggle through idealist or voluntarist views of the historical process and secondly the struggle against the vulgarization of historical materialism and its replacement by economic materialism, which rejects the complex dialectical interaction among a great variety of relatively independent social forces and phenomena and which looks only in the economic sphere for the causes of all events of social life. As a substitute for the dialectics of social interaction, a narrowly understood economic determinism or a vulgar sociological schematization of the historical process is profoundly alien to the very spirit of historical materialism. The critique of idealist distortions and of the vulgarization of historical materialism is very important in the present situation of sharp ideological struggle against right and “left” revisionism and dogmatism.


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Lenin, V. I. Shag vpered, dva shaga nazad. Ibid., vol. 8.
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In much of the industrial heartland, the builders of unions, the unemployed movements, and the liberal, Democratic political blocs came from the Irish, Slavic, and Italian communities where ideas of social justice owed more to papal encyclicals than to historical materialism.
His Marxian criticism of a Marxian literature focuses on form al properties such as trope, rhyme, and diction, accepting the poetic equivalent of Fredric Jameson's challenge to test the claims of historical materialism on the level of the sentence.
AS a student in Bonn and Berlin, Karl Marx was influenced by Friedrich Engel's dialectic, but he later reacted against idealist philosophy and began to develop his theory of historical materialism.
Unlike orthodox Marxism, with its grounding in historical materialism and related dogma, Socialism has always been a decidedly nebulous ideology, hovering somewhere to the left of radical Liberalism and open to any number of different interpretations.
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