The concept of social change refers to the process of social and cultural institutions transformation via the interactions of people. The theory of historical materialism developed by Karl Marx states that technological development, alterations of productive relations in society, and productive forces, such as labor and capital, provoke changes in social structure. In other words, this theory explains the reasons and the process of social change. Even though this theory is quite persuasive in describing social change, the present essay argues that there are some reasons to doubt it. Economic factors are of great importance for the overall philosophy of Karl Marx and, particularly, for the theory of historical materialism. The primary assumption of this theory is that technological means of production utilized in society and society per se depend on relations of production. The notion of relations of production means social relations in which people must work and, hence, produce goods and services to live and continue their kind. In the process of these interactions between people, societies shift from one stage of development to another because people develop new ways of production and start to collaborate. These social stages are “primitive agriculture, slavery, feudalism, mercantilism,” followed by industrial capitalism (Doughty, 2020: 1). From this, it becomes clear why this theory is called materialistic: the evolution of society is based on economic, i.e., material, assumptions. From one point of view, the inference from the theory that the mode of production alters when forces of production fail to coexist with the existing social institutions and relations seems valid. More precisely, these social changes and shifts from one stage of development to another indeed occurred in human history. For instance, in the pre-statehood era, people lived in hunter-gatherer societies that were not as populous as modern states. People did not use money, and the property was generally collective. People did not exploit each other, and everyone was concerned with finding enough food to eat. Gradually, people invented new ways of manufacturing goods, their tools became more advanced, and the idea of exchange for money appeared. Thus, throughout history, these primitive agricultural societies turned into slave ones. The principal purpose of creating the class of slaves was to use them for exploitation by their owners, free citizens. One of the most vivid examples of such a society is ancient Egypt, where slavery was recorded in the 15th century BC. Following the same logic of historical materialism, slavery became replaced by feudalism, with the subsequent stage of mercantilism and capitalism. At the same time, despite the aforementioned logic, it seems that Karl Marxs theory of historical materialism fails to adequately address the issue of social change because it underestimates the power of an idea. In Marxs philosophy, the economy is the basis of every society. The base is characterized by the society’s mode of production, and its key elements include productive forces and property and production relations. Social and political superstructure appears on the top of the base and is comprised of ideological, political, and religious ideas, culture, institutions such as schools and churches, and laws. Consequently, the superstructure cannot appear in society without an economic base. Still, it might be suggested that this view of society downplays the role of the superstructures components and overemphasizes their dependence on the base. To illustrate the argument stated above, it should be noted that another German philosopher Friedrich Hegel claims that social changes are provoked by ideas or concepts that prevail in a society. Indeed, this view finds justification in global history as well. It seems fair to notice that the major reason why World War II occurred is not just the change in relations of production but the idea of one races superiority. Undoubtedly, the purely economic assumptions took place because Germany was an economically strong actor that could sponsor its militarization and wartime actions by the beginning of World War II. Still, the ideological factor could not be omitted because other economically strong actors do not declare wars to destroy other races utterly. Another example is the abolition of slavery in the US. Undoubtedly, there were economic pros and cons to this phenomenon. However, it is impossible to deny that the driving point of this social change was the peoples understanding that slavery had become outdated due to various moral concerns. The second point of concern on the historical materialism theorys ability to explain social change is the lack of information on the alteration of productive relations. As is stated in the study of Brzechczyn (2017), the central assumption of Marxs theory about the role of relations of production in social change raises the question of “whether the repertoire of main factors is or is not subject to change in historical process” (148). In other words, this problem could be understood as one of causality: is that relations of production alter the historical process, or do historical events lead to the alterations of relations of production? To conclude, the theory of historical materialism developed by Karl Marx asserts that social change results from changes in the relations of production in a society. This theory indeed assists in understanding why and how social changes occur. What is more, this theory could be illustrated by numerous examples derived from history. Nonetheless, it is valid to assume that historical materialism is only one of the perspectives on social change because there are other reasonable views on this process.
Brzechczyn, K., 2017, ‘From interpretation to refutation of Marxism. On Leszek Nowak’s non-Marxian historical materialism’ Internetowy Magazyn Filozoficzny Hybris 37: 141-178.
Doughty, H. A., 2020, ‘A rational society? Student protest, politics and the relevance of Jürgen Habermas’ International Journal of Adult Education and Technology 11 1: 1-23.