The guiding thread of historical materialism

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Historical materialism provides fundamental theoretical instruments that help to understand reality as a synthesis of multiple determinations

“The general result I arrived at and which, once obtained, served me as a guide for my studies because it was formulated, briefly as follows […]” (Karl Marx, Preface to the Contribution of the Critique of Political Economy).


By following the intellectual and political trajectory of Karl Marx, from his youth to maturity, we visualize an elementary unity. Since the inaugural manifesto of his new theoretical-political proposition that occurs (even if still in a rudimentary way), in Introduction a Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Right, until your opus magnum, The capital, we can reconstruct the resources and the way in which Karl Marx composed his materialist conception of history.

The problem, however, is that Karl Marx never wrote a systematic work on historical materialism and only in some passages of his works did he make a quick digression about it. In one of these passages, it is possible to find a summary, a synthesis of the general results that Karl Marx had arrived at after understanding, since 1843, that the critique of political economy was the key to understanding the “anatomy” of bourgeois society.

This passage is the famous preface to Criticism of Political EconomyOf 1859.

One of the first Marxists to realize the fundamental importance of this preface is Karl Korsch, who wrote the seminal book Marxism and Philosophy in 1923. Karl Korsch will insist on its importance, warning that each word contained in this excerpt must be read, re-read and carefully reflected on, if one wants to assimilate the meaning of its extremely condensed sentences.

In this preface, Karl Marx takes up his trajectory as a starting point, highlighting his break with Hegelian idealism and his first encounter with “material questions”: “My area of ​​study was jurisprudence, which, however, I did not I dedicated myself if only in an accessory way […]. In 1842-1843, as editor of the Rheinische Zeitung, I found myself, for the first time, in the embarrassing obligation of giving my opinion on so-called material interests […]. On the other hand, at that time, when eagerness and advancement often overcame true wisdom, a faint echo, so to speak philosophical, of French socialism and communism was heard in the Gazeta Renana. I spoke out against this mess, but at the same time, I clearly confessed, in a controversy […], that the studies I had carried out until then did not allow me to risk a judgment regarding the nature of French trends. […] The first work I undertook to resolve the doubts that assailed me was a critical review of the Hegel's Philosophy of Law, work whose introduction appeared in Franco-German Annals, published in Paris in 1844”. (MARX, 2008, P. 46-47).

From this process of intense study and theoretical-political self-clarification, emerge, in an embryonic way, the first propositions of the materialist conception of history in the trajectory of Karl Marx and the understanding of the need to develop the critique of political economy, a key science for understanding society bourgeois: “My investigations led me to the following result: legal relations, as well as the forms of the State, cannot be explained by themselves, nor by the so-called general evolution of the human spirit; these relations have, on the contrary, their roots in the material conditions of existence, in their totality, conditions that Hegel, following the example of the English and French of the 2008th century, understood under the name of “civil society”. I also came to the conclusion that the anatomy of bourgeois society must be sought in political economy.” (MARX, 47, p. XNUMX).

After this first moment of explaining his trajectory, Karl Marx speaks one of the most famous excerpts from his works that deals with the conclusion of dozens of years of study and political activism. It allows us to reproduce its large fragment: “The general result I arrived at and which, once obtained, served me as a guide for my studies because it was formulated, briefly as follows: in the social production of existence itself, men enter into determined, necessary relationships, independent of your will; These production relations correspond to a determined degree of development of their material productive forces. The totality of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real basis on which a superstructure rises.[I] legal and political and to which specific social forms of consciousness correspond. The mode of production of material life conditions the process of social, political and intellectual life. It is not the conscience of men that determines their being; rather, it is your social being that determines your consciousness. At a certain stage of their development, the material productive forces of society come into contradiction with the existing relations of production, or, what is nothing more than their legal expression, with the property relations within which they had developed until then. From evolutionary forms of the productive forces that they were, these relationships become obstacles. A time of social revolution then began. The transformation that took place in the economic base more or less slowly or quickly transforms the entire colossal structure. When considering such transformations, it is important to always distinguish between the material transformation of the economic conditions of production – which can be faithfully verified with the help of physical and natural sciences – and the legal, political, religious, artistic or philosophical forms, in short, the ideological forms. under which men become aware of this conflict and carry it to the end. In the same way that an individual cannot be judged by the idea he has of himself, neither can we judge such a time of transformations by the awareness he has of himself. It is necessary, on the contrary, to apply this awareness to the contradictions of material life, to the conflict that exists between social productive forces and production relations. A society never disappears before all the productive forces it can contain have been developed, and new and superior relations of production never take their place before the material conditions for the existence of these relations have been incubated within the very heart of the old society. This is why humanity never proposes anything other than the problems it can solve, because, deepening the analysis, it will always be seen that the problem itself only presents itself when the material conditions to solve it exist or are in the process of being solved. exist. […] Bourgeois relations are the last antagonistic form of the process of social production, antagonistic not in the sense of an individual antagonism, but of an antagonism that arises from the conditions of social existence of individuals; The productive forces that develop within bourgeois society create, at the same time, the material conditions to resolve this antagonism. With this social formation, therefore, the prehistory of human society ends.” (MARX, 2008, p. 47-48).


Despite being short and clear, Karl Korsch will demonstrate how these basic theoretical premises of Karl Marx were misinterpreted and misused, bringing theoretical and political consequences within the ranks of Marxism. To rehabilitate the radical character of the general conclusions that Karl Marx drew from his years of study and struggle, Karl Korsch seeks to scrutinize and analyze this excerpt.

The first point addressed by Karl Korsch is the observation, obvious but necessary to clarify, that such a fragment of Prefácio da Critique of Political Economy constitutes nothing more than the guiding thread that he used in his economic and social investigations. But how can we prove the veracity of this guiding thread and how can we demonstrate that our method is “adequate” for analyzing human history?

Karl Korsch, to answer this question, rescues an anecdotal phrase by Friedrich Engels (2022, p. 21) included in the book From utopian socialism to scientific socialism: “The proof of the pudding is in eating it, that is, only experience proves it.” In other words, the demonstration of the effectiveness and correspondence with reality of his materialist conception of history lies in its application in a given study. In the case of Karl Marx, it was, largely, in the critique of political economy where he was “applied”. Hence Karl Korsch's statement (2008, p. 135): “A more or less confused theoretical discussion can never demonstrate whether a scientific method is correct or not; Only a 'practical' test – so to speak – of this method can do so.”

The idea of ​​a common thread also leads us to the proposition that Marx's discussion in this Prefácio can be considered a heuristic principle, a product of consciousness that aims, among other determinations, at the process of analyzing social reality. This principle aims to understand and analyze the relationship between the social conditions of existence, their historical development, as well as their respective practical transformation/rupture. Not your total and absolute understanding, but a guide, a broad spectrum map that assists in analysis.

This becomes evident by the abstract structure of Karl Marx's excerpt, where the historical time (or which society is being discussed) is not qualified, much less the historical subject that will produce the transformation/rupture is named. The reader who only knows this excerpt from Marx will have the false perception that the historical evolution of humanity is an “objective” process, in which history presents itself as an evolution of productive forces and production relations, where, at a certain moment, the latter become an obstacle to the former.

Hence Karl Korsch will state that only when Karl Marx's abstract analysis is complemented, in this Prefácio, with other more precise and specific discussions that Marx and Engels produced throughout their intellectual and political activities, it is possible to understand the full meaning of the materialist conception of history, especially in the analysis of capitalist society. Hence the existence of an apparent “objective formula” and “subjective formula” to understand the integrality of the relationship between the modes of existence of human beings with their historical evolution and their respective transformation.

The “objective formula” is exactly what appears in the Prefácio a Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, especially the following emblematic excerpt: “The history of society is the history of its material production and the contradictions between the material productive forces and the production relations that emerge and are resolved throughout its evolution”. This formula corresponds to the “subjective formula[ii]”, constant in the Communist Manifesto by Marx and Engels (2005, p. 40): “The history of all societies that have existed to date[iii] It is the story of class struggle.”

In this sense, for Karl Korsch, the subjective formula clarifies the meaning of the objective formula, naming the concrete “historical subject” who practices the action, thus consummating “objective evolution”. The production relations that, at a certain stage, serve as obstacles to the productive forces, are also assumed to be shackles of the oppressed class. The exploited class, by breaking its shackles in the revolutionary struggle, also frees production. In the present capitalist society, the real subject of history is, according to historical materialism, the proletariat.

The apparent division between subjective and objective formula is, in reality, a unity, a living and concrete totality. Karl Marx, in this sense, set out to analyze capitalist society and its dissolution, but he needed to understand, first, the dynamics and historicity of humanity's own historical development.


Karl Korsch, still on the issue of the guiding thread of historical materialism, brings an important discussion of the way in which Karl Marx used it both in the analysis of the development of humanity in general, and in the analysis of bourgeois society in specific. In other words, there are general propositions that can be used for other historical moments of humanity, as well as specific propositions, which would only be useful for analyzing capitalist society. This dynamic occurs because the relationship and mediation between the material base and its superstructure (political, legal, ideological, etc.) changes according to the socioeconomic formation of each era.

Karl Korsch brings examples of the difficulty of using the concepts developed and mobilized by Marx in the analysis of capitalism in The capital, to investigate the dynamics of feudal society, for example – where the relationship between the sphere of production and politics had different mediations, in addition to specific social relations. The use of the concept of surplus value, for example, makes no sense in understanding feudalism, antiquity or any other society.

Another mobilized example is that of the Communist Manifesto, when Marx and Engels stated that the history of societies to this day is the history of class struggle. This proposition falls apart when analyzing what Friedrich Engels called “primitive communism”, decades after the writing of the manifesto, when noting the existence of non-class societies in the past and present. The same difficulty also occurs with future social formations, where the relationship between economy and politics may be abolished, as well as the very existence of social classes. Karl Korsch, here, discusses the first and second phases of the coming communist society.

Karl Korsch (2018, p. 199), by way of synthesis, explains the general and specific nature of Marx's propositions inscribed in the Prefácio a Critique of Political Economy: “Marx's materialist principle, when applied to other forms of society before or after bourgeois society, is only valid in the two general provisions and if it is, in addition, more or less adapted depending on the historical distance that separates bourgeois society of the form of study society. What is valid for all historical periods of socioeconomic formation is, on the other hand, the fundamental idea of ​​the materialist theory of society, which establishes that the mode of production of material life conditions the entire process of social, political and intellectual existence in general. […] This material relationship, invariable and constant, presents, in each historical period, a different specific form”.

As we can see, Karl Korsch emphasizes the importance of the specific dimension of each historical and social formation. This dimension is linked to what Karl Korsch calls the “principle of historical specificity” which is, among other elements, one of Karl Marx's main contributions to social theory present in historical materialism.

What is fundamental here, by way of conclusion, is to realize that, when considering the idea of ​​a guiding thread in Karl Marx's discussion in this Preface, it becomes clear that we are facing an essential heuristic principle. This principle not only seeks to understand the social conditions of existence and their historical development, but also serves as a guide to analyze their practical, concrete transformation.

In summary, by recognizing the heuristic nature of this discussion, we are encouraged to seek a deeper and more contextualized understanding of historical and social dynamics. Like a compass, historical materialism provides us with fundamental theoretical instruments that help us understand reality as a synthesis of multiple determinations that shift and transform.

*Gabriel Teles He has a doctorate in sociology from USP and professor at the Federal Institute of Goiás (IFG).


ALTHUSSER, Louis. By Marx. Campinas, SP: Editora da Unicamp, 2015.

ENGELS, Friedrich. From utopian socialism to scientific socialism. Edipro, 2022.

KORSCH, Karl. Karl Marx. Lisbon: Antigone, 2018.

KORSCH, Karl. Marxism and philosophy. Rio de Janeiro: Editora UFRJ, 2008.

 MARX, Carl. Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy. São Paulo: Expressão popular, 2008.

MARX, Karl; ENGELS, Friedrich. The holy family: or the criticism of Critical criticism: against Bruno Bauer and consorts. Boitempo Editorial, 2015.

MARX, Karl; ENGELS, Friedrich. communist manifesto. Boitempo Editorial, 2010.


[I] Korsch was one of the pioneers to postulate that the use of the terms “base” and “superstructure” in Marx are essentially metaphorical in nature and not finished analytical concepts. In other words, they were expressions used as an “image” to express a certain relationship between the mode of production and the forms of regularization of society (law, state, ideology, etc.). This discussion became famous in the reflections of Althusser (2015) .

[ii] There is a passage in the book The Holy Family, where Marx and Engels (2015, p. 111) criticize those who see History autonomously, apart from real and concrete human beings: “History does nothing, 'it does not possess any immense wealth', 'it does not fight any kind of fight'! The one who does all this, the one who possesses and fights is, long before, the man, the real man, who lives; It is certainly not 'History', which uses man as a means to achieve its ends - as if it were a separate person -, as History is nothing more than the activity of man who pursues his objectives.”

[iii] Regarding this statement from Communist Manifesto, Engels, years later in a new edition, inserts a fundamental footnote highlighting that it was about “written history” and not the entirety of human history: “Prehistory, the social organization prior to written history, was unknown in 1847. Later, Haxthausen discovered the common ownership of land in Russia, Maurer showed that this was the social basis from which the Teutonic tribes historically derived, and, little by little, it was found that the rural community was the primitive form of society, from India to Ireland. The internal organization of this primitive communist society was revealed, in its typical form, by Morgan's discovery of the true nature of gens and their relationship to the tribe. After the dissolution of these primitive communities, society began to divide into distinct classes. I tried to trace this process of dissolution in the work Der Ursprung der Familie, des Privatergenthums und des Staats” (MARX & ENGELS, p. 40). 

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