Dialectical and Historical Materialism Outlook

Marxist Theory: Dialectical & Historical Materialism, The Economic System, and Class Conflict


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Dialectical materialism and historical materialism form the foundation of Marxist philosophy. Grounded in the dialectical process of epistemology, Marxist theory evolved into principled sociology. Yet Marxist sociology rests on the dialectical understanding of the natural world, including that of human nature. Although Marxist philosophy is comprehensive and epistemological, Marx found its pragmatic application in focusing on the function of economic systems and the effect of economic systems on socioeconomic class stratification. Implications of class stratification include class conflict and false consciousness, both of which are exacerbated by capitalist modes of production and the social and political institutions that support them.


Dialectical and Historical Materialism

Building on Hegelian dialectics, Marx and Engels propose an epistemology in which the natural world is interconnected, systemic, pre-determined, and continually changing (Stalin, 1938). Dialectics is a method of reaching a truthful analysis based on the assumption that “historical progress is achieved through the clash of opposites and their ultimate resolution in the form: thesis + antithesis = synthesis,” (Munro, n.d., p. 1). Within this logical framework, Marx offered an extension of Hegelian generalized dialectical methods to show how opposing forces or phenomena in nature create conflict, which catalyzes change. Both dialectical and historical materialism are also based on the efficacy material reality. In other words, that which is tangible and immediately knowable is real. Materialism is categorically opposite to idealism, the philosophical worldview that frames the material world as an extension of, or imperfect reflection of, some ideal, unknowable, and ineffable primal reality.

Marx proposed dialectical materialism as a means of understanding the natural world, and historical materialism specifically as a dialectical approach to understanding human history. Thus, historical materialism is the practical application of dialectical materialism. Taken together with Marxist economics, dialectical materialism and historical materialism form the trinity of Marxist philosophy: what Sewell (2002) calls “scientific socialism,” (p. 1). In 1938, Joseph Stalin published Dialectical and Historical Materialism to explicate the philosophical foundations of socialism and apply it directly to principled change to political, social, and economic institutions.

Also central to the Marxist dialectic is the implication that change is progressive; human society evolves to states of improved quality. Based on scientific observations and analogies in the material world, such as chemistry, Marx and Engels showed how quantitative change leads to qualitative change (Sewell, 2002; Stalin, 1938). When applied to human history, the Marxist dialectic shows how societies evolved from the slave-based and then feudal economic, political, and social institutions towards the capitalist systems. Marx then proposed that the dialectics of capitalism create new pressures, new conflicts, and new catalysts for change. Socialist and communist systems are the natural outcomes of this change (Munro, n.d.).

The Economic System and Social Structure

Marx applies dialectical materialism to an analysis of human economic systems. First, Marx shows how labor value is both arbitrary and socially constructed. The capitalist system is based on the concept of creating surplus value by “squeezing it out of the laborer,” or exploiting the laborer (Lukacs & Lukacs, 1971, p. 94). Capitalism also depends on the labor theory of value, in which labor is the “sole source of value in production,” (Munro, n.d., p. 1). Arbitrarily assigning value to timed labor alienates the worker from himself, from society, and from nature. Thus, Marx differentiates between the means of production and the social relations of production (“Karl Marx and Historical Materialism,” n.d.). The means of production refer directly to the material means like technologies and tools that enable human beings to produce goods. Social relations can be based on natural processes or on artificially constructed ones based on hierarchies of “dominion and servitude,” (Lukacs & Lukacs, 1971, p. 86). Slavery, feudalism, and capitalism all represent the systematic exploitation of workers but capitalism was a revolutionary economic system in that the owners of the means of production possess arbitrary power in a capitalist system. That power is conferred far differently than it had been in the economic systems prior to capitalism.

Labor value changes over time, particularly as labor productivity or efficiency increases through technological improvements and other innovations (Marx, 2015). Technological advancements enable capitalist enterprises, allowing the value of human labor to fall and simultaneously enabling the rise in surplus value that the capitalist can accumulate. Capital accumulation equals political and social power. Whereas the owners of the means of production can simply drive down the market price of human labor, the laborers have no legitimate means by which to manipulate the value of labor unless they revolutionize the entire system. Therefore, the economic system of capitalism results in a socially stratified society in which the capitalist (or bourgeois) exploits the labor of the working class (proletariat).

Dialectical and historical materialism show how capitalist economic systems lead directly to the stratified social structures that characterize modern society. Moreover, Marx firmly believed in economic determinism: part and parcel of both dialectical and historical materialism. For Marx, human nature and activity are in constant flux, evolving, and progressive. Human nature responds to external forces and changes, like those that accompany major changes to the economic and social structures. Capitalism was a reaction to previous social and economic structures like feudalism, and socialism is the response to capitalism.

The Dialectic of Class Conflict

Dialectics revolves around the principle of dynamic change, in which disparate entities or elements that exist in tension or conflict necessitate fundamental transformations. Marxist dialectics show how over time, entrenched social, political, and economic systems generate the types of conflicts that induce change. Capitalism transformed the social order, shifting the power from previously legitimate forms like monarchies and churches to the owners of the means of production. The primary dialectical tension of capitalism is class conflict, which underlies social and political revolutions.

In Capital, Marx demonstrates how the capitalist system essentially reaches a crisis point in an ironic way: the more efficient the system, the less profitable it becomes. The owner of the means of production starts out with the creation of large amounts of surplus value because demand exceeds supply. The capitalist continues to derive surplus value by exploiting labor, which is achieved by arbitrarily setting the value of labor in ways that enable the ongoing production of profit. Yet to make more profit, the capitalist must also produce more commodities. There are two main ways to produce more: expand the labor force and invest in technology. Investment in new technology increases the rate of production, which then drives down the cost of production, which then leads to a surplus in supply. With a surplus of supply, the price of the commodity goes down and thus so too does the profit. To maintain profitability, the capitalist must systematically devalue human labor (Marx, 2015; Munro, n.d.). The capitalist can only exploit the laborer so much before the proletariat revolts. A sense of alienation, disempowerment, and outright economic insecurity create conflict between the owners of the means of production and the labor force being exploited.

Capitalism exacerbates the status and power divisions between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie. Class conflict arises out of the proletariat’s need to reclaim power and agency. No matter how diverse demographically, the proletariat will share in common specific economic, social, and political needs. Acting as a class, the proletariat can organize systematic responses to the capitalist system of exploitation. Yet acting as a class can also be problematic, because it leads to a “false consciousness,” a consciousness or identity based on the limited worldviews of the capitalist system. False consciousness therefore refers to a “distorted and limited form of experience in society that could be applied to all social groups and classes,” (Eyerman, 1981, p. 43). Not only is a false consciousness a distorted view; it can also be one that specifically promulgates the goals of the ruling classes, and be actively promoted by the bourgeoisie (Little, n.d.). If a revolution is based on the false consciousness of the efficacy of capitalism, then the revolution will fail to achieve its ultimate objectives of transforming power relations. Capitalism is an overarching economic system that needs to be dismantled and questioned at its most fundamental level in order to fully resolve the class conflicts.


Marxist economics cannot be understood without full appreciation for its epistemological framework. That epistemological framework is dialectical materialism, combined with its pragmatic application in historical materialism. Human societies have evolved, and continue to evolve. Moreover, human societies are structured in response to immediate material needs. Marx presents a view of human sociology that is firmly materialistic and deterministic, to show why specific social, political, and economic systems exist, the assumptions and values upon which those systems depend, and also how those systems can become outmoded and in need of change.






Eyerman, R. (1981). False consciousness and ideology in Marxist theory. Acta Sociologica 24(1-2): 43-56.

“Karl Marx and Historical Materialism,” (n.d.). http://www.age-of-the-sage.org/philosophy/history/marx_historical_materialism.html

Little, D. (n.d.). False consciousness. http://www-personal.umd.umich.edu/~delittle/iess%20false%20consciousness%20V2.htm

Lukacs, G. & Lukacs, G. (1971). History and Class Consciousness. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Marx, K. (2015). Capital. Translated: Samuel Moore and Edward Aveling, edited by Frederick Engels. https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/download/pdf/Capital-Volume-I.pdf

Munro, J.H. (n.d.). Some basic principles of Marxian economics. University of Toronto. https://www.economics.utoronto.ca/munro5/MARXECON.htm

Sewell, R. (2002). What is dialectical materialism? In Defense of Marxism. https://www.marxist.com/what-is-dialectical-materialism.htm

Stalin, J.V. (1938). Dialectical and Historical Materialism. https://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/stalin/works/1938/09.htm


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