Individual and Society: The Dialectical Conception of History

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Human beings and the process of production

The premise of all human society is the existence of living human individuals. The first fact to be established, therefore, is the physical constitution of individuals and their consequent relation to the rest of Nature. All historiography must begin from these natural bases and this modification in the course of history by human activity.

According to Marx in his critique of political economy, the conception of history rests on the exposition of the real process of production. It starts from the simple material production of life and the form of intercourse, created by this mode of production, i. e., at civil society in its various stages as the basis of all history. Life involves before anything else – eating and drinking, a habitation, clothing and many other things. So, the first historical act is the production of material life itself.

Work is humanity’s basic form of self realization. We cannot live without work. The way in which human's produce their means of subsistence depends in the first place on the nature of existing means which they have to reproduce. It is a definite form of activity of these individuals, a definite way of expressing their life, a definite mode of life.

According to that perspective, history may be divided roughly into several periods, for example, ancient civilization, feudalism and capitalism. Each of these periods is characterized by a predominant mode of production and based upon it a class structure consisting of a ruling and oppressed class. The struggle between these classes, determines the social action and relation among the human beings. In particular, the ruling class which owes its position to the ownership and control of means of productions, controls also the whole moral and intellectual life of the people.

As the materialist dialectic affirms, people enter into definite relations that are independent of their will. In other words, we can follow the movement of history by analyzing the structure of societies, the forces of production, and the relations of production, and not by basing our interpretation on people’s ways of thinking about themselves. Secondly, in every society there can be distinguished the economic base or infra-structured as it has come to be called, and the superstructure within which figures the legal and political institutions as well as ways of thinking, ideologies and philosophies. Thirdly, the mechanism of the historical movement is the contradiction, at certain movements in evolution, between the forces and relations of production. The forces of production seem to be essentially a given society’s capacity to produce, a capacity which is a function of scientific knowledge, technological equipment and the organization of collective behavior or labor. 

Society and social classes


The relations of production which are not too precisely defined seem to be essentially distinguished by relations of property. However, relations of production need not be identified with relations of property; or at any rate relations of production may include in addition to property relations, distribution of national income which is itself more or less strictly determined by property relations.

Now it is easy to introduction the class struggle. A social class in Marx’s terms is any aggregate of persons who perform the same function in the organization of production. For instance, free person and slave, oppressor and oppressed. These classes are distinguished from each other by the difference of their perspective positions in the economy. A social class is constituted by the function, which its members perform in the process of production.

The position which the individual occupies in the social organization of production, indicates the class to which he or she belongs. The fundamental determinant of class is the way in which the individual cooperates with others in the satisfaction of his basic needs of food, clothing and shelter. Other index such as income, consumption, occupation are so many clues of his prestige symbols. Hence, according to Marx, the income or occupation of an individual is not an indication of his class-position i.e., of his or her role in the production process. The separate individual forms a class only in no so far as others have to carry on a common battle against another class; otherwise they are on hostile terms with each other as competitors. On the other hand, the class in its turn achieves an independent existence.

The development process of a social class depends upon the development of common conditions and upon the realization of common interests. Only when the members of a potential class enter into an association for the organized pursuit of their common aims, does a class in Marx’s sense exist. Economic conditions had first transformed the mass of the people of the country into workers. The determination of capital has created for this mass a common situation and common interests. This makes it already a class as against capital, but hot yet for itself. In this struggle this mass becomes united and constitutes itself as a class for itself. The interests it defends become class interests.

So, in that vision of history, revolutions are not political accidents, but the expression of historical necessity. Revolutions perform necessary functions and they occur when conditions for them are given. Capitalists relations of productions were first developed in the womb of feudal society. The French Revolution occurred when the new capitalists relations of production had attained a certain degree of maturity. 

Dialectic and social change

It is not my consciousness that determines reality. On the contrary, it is the social reality that determines their consciousness. But the dialectical conception of history affirms that the law of reality is the law of change. There is a constant transformation in inorganic nature as well as in the human world. There is no eternal principle. Human and moral conceptions change from one age the next. Natural and social change occurs in accordance with certain abstract law. Beyond a certain point, quantitative changes become qualitative. The transformations do not occur imperceptibly a little a time, but at a given moment there is a violent, revolutionary shift.

As Marx wrote in his preface to Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, at a certain stage of their development, the material productive forces of society come in conflict with the exiting relations of production within which they have been work hitherto. From forms of development of the productive forces these relations turn into their fetters. Then begins an epoch of revolution social.

The dialectic conception of history comprehend the changes in the scope and social structure of advanced capitalism and the new forms of the contradictions characteristics of the latest stage of capitalism in its global framework. 

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  • This is one of the most illegible and concise summaries of Marxist methodology and historical interpretation I have read in PA. Kudos to the author.

    I wish to make one addition: the individual is wholly socialized, yet consciousness does matter. It is the idea that one has come up with his or her consciousness by oneself that is an error, a false consciousness. Marx addresses this issue with the concept of class consciousness. It is the realization of one's socialization and an understanding of material power that leads to class consciousness and revolution.

    Thank you for this excellent work. I am reading your other article next.

    Are you on Facebook?

    Posted by Jean Paul Holmes, 01/05/2011 8:30pm (9 years ago)

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