Marxism: Different Stages of History

Dialectic Analysis

The basic premise of dialectical analysis is the theory in which society is treated as a historically evolving and systemically interrelated whole, has had a profound impact on political science, economics and sociology. This dialectical method, which seeks to uncover the full context of historically specific social interactions in any given system, is used by Marx as a tool for understanding class relationships under capitalism, and as a means for altering such structures fundamentally.  Uniting theory and practice, Marx declared in his ‘Theses on Feuerbach’:

The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it’[1].

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Basic Premise of Materialistic Theory

The materialist theory of history starts from the proposition that human beings are creatures of need, and hence that the material side of human life, physical needs and economic action to satisfy them is primary and basic. Historians and social philosophers until then had focused on the actions of states and rulers only and had not considered  the importance of economic developments.

According to Marx, every society is composed of certain forces of production (tools, machinery and labour to operate them) with which are associated particular social relations of production (property relations, division of labour). These together constitute the material `base’ of society, upon which arises a `superstructure’ of political and legal institutions, and ideological forms to include art, religion and philosophy. He further added: “It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but, on the contrary, their social beings which determines their consciousness”[3].

The development of productive forces

The development of the human race from crude stone tools to the bow and arrow, and the subsequent improvement from the life of hunters to the domestication of animals and primitive pasturage; the transition from stone tools to metal tools resulting in a corresponding transition to tillage and agriculture; a further improvement in metal tools, the introduction of the blacksmith’s bellows, the introduction of pottery, with a corresponding development of handicrafts, the separation of handicrafts from agriculture, the development of an independent handicraft industry and, subsequently, of manufacture; the transition from handicraft tools to machines and the transformation of handicraft and manufacture into machine industry; the transition to the machine system and the rise of modern large-scale machine industry  are all the characteristic stages of development  of the productive forces of society in the course of man’s history.

This development and improvement of the instruments of production had been effected by men who were related to production, and not independently of men; and, consequently, the change and development of the instruments of production was accompanied by a change and development of men, as the most important element of the productive forces, by a change and development of their production experience, their labor skill, their ability to handle the instruments of production. In conformity with the change and development of the productive forces of society in the course of history and  men’s relations of production, their economic relations also changed and developed.

Phases of Materialistic History

At any given historical period the relations of production provide the social framework for economic development. The developing forces of production give rise to increasing conflict with the existing relations of production and these conflicts are reflected as class struggles. `From forms of development of the productive forces these relations turn into their fetters. Then begins an epoch of social revolution’ in which social relations and `the entire immense superstructure’ is transformed.[4]Accordingly, Marx concluded that all nations go through five economic stages: primitive, slavery, feudalism, capitalism, and socialism.

Primitive Phase

The basic tenet of production in the primitive phase of human history is that the means of production are community owned which is consistent with the character of the productive forces of that period. Primitive tools and weapons like stone tools and the bow and arrow had limited efficacy and lethality, a major factor which precluded the possibility of men individually combating the forces of nature and beasts of prey. In order to fulfill the routine activities like gathering fruits from the forest, catch fish or game, or to build any form of inhabitation, men were obliged to work in communities or groups to obviate the possibility of death due to starvation, or fall victims of beast of prey or be killed by rival groups.

Community form of labour and work led to a community based consumption of the produced yield. At this stage the concept of individual ownership of the means of production did not yet exist, except for the personal ownership of certain implements of production which were at the same time means of defense against beasts of prey. Hence, there was neither exploitation, nor any class structure in place.

Slave Phase

The primitive phase was followed by the Slave Stage which is based on the theory that under this system, the slave-owner owns the means of production and the workers in the production chain. Such relations of production correspond to the state of the productive forces of that period. In this stage, the slave owner has all the rights over the slave- whom he can sell, purchase, or kill as though he were an animal. During the slave stage, the primitive stone tools and   primitive husbandry have been replaced by metal tools and pasturage tillage respectively .

The primitive man who till now was in the possession of the most basic tools  now possessed the means to conduct farming , handicrafts and tillage, and a division of labor between these branches of production. There appears the possibility of the exchange of products between individuals and between societies, of the accumulation of wealth in the hands of a few, the actual accumulation of the means of production in the hands of a minority, and the possibility of subjugation of the majority by a minority and the conversion of the majority into slaves.

At this stage, the common and free labor of all members of society in the production process is replaced by the forced labor of slaves, who are exploited by the non-laboring slave-owners. The main aspects of this stage is the appearance of the slave owner(the prime and principal property owner), the increasing existence of the rich and poor, exploiters and exploited, people with full rights and people with no rights, and the beginning of a  fierce class struggle between them.

Feudal Stage

The basis of the relations of production under the feudal system is that the feudal lord owns the means of production and does not fully own the worker in production. This implies that the worker of the slave stage has progressed and he can no longer be owned, bought or sold by the slave owner. Alongside of feudal ownership there exists individual ownership by the peasant and the handicraftsman of his implements of production and his private enterprise based on his personal labor[5].

Such relations of production correspond to the state of the productive forces of that period. Further improvements in the smelting and working of iron; the spread of the iron plow and the loom; the further development of agriculture, horticulture, viniculture and dairying; the appearance of manufactories alongside of the handicraft workshops; have all led to enhanced importance of the worker who is now a skilled artisan. The new productive forces demand that the laborer/worker/artisan shall display some kind of initiative and inclination in production and for work.

The feudal lord therefore discards the slave, as a laborer who has no interest in work and is entirely without initiative, and prefers to deal with the serf (artisan), who has his own husbandry, implements of production, and a certain interest in work essential for the cultivation of the land and for the payment in kind of a part of his harvest to the feudal lord.

In this stage, private ownership is further developed and the affects of exploitation is slightly mitigated. A class struggle between exploiters and exploited is the principal feature of the feudal system.

Capitalist Stage

The basis of the relations of production under the capitalist system is that the capitalist owns the means of production, but not the workers in production[6] – the wage laborers, whom the capitalist can neither kill nor sell because they are personally free, but who are deprived of means of production and in order not to die of hunger, are obliged to sell their labor power to the capitalist.

Due to the rapid strides in the technological and the industrial aspects, there is an increased importance of the technologically intensive means of production like the factories, mills and the huge capitalist farms run on scientific lines and supplied with agricultural machinery. This rapid change in the means of production has an adverse impact on the workers.

The private property of the peasants and handicraftsmen in the means of production being based on personal labor is rendered insignificant and they have to submit their labour to the owners of the means of production. The new productive forces require that the workers in production shall be better educated and more intelligent in comparison to the earlier workers, in the sense that they understand machinery and operate it properly. Therefore, the capitalists prefer to deal with wage-workers, who are free from the bonds of serfdom and who are educated enough to be able properly to operate machinery.

Transition to Communism

The division of society into classes gives rise to political, ethical, philosophical, and religious views of the world, views which express existing class relations and tend either to consolidate or to undermine the power and authority of the dominant class. Marx clarifies it further:

“The ideas of the ruling class are, in every age, the ruling ideas: i.e., the class which is the dominant material force in society is at the same time its dominant intellectual force. The class which has the means of material production at its disposal, has control at the same time over the means of mental production.”[7]

However, oppressed classes, although hampered by the ideological dominance of oppressors, generate counter-ideologies to combat them. In revolutionary or pre-Revolutionary periods it even happens that certain representatives of the dominant class shift allegiance. New social relationships begin to develop within older social structures and result from contradictions and tensions within that structure at the same time as they exacerbate them.

For example, new modes of production slowly emerged within late feudal society and allowed the bourgeoisie, which controlled these new modes of production, effectively to challenge the hold of the classes that had dominated the feudal order. As the bourgeois mode of production gained sufficient specific weight, it undermined the feudal relations in which it first made its appearance. “The economic structure of capitalist society has grown out of the economic structure of feudal society.

The dissolution of the latter sets free the elements of the former.”[8] Similarly, the capitalist mode of production brings into being a proletarian class of factory workers. As these men acquire class consciousness, they discover their fundamental antagonism to the bourgeois class and band together to overthrow a regime to which they owe their existence. “The proletariat carries out the sentence which private property, by creating the proletariat, passes upon itself.”[9] the process of industrialization concentrates working people in factories and cities, hence the working class develops from being an unorganized and unconscious mass through its struggle with the bourgeoisie to being an organized and conscious political force, a force which is ultimately destined to be the `gravedigger’ of capitalism and to inaugurate a new mode of production: socialism[10]


The conquest of political power by the working class will lead to the creation of a socialist state in which the working class is the ruling class and which functions in the interests of the working class. In this way the `dictatorship of the proletariat’ will replace the `dictatorship of the bourgeoisie’. Its main purpose is to abolish the private ownership of the means of production, and hence the social and economic basis of class divisions. As the  material basis of class divisions is dissolved, class differences will gradually disappear, and with them the need for the state as an instrument of class rule and as a distinct coercive force. In the higher stage of full communism, the state is destined ultimately to `wither away'[11], as Engels puts it, and `the government of people will be replaced by the administration of things'[12]


During the present century, history itself seems to have provided a remarkable confirmation of the main outlines of Marx’s thought. At one stage in modern history, the prediction that capitalism is destined to be restricted to a particular and limited historical stage which will be superseded seemed to be justified by the succession of revolutions which removed a large part of the world from its grip. The collapse of the regimes of Soviet and Eastern European communism in 1989, however, has proved that Marxism is now dead and that its prediction of a historical stage beyond capitalism is an illusion. Nevertheless, it remains the most comprehensive and powerful theory for understanding and explaining the capitalist world.

[1] Marx, Karl (1845) Theses on Feuerbach, in Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Selected Works, New York: International Publishers, 1968, pp. 28–30.

[2] Marx, The Poverty of Philosophy, [1847a], London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1955, chapter II
[3] Marx, Karl A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy(1859),PP 389.                                                   [4] Ibid 389-90

[5] G.A. Cohen, Karl Marx’s Theory of History: A Defence, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1978,pp65                \[6] Ibid
[7] Marx Karl, Selected Writings, ed. D. McLellan, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977
[8] Ibid

[9] Ibid
[10]Marx and Engels The Communist Manifesto [1848], Selected Works, Volume 1, Moscow: : Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1962
[11] V.I. Lenin, State and Revolution, in Selected Works in Three Volumes, Volume 2, Moscow: Progress Publishers, revised edn 1975,10-14                                                                                                                       [12] Capital, 3 Volumes [1867, 1885, 1894], London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1961-71

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