Historical Materialism is the application of Marxist science to historical development. The fundamental proposition of historical materialism can be summed up in a sentence: "it is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but, on the contrary, their social existence that determines their consciousness." (Marx, in the Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy.)
What does this mean? Readers of the Daily Mirror will be familiar with the "Perishers" cartoon strip. In one incident the old dog, Wellington wanders down to a pool full of crabs. The crabs speculate about the mysterious divinity, the "eyeballs in the sky," which appears to them.
The point is, that is actually how you would look at things if your universe were a pond. Your consciousness is determined by your being. Thought is limited by the range of experience of the species.
In other words, an extensive division of labour must exist. The other side of this is that people must be accustomed to working for money and buying the things they want from others - including tickets to the football - which, of course, was not the case in primitive society.
So this simple example shows how even things like professional football are dependent on the way society makes its daily bread, on people's "social existence".
After all, what is mankind? The great idealist philosopher Hegel said that "man, is a thinking being." Actually Hegel's view was a slightly more sophisticated form of the usual religious view that man is endowed by his Creator with a brain to admire His handiwork. It is true that thinking is one way we are different from dung beetles, sticklebacks and lizards. But why did humans develop the capacity to think?
Over a hundred years ago, Engels pointed out that upright posture marked the transition from ape to man, a completely materialist explanation. This view has been confirmed by the more recent researches of anthropologists such as Leakey. Upright posture liberated the hands for gripping with an opposable thumb. This enabled tools to be used and developed.
Upright posture also allowed early humans to rely more on the eyes, rather than the other senses, for sensing the world around. The use of the hands developed the powers of the brain through the medium of the eyes.
Engels was a dialectical materialist. In no way did he minimise the importance of thought - rather he explained how it arose. We can also see that Benjamin Franklin, the eighteenth-century US politician and inventor, was much nearer a materialist approach than Hegel when he defined man as a "tool-making animal."
Darwin showed a hundred years ago that there is a struggle for existence, and species survive through natural selection. At first sight early humans didn't have a lot going for them, compared with the speed of the cheetah, the strength of the lion, or the sheer intimidating bulk of the elephant. Yet humans came to dominate the planet and, more recently, to drive many of these more fearsome animals to the point of extinction.
What differentiates humanity from the lower animals is that, however self-reliant animals such as lions may seem, they ultimately just take external nature around them for granted, whereas, mankind progressively masters nature.
The process whereby mankind masters nature is labour. At Marx's grave, Engels stated that his friend's great discovery was that "mankind must first of all eat, drink, have shelter and clothing, and therefore work before it can pursue politics, science, art, religion etc."
While we can't read the minds of our primitive human ancestors, we can make a pretty good guess about what they were thinking most of the time - food. The struggle against want has dominated history ever since.
Marxists are often accused of being 'economic determinists'. Actually, Marxists are far from denying the importance of ideas or the active role of individuals in history. But precisely because we are active, we understand the limits of individual activity, and the fact that the appropriate social conditions must exist before our ideas and our activity can be effective.
Our academic opponents are generally passive cynics who exalt individual activity amid the port and walnuts from over-stuffed armchairs. We understand, with Marx that people "make their own history...but under circumstances directly encountered, given and transmitted from the past". We need to understand how society is developing in order to intervene in the process. That is what we mean when we say Marxism is the science of perspectives.
We have seen that labour distinguishes mankind from the other animals - that mankind progressively changes nature through labour, and in doing so changes itself. It follows that there is a real measure of progress through all the miseries and pitfalls of human history - the increasing ability of men and women to master nature and subjugate it to their own requirements: in other words, the increasing productivity of labour.
To each stage in the development of the productive forces corresponds a certain set of production relations. Production relation means the way people organise themselves to gain their daily bread. Production relations are thus the skeleton of every form of society. They provide the conditions of social existence that determine human consciousness.
Marx explained how the development of the productive forces brings into existence different production relations, and different forms of class society.
By a 'class' we mean a group of people in society with the same relationship to the means of production. The class which owns and controls the means of production rules society. This, at the same time, enables it to force the oppressed or labouring class to toil in the rulers' interests. The labouring class is forced to produce a surplus which the ruling class lives off.
"The specific economic form in which unpaid surplus-labour is pumped out of the direct producers determines the relationship of rulers and ruled, as it grows directly out of production itself and, in turn, reacts upon it as a determining element. Upon this, however, is founded the entire formation of the economic community which grows up out of the production relations themselves; thereby simultaneously its specific political form. It is always the direct relationship of the owners of the conditions of production to the direct producers-a relation always naturally corresponding to a definite stage in the development of the methods of labour and thereby its social productivity-which reveals the innermost secret, the hidden basis of the entire social structure, and with it the political form of the relation of sovereignty and dependence, in short the corresponding specific form of the state." (Capital, Vol. III.)