"In the social production of their existence, men inevitably enter into definite relations, which are independent of their will, namely relations of production appropriate to a given stage in the development of their material forces of production. The totality of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which arises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of consciousness. The mode of production of material life conditions the general process of social, political and intellectual life. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness.”
This quote is taken from the 1859 Preface to Marx’s A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy and is probably the clearest statement he made about the method that would come to be known as historical materialism.
Marx starts his examination of human society with the material reality in which we find ourselves. It this that determines our lived reality, not the ideas in our heads, although there is a complex interaction between material reality and the ideologies that spring up to explain, or more often, obfuscate, that reality.
This is a big advance over the way that history is often viewed i.e the Great Man (and less often, Great Woman) theory of history that is peddled in mainstream educational institutions. According to this view of history society moves forward because of individual genius, separated from social relations and the rest of society.
This is why the study of history so often seems to be reduced to memorizing the dates of kings and queens, emperors, presidents, prime ministers and so on. They are the "actors" that make history and the only role for the rest of us is to look on in awe, or more often, in terror, as they run roughshod over our lives.
However, Marx turned this idea on its head and brought ordinary people onto the scene of history. According to Marx’s concept history moves forward, not through the action of powerful individuals, but through class struggle:
“At a certain stage of development, the material productive forces of society come into conflict with the existing relations of production or — this merely expresses the same thing in legal terms — with the property relations within the framework of which they have operated hitherto. From forms of development of the productive forces these relations turn into their fetters. Then begins an era of social revolution. The changes in the economic foundation lead sooner or later to the transformation of the whole immense superstructure. In studying such transformations it is always necessary to distinguish between the material transformation of the economic conditions of production, which can be determined with the precision of natural science, and the legal, political, religious, artistic or philosophic — in short, ideological forms in which men become conscious of this conflict and fight it out. Just as one does not judge an individual by what he thinks about himself, so one cannot judge such a period of transformation by its consciousness, but, on the contrary, this consciousness must be explained from the contradictions of material life, from the conflict existing between the social forces of production and the relations of production."
Thus, to understand historical events, such as the transition from feudalism to capitalism, or the bourgeois revolutions that destroyed the power of the aristocracy in countries such as France and England, you need to see how the development of new forms of production begins to undermine the old ruling structures.
Unlike modern day politicians and mainstream media, Marx did not argue that the ascendancy of the bourgeois class and capitalist production represented the "best of all possible worlds" and the end of history. He saw capitalism as another stage in the development of human society, one which could usher in socialism, an egalitarian society where all could benefit from the immense amount of wealth created by the economic system of capitalism.
However, this was not a foregone conclusion. It has sometimes been argued that Marx has an "instrumentalist" view of history – that Marx believed that history would inevitably lead to socialism.
Nothing could be further from the truth. On the contrary, to paraphrase Marx, human beings make history, but not in conditions of their own choosing. History moves forward through class struggle, but the outcome of those struggles is not pre-determined.
The great 19th century African American abolitionist Frederick Douglass, who was born a slave, once wrote ““If there is no struggle, there is no progress.” Marx would have agreed whole-heartedly with this statement.
In that sense, Marxism is both a hopeful and a realistic philosophy. If we look around the world today there is ample evidence that the system needs to be changed – from the devastation of the natural environment and the threat of catastrophic climate change to the continued oppression and racism suffered by millions around the globe, the attacks on ordinary workers and their families, the increasing gap between an extremely tiny and wealthy minority and the rest of the planet.
Capitalism has long outlived its usefulness and is unequivocally a force for destruction on a mass scale. But unless humanity can successfully organize to overthrow the system we may well see what Marx described as "the ruin of the contending classes."
We are educated and indoctrinated by the masters of the system to believe that we are helpless cogs in the machine and that it is all ‘beyond our control’. But this is not the case. The late British Marxist Chris Harman described in his book Zombie Capitalism this sense of the system being out of control:
“People speak of 'the power of money,' as if its power did not come from the human labor for which it is a token; or of the ‘needs of the market,’ as if the market was anything more than an arrangement for linking together the concrete acts of labor of different human beings. Such mystical attitudes lead people to ascribe social ills to things beyond human control—the process which the young Marx had called “alienation” and which some Marxists since Marx have called “reification.” Simply seeing through such mysticism does not in itself deal with the social ills. As Marx noted, simply arriving at a scientific understanding of the character of existing society leaves it intact just as “after the discovery of the component gases of air, the atmosphere itself remained unaltered.” But without seeing through the fetishism, conscious action to transform society cannot take place.”
Human beings organizing themselves to take "conscious action to transform society" is happening all around us – when Indigenous activists organize to stop the environmental destruction of pipelines and tar sands, when fast-food workers strike and demonstrate against poor wages and working conditions, when international LGBTQ activists stand up against homophobia and horrendous discriminatory legislation in countries such as Uganda and India.
What we need is revolutionary organization that can link these struggles together and win. Leon Trotsky, a Russian revolutionary who devoted his life to taking "conscious action to transform society," along with millions of others during the Russian Revolution, and with much smaller numbers after he was exiled by Stalin, never lost his belief in the possibility of human beings to make history:
“For forty-three years of my conscious life I have remained a revolutionist; for forty-two of them I have fought under the banner of Marxism. If I had to begin all over again I would of course try to avoid this or that mistake, but the main course of my life would remain unchanged. I shall die a proletarian revolutionist, a Marxist, a dialectical materialist, and, consequently, an irreconcilable atheist. My faith in the communist future of mankind is not less ardent, indeed it is firmer today, than it was in the days of my youth...Natasha has just come up to the window from the courtyard and opened it wider so that the air may enter more freely into my room. I can see the bright green strip of grass beneath the wall, and the clear blue sky above the wall, and sunlight everywhere. Life is beautiful. Let the future generations cleanse it of all evil, oppression and violence, and enjoy it to the full.”