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Why I Am Not a Historical Materialist

Hopefully you good folks can indulge me by forgiving this post. It is an unfinished mess because I wanted it out there as the anchor for a hyperlink from a Reddit thread.

At the momebt everything below is a jumble of notes, but I will be reworking it bit by bit starting today.

Hopefully this post will be sorted out and typed in full before the end of April 2017.


Historical materialism is the idea that history progresses in stages - slavery, then feudalism, then capitalism, then socialism, then communism - driven by changes in the technologies or techniques of production, and that any human civilisation will exemplify this process.

This makes historical materialism an exercise in both historicism and materialism.

Historicism is the idea that studying the past can reveal history's in-built course or narrative, and so show you the future.

Materialism is the idea that ideas ( and institutions) ultimately* don't matter in determining our destinies, and that therefore only material conditions do.

How many actual civilisations are believed to fit this schema depends who you ask...

Karl Marx himself did not consider that work of his now called historical materialism to be an explanation of how human civilisation necessarily progresses, but rather just a description of how English civilisation had done so from slavery** under the Romans to capitalism in his own time.

Friedrich Engels was bolder than Marx, coming up with a schema for the origin of the state, private property and nuclear families***, but still not assuming that historical materialism could provide a master key that could unlock the immutable laws of history.

So who had the gall to take this loose idea of Marx's and try to force the history of all human civilisations through it like so many rich men through the eyes of heavenly needles? I have no idea. And yet...

To say the very least, there are almost certainly going to be times and places where changes are driven by material factors - a food shortage will likely cause mass starvation and less interest in the arts, for example. The climate and biome will impact on what materials there are to employ in problem-solving plus what diseases people will be confronted by plus the degree to which they can lazily live off the land or have to labour long and hard just to eat. These are true things, and Jared Diamond takes a very interesting (if flawed) non-Marxist materialistic view of human history in his book Guns, Germs & Steel.

My contention is not that material conditions have no explanatory power, but that their explanatory power, while almost always necessary, is almost never sufficient, being usually less than two-thirds of the whole story. Raw material incentive has some place on every person's mind. But it is never the whole story. And people act on their ideas. That is why I'm not a historical materialist.

Purely materialist explanations of human decisions rarely connect with anything that people actually said at the time (those who wrote and whose writings survive to now) about why they did what they did.

This was true of Italian, Dutch, and English merchants, for example, as well as  ...

So the only way for the materialist line to work is to assume that everybody is constantly lying about their motivations for everything that they do, even when they write in their personal journals or to loved ones.

* I said 'ultimately' because a materialist might recognise ideas and institutions as proximate motivators behind real decisions, but they would also say that such ideas and institutions are themselves purely deterministic responses to material conditions according to the immutable laws of history.


*** Engels' ideas on the origins of private property have been rejected by scholars for some time, but now there is strong evidence for a specific alternative, that private property emerged out of some people's desire to become farmers in the early Holocene.


Quoth the michael
There's a fundamental difference in the character of labour under slavery, under feudalism, and under capitalism.
Sure. My point however was that capitalism - by Marx's labour-relation definition - already existed 4,000 years ago. I said 5,000 years ago in my original post but that will most likely turn out to be an error since the earliest obvious evidence is only 4,000 years old.



Mode of Production. Way the means of subsistence and production are divided among people and therefore used. There are five according to Marx et al; Slavery; Feudalism; Capitalism; Socialism; Communism.

Above I mentioned that a couple of other modes of production were described by Marx, but none were intended to be taken as conclusive descriptions of any given civilisation; the foremost example being the Asiatic mode of production.

Slavery. Despotism or majority slave-population societies, depending which historical materialist you ask. Suffice it to say there are only actually a few examples of the former with far more limited scope than is assumed in Marx's own writings (the closest approximation being China at the time Marx was writing, not in the remote past, though even more confusingly this was ). The latter has never existed at all as a form of large-scale society.

Feudalism. Basically the wrong word because feudalism among historians refers to the webs of relationships among the aristocrats who formed the post-Roman states in Europe. These so-called 'bellatores' described the conventions that became the modes of governance in the modern age. It is easier to leave feudalism meaning this and to call the mode of production...

Serfdom. Multi-generational "social contract" between an aristocrat landowner and a peasant labourer. The peasant gives up a fraction of the product of their labour and in return the aristocrat protects the peasants from outsiders. Hereafter I will use the word serfdom for this mode of production.

Capitalism. Private ownership of the means of production and alienation of labour from product thereof by wage employment. Capitalists buy labour and sell wages while labourers sell labour and buy wages. Capitalists make their income from the profits earned by selling the products the laborers produce.

Socialism. The midway between capitalism and communism in which the means of production go from being 'privately-owned' to 'socially-owned'. The meaning of 'socially-owned' varies depending on the socialist one asks.

Communism. A society of communes, in which everything produced by the people in one commune goes into the communal warehouse(s) and the commune as a whole owns the means of production plus said warehouse.


1. Adoption of farming
2. Transition to modern economic growth.

Econ historians' opinions of Historical Materialism.
It  was Ideas and Ideologies, Not Interests or Institutions, which Changed in Nothern Europe, 1600-1848;
Economic Liberty as Anti-Flourishing: Marx and Especially His Followers;

Econ History scholarship shifts in 1980. .
. .

Archive of papers published in ;

A table from Piketty 2014 showing what laborers were doing in France and the USA in 1800, 1900, 1950 & 2012;

Popper's Poverty of Historicism. .



The main economic form in antiquity was slavery, the main economic form in the Middle Ages was feudalism, and capitalism is the main economic form of the post-Industrial Revolution period. These are pretty indisputable historical facts.

Of course wage labour and trade and money existed in the ancient world. But it was not capitalistic wage labour and trade and money. It was that wage labour and trade and money which is the adjunct of an agricultural and slave economy.

As for that source, words almost fail me. It seems to be somebody (very smugly) going "everyone else is wrong, and I am right". She is in a very small academic minority if she thinks that the economic forms in the ancient world were the same as modern economic forms, or that profit is the same thing as wages, or that workers were not exploited under early capitalism.

She just baldly asserts that centuries of established historical fact are wrong. Maybe it's her that's wrong, did that ever occur to you?

This kind of "capitalism is grate" propaganda is absurdly biased and not real scholarship.


[??] The Theft of History [2006] by Jack Goody




> The main economic form in antiquity was slavery, the main economic form in the Middle Ages was feudalism, and capitalism is the main economic form of the post-Industrial Revolution period. These are pretty indisputable historical facts.

Using the Schumpeterian definition of capitalism you'd at least be right about the last one. If you use the Marxian definition of capitalism (private ownership of the means of production causing alienation of labour from its product by way of wage-employment) then no. That practice was normal in Ancient Mesopotamia, and archaeologists have the tablets to prove it.

Private property, investment, lending, entrepreneurship and wage labour were commonplace pretty much anywhere humans had developed towns and cities - indeed writing seems to have come about as a way of counting quantities, not just stored, but lent or invested, at least going by the content of the writings themselves.

Saying a time period characterised by the set of social activities that match with the Marxian definition of capitalism doesn't count as capitalism is a denial of the Marxian definition of capitalism, or at the very least a refusal to use the Marxian definition.

> The main economic form in antiquity was slavery

What share of the human population of settled agrarian societies were slaves
in 1000BCE? How about 0BCE? Or 1000CE? 1500CE?

The correct answer to all three is between three and six percent with a mean average of five percent. That's 5% of the population of the 'civilised' world. So apparently the incidence of slavery didn't vary very much across these supposedly completely different modes of production.

Maybe you think I'm committing a grand error of composition by talking about the whole civilised world, which in each of those dates takes in more land area and more people. Fair enough. Let's just do the region called Europe, the region called the Middle-East, and the region called China at each of those dates;

Aaaand the result is the same... so... was it all slavery? Or was none of it slavery?

> the main economic form in the Middle Ages was [serfdom]

Serfdom was at any given time experienced by less than half the peasant population of Christendom (the Francia plus Romania cultural regions) and it died out almost everywhere it was introduced within six to seven generations. The only sustained manorial/feudal systems were the Carolingian State (800CE to 1000CE), the Duchy of Normandy (911CE to 1469CE) and the Kingdom of England (1066CE to CE) [??][??][??][??][??]

One big problem with attempting to square what Marx said with what actual mediaevalists are now saying is the difference in definitions, with Marx using 'feudalism' to refer specifically to what is popularly known today as serfdom, whereas mediaevalists are referring to "reciprocal personal relations among members of the military elite, which lead ultimately to parliament and then Western democracy".
Written by none other than Elizabeth Brown herself!

Perhaps it would be more useful to speak of serfdom as the intermediate mode of production than feudalism. [?serfdom?]

Another problem here is that there is no monolithic Era of Slavery followed by some equally monolithic Era of Feudalism. The corporatism of the Papal States, city states throughout Europe, and the introduction of large scale slavery into Lithuania during the Crusade there by the Teutonic Knights spoils this narrative.

> capitalism is the main economic form of the post-Industrial Revolution period

An awful lot of peasants in 1300 CE actually owned the land they farmed and lived on, and hired other peasants to work on it with them... ditto in 1100, or 900, or 700... and what does 'an awful lot' mean? I shall consult the data from the Cliometric Society - cliometrics is the quantitative study of history using a lot of at-source data, whether archaeological or written - which states fairly unambiguously that;

{# of peasants owning land in England & Wales}

{# of peasants owning land in Holy Roman Empire}

{# of peasants owning land in France}

{# of peasants owning land in Papal States}

> it was not capitalistic wage labour and trade and money

Yet according to Marx a capitalist is anyone owning means of production who buys labour, with someone buying labour but exactly controlling means of production of their own being petit-bourgeois.

So by Marx's definition capitalism has been with us, as McCloskey says in the piece I linked in my previous comment, for pretty much as long as private ownership of land has.

And private ownership of land dates back to the early Holocene, at least according to the Marxist scholar Samuel Bowles, anyway. In his paper Coevolution of Farming and Private Property in the Early Holocene Bowles and co-author Jung Kyoo-Choi go to some lengths to match up the available evidence with a model of what change might bring about adoption of farming, finding that the best candidate is private ownership in the modern sense of land. This theory also makes sense of falling agricultural productivity wherever collectivization of land ownership has been tried such as Russia and Ukraine in 1918, Ethiopia from the 70's to 80's, Zimbabwe from Mugabe's land reforms of the 90's and 00's, and Venezuela today.

Since trade is exchange, and money is a medium of exchange, I'm not sure what capitalist versus non-capitalist trade and money can even mean.

> Historical materialism and the historicist family of which it is a part

[??] Historical Materialism article on Wikipedia

[??] Falsifiability article on Wikipedia

[??] The Poverty of Historicism article on Wikipedia


> Deirdre McCloskey is not doing real scholarship

This will be news to economic historians, among whom Deirdre McCloskey is generally considered to be one of the top twenty-or-so scholars writing today, along with folks like Joel Mokyr.

Following articles are from;
What Economic History Means - Then and Now
by Roger L. Ransom

Ransom explains how he and a cadre of young New Economic Historians used economic models to explain historical events and trends, and how over time he realised this was inadequate, that the human actions he was writing about didn't fit the models they were using.

Economic Historians: A Preliminary Review of Survey Responses
by Michael Haupert

A survey that shows the 14 most consulted authorities in economic history education includes Deirdre McClosky and Joel Mokyr, though Deirdre is included under the name Don McCloskey - Dierdre was once Donald, after all.


A coincidence of honouring the bourgeoisie, with a decent degree of certainty in property rights, the technologies of farming & printing etc, the existence of the necessary raw materials, and a safe climate, with the ideology being the single most important factor overall, allowed bourgeois persons to design, step-by-step, innovation-by-innovation, entry-by-entry, modern prosperity.

M = Material conditions
N = Human-made institutions
D = Ideas
Δ = Change in composition of one of the three factors above
A = Agrarian Malthusian trap
G = Runaway growth or Great enrichment
t = transition from preceding to following

M + N + ΔD → A t G



[1] Comment thread with Reddit user michaelnoir | part one

[2] Comment thread with Reddit user michaelnoir | part two

Historical Materialism


Modes of Production

[??] Asiatic Mode of Production article on Wikipedia

[??] Asiatic Mode of Production article at


[??] The Encyclopedia of the Middle Ages | edited by Norman Cantor | published by Viking Adult

[??] Norman Cantor article at Wikipedia

[??] Encyclopedia of the Middle Ages | edited by André Vauchez | published by Oxford University Press

[??] André Vauchez article at Wikipedia




Material Conditions, Institutions and Ideas re the Origin of Farming


PNAS origins of Farming & Private Property.
Cultivation of cereals by the first farmers was not more productive than foraging;
Coevolution of Farming and Private Property during the Early Holocene;
Toward a theory of punctuated subsistence change;
Transition to farming more likely for small, conservative groups with property rights, but increased productivity is not essential;
Studies of Mesopotamian Property Institutions. Both from 1995.
Ancient Land Law: Mesopotamia, Egypt, Israel
Institutional, Communal and Individual Ownership or Possession of Arable Land in Ancient Mesopotamia From the End of the Fourth to the End of the First Millenium B.C.
Ancient Mesopotamian Land Sale Documents.
Structure of Ancient Mesopotamian Society;
Land trade records on stone kudurrus date back to 3100BCE

Cuneiform wage slips.
Between them these two links show a tablet inscribed in cuneiform from about 2039 B.C.E bearing a receipt of payment of wages to supervisors of day-labourers and to those same day-labourers.


Material Conditions, Institutions and Ideas re Ancient Capitalism

Material Conditions, Institutions and Ideas re Modern Economic Growth

[??] The Marxist-Leninist Theory of History article on Friesian


[??] A Farewell to Alms by Gregory Clark

[??] A Culture of Growth by Joel Mokyr

[??] Bourgeois Equality by Deirdre N. McCloskey

Ancient Property & Slavery



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