Marx’s German Ideology: What is Historical and Dialectical Materialism?

This article explores Marx’s The German Ideology and his thesis of dialectical and historical materialism.

Oct 20, 2023By Klejton Cikaj, MSc in Social Philosophy, BA Philosophy
marx german ideology materialism


The German ideology is a set of manuscripts written by Marx and Engels. It starts as a critique of various German philosophers, and it develops into a full account of historical materialism, Marx’s understanding of how the world moves according to the dominant class. Marx’s unique theory always starts from the material and historical analysis of the conditions of a given society, a framework that can help explain various present, past, and future world events in a more dynamic manner.


Marx’s Attempt at Pulling Philosophy Back to Earth

karl marx portrait
Portrait of Karl Marx by John Jabez Edwin Mayal, 1875 via Wikimedia Commons


Marx criticizes German philosophers of his time for being too dependent on Hegel, abstracting concepts and playing with them in the arena of pure thought, as though they are isolated from their own material reality. Marx writes:


“It has not occurred to any one of these philosophers to inquire into the connection of German philosophy with German reality, the relation of their criticism to their own material surroundings.”


Marx wants to pull philosophy back to earth, away from free-floating, arbitrary abstractions which idealist philosophers relied on to build their systems.


Marx’s starting point is the individual—not the individual as some abstract category of thought but the living, breathing individual embedded in their material conditions. It is these material conditions that determine the mode of production in a society, and the mode of production reproduces the relations between these individuals. People need to produce in order to keep existing, and depending on their material reality, they might do so in different ways. The development of international relations and the development of a nation also depend on the stage of development of the nation’s productive forces.

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The Stages of Development

plowing field
Plowing an Alfalfa field by tractor, US, Ewing Galloway, 1921, via Wikimedia Commons.


The first stage in the division of labor is tribalism or the tribal form of ownership. Marx describes it as “The undeveloped stage of production, at which people live by hunting and fishing, by the rearing of beasts or, in the highest stage, agriculture.”


The division of labor here is very elementary and usually is simply an extension of already existing divisions of labor within the family. Therefore, the social structure built around these relations of production is also an extension of family relations.


The second stage is that of ancient communal ownership, which proceeds from the conjoining of tribes. Here, private property starts developing as an abnormal form of ownership in comparison to the communal. In both of these forms, slavery has an important role to play in the structure of the economy. Here we also see that the division of labor is more developed, and we also see an antagonism forming between the city and the county.


From these conditions, then, we see the emergence of feudal ownership. Feudalism is also based on a community, but at the base of its production is the peasantry, which serves and produces for the lords who own the land. The chief form of property consisted of landed property with serfs chained to it, but it also included another form: that of an individual with some small capital who commanded the labor of journeymen. From this later form, there would grow the traders which would eventually accumulate enough power to antagonize the feudal lords.


This struggle gives rise to Capitalism and private property. In the next stage, according to Marx, the struggle between the proletariat class and the bourgeoisie will give rise to socialism.


What is Historical Materialism?

night shift indiana glass factory
Night Shift in an Indiana Glass Factory, National Child Labor Committee, August 1908. Via Library of Congress.


The description we just gave is a simplification of Marx’s thought, but his very unique perspective on history and the development of civilization is already apparent. This kind of understanding of history would come to be known by the name of “Historical Materialism.”


Marx doesn’t start from some abstract idea or concept in order to explain a given stage of development in a society. He starts from the concrete material conditions of that society and the social relations of production that these conditions necessitate. This is a direct response to German Idealist philosophers who do precisely the opposite:


“In direct contrast to German philosophy which descends from heaven to earth, here we ascend from earth to heaven. That is to say, we do not set out from what men say, imagine, conceive, nor from men as narrated, thought of, imagined, conceived, in order to arrive at men in the flesh. We set out from real, active men, and on the basis of their real life-process we demonstrate the development of the ideological reflexes and echoes of this life-process.”


Our thoughts, our ideological convictions, and our ideas aren’t some free-floating elements that are assigned to us from the above but concrete reflections in us of the material reality we are bound to.


What is Dialectical Materialism?

georg hegel
Georg Friedrich Wilhelm Hegel by Jakob Schlesinger, 1831 via Google Arts & Culture.


Material reality and the material conditions for the reproduction of our existence should then be the starting point of the analysis of societies, not some arbitrary, abstract concepts. To understand why societies fail, why they grow, and why they crumble, we need to study the contradictions which lay hidden at their base, how different societies might deal with these contradictions, and how they implode the system itself when they can no longer be contained within its frame. This type of thinking was developed by Marx, and it is known by the name of “Dialectical materialism.”


The “dialectical” part of Dialectical materialism is taken from Hegel’s thought. Marx famously “turned Hegel’s system upside down” by making Dialectics material instead of ideal.


Every system has contradictions that propel it further. The system’s existence depends on its ability to contain these contradictions. The dialectical way of thinking goes against the analytical or the school of formal logic, which tries to isolate thought away from its content and try to universalize its abstract form. Thought is limited to moving only within itself, devoid of content.


Hegel has already remarked that it was impossible for thought to work without determinate judgments, to free itself entirely of its content. Even if such a thing would be possible, we could still note that the form abstracted is a consequence of thought which has developed in a particular material context, not a universal map or guide for how all thinking ought to operate.


The Base-Superstructure Dialectic

economic base superstructure
Diagram explaining the Marxist Base-Superstructure dialectic by Alyxr, 8 August 2014, via Wikimedia Commons.


In formal logic, there can be no contradictions on an ontological level. Everything is absolutely true or false. Every contradiction is the consequence of an error in thought. This is appealing, but it brings with itself a metaphysics of being and identity which is rendered completely immobile, fixed, universal, space-less, and timeless. Logic itself escapes into the realm of ideas and deals with pure thought. Everything is isolated in its own bubble of identity from everything else.


Dialectical thinking, on the other hand, doesn’t shy away from contradictions. It doesn’t consider them to be thinking errors that can be corrected through abstraction, but a foundational aspect of being itself. As thought makes progress, it reaches sharper and sharper contradictions. These contradictions aren’t opposing forces but contradictions of the very attempt of things to become whole; they are present in internal identity itself. Dialectical thinking is far more dynamic and open to change.


Dialectical materialism is often misinterpreted as viewing concepts, institutions, and cultures—essentially, consciousness—as a superfluous, unimportant layer on top of an economic substance that stands alone as a stable foundation. The real meaning of materialism is quite different; it establishes the practical relationships that underlie any organized human existence and investigates them insofar as they constitute concrete prerequisites for certain cultures or ways of life.


Simple relations, moments, and categories are historically and methodologically connected to richer and more complex determinations, but they are not all-inclusive. The provided content is always a concrete whole. True reality is contained in this intricate web of life and consciousness, which we must discover and clarify. Economic realism is not dialectical materialism. It breaks down relationships before reintegrating them into the overall movement.


What does Marx Mean by Taking Dialectics as a Method of Exposition?

karl marx
Karl Marx’s last photo, by E. Dutertre, 28 April 1882, via Wikimedia Commons.


Marx gives the term “method of exposition,” which the dialectic is, a very strong meaning. The “exposition” is more than just a simple juxtaposition or external organization of the analysis’ findings; it is the complete reconstitution of the concrete in its inner movement.


We must begin with the content. The real being, which establishes dialectical thought, comes first in terms of content. Our method of inquiry aims to take possession of matter in its entirety, examine its various modes of development, and identify its internal laws. Therefore, the analysis pinpoints the relationships and moments of the intricate content. The movement of the content in its entirety becomes reconstitutable and “exposed” at that point.


We may believe that we are working with an a priori construct when the life of the content is reflected in ideas. In general, the reason why the concrete appears as such is because it is the synthesis of various determinations, multiplicity made one. Although it is the true starting point, in thought, it appears as a process of synthesis, a conclusion rather than a beginning.


From the perspective of political economy, the analysis of the existing reality produces “general abstract relations,” such as the division of labor, value, money, etc. If we limit ourselves to analysis, we lose the concrete presupposed by economic categories, which are merely “abstract, one-sided relations of an already given concrete and living whole” and “volatilize” the concrete representation into abstract determinations. Moving from the abstract to the concrete is necessary to restore this whole. Thus, unlike what Hegel believed, the concrete totality is not the result of the concept begetting itself above perception and representation but rather the conceptual elaboration of the content understood in perception and representation.

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By Klejton CikajMSc in Social Philosophy, BA PhilosophyKlejton holds an MSc in Social Philosophy from the University of Tirana in Albania. Klejton has a deep interest in all philosophy-related fields, from metaphysics to epistemology, to the philosophy of mind and politics. Klejton is dedicated to making the substance of philosophy accessible to regular readers without diminishing its quality.