The Developing Conception of Historical Materialism

  • George C. Comninel
Part of the Marx, Engels, and Marxisms book series (MAENMA)


This chapter argues that, contrary to the idea that there was an “epistemological break” in Marx’s ideas around the time of the 1845 manuscripts put together as The German Ideology, there was instead fundamental continuity in the ongoing development of his thought by means of the critique of political economy, from 1844 down through Capital. Although retaining a thoroughly holistic conception of human social existence, and of its processes of development over the course of history, Marx increasingly turned away from the language of philosophy, and the pretensions and preoccupations of philosophers. It was primarily through the extension and deepening of his critique of political economy that Marx continued to develop his historical materialist conception of modern capitalist society, as well as its relationship to prior forms of class society. It must, however, be recognized that while his analysis of capitalist class society was entirely original, based upon the alienation of labour as the crucial determinant in historical social development, much of what he had to say about precapitalist history was taken directly from the work of liberal historians. Regrettably, their liberal conception of class differed fundamentally from his own, introducing problems in Marx’s accounts of precapitalist class societies.

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© The Author(s) 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  • George C. Comninel
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of PoliticsYork UniversityTorontoCanada

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