Historical Materialism and the Specificity of Capitalism

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


This chapter emphasizes the extent to which Marx’s conception of capitalist society captures its inherent and integral totality. It is in this regard that Capital (and before it the Grundrisse) reflects an approach that recalls Hegel’s method. What is crucial, however, is that the abstract, totalizing logic that exists in capitalism is not general to historical forms of class society, but is unique and specific to the capitalism social relations of production. The capitalist mode of production differs in this way, qualitatively, from all previous forms of society, both those based on class exploitation, and those in which class relations do not exist. While Marx’s references to historical societies often are grounded in fundamentally liberal conceptions, there are places in his critique of political economy where he originally draws attention to qualitative differences between capitalist and precapitalist forms of social relations. As he noted in the “Introduction” to the Grundrisse, “Human anatomy contains a key to the anatomy of the ape.” In recognizing the unique character of capitalist social relations, in their totality, they can be instructively compared with comparable but significantly different social relations in precapitalist societies, improving our understanding of the history of class societies as a whole.

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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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