Marxist Geography and Historical Materialism: Part I

By Emily Duchenne - Geography Student @ Brasenose College, Oxford

Karl Marx was a 19th century German revolutionist whose critical theories on society and class still hold enormous influence in the fields of economics, politics and philosophy. Whilst widely known for his writings on Communism, Marx’s ideas on historical materialism, whereby material conditions drive societal progression, became key to his critiques on Capitalism and revolutionary objectives.


Marxist geography is a lens through which one can comment not only on the social orderings of society, but also understand how these orderings have come about and achieve social change. Marx, along with German philosopher and revolutionist Friedrich Engels, critiqued dialectical and liberalist approaches to history whereby interactions between people, ideas and ideals were considered the crux to progression in human history. Instead, they theorised history as grounded in and progressing through material conditions upon which these ideals were built. In short, economic matters takes precedence over political and social concerns when analysing the structure of society.


Reasoning that human beings must (re)produce the ‘material requirements of life’ to survive, Marx identified the foundations of any society in its means of production and thus economic structure. He termed this the ‘base’, which comprised of the forces and relations of production such as work conditions, labour division, technology and capital. Anything directly related to the means of production which allowed people to produce the necessities of life shaped society’s wider relationships and ideas. He argued culture, laws, religions, power structures, institutions and so forth- the ‘superstructure’- formed as secondary to the base. Thus, the influence of the base was predominant in the historical development of society. This historical development has seen fives modes of production in human society: primitive-communal, slaveholding, feudal, capitalist, and the communist mode of production. Marx considered communism to be a solution to societal inequalities stemming from the organisation of labour around means of production.


Looking at capitalist European society in the 19th century, Marx recognised the exploitation of the working classes (or ‘proletariat’) by the ‘bourgeois’ ruling classes who owned the means of production, such as factories, mills and mines. He argued that the bourgeoisie were underpaying their workers to extract surplus, or profit, to invest back into production. This flow of capital was based on the premise that profit could be made to the benefit of the bourgeoise, at the expense of the proletaria, leading to periodic boom and bust cycles stemming from overproduction to an underearning population. Consequently, Marx saw economic class to be the root of society's problems, and proletarian revolution to a communist utopia as the solution. However, Marxist thinker Antonio Gramsci attributed this bourgeois domination to the theory of cultural hegemony- the socially constructed justification of a ruling class as natural and inevitable, which served to maintain unequal power structures. As a result, the communist societal progression through class conflict that Marx envisaged was compounded through the existing power of the hegemon to which the population consented.


Whilst Marx and Engel’s historical materialism continues to contribute to political, economic, anti-racist and cultural geography, this theory has drawn several critiques due to its alleged Eurocentric and universalistic nature. I will explore these arguments further in relation to critical race and poststructural feminist geographies in Part II.


Further reading:


1. Hall, S. (2016). Domination and Hegemony in Lawrence Grossberg and Jennifer Daryl Slack (eds.) Cultural Studies 1983: A Theoretical History. Durham, Duke University Press. 2. Peet, R. (1998) Radical geography, Marxism and Marxist geography. Chapter 3 of Modern Geographical Thought. Blackwell. 3. Lears, T.J., 1985. The concept of cultural hegemony: Problems and possibilities. The American Historical Review, pp.567-593. 4. Levine, A. and Sober, E., 1985. What's historical about historical materialism?. The Journal of Philosophy, 82(6), pp.304-326.