Practice Question –  Analyse Marxian conception of historical materialism as a critique of Hegelian dialectics. [UPSC 2016]

Approach – Introduction, Define Hegelian and Marxian concept of historical materialism, How are they different form each other?, What was Marx’s specific criticisms regarding Hegelian historical materialism?, Conclusion.



  1. Karl Marx (1818- 1883) was alive in the middle of the 19th century, and it’s important to realise that his theories stem from an analysis of European societies 150 years ago.
  2. The ruling class paid the working class less wages than they deserved, made them work long hours in poor conditions, and kept the profit from the sale of the goods produced. Thus, the ruling class got richer and the working class became increasingly poor, and had no way of improving their prospects, unless Marx argued, they all came together to overthrow the ruling class in a revolution.
  3. Marx’s general ideas about society are known as his theory of historical materialism. Materialism is the basis of his sociological thought because, for Marx, material conditions or economic factors affect the structure and development of society. His theory is that material conditions essentially comprise technological means of production and human society is formed by the forces and relations of production. For Marx economic structure of society is made of its relations of production. The legal and political superstructure of society is based on relations of production. Marx says that relations of production reflect the stage of society’s force of means of production.
  4. A mode of production is the relationship between the relations of production and the forces of production. Modes of production can be distinguished from one another by the different relationships between the forces and relations of production. For example, in the feudal mode of production, the lord does not possess direct control over the peasant’s forces of production, tools and land, but does have control over the disposition of the peasant’s produce. Marx has left behind the theoretical conceptualisations relating to four modes of production; Asiatic, ancient, feudal and capitalist. 
  5. Marx claims that the `species-being’ of Man consists in labour, and that Man is alienated to the extent that labour is performed according to a division of labour that is dictated by the market.
  6. In Marx’s view, it is inevitable that capitalism should give way to socialism. As capitalism develops, he believes, the increasingly `socialized’ character of the productive process will be ever more in conflict with the private ownership of the means of production. Thus the transition to collective ownership will be natural and inevitable.
  7.  Religion preserves the social order of which it is a by-product, both by deflecting attention from its defects and by providing a partial escape from it. In Marx’s famous words, `Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.’




  1.  Durkheim adopted an evolutionary approach in that he considered society to have developed from a traditional to modern society through the development and expansion of the division of labour.  He compared society to an organism, with different parts that functioned to ensure the smooth and orderly operation and evolution of society. 
  2. He argued that sociologists should study particular features of collective or group life and sociology is the study of social facts, things which are external to, and coercive of, individuals.  These social facts are features of the group, and cannot be studied apart from the collective, nor can they be derived from the study of individuals.  Some examples are religion, urban structures, legal systems, and moral values such as family values.
  3. In The Division of Labor in Society Durkheim attempts to determine what is the basis of social solidarity in society and how this has changed over time. Durkheim’s argument is that there are two types of social solidarity – how society holds together and what ties the individual to the society.  These two forms mechanical solidarity, which characterizes earlier or traditional societies, where the division of labour is relatively limited.  The form of social solidarity in modern societies, with a highly developed division of labour, is called organic solidarity.  Durkheim argues that the division of labour itself which creates organic solidarity, because of mutual needs of individuals in modern soceity.   In both types of societies, individuals for the most part “interact in accordance with their obligations to others and to society as a whole. 
  4. Durkheim’s guiding claim is that society is a reality sui generis that shapes and conditions the individual actor. Durkheim argues that explanations concerning types  or manners of individual action locate the causal origin of action in society, and yet these types or manners are concomitantly carried and realized by individual actors.
  5. Durkheim called the communal beliefs, morals, and attitudes of a society the collective conscience. Durkheim also believed that social integration, or the strength of ties that people have to their social groups, was a key factor in social life.
  6. Durkheim used the totemic religion of Australian aborigines to develop his theory of religion. Aboriginal society was divided into a number of clans, and members of the clan had certain obligations that had to be fulfilled – such as mourning the death of other clan members or helping seek vengeance if another member was wronged by someone external to the clan. Each clan was also exogenous – people had to marry someone outside of the clan.



  1. Talcott Parsons was heavily influenced by Durkheim and Max Weber, synthesising much of their work into his action theory, which he based on the system-theoretical concept and the  methodological principle of voluntary action. He held that “the social system is made up of the actions of individuals.”
  2. Parsons later developed the idea of roles into collectivities of roles that complement each other in fulfilling functions for society. Some roles are bound up in institutions and social structures (economic, educational, legal and even gender-based).
  3. he treats “the structure of the system as problematic and subject to change,” and that his concept of the tendency towards equilibrium “does not imply the empirical dominance of stability over change.” He does, however, believe that these changes occur in a relatively smooth way. Individuals in interaction with changing situations adapt through a process of “role bargaining.”
  4. Social actions are guided by the following three systems which may also be called as three aspects of the systems of social action Personality system: This aspect of the system of social action is responsible for the needs for fulfilment of which the man makes effort and performs certain actions. Cultural system: Once the process of the social action develops the symbols and the signs acquire general meaning. Social System: A social system consists in a polarity of individual actor’s interacting with each
    other in a situation which has at least a physical or environmental aspect actors are motivated in terms of tendency to the optimization of gratification and whose relations to the situation including each other is defined and motivated in terms of system of culturally structured and shaped symbols.
  5. Parsons constructed a set of variables that can be used to analyze the various systems. These are the “categorization of modes of orientation in personality systems, the value patterns of culture, and the normative requirements in social systems”. These became a way of describing and classifying different societies, and the values and norms of that society. All of the norms, values, roles, institutions, subsystems and even the society as a whole can be classified and examined on the basis of these patterned variables.
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