Analytical Marxism: Historical Materialism and Cohen’s Grounding Thesis

Philosophy Is No Secret
9 min readMar 5, 2020
Très Riches Heures, 15th-century

What distinguishes Marxism from other theories of history is its emphasis on materialism. There are two distinct senses for the word materialism. Firstly, materialism is an ontological position on what exists. From the materialist perspective, only physical entities exist — there are no Gods, souls. Materialism as an ontological position is not new or unique to Marxism. Materialist traditions in metaphysics have survived since Ancient Greece. There is, however, according to the political philosopher Charles W. Mills, another meaning of materialism in what he calls “the socio-political sense” that is more important for questions of social ontology and justice (Mills 2010). According to Mills, Marxist historical materialism is “a claim or set of claims about patterns of socio-political causality” (Mills 2010). Marxists interpret history as an ongoing, unfolding process. Reforms and revolutions do not have their fate decided according to any divine plan. What makes Marxism “scientific” is its unique emphasis on material explanations for historical phenomena.

Mills defines historical materialism in the socio-political sense as divided into three elements:

1. “The socio-political system can be differentiated into different elements.”

2. “Some of these elements should be thought of as material, some as ideal.”

3. “Overall patterns of socio-political causality are determined by the material elements.”

(Mills 2010)

Historical materialism as a method insists upon a distinction between material and ideal elements. Economics bears the causal explanations for social phenomena. The fundamentally real level of society is its mode of production. A mode of production is made up of the social relations directing forces of production and allocating output. The social dynamics of society find their cause in how production is organized in relations between people. In the preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, Marx writes,

“The sum total of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, on which rises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of consciousness. The mode of production of