First and foremost, we have to be clear that when we use the terms “idealism” and “materialism”, we aren’t talking about metaphysics. In metaphysics, the term “materialist” refers to someone who believes that reality is composed primarily of matter, and mind (or consciousness) arises from the complex interactions, neurochemical events, and information processing, within the physical (i.e. material) brain. Idealists, on the other hand, think that reality is fundamentally comprised of immaterial mind; meaning the world of appearances is either directed by a mind that stands outside of it, or is actually taking place within a mind (usually that of God’s). When Marxist use the terms, however, they are talking about society and history and political analysis, not the fundamental structure of the cosmos. So it’s important to keep that distinction in mind.
“Idealism” in the Marxist context means to analyze a historical/political event (or series of events) in terms of what is ideal, or in terms of ideas about reality. “Materialism” in the Marxist context, however, means to analyze a historical/political event (or series of events) in terms of the actual conditions that were (or are) present during said event (or series of events). More specifically, it means to analyze events in terms of the historical, political, social, cultural, and most importantly, economic context in which they actually take place.
Idealism v. Materialism: Marxism and Cuba
In previous discussions on this topic, I have found that using Cuba as an example is a good way to illuminate the difference here. After all, it is often easier to understand an abstract concept when you embed it into a concrete example.
An idealist analysis of Cuba would involve comparing Castro and his government to the moral or philosophical ideals of what we think a government should be, outside of the actual material realities that Castro and his government had to operate in. So, idealists will critique Cuba on the grounds that his government wasn’t immediately democratic, or that he committed human rights violations (like every other country), or that Cuba’s difficult economic situation is a result of the ideas of socialism, etc. In other words, they will not analyze Castro and his government in terms of what he replaced, or what he was fighting against, or the obstacles he had to overcome, or the actual compromises he had to make given that he was faced with certain concrete dilemmas and limited options; rather they will compare Castro to ideals about what a government, in a vacuum, should be.
A materialist analysis of Cuba, on the other hand, would involve analyzing Castro and his government solely in terms of the actual conditions on the ground in which he had to operate in. You cannot understand Castro and the revolution, for example, without understanding what regime the revolutionaries overthrew, without understanding how Batista’s Cuba was run and how it operated, without understanding the US’s role in Cuba before, during, and after the revolution, or without understanding the economic situation in post-revolution Cuba (in which Batista and his regime ransacked the Cuban treasury before being ejected out of power, leaving Castro and his new government with literally nothing in terms of money). You cannot understand the authoritarian nature of Castro’s political system without understanding what he was up against, both internally and externally, what role U.S. sabotage attempts played on the nature of the system, and what Castro had to do, in real life, to protect the gains of the revolution from being loss, and to prevent Cuba from devolving back into a casino and whorehouse for the wealthy U.S. elite.
Additionally, you cannot understand Cuba’s economic situation by merely analyzing socialist ideas in a vacuum and assuming the ideas themselves caused the material outcomes in Cuba over the last half century or more. Instead, a materialist would argue, you have to understand the history of Cuba, how it’s productive powers and social relations evolved, under what conditions its modern economy sprang up, and how the U.S.’s embargo effected their economy, among other things.
To be clear, however, one can be an idealist and defend Cuba on idealist grounds. You could, for example, defend Castro and his revolution solely by referencing ideas about the immorality of capitalism, about the need for a socialist revolution in every country, or by pointing to abstract concepts like “equality” or “liberation”. But if those ideas are not connected to, and interpreted through, the material conditions in which Cuba’s revolution actually unfolded, then that analysis is going to be extremely limited, simplistic, and intellectually childish. And while two people may reach similar conclusions based on the use of totally different approaches (i.e. idealist and materialist), the idealist explanation will, by definition, be far more narrow-minded, ahistorical, and generally less tenable. Furthermore, one can have an overall analysis that employs both materialist analysis in some areas and idealist analysis in other areas; but the materialist analysis will always be deeper, more historically informed, and more nuanced.
To be a materialist does not necessarily mean agreeing with Marxists on everything, but consistent, coherent Marxists will usually apply materialist analysis; whereas liberals, generally, are idealists. They often analyze things in terms of ideas and not in terms of material realities. The reasons for this difference between Marxists and Liberals goes back to the roots of their respective philosophical traditions, but to attempt to address that here would go beyond the scope of this essay. So perhaps I will write more on that at a later time.
Why Historians are Disproportionately Materialists (in the Marxist sense)
In my opinion, professional historians, and scholars of history, often take a more materialist approach naturally, because to study history in a serious way is to inevitably understand how material realities throughout history gave rise to other material realities. A historian understands context in a deep way, and so will naturally include that in his/her analysis. This isn’t always true, of course, and there are idealist historians, to be sure, but compared to the general population historians are more likely to organically employ materialist analysis. Marxism, after all, is deeply history-based. To be a Marxist is to be fundamentally interested in history, and to interpret the present through the lens of historical materialism. This explains why many historians are Marxists, and why many Marxists care about, and study, history. And in fact, in my personal life, I have found that the more I studied history, the more I gravitated towards Marxism; the two are deeply connected, and to study one is to bump up against the other.
In Marxist terms, to be a materialist means to analyze events in terms of the historical, political, social, cultural, and most importantly, economic context in which they actually take place.
Historical Materialism is principally a theory of history according to which the material conditions of a society’s mode of production (its way of producing and reproducing the means of human existence) fundamentally determine its organization and development.
Materialism, then, is a certain approach to history, and Historical Materialism is the theory that blossoms out of the materialist approach to history. Marx was the first person to identify, articulate, and defend this position, and therefore those who employ this methodology today are called Marxists.
The goal of this short essay is to help people understand what is an otherwise vague, often under-defined distinction; the confusion around which often leads to the derailing of many otherwise worthwhile discussions. I hope, to some extent at least, I’ve succeeded in doing that.