Marx understands history as the progressive expansion in the material or economic forces in society, i.e., in the advances made by societies in organizing their material production (e.g., agriculture, manufacturing, services). Marx’s theory is often referred to as historical materialism because he focuses on the material (economic) conditions in society and how these determine social structures and social relations.
As elaborated by Marx’s intellectual collaborator, Friedrich Engels, The materialist conception of history starts from the proposition that the production of the means to support human life and, next to production, the exchange of things produced, is the basis of all social structure; that in every society that has happened in history, the manner in which wealth is distributed and society divided into classes or orders is dependent upon what is produced, how it is produced, and how the products are exchanged.
(Engels 1878/1978: 700–701) History, Marx emphasizes, does not simply evolve independent of individuals and of the objective social relations (e.g., unequal class relations) which condition their lives. Rather, Marx argues that historical change, i.e., change in the material conditions of society and in how economic-social relations are organized, emerges out of the contradictions perceived in the existing economic and social arrangements.
Thus, in Revolutionary France, the bourgeoisie overthrew the despotism of feudal monarchs and the aristocracy to create progressive economic and social institutions grounded in democratic principles (see Introduction). As part of a similar historical logic, Marx predicted that the expansion of capitalism with its endless pursuit of profit would lead to its downfall. Capitalism produces economic crises that threaten its very foundations; these crises include recessions; the collapse of stock markets; severe financial losses for banks, companies, and households; high levels of unemployment; worker unrest; and the depletion of natural resources.
Marx argued that under the cumulative impact of these ongoing crises and the polarized class antagonisms he predicted they would create (between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat), the working class would develop a class consciousness, i.e., individual wage-workers would come to recognize that their exploitation is part of the mass exploitation of all wage-workers, and that