Historical materialism is an integral part of Marxist philosophy, and the only scientific approach to interpreting and understanding history and the progress of human society over time. Its purpose is to study the structure of human society and the laws governing its development. With the creation of historical materialism social development came to be regarded by human thought as a natural historical process which, despite its complexity and diversity, was subjected to general laws. Thanks to the cognition of these laws it became possible scientifically to determine how and in what direction society develops. This is of inestimable importance for taking correct bearings in the development of modern society.
Before Marx and Engels made their contribution to social science it had been dominated by idealism. Not only idealists, but materialists as well regarded social development solely as a result of the change of social ideas. While taking a materialist view of nature, materialists were unable to extend it to social life.
What were the difficulties encountered by philosophers and historians in explaining social developments? There i was above all the fact that, in contrast to nature, social life is a result of human activity, with men acting as conscious beings endowed with mind and volition, and pursuing definite aims. It was evident that things and phenomena in nature did not depend on the human mind, but that did not apply so patently to social life. Here the main thing was that social life was created by men themselves, and that created the illusion that social relationships were built by men in accordance with their consciousness and were entirely determined by their conscious aims and aspirations. .
In his article “Karl Marx”, Lenin noted two basic flaws in all earlier historical theories which had prevented men from seeing social development as a law-governed process: First, they examined, at best, only the ideological motives in the historical activity of men, without trying to trace the objective uniformities in the development of social relationships, without discovering the roots of these relationships in the degree of development of material production.
Second, they did not analyse the activity of the masses, but saw history mainly as the result of the activity of outstanding personalities.
Such an approach to history took into account only the most immediate, so to say, superficial motives in the activity of men, instead of the deeper reasons which underlie this activity. Idealist historians believed that to explain historical events it was enough to find out the aims and ideas that guided the men taking part in them. But, once that was established, there arose the question: why did these men set themselves those aims and not others? What gave rise to these aims? Idealists had no answer.