This study will discuss the position of Karl Marx with respect to the role of ideas in history. The study will make the fundamental argument that Marx believed ideas to be powerless as a force in history unless they are connected with materialism. In other words, ideas are not imposed on history, but emerge from the forces of historical materialism which control human affairs and human thought:
The production of ideas, of conceptions, of consciousness, is at first directly interwoven with the material activity and the material intercourse of men, the language of real life. . . . Men are the producers of their . . . ideas . . . as they are conditioned by a definite development of their productive forces. . . . [Ideas] have no history, no development; but men, developing their material production and their material intercourse, alter, along with this their real existence, their thinking and the products of their thinking.
This view is to be expected from a thinker who sees materialism as the basis for all relations among human beings. All relations---in thought or in the physical world---flow from material conditions. This is true even for the most fundamental development of ideas in the beginning of human existence. Ideas, at first, are "merely consciousness concerning the immediate sensuous environment and consciousness of the limited connection with other person and things." Even in that beginning of history, ideas were not independent of social relations: "Consciousness is therefore from the very beginning a social product, and remains so as long as men exist at all."
Therefore, for Marx, ideas are the product of man's relations with other men (and with things) in society and in material development in that society. As society develops, as material production becomes more sophisticated and complex, as man himself in his own consciousness, self-consciousness, and in his relations with others becomes more developed and ...