Marx’s Historical Materialism in his Dissertation

Abstract:  This inquiry seeks to establish that the foundations of Karl Marx’s historical materialism are found in his doctoral dissertation.  The analysis of his dissertation is carried out in three parts: Marx’s views on Democritean atomism, Marx’s views on Epicurean atomism, and the connection between these views and the historical materialism found in his German Ideology.  It is evident that Marx greatly favours the non-deterministic and materialist conception of Epicurus over the “atom as only theoretical construct” conception of Democritus.  In his championing of Epicurean atomism, we find a defence of the necessary theoretical preconditions of his later historical materialism. (99 words)


JEL Classifications:  B14, B31, Y40


Keywords:  Atomism, Democritus, Dissertation, Epicurus,

Karl Marx, Materialism, Philosophy,


This inquiry seeks to establish that the foundations of Karl Marx’s historical materialism are found in his doctoral dissertation.  This paper shall investigate Marx’s conception of Democritean atomism, Epicurean atomism, and then it shall seek to establish the connection between this early philosophical work with the later German Ideology [1846].    Marx’s dissertation, “The Difference between the Democritean and Epicurean Philosophy of Nature in General” [1841], is a study that examines not only the similarities and differences between the atomism of Leucippus and Democritus with that of Epicurus, but also goes further in displaying the similarity of the Epicurean conception of the atom with Newtonian physics and the other corpuscular atomic conceptions of the early modern period.   This short paper is thus not only something of an analysis of the same concepts that Marx is investigating, but it is more importantly a meta-analysis of the way in which Marx analyzes.   Broadly described, the Democritean conception[1] of the atom differs from Epicurus’ conception of the atom by being something of an ideal entity while Epicurus’ conception is much more akin to a physical building block.  This, Marx points out, offers a rather strange juxtaposition due to Democritus’ general “show me” empiricism and Epicurus’ idealism.   Couched in the dissertation we find presented the story of an age old battle between purported idealists and purported empiricists.[2]  Marx (2006, 96) frames the debate as two philosophies teaching the exact same science that are somehow diametrically opposed.  He strongly favors the non-idealist, non-deterministic physical conception of Epicurus and it is in this that we see the essential seed of his later, more developed polemic against the Hegelian Idealists found in the German Ideology.  Indeed through an analysis of Marx’s analysis we find the young Marx focusing on several major philosophical themes: abstract individuality vs. spiritual authority, materialism vs. religion, and chance vs. a rigid determinism.  In all of these dichotomies Marx sides with the former.  Seeing the full context of Marx’s early materialism, we are given insight into the nature of the latter, seemingly deterministic historical materialism found in the German ideology.  Thus we will find that Karl Marx’s doctoral dissertation contains the foundations for and understanding of his historical materialism, upon which he relies in his later writings.


Marx on Democritean Atomism

The first thing that Marx does when investigating Democritean and Epicurean physics is to attempt to reorient a couple millennia of scholarship concerning the true opinions of Democritus and Epicurus.  For the most part, the work of Democritus was celebrated while Epicurus was generally thought of as a second rate philosopher.  Marx (2006, 95) quotes Cicero as saying, “In physics. . . Epicurus is a perfect stranger.  Most of it belongs to Democritus; where he deviates from him, where he endeavors to improve, he spoils and worsens it.”   Marx (2006, 97) underscores that in examining Democritus and Epicurus we can only rely on second hand historical testimony, placing the undertaking squarely into the category of historical detective work.  The ultimate subject of this detective work is the bedrock of ancient atomist physics: the conception of the atom.  Being an indivisible building block, the exact manner in which the atom is conceived has enormous ramifications for theories of physics, metaphysics, ethics, economics, and history.   It is the goal of Marx to demonstrate that not only was Epicurus not a bungling second rate philosopher riding the coattails of Democritus, but that Epicurus had in fact ameliorated large, theretofore unseen errors in Democritus’ conception of the atom.

There are two main principles found in the atomic account of Democritus: atoms and the void.  Democritus’ conception of the atom is that it is first and most obviously indivisible (a-tom).  Atoms have one form of movement and that is “down”, moving along straight lines that do not intersect with the straight lines of other atoms.  There are no interactions between atoms and thus there is nothing of chance in their movements.  In addition to their indivisible nature, Democritus conceptualizes atoms as having size and shape.  As to size and shape, according to some ancient authors, Democritus is quoted as reckoning that atoms necessarily must come in an infinite number of shapes, some of them as large as worlds.  Of these atoms we can only have rational knowledge.  The atoms that constitute the things of the world give the appearance of unities, with our knowledge of these bodies being a purely subjective phenomenon.  For Marx (2006, 98), the upshot of all of this is that since the principles (atoms) can only be perceived through reason, then the atom is essentially an idea.

This metaphysical conception is often tied to a highly skeptical epistemology.  Marx (2006, 98) has interpreted (successfully) Democritus in such a way that the only true object of our senses is a sensuous perception, which in terms of truth value plays second fiddle to the atoms that can only be perceived through the intellect.  Marx (2006, 120) rightly states Democritus’ view that only hypotheses are valid as a means of explaining the apparent differences found in the objects of the world.  This is necessarily so, if we are not privy to any kind of direct experience of the fundamental building blocks.   However, Marx spends a great deal of time pointing out the inconsistencies present in the works of Democritus.  In some passages Democritus calls the phenomena the true thing, in other passages the atoms are the true thing.  Marx (2006, 97) further mentions apparent Democritean inconsistencies in Aristotle, having in one instance soul and mind as one and the same concept, and having an opposing instance in Aristotle’s Metaphysics in which, “Democritus asserts that nothing is true or is concealed from us.”  Marx (2006, 97) also alludes to passages in Sextus Empiricus and Diogenes Laertius in which Democritus is identified as a hard skeptic. Marx (2006, 98) finds Democritus to be in contradiction with himself: the subjective and the objective frequently trading places with each other.

Marx could have interpreted Democritus to be a hard skeptic, perhaps in the tradition of David Hume (of whom Marx was an admirer), and from that could have viewed Democritus as an enlightened scientist for restricting atoms to the realm of hypotheses on sturdy epistemological grounds.  However, in the dissertation this point is used against Democritus, and is further used to interpret Democritus as being inconsistent.  Democritus becomes a foil not out of philosophical necessity, but from a seemingly arbitrary decision.  This could be interpreted in many ways.  The two interpretations that seem most likely and are not mutually exclusive are that:  Marx, like any trained Hegelian needed a foil to work out his dissertation; and that Marx additionally needed a foil to use in a personal fight against an empty, contradictory, religionist, idealism. What better foil than an ancient author whose only surviving works are ten fragments and whose quotations as related by other authors do not present a uniform corpus?  Such a man could be made to say anything.  Thus it seems highly possible that Marx is using Democritus as a straw man, with which he can effectively argue against the non-materialist conception of the world.  Perhaps Marx enjoyed fighting an uphill battle against established knowledge?  What is obvious is that Marx’s analysis of Democritus tends to focus on the inconsistencies present within Democritus and the fallacious praise heaped upon Democritus by the various paragons of the philosophical establishment.


Epicurean Atomism

Epicurus’ conception of the atom is both greatly similar and greatly dissimilar from Democritus’ atomism.  The similarity consists in the fact that both thinkers begin with the same two basic elements, the void and the atom.  Neither thinker is considering that atoms exist in a plenum.  Marx (2006, 96-97) underscores the somewhat paradoxical relationship of the two thinkers by stating that the two, “teach exactly the same science, in exactly the same way, but . . . they stand diametrically opposed in all that concerns truth, certainty, application of this science. . . and reality in general.”    Marx (2006, 107) presents Democritus as “the skeptic and empiricist” who considers nature from a standpoint of necessity and attempts to get at the reality of it, while he describes Epicurus as the “philosopher and dogmatist” who considers appearance to be real, explains nature through chance, with a method that tends to negate all objectivity to nature.  These somewhat absurd contradictions don’t go far in building Marx’s case, but must be noted simply for the sheer delight which Marx seems to derive from them!

The noted difference is that Epicurus’ introduced the notion of the swerve to the atom.  Marx (2006, 113) reaffirms the notion of the ancient authors; that the introduction of the swerve to the atom breaks the fati foedera (the bands of fate).  In addition to presenting the swerve, Epicurus also adds weight to the already ascribed categories of size, shape, and movement.[3]  The addition of weight to the atom is significant for Marx because it gives the atom a substance with which it can affect changes in other atoms.  Marx (2006, 124) states that the notion of weight contradicts the atom as an ideal point that lies outside matter.[4]  Epicurus elaborates upon this by granting atoms weight only in relation to each other and granting no weight to atoms in relation to the void.  Thus, atoms of different size, shape, and weight move at the same speed when in empty space.  Marx (2006, 125) doesn’t fail to point the praise Epicurus received from later scholars for presaging later discoveries in physics.  For Marx (2006, 125) this “objectification” of seeming contradictory qualities of the atom (giving weight to something that ought not to have weight) is the true beginning of the “science of atomistics”.  It is here that Epicurus advances where Democritus did not go.  Furthermore, the addition of swerve and weight give the atom individuality by means of removing the atom from the dictates of the straight line.  In ancient Greek geometry, the line was considered to be the element that gave volume (and visible existence) to the point, and the plane was that which gave volume to the line.  However, if an atom (being an indivisible point) is confined to a straight line, its possibility for any volume is lost.  This is so because in Greek geometry, straight lines are better thought of as purely idealized symbols.[5]  The granting of swerve to the atom frees it from the existence of running along idealized straight lines.

Marx (2006, 130) states that by embracing the contradiction between the existence and idealized essence of the atom (the atom as the antipode of the ideal void), Epicurus elevates his philosophy to the highest point.  By giving the atom the ability to act and be acted upon, he allows the world to made and remade over and over again.  By retaining its idealized status as the indivisible ground of being he anticipates the theory of the conservation of energy, in which energy, and thus all of nature cannot be created or destroyed.


The Early Marx and his German Ideology

The most simple and superficial means of seeing the early Marx within The German Ideology is simply by noting the continuity of Marx’s notion of the material as the basis of all nature.  This we see immediately (1984, 41) with the criticism that German philosophers ought to inquire into the connection of their philosophy with German material reality, and that (1984, 48) in considering human life, we must first consider eating, drinking, habitation, clothing, and the production of all of these things.

The deeper issue that must be examined is whether or not we need to square Marx’s early favoring of the freedom, chance, and non-determinism of Epicurus’ atomism with the historical determinism of the historical material dialectic.  To do this we need to understand what kind of determinism Marx is objecting to in his dissertation and what kind of determinism he is accepting in The German Ideology.  It is found that the two are very different kinds of determinism.  The former determinism is akin to a determinism of divine fiat.  In that determinism there is absolutely no room for individual agency.  The latter form of determinism is a weaker determinism.  It requires people to grab for economic power and other people to feel disenfranchised.  Marx (1984, 47) states that “life is not determined by consciousness, but consciousness by life.”  By “developing their material production” human beings alter their own conscious state.  This determinism is one that descends not from “heaven to earth”, but from earth to heaven.  Marx (1984, 49) states that the underlying determining factor of life and thus of history is the need to fulfill the material needs.  Once the first needs are acquired, future needs are created.  It is the constant stream of human production, that like a chain, moves human life and human history from one stage to the next.  Humans, who “daily remake their own life”, shape the lives of the other humans around them, first into families, then into tribes, and eventually into great industrial nation states.  Thus, through the very fulfilling of its own material needs, the human being becomes the causal agent that affects not only the course of its own life, but that of the whole race.  The agency of human beings is then circumscribed by the material and societal conditions in which they exist.

This squares well with the atomism of Epicurus because Epicurus’ swerving atom has within it at least the potential for some sort of agency.  Because Epicurus’ atom is free from the dictates of heavenly fiat, it is allowed to interact with the other atoms.  These actions being determined by a type of chance, atoms and the larger bodies they make up can be manipulated by and can be used to manipulate complex beings such as humans.[6]  If one fully adhered to the Democritean account of atomism (as presented by Marx) the bedrock of the theory of historical materialism could not be the human need to fulfill physical and material needs, at least not in the same way that Marx seems to mean.  Marx’s account of history is one shaped by human needs and human desires that are forever tied to the physical circumstances of an existence made possible by an Epicurean account of physics.



This inquiry has sought to establish that the foundations of Karl Marx’s historical materialism are found in his doctoral dissertation on the Greek atomists.  The result of Marx’s investigation into the atomism of Democritus and Epicurus is the assertion that the Epicurean atomism lays the foundation for the study of the “science of atomistics” and thus ultimately the material account of existence.  On Marx’s view (2006, 144) the Democritean view of the atom is variously painted as limited to hypothetical investigations, overly deterministic, and in that latter vein somewhat mystical and superstitious.  For Marx (2006, 145), Epicurus is the “greatest representative of the Greek Enlightenment” as his philosophy of the atom closes the door to the kind of mysticism and superstition that he believes Democritus’ treatment of the atom as purely hypothetical being implies.  The atomism of Epicurus allows one to approach the atom as both an object open to direct empirical investigation and as an idealized theoretical element that can serve as a kind of ground of being: a placeholder entity upon which to construct other scientific conceptions.[7]  This notion, crafted by the man who “rarely ever left his Athenian garden” opens the whole world to investigation while paradoxically the theory crafted by the man who travelled to “India, Asia, and Aethiopia” builds a world that can only truly be touched by the rational faculties.  In Marx’s defense of Epicurus we find the work of a young man interested in living a world that can be grasped and transformed by the mind and the hands alike.  The seed of the materialist and the anti-religionist that we find in the dissertation would grow to be become the man who stood Hegel on his head in the later German Ideology.  The mature Marx is clearly visible in the scholarly and recondite work that is his doctoral dissertation.

(2,956 words)























Marx, Karl & Engels, Freidrich. The German Ideology. New York:  International Publishers,


Marx, Karl & Schafer, Paul M. The First Writings of Karl Marx. New York:  Ig Press, 2006

[1] Bearing in mind that all we have of Democritus comes to us from a few fragments and the critiques of other authors such as Aristotle.

[2] It could well be that Marx has turned Democritean atomism into something of a straw man for the purpose of grinding an axe against the idealism of his day.  This further underlines the connection of this early work with his later work.

[3] The historical jury is still out on whether Democritus also ascribed weight to the atom.  There are a few fragments that suppose he did so.

[4] In Greek philosophy this at the heart of the problem for the reason that something that is more substantial than an idealized point is liable to be split.  This is one of the reasons why Democritus and others might have made the decision to relegate the atom to idealized point outside of matter.  Anyone who has kept up with the last hundred years of physics is well aware that the issue of what lies at the bottom of matter (or is it energy) continues to deepen.

[5] Again, much of the importance of the ideas is more fully appreciated when taken in the context of ancient Greek thought.

[6][6] For the purposes of brevity this paper will not address the notion of a strong physically based determinism.

[7] Whether this is itself good science is another thing completely!  The issue here is whether or not it is advisable to observe nature through the goggles of preconceived notions, atoms included.  Bacon would say no, but most current authors deem presupposition free observation as impossible.  Most observation is somewhat “theory laden”.



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