As noted in the essay on Marx’s background, the writings of the German idealist philosopher G.W. F. Hegel had a profound impact on Marx and other philosophers of his generation. Hegel elaborated a dialectical view of human consciousness as a process of evolution from simple to more complex categories of thought. According to Hegel, human thought has evolved from very basic attempts to grasp the nature of objects to higher forms of abstract thought and self-awareness. History evolves through a similar dialectical process, whereby the contradictions of a given age give rise to a new age based on a smoothing over of these contradictions.
Marx developed a view of history similar to Hegel’s, but the main difference between Marx and Hegel is that Hegel is an idealist and Marx is a materialist. In other words, Hegel believed that ideas are the primary mode in which human beings relate to the world and that history can be understood in terms of the ideas that define each successive historical age. Marx, on the other hand, believed that the fundamental truth about a particular society or period in history is how that society is organized to satisfy material needs. Whereas Hegel saw history as a succession of ideas and a working out of contradictions on a conceptual level, Marx saw history as a succession of economic systems or modes of production, each one organized to satisfy human material needs but giving rise to antagonisms between different classes of people, leading to the creation of new societies in an evolving pattern.