History refers to past events and the study of them, as well as the process by which the present is molded by the past and continuously passes into it. Historical materialism is a view of history that posits its events as being primarily based in physical, material things, rather than ideologies and other subjective ideas (idealism), which historical materialism explains mostly as drawing from material bases rather than being spontaneously thought up by individuals. Thus, things like the wealth and values of a society are determined by other things like what minerals a society has access to, whether it has plenty of water routes, whether the soil is rich and what natural borders there are, etc.; and the ideologies of a given society are ultimately influenced by these conditions.
Since ancient times, people started to believe that history has a certain pattern of development. Many thinkers believed that it was circular; that societies arise, mature, then die, and new societies begin on the ashes of the old, this view informed in part by the way in which people themselves live and die. Some believed in a strict version of circular development, where there was no real development in history and that everything eventually returns to its starting point, repeatedly. In Hindu cosmology for one, there is the 4,320,000-year long chatur yuga cycle, composed of four ages which feature progressively more moral and physical decline (the current age is Kali Yuga, which lasts for 432,000 years and is believed to have begun in 3102 BC). Pythagoras (6th century BC) and his disciples for their part created a theory where the world restarted at the same point every 7,600,000 years. Plato and Aristotle (4th century BC) had similar ideas, believing the world goes through the same stages in a circuit. Ancient Chinese philosopher Dong Zhongshu (179–104 BC) thought likewise, reasoning that both the heavens and the Tao — the supreme principle and order of the universe — were unchangeable. This form of thought persisted all the way to 17th century Italian thinker Giambattista Vico, who suggested that at the end of every society was a crisis that led to decay, after which a new cycle began primitively.
Others believed history was retrogressing, degrading from a "Golden Age", as held ancient Greek poet Hesiod (c. 700 BC) and Roman philosopher Seneca (c. 4 BC–65 AD). This is believed by some even in the modern age, like English astronomer James Jeans (1877–1946) who wrote that all of life, society, and the universe in general are going to their doom. While indeed history does observe temporary retrogressions, such as in Nazi Germany and other reactionary regimes and movements which try to reverse the course of history, the success of such is short-lived and inherently bound for collapse due to their inherent contradictions, especially when interacting with the world.
The dominant historiographic narrative during the epoch of liberalism has been that of Whig history, which asserts that intellectual and technical development tend naturally to increase over time and serve to benefit all members of society. Though the narrative arguably has roots in the concept of the Renaissance idea found in authors like Dante and Petrarch, it could not fully emerge until after the Enlightenment of the 17th century had provided a secular concept of progress to replace Christian eschatology. Its flaws had major implications for subsequent bourgeois thought: bourgeois authors were forced to blame idealist sources like Christian thought for the then-widely believed intellectual slump of the "Dark Ages", and its narrative of absolute progress made it the natural launderer of the horrors of colonialism, imperialism and industrialization. The erosion of Whig history under these and other contradictions led ultimately to the rise of postmodern historiography in its place, which instead posits that objective truth does not exist and thus reality cannot be analyzed in such a manner.
An alternative to the simplistic Whig view, the dialectical view of history authored by Hegel (1770–1831) and later revised by Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, Lenin and others, arguably better incorporates the wealth of historical knowledge gained since the dawn of bourgeois historiography, as well as explaining new developments in the past century which had never before occurred. This view recognized the annihilation of past elements in history like previous philosophers had, but saw also that each stage held the basis for the next, thus manifesting the principle of dialectical negation — as opposed to many earlier thinkers who believed that past societies were virtually entirely destroyed and their developments thusly lost. Given the dialectical worldview, history is seen as in fact progressing in quite a particular way, unlike even the linear model — like a spiral, moving upwards with a slight wobble and with increasingly greater circles; more lively contradictions, approximating the path of previous circles below but rarely dipping into them before being sent back up by the upward force of historical materialism. Many today say that "history repeats itself", echoing a bit of sentiment from the first philosophers of history, but as Marx famously commented, "first as tragedy, second as farce" — indeed in history do ever-developing conditions prevent the same two things from occurring in the same manner; if a previous phase of history is reattempted, it will collapse farcically for having ignored its present lack of basis.
- Paul Cockshott, How the World Works: The Story of Human Labor from Prehistory to the Modern Day: Combines historical materialism with influence from the work Andrey Markov and others to explain how scientific advancements and society interacted, evolved, and imminently gave the basis for the next developments of history.