Marx and Engels argue that men distinguish themselves from animals as soon as they begin to produce their means of subsistence; what individuals are coincides with their production in both how and what they produce. The nature of individuals depends on the material conditions determining their production.
How far the productive forces of a nation are developed is shown by the degree to which the division of labour has been carried. Also, there is a direct link between division of labour and forms of ownership.
The ruling class, in ruling the material force of society, is simultaneously the ruling intellectual force of society. They regulate the production and distribution of ideas of their age. As the ruling class changes with time, so too do the ideals and the new ruling class must instill upon its society its own ideas which will become universal. This system will forever remain in place so long as society is organized around the need for a ruling class.
To illustrate this theoretical framework, Marx draws on his formulation of base and superstructure. Historical development is the reflection of changes in the economic and material relations of the base. When the base changes, a revolutionary class becomes the new ruling class that forms the superstructure. During revolution, the revolutionary class makes certain that its ideas appeal to humanity in general so that after a successful revolution these ideas appear natural and universal. These ideas, which the superstructural elements of society propagate, then become the governing ideology of the historical period. Furthermore, the governing ideology mystifies the economic relations of society and therefore places the proletariat in a state of false consciousness that serves to reproduce the working class.
Morality, religion, metaphysics, all the rest of ideology and their corresponding forms of consciousness no longer retain the semblance of independence; they have no history and no development; but men, developing their material production and their material intercourse, alter, along with their real existence, their thinking and the product of their collective thinking.
This approach allows us to cease understanding history as a collection of dead facts or an imagined activity of subjects.