Skip to main content

Full Marx What are the ‘base’ and ‘superstructure’ of society?

Knowledge, ideas, culture, values and ethics cannot exist independently of the physical world; the MARX MEMORIAL LIBRARY explain Marx’s most simple but important assertion

BASE and superstructure refer to the reciprocal relationship and interaction between the ever-changing ways that humans collectively get their living (“the forces and relations of production”) and the way they think and behave (ideology, culture, social institutions and the state).

Speaking at Marx’s grave in Highgate Cemetery just three days after his death in March 1883, Engels asserted what is probably Marx’s most profound yet at the same time simple theoretical contribution to human knowledge:

“Just as Darwin discovered the law of development of organic nature, so Marx discovered the law of development of human history: the simple fact, hitherto concealed by an overgrowth of ideology, that humans must first of all eat, drink, have shelter and clothing, before they can pursue politics, science, art, religion, etc; that therefore the production of the immediate material means, and consequently the degree of economic development attained by a given people or during a given epoch, form the foundation upon which the state institutions, the legal conceptions, art, and even the ideas on religion of the people concerned have been evolved, and in the light of which they must, therefore, be explained, instead of vice versa, as had hitherto been the case.”

Marx himself had put this as well as anyone a quarter-century earlier:

“In the social production of their existence, humans inevitably enter into definite relations, which are independent of their will, namely relations of production appropriate to any stage in the development of their material forces of production. The totality of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which arises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness.”

He continued: “The mode of production of material life conditions the general process of social, political and intellectual life. It is not the consciousness of humans that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness.”

Obvious though this may seem today, then it was revolutionary: knowledge, ideas, culture, values and ethics — including the object of religious belief — cannot exist independently of the physical world.

They can only be understood in their “material” context – how food, manufactured goods and services are produced by the “productive forces” — human labour and technology (the “means of production”) within different social systems (the “relations of production” between those who work and those who own and control the land, tools, machinery, shops) which, together with human skills and knowledge, characterise the changing “modes” of production (from “primitive” communism to “advanced” capitalism).

Importantly, both Marx and Engels used “base” and “superstructure” as a metaphor, not as analytical classifications in themselves. Base and superstructure are not fixed categories; they overlap. Moreover the relationship of the social and ideological “superstructure” to the economic “base” is not one-way and not deterministic.

Marx and Engels themselves cautioned against economic determinism, with Engels castigating those who “lay more stress on the economic side than is due to it,” declaring that “the most amazing rubbish has been produced in this quarter.”

The relationship is a dialectical one: its elements are all interrelated, affect each other, and change over time. Social institutions, norms, ideas, beliefs have a reciprocal relationship with the material world and like that world, they are constantly changing.

Engels, for example, examined the way that the development of the family, private property and the state were intimately related to the changing class dynamics of society. Though his original ideas (and the anthropological research on which they were based) have been challenged, the basic principles underlie much sociological theory today.

Distinctions between “base” and “superstructure” are in many ways arbitrary — today social media relies on the physical infrastructure of the internet, but is an increasingly central feature of many people’s social interaction (as well as a source of profit for those who control it).

Science is often conceived as “pure” knowledge or “facts,” independent of the way these are produced, controlled or used. Marxists challenge this, pointing out that throughout history, the changing content of scientific knowledge — what are understood at any point in time as facts —is closely related to the social conditions of their production, though in a dialectical rather than a deterministic way.

Newton’s Laws of Motion and his “discovery” of gravity were not a gift of divine providence, not (just) the product of individual genius (or the consequence of being hit by a falling apple). They were a response to specific technical problems of early capitalism, in particular the need for improved maritime navigation, the development of new machinery and ballistic weaponry in warfare.

Marx, writing to Engels about Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection, commented: “It is remarkable how among beasts and plants Darwin recognises his English society with its division of labour, competition, opening up of new markets, ‘inventions’ and Malthusian ‘struggle for existence’.” That doesn't mean that Darwin was wrong; rather it identifies the way that scientific knowledge itself is related to society and in turn influences society.

The notions of “base” and “superstructure” in themselves explain nothing. But they provide the basis for examining and understanding the way both change over time. They have also been the focus for the development of Marxist theory and practice, particularly in relation to culture and the arts, to gender roles, institutional structures and the state.

For example, the Italian communist leader Antonio Gramsci argued that the “superstructure comprised importantly both “political society” (including the state, its police and the military and other institutional structures) and “civil society.”

Civil society includes social norms, gender roles, culture and the arts, all of which help in complex ways to maintain capitalism’s cultural hegemony (the subject of another answer in this series). The dominant ideas and values of any society are those of the ruling class.

At the same time these norms, assumptions and behaviours are constantly challenged — and they can change.

For example, the Black Lives Matter movement has itself secured a significant shift in popular understanding of the evils of an oppressive and exploitative system as well as in the physical and ideological landscape of our cities which are sullied by statues and icons of the individuals who created and sustained that system.

Extinction Rebellion has drawn attention to the way that capitalism exploits the environment, as well as people, and that climate change threatens to destroy both.

To make progress, to go beyond constantly fighting a rearguard action against the attacks of capital, the left has to go further than promoting progressive economic and social policies within the “base” to be enacted by a Labour government in office.

We need to engage with and champion progressive social movements and form alliances outside Parliament through action on equality, on the environment, on education, health and social welfare. The left needs to go beyond advocating reforms to an exploitative system and confronting the poison of the far right.

Central to the struggle for socialism is the battle of ideas, a need to challenge the “common sense” which treats the status quo as somehow normal, inevitable, “the way things are.”

In other words, we need continually to develop and renew progressive cultures of collective understanding and resistance in the “superstructure” — a counterculture to challenge the economic and political foundations of capitalism.

A list of “Full Marx” questions and answers published to date (this is number 74) can be found on https://tinyurl.com/FullMarxQA.

The Marx Memorial Library and Workers School promotes a wide range of on-line lectures and classes, details on www.marx-memorial-library.org.uk.

 

OWNED BY OUR READERS

We're a reader-owned co-operative, which means you can become part of the paper too by buying shares in the People’s Press Printing Society.

Become a supporter

Fighting fund

You've Raised:£ 250
We need:£ 17,750
26 Days remaining
Donate today