Base and Superstructure


In Marxist theory, human society consists of two parts: the base and superstructure; the base comprehends the forces and relations of production — employer-employee work conditions, the technical division of labor  and property relations — into which people enter to produce the necessities and amenities of life.

These relations determine society’s other relationships and ideas, which are described as its superstructure: its culture, institutions, political power structures, roles, rituals, and state. The base determines (conditions) the superstructure, yet their relation is not strictly causal, because the superstructure often influences the base; the influence of the base, however, predominates. In Orthodox Marxism, the base determines the superstructure in a one-way relationship. However, in more advanced forms and variations of Marxist thought their relationship is not strictly one-way, as some theories claim that just as the base influences the superstructure, the superstructure also influences the base.

In developing Alexis de Tocqueville’s observations, Marx identified civil society as the economic base and political society as the political superstructure. Marx postulated the essentials of the base–superstructure concept in his ‘Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy’ (1859):

‘In the social production of their existence, men inevitably enter into definite relations, which are independent of their will, namely [the] relations of production appropriate to a given 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 consciousness. The mode of production of material life conditions the general process of social, political, and intellectual life. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness. At a certain stage of development, the material productive forces of society come into conflict with the existing relations of production or — this merely expresses the same thing in legal terms — with the property relations within the framework of which they have operated hitherto. From forms of development of the productive forces, these relations turn into their fetters [shackles]. Then begins an era of social revolution. The changes in the economic foundation lead, sooner or later, to the transformation of the whole, immense, superstructure. In studying such transformations, it is always necessary to distinguish between the material transformation of the economic conditions of production, which can be determined with the precision of natural science, and the legal, political, religious, artistic, or philosophic — in short, ideological forms in which men become conscious of this conflict and fight it out. Just as one does not judge an individual by what he thinks about himself, so one cannot judge such a period of transformation by its consciousness, but, on the contrary, this consciousness must be explained from the contradictions of material life, from the conflict existing between the social forces of production and the relations of production.’

Marx’s theory of base and superstructure can be found in the disciplines of Political Science, Sociology, Anthropology, and Psychology as utilized by Marxist scholars. In these different disciplines, the relationship between the base and superstructure and the contents of each category may take different forms. Early sociologist Max Weber prefers a form of structuralism (which emphasizes that elements of culture must be understood in terms of their relationship to a larger, overarching system or structure) over a base and superstructure model of society in which he proposes that the base and superstructure are reciprocal in causality–neither economic rationality nor normative ideas rule the domain of society. In summarizing results from his East Elbia research, he notes that contrary to what he considers the base and superstructure model ‘we have become used to,’ he observed a reciprocal relationship between the two.

Italian political philosopher Antonio Gramsci divided Marx’s superstructure into two elements: political society and civil society. Political society consists of the organized force of society (such as the police and military) while civil society refers to the consensus-creating elements of society that contribute to hegemony. Both elements of society are still informed by the values of the base, and serve to establish these values in society and enforce them. Freudo-Marxist Wilhelm Reich’s discipline of analysis known as ‘sex-economy’ is an attempt to understand the divergence of the perceived base and superstructure during the global economic crisis from 1929 to 1933. To make sense of this phenomena, Reich re-categorized social ideology as an element in the base—not the superstructure. In this new categorization, social ideology and social psychology is a material process that self-perpetuates, the same way economic systems in the base perpetuate themselves. Reich focused on the role of sexual repression in the patriarchal family system as a way to understand how mass support for Fascism could arise in a society.

Contemporary Marxist interpretations, such as those of critical theory, criticize theories of base–superstructure interaction. Raymond Williams, for example, argues against loose, ‘popular’ usages of base and superstructure as discrete entities, which, he explains, are not the intention of Marx and Engels: ‘So, we have to say that when we talk of ‘the base,’ we are talking of a process, and not a state [….] We have to revalue ‘superstructure’ towards a related range of cultural practices, and away from a reflected, reproduced, or specifically-dependent content. And, crucially, we have to revalue ‘the base’ away from [the] notion[s] of [either] a fixed economic or [a] technological abstraction, and towards the specific activities of men in real, social and economic relationships, containing fundamental contradictions and variations, and, therefore, always in a state of dynamic process.,

John Plamenatz makes two counterclaims regarding the clear-cut separation of the base and superstructure. The first is that economic structure is independent from production in many cases, with relations of production or property also having a strong effect on production. The second claim is that relations of production can only be defined with normative terms–this implies that social life and humanity’s morality cannot be truly separated as both are defined in a normative sense. One of the biggest criticisms of the base and superstructure theory is that property relations (supposedly part of the base and the driving force of history) is actually defined by legal relations, an element of the superstructure. Defenders of the theory claim that Marx believed in property relations and social relations of production as two separate entities.

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