The Base and Superstructure

The Base and Superstructure

The base comprises the forces and relations of production (e.g. employer-employee work conditions, the technical division of labour, and property relations) into which people enter to produce the necessities and amenities of life. The base determines society's other relationships and ideas to comprise its superstructure, including its culture, institutions, political power structures, roles, rituals, and state. While the relation of the two parts is not strictly unidirectional, as the superstructure often affects the base, the influence of the base is predominant. Marx and Engels warned against such economic determinism.

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 social 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. 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 "base determines superstructure" axiom, however, requires qualification:

  • the base is the whole of productive relationships, not only a given economic element, e.g. the working class
  • historically, the superstructure varies and develops unevenly in society's different activities; for example, art, politics, economics, etc.
  • the base-superstructure relationship is reciprocal; Engels explains that the base determines the superstructure only in the last instance.

Antonio Gramsci

The 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 that contribute to hegemony. Both constituents of this superstructure are still informed by the values of the base, serving to establish and enforce these values in society.

Walter Rodney

Walter Rodney, the Guyanese political activist and African historian, discussed the role of Marx's superstructure in the context of development cycles and colonialism. Rodney states that while most countries follow a developmental structure that evolves from feudalism to capitalism, China is an exception to this rule and skipped the capitalism step.

"The explanation is very complex, but in general terms the main differences between feudal Europe and feudal China lay in the superstructure—i.e. in the body of beliefs, motivations and sociopolitical institutions which derived from the material base but in turn affected it. In China, religious, educational and bureaucratic qualifications were of utmost importance, and government was in the hands of state officials rather than being run by the landlords on their own feudal estates."

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