base and superstructure

base and superstructure

MARXs metaphor to express the relationship between the economy, as the foundation and determining influence of society (the base), and other parts of society (the superstructure). Thus the assumption is that at each level of economic development the form of the economy (more particularly the sum total of productive relations) broadly determines the existence of the particular forms of the state, legal system, etc. If this is a general assumption of Marxism, however (see also HISTORICAL MATERIALISM, ECONOMIC INTERPRETATION OF HISTORY), Marx was aware that the actual historical determination of economic and social systems is more complex than suggested by any vulgar notion of base and superstructure. Rather, the historical, specific determinants of social arrangements must be analysed separately within the general frame-work provided by the concept of base and superstructure. This must include recognition that the relation between base and superstructure is, in part, a two-way relationship in which superstructural forms can feedback to exert a ‘relatively autonomous’ influence on the base, without necessarily undermining the idea of determination by the economy ‘in the last instance’ (see also RELATIVE AUTONOMY).

Base and Superstructure


concepts in historical materialism.

Base and superstructure designate the social relations of a historically determined society as a total system in which the material relations represent the real base, the foundation of society, and the political and ideological relations represent the superstructure, which rises upon the given base and is determined by it. The base of a society is the totality of the historically determined relations of production. The superstructure is the totality of the ideological relations, views, and institutions; it includes law and the state, as well as morality, religion, philosophy, art, and the political and legal forms of consciousness and the institutions corresponding to them. “In the social production which people carry on,” Marx wrote, “they enter into relations that are defined, indispensable, and independent of their will; these relations of production correspond to a definite stage of development of their material productive forces. The sum total of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real base, on which rise legal and political superstructures and to which correspond defined forms of social consciousness” (K. Marx and F. Engels, Soch., 2nd ed., vol. 13, pp. 6–7).

Historical changes in the base are derived from and determined by the changes in the nature of the productive forces of society. The historically determined base in turn determines the nature and type of the social superstructure. A radical change in the economic structure of a given society produces change and radical transformation in the entire social superstructure.

In class society the base and superstructure have a class character. Because of the antagonistic nature of the base in such social formations as slavery, feudalism, and capitalism, this antagonism is reflected as well within the superstructure itself (the existence of ideologies and organizations expressing and defending the interests of different classes and social groups). The process by which social ideas originate and develop is a complex and often contradictory one. These ideas, and the institutions corresponding to them, do not come into the world as an automatic reflection of the base, of economic realities. Economics does not produce philosophical, religious, moral, aesthetic, or political ideas. Ideas and institutions (as well as economic relations themselves) are created by people. However, they create these social ideas not arbitrarily but in accordance with the existing social conditions, above all economic conditions (that is, the base) and according to social laws. There is a relative independence in the development of social ideas. Breaks with tradition, with norms, and with preponderant ideas take place among progressive classes under the influence of social conditions, contradictions, and the class struggle. Only in the final analysis are philosophical, aesthetic, moral, religious, and other ideas determined by the economic base. And their origin and alteration are directly affected by previously existing ideas as well as by the ideological and political struggle of parties and of classes.

The connection between the base and the superstructure has a dialectical character. Having once arisen on a certain base, a superstructure reacts upon the base and on the development of society as a whole, and that reaction is very great. In this interaction the leading part in the last analysis is played by the base (F. Engels in K. Marx and F. Engels, Soch., 2nd ed., vol. 37, pp. 394–95). Also, various elements in the superstructure are not connected with the base in the same way nor are they influenced by it in the same way, and they may in their turn react upon it directly (for example, politics) or more indirectly (for example, philosophy). The reaction of the superstructure may vary in kind. F. Engels, in characterizing the role of the state as a political superstructure, wrote: “The reaction of the state power upon economic development can be of three kinds: it can run in the same direction, and then development is more rapid; it can oppose the line of development, in which case in the present day it will go to pieces in the long run in every great nation; or it can prevent the economic development from proceeding along certain lines, and prescribe other lines. This case ultimately reduces itself to one of the two previous ones. But it is obvious in the second and third cases that the political power can do great damage to the economic development and cause a great squandering of energy and material” (ibid., p. 417). What is said here about the role of the state can be said about the role of the superstructure in general. Thus the superstructure always plays an active role in society.

The superstructure of a society as a whole lives in a single epoch. However, as a result of a whole range of historical conditions, of tendencies for social consciousness to lag behind social being, of the uneven development of particular elements of the superstructure, and also as a result of certain general features peculiar to all antagonistic formations, certain ideological forms and social ideas as well as institutions outlive the epoch in which they arose and continue to exist in subsequent social formations. In the transition from one social formation to another, and accordingly in the replacement of one base and superstructure by another, the reactionary base and elements in the superstructure are destroyed and eliminated by the revolutionary forces. On the other hand everything great and progressive in the realm of intellectual culture, morals, and art, everything advantageous to the historical development of society, is preserved. At the same time, some elements of the superstructure may continue to exist as survivals of the past.

The ideas of base and superstructure serve as fundamental methodological concepts for the analysis of any specific society. However, these categories cannot give a qualitative characterization to any particular base and superstructure in and of themselves. Rather, it is necessary to keep in mind that “one and the same economic base—one and the same in terms of underlying conditions—owing to the endless variation of empirical circumstances, natural conditions, racial relations, and historical influences affecting it from without, and so on, can in the course of its development display endless variations and gradations which it is possible to understand only by means of an analysis of these empirically given circumstances” (K. Marx, in K. Marx and F. Engels, Soch., 2nd ed., vol. 25, part 2, p. 354). The same multiplicity can also be found in the superstructure within the limits of a single social formation. The specific nature of bases and superstructures can be established as a result of concrete investigation into them by historical materialism and by other social sciences.


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