After reading this article you will learn about the Base and Superstructure:- 1. Definition of Base and Superstructure 2. Some Features of Basis and Superstructure 3. Interaction of Base and Superstructure 4. Active Role of Superstructure 5. Economic Determinism and Relative Autonomy of Superstructure.
Definition of Base and Superstructure:
A simple analysis of the productive forces and production relations cannot reveal the real nature of historical materialism. For that purpose it is necessary to enter into the discussion of basis and superstructure.
In several books Marx and Engels have elaborately dealt with the matter. Marx’s Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy contains an exhaustive analysis of the concept Base and Superstructure.
We shall, however, first see what is meant by base or basis? Stalin’s version is “the basis is the economic structure of society at the given stage of development. The historical materialism states that there are various stages of social development and each stage has its own economic structure.” This is called basis.
In Bottomore’s book the following version of base and superstructure is to be found. “The building-like metaphor of base and superstructure is used by Marx and Engels to propound the idea that the economic structure of society (the base) conditions the existence and forms of the state and social consciousness (the superstructure). One of the first formulations of this idea appears in The German Ideology Part I where a reference is made to the social organization evolving directly out of production and commerce which in all ages forms the basis of state and of the rest of the idealist superstructure”.
In the Anti-Duhring Engels says “The economic structure of society is always the real basis, starting from which we can alone work out the ultimate explanation of the whole superstructure or juridical and political institutions as well as of the religious, philosophical and other ideas of a given historical period.”
In this observation Engels has pointed out both base and superstructure. Base or basis is the economic structure. Above it is built up a vast structure of philosophy, law, art, literature, religion, history and civilization. In Marx’s language it is called the superstructure.
A. P. Sheptulin says “production relations are considered the economic basis of society, while the views and corresponding institutions determined by them are considered society’s superstructure.” But the basis consists not only of the production relations that are dominant in the given period, but also of a mass of other production relations, in particular those left as survivals of the old mode of production, as well as these associated with the new economic structure.
The basis according to Marxism is the totality of the relations of production, that is, the relations of property exchange and distribution. These are included into the basis because all these constitute the economic structure. It is nevertheless connected with the dominating mode of production. Only the dominant mode of production determines the character and essence of basis.
The best and most interesting explanation of the concept is available in Marx’s famous writing Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy. This is an oft-quoted and widely discussed writing. We quote here a part of the writing.
Marx says “In the social production of their existence, men inevitably enter into definite relations, which are independent of their will, namely, relations of production appropriate to a given stage in the development of 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.”
Some Features of Basis and Superstructure:
We have pointed out that the economic structure of society at a particular stage of social development is called the basis. But here the implication is not that the mode of production is to be called the basis.
The Marxists have argued that the mode of production implies the unity of the productive forces and production relations. The productive forces do not come under the purview of the concept of base.
Only the production relations figure in it. The economic basis consists of production relations and also all-other factors or matters closely connected with production relations. It is to be noted here that in the economic system there are minor or insignificant production relations.
The Marxists are of opinion that the predominant production relations determine the character of basis and form it. Let us be more explicit.
The economic structure is not conceived as a given set of institutions, productive units or material conditions, it is rather the sum total of production relations entered into by men, or, in other words, class relations between them Marx says – “it is always the direct relation of the owners of the conditions of production to the direct producer.”
The most important feature of the economic basis is that its existence is represented by the material relations. That is, the economic basis is the result of material relations. On the other hand, superstructure is not based on material relations. The elements of superstructure are ideology, culture, art, literature, history etc.
The base or basis has a general character. All the members of the society in one way or other are connected with the basis. The source of sustenance of the superstructure is the basis. This is due to the fact that the basis is economic and no one, small or big, is away from the economic influence of the basis.
This general character of basis has made it more important. Another aspect of the general character of the basis is that all are participants in the activities of the basis.
It is true that there is anomaly and inequality in the distribution of material benefits produced by the economic basis. But this is a different issue. The mere fact is that the economic basis is all-embracing.
One of the most important features of the basis is it has a class character in an antagonistic society. The totality of the production relations is based on private ownership of the means of production.
So the capitalists or the owners of the means of production are the controlling elements of the economic base. In an antagonistic society, basis is bound to be controlled by the bourgeoisie.
A. P. Sheptulin has pointed out another aspect of basis. He says “the basis represents a kind of intermediate link between productive forces and superstructure. Neither the productive forces nor changes in them have a direct influence on the superstructure or political, juridical and other social ideas and corresponding institutions. This influence is indirect, through the basis.”
The character of the relationship between base and superstructure is more complicated. Marx is aware that the determination by the base can be understood as a form of economic reductionism. That is why he further characterizes this relationship as historical. Un-even and compatible with effectively of the superstructure.
Interaction of Base and Superstructure:
In the Preface to the Critique of Political Economy Marx writes “The mode of production of material life conditions the social, political and intellectual life process in general. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness.”
This observation of Marx clarifies the relationship between base and superstructure or the interaction between the two. The interaction between base and superstructure implies that one influences the other. It is said that base has a dominant and determining role. On the other hand, in some cases, the superstructure exerts its influence upon the base.
Generally the superstructure is the reflection of the basis. V. D. Zotov says “whatever the nature of the basis, such will be the nature and hallmarks of the superstructure. If one basis is replaced by another, the old superstructure will be replaced more or less rapidly by a new superstructure.”
In the feudal society the basis was feudal, that is, the production relations were feudal. The superstructure was also feudal. When the feudal basis was replaced by a capitalist basis the feudal superstructure also lost its relevance and, hence, was replaced by a capitalist superstructure.
The attention of the reader to an important point may be drawn here. Sometimes a revolution may destroy the existing base. But this does not mean the destruction of the old productive forces.
The new base establishes an adjustment with the old productive forces. Similarly the new economic system or base does not forthwith invalidate or reject the old superstructure.
The new base works with the old superstructure. This is a logical and rational consequence, because the new base cannot start its operation with a clean slate. It must utilize the old forces or elements.
Analysing the interaction between base and superstructure Engels writes “political, juridical, philosophical, religious, literary, artistic etc. development is based on economic development. But all these react upon one another and also upon the economic basis. It is not that the economic situation is cause, solely active, while everything else is only passive effect. There is rather interaction on the basis of economic necessity, which ultimately always asserts itself.”
We may put the matter in a slightly different language. The economic basis of the society always plays the dominant role and largely determines the nature of the superstructure built upon it.
In turn, the latter also influences the nature and activities of the former. This is interaction. The relationship between basis and superstructure is never a one-way traffic.
This interaction between base and superstructure practically constitutes important aspects of historical materialism and many other aspects of Marxist philosophy. The concept of interaction may also be looked from different angle.
In capitalism the capitalists control and guide the superstructure so that it can work in favour of the base the capitalist system. Again, the superstructure influences the base in numerous ways. In this way the capitalist society functions. The interaction between base and superstructure has been elaborately analysed by Gramsci.
We have already noted that in an antagonistic society its class character is reflected on the economic basis. Again, the base embraces all the classes’ oppressor and oppressed though there is a difference in their roles.
We know that the superstructure is the sum total of all ideas and institutions. So it includes the ideas and other things of both the oppressor and oppressed classes. Naturally its influence upon these classes is not and cannot be uniform.
We come to the conclusion that like the base the superstructure has also a class character. In the words of Sheptulin “So in a class society the superstructure has a class character and becomes a battleground for a fierce class struggle reflecting the opposite interests that are determined and consolidated by the antagonistic basis”.
The struggle at the superstructure level is the struggle between ideas and ideologies. The capitalists utilize the various modes of expression for the propagation of ideas and ideologies. Particularly the audio-visual methods are under their control. The proletarians use their own methods. But they are at inferior position. However, that does not discourage them.
Active Role of Superstructure:
Though the change of the economic foundation immensely transforms the superstructure, it is wrong to assume that the superstructure is a passive and completely dependent force. It is an active force.
The superstructure, it is said, is a reflection of the base, but this never makes it a subservient force to the base.
Rather, it bears upon the base. V. D. Zotov observes:
“The state, political parties, the various organization and the scientific and other ideological guidelines expressing and championing the interests of the new ruling class are created for the express purpose of helping its basis to take shape and sink roots.”
So far as the development of the society is concerned we witness an active and sometimes an independent role of the superstructure.
The bourgeois superstructure, by utilizing the various propaganda machines, severely criticizes the various aspects of socialism in order to resist the downfall of the capitalist system. But all the elements of the bourgeois superstructure are not under the control of the bourgeoisie.
The working class utilizes a part, thought it might be a microscopic fraction, of the vast superstructure for the propagation of the socialist ideology, for the exposition of bourgeois exploitation and finally to make working-men conscious.
The capitalists always resort to repressive measures to stop the working men’s movement. The records of history reveal that complete success has never greeted them. The methods and measures the capitalists adopt to secure their position are never free from defects.
Part of the literature, history, law is used by the proletarians. The literature of every country and of every epoch exposes the real character of the bourgeoisie. Proletarians use them as weapon of propaganda.
It has been argued by Marxists that superstructure, though dependent on basis, has its own laws of development and operation. Moreover, several of its elements interact and influence each other.
All the changes of the superstructure are not due to the changes of the economic basis of the society. Many changes of the superstructure are caused by the class struggle. Some decisions and politics of the ruling class are directly influenced by the class struggle.
This is due to the fact that the ruling class, in order to save itself from further onslaught, concedes some of the demands of the proletarians. This is neither new nor rare.
The rising consciousness and growing bargaining power of the workers have created positive impact upon the bourgeois behaviour. Needless to say that the proletarians have obtained this from the bourgeois superstructure.
V. D. Zotov and several other Marxist thinkers have drawn our attention to how in some cases superstructure works independently. There are a number of contradictions in the basis which are created by private capitalist property in the means of production.
These contradictions “In effect split the political and ideological superstructure into two antagonistic parts the ruling and the non-ruling”.
The ruling parts consist of bourgeois state, bourgeois party, bourgeois law and bourgeois theoreticians, and the proletarian parties, proletarian organizations and Marxist-Leninist ideologies are the non-ruling parts.
From Marx’s analysis of base-superstructure relationship we come to know that a change in economic base brings about a change in superstructure. But there are many instances in history that the economic base has changed, while there has not occurred a corresponding change in the superstructure.
“There are also superstructure phenomena that though they come to life on one basis continue to exist and develop on another and even several subsequent bases”. For example, religion is an element of superstructure.
Since Middle Ages the economic bases have changed several times, whereas the notions of religion have not changed considerably. Not only religion, the caste system, superstition and many habits and culture maintain their character and influence even after the economic base has undergone rapid changes. For example, in India, the economic conditions have radically changed after independence but people’s attitude towards caste system and superstition has not changed considerably.
Economic Determinism and Relative Autonomy of Superstructure:
We have so far discussed how both base and superstructure react on each other. In spite of their interdependence the critics of Marxism and some bourgeois theoreticians have propounded a theory of economic determinism.
This notion they have derived from a famous comment of Marx made in the Preface to the Critique of Political Economy.
Here he said “The mode of production of material life conditions the social, political and intellectual life process in general.”
This comment is the source of all trouble. Critics say that “conditions” means determines. That means the economic foundation of society determines the superstructure that is social, political and intellectual life process of people in general. Here is economic determinism.
A number of Marxist scholars have disapproved the standpoint of the bourgeois scholars on the ground that they have misinterpreted or have not properly interpreted some words of Marx. For example, Melvin Rador says that the term “condition” is the translation of the original German word bedingen. This means “to influence generally”. To determine and to influence are not same. The German synonym of determine is “bestimmen”.
He does not use the word bestimmen in this particular case. Hence we cannot say that the idea of economic determinism worked in the mind of Marx.
Moreover, determinism means there is a mechanical relationship between base and superstructure. Base determines superstructure mechanically. Nowhere Marx and Engels have said that.
Base simply influences the superstructure. We, therefore, conclude that base and superstructure are not mechanically related. In support of the view that both are interdependent.
Maurice Cornforth says:
“Modern British Parliamentary institutions are undoubtedly products of the capitalist system of Britain. But that does not mean that institution of parliament and what is does is of no importance. On the contrary, we know that the Acts of parliament have very great effect, not only in the political sphere, but in the economic sphere as well.” To suggest the contrary would be indeed a “fatuous notion”.
What Marx meant by economic determinism can be explained by Engels’s letter to J. Bloch written in September 1890? The letter was written just five years before his death. Naturally it may be regarded as the product of Engels’s mature thought.
“According to the materialist conception of history, the ultimately determining element in the history is the production and reproduction of real life. More than this neither Marx nor I have ever asserted. Hence, if somebody twists this into saying that the economic element is the only determining one, he transforms that proposition into a meaningless, abstract, senseless phrase. The economic situation is the basis, but the various elements or the superstructure political forms of the class struggle and its results, to wit: constitutions established by the victorious class…philosophical theories, religious views and their further development into systems of dogmas…exercise their influence upon the course of historical struggle. There is an interaction of all these elements in which, amid all the endless host of accidents, the economic element finally asserts itself as necessary”
There is no ambiguity in this observation of Engels. Economic element ultimately determines the superstructure. It simply implies that there is importance of all other elements but economic movement finally asserts itself. So it is not a correct proposition that Marx and Engels have propounded a theory of economic determinism.
Kolakowski’ is a renowned Marxist scholar. We state his viewpoint in support of our stand. Marx and Engels have replied to all the objections raised by critics though these have not been able to remove all the ambiguities.
However, economic determinism “is not and does not claim to be a key to the interpretation of any particular historical event. All it does is to define the relations between some, but by no means all, features of social life”.
“Marx’s account” continues Kolakowski “of the dependence of the superstructure on the relations of production applies to great historical eras and fundamental changes in society. It is not claimed that the level to technology determines every detail of social division of labour, and thus in turn every detail of political and intellectual life.”
It is, therefore, quite manifest that in great historical epochs and in the cases of fundamental changes the economic foundation appears to play an important or rather determining role. In all other cases its role is quite secondary. The same view has been expressed by Engels in his letter to Starkenburg.
Generally economic conditions influence views and institutions. But there is a problem. What exact form the views and institutions will take from economic conditions cannot be assuredly stated. That is, the exact impact of economic situation upon superstructure cannot be ascertained.
The nature of influence as well as its extent depends upon variety of factors. The legal conceptions and code of law in England arose, not as a direct product of economic conditions, but by a process of working upon and adapting the already existing legal conceptions and codes, which belonged to the past epoch, into forms suitable for the new epoch.